Archive for category How to write a book

Two opportunities for shortform writers, a treat for music lovers and a little interview

Do you write shortform? I have two opportunities for you.

If your forte is piercingly, wincingly, blazingly short, the 50 Give or Take series from Vine Leaves Press wants your work. The editor is my friend Elaina Battista-Parsons.

Does Elaina sound familiar? You’re right. She came to my blog to talk about her memoir Italian Bones In The Snow.

If 50 words is too tight and you like to be thoughtful at greater length, Elaina still wants your goodness. She’s also an editor at Cordelia Magazine.

Go here to her blog and follow the trails.

Elaina also invited me for a brief chat about my writing, my favourite music, my favourite decade and advice for new writers. In the same post she featured the work of pop musicologist Quentin Harrison, and that’s an inspired pairing – Quentin has a series of books (Record Redux) on pop icons, explored through their songs, and I mainlined books on bands when I wrote my novel Ever Rest. We were destined to meet.

Do come over.

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Writers, can you feel it? How to use gut feeling to guide your work

As you might know, I’m fond of horses. For years I’ve been taking dressage lessons, with mixed results. One instructor used to yell at me: ‘you ride without feeling what the horse is doing’, but I recently started with a new instructor, who told me, to my surprise, that I had very good feel.

Here’s where this is relevant to writing – writers also need to develop feel. It’s how we know when our work is finished.

And to return to the saddle for a moment, how could I get two such contradictory opinions? Who was right?

Both were. Because, actually, I was ‘feeling’ all the time. I was noticing everything I should, but I didn’t know I was feeling anything important.  

Applying this to writing, I remember – distinctly – a time when my writing turned a corner, when I learned to take notice of gut feeling. If a line was off, or a word was not precise or evocative enough. If a story moment was dull or predictable or wrong. If a passage was self-indulgent or a scene went on too long. I realised I had always felt and noticed these things, but I had not known I should trust them and act on them. The ‘feel’ was there. It had been all along. I just had to listen.

When we’re learning something – anything – a lot of it is mechanics and rules and principles. For writing, we learn what plot structure is, what character arcs are, show not tell, how to plant a theme, how to add subtext, how to present dialogue.  

But alongside those technicalities there is another level, a more individual, inspirational level, which holds a work together.

This comes from deep in you, from the way you’re wired. If you listen to it, it’s where you develop your distinctiveness, your aesthetic, your style. It’s not learned, it’s already there. There’s craft, which is an exoskeleton, and then there is soul, which is how you are in your deep interior, a human being alive with questions and mysteries and curiosities. It’s how you have always been.

What should you learn to listen for? Here are some suggestions.

  • Is that word or line perfect for the feeling you want to give the reader? Sometimes, I go to the thesaurus and read lists of synonyms until I find the word that fits more truly.
  • Is that plot development or character action a little awkward? What should you change – the event? Or should you explore more deeply the characters’ reasons, both conscious and unconscious? Do you feel they’re doing the right thing, but you haven’t yet understood the reasons?
  • Is the pace dragging and do you want that? When you read a scene, does it seem to repeat a previous story beat, and is that irritating to you or pleasing?
  • Is something missing? Will the piece – or the book – flow better with an extra paragraph, an extra scene, an extra chapter? If you reorder some of the scenes, will everything click into place?

These are gut-level judgements, but if you learn to listen for them, they will start to speak up. You will start to write more by feel, and use your craft with originality, style and sensitivity. Listen also, for when the piece runs smoothly, when you can read a passage or a chapter – or the whole book – and feel everything is just right, just so.

Lifeform Three by Roz Morris

PS If horses are your thing, you might like my novel Lifeform Three.

PPS My novel Ever Rest has won an award! See the pic below.

There’s a lot more about writing technicalities – and gut feeling – in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Jobs that give you time to be who you need to be: how I made my writing career – Ian M Rogers @iantheroge

How do you fund creative work if your natural niche is not a high earner? Ian Rogers is the guy to ask. He’s done a variety of odd jobs that allowed him headspace to write a series of mischievous pseudo self-help pamphlets and a full-length work of experimental fiction released last week, titled MFA Thesis Novel. Meanwhile, he exploits his word-fu to the full, editing academic papers and business texts, and teaching English as a foreign language. How creative people sustain their careers is a long-term interest of his – which led to his blog, But I Also Have a Day Job.

Ian, how did writing start for you?

A lot of writers start interviews like this one by saying they were writing passionately from a young age, and if you count a handful of elementary school stories and stick-figure comics, I guess I was too.

When I was young I gravitated more toward different forms of storytelling: acting out imaginary stories at recess, narrating into a tape recorder, making my younger brothers laugh.

Have you done other arts?

I did a lot of acting in high school, and for a while I dreamed of doing stand-up comedy, but I never took serious steps toward either. Around college, writing—and novels specifically—naturally emerged from that experimentation as the method of telling stories that was most accessible to me. It was the method I understood the best after nearly two decades of reading books.

Were your family in the arts?

If making ridiculous jokes around the dinner table counts as an art form, my family were experts. As far as the more traditional arts, though, not at all, and no one in my family understood how one made a career in that. My parents encouraged me to follow the path I wanted regardless of what it was. I think to my parents, saying I wanted to be a writer was the same as saying I wanted to be a plumber or investment banker—it was just one path out of many, and didn’t come with any connotations, positive or negative.

You have a blog titled But I Also Have a Day Job. It’s a situation most people working in the arts would recognise. How did this blog come about?

After I finished my creative writing master’s at the University of Nebraska I was processing a lot of mental overload about my next steps. I was working on the MFA Thesis Novel manuscript and trying to pitch an earlier novel based on my time living in Japan, and the easiest way to earn money during that time was an incredibly laid-back job in a greenhouse on the university’s agriculture campus. The job mostly consisted of filling pots and mixing chemicals while hanging out with cool international students, and when I finished in the afternoons I found myself with plenty of energy to come home and write—far more energy than I’d had as a grad student, where I was teaching classes, doing homework and attending department talks.

The Day Job blog grew out of this idea that having a mindless job that required very little energy and caused zero stress was the perfect way to earn bill-paying money when you’re primarily interested in doing your own creative work. The writing program I’d just finished was the exact opposite of that—it stressed that if you wanted to write you had to enter this cut-throat academic world where the competition for professor jobs was fierce and most opportunities came in the form of poorly paid adjunct positions with little job security. With the Day Job blog, I wanted to explore the possibility of finding different career paths, and the various ways writers and other creative people handle these very practical concerns.

Are all the interviewees writers?

I try to host a balance of writers and people working in other creative fields—for instance, Krissy Diggs, who’s an Instagram illustrator, Jeff Gill, who’s an animator and producer on the Netflix show Ask the Storybots, and Miranda Reeder, who writes, draws and programs visual novels.

Are there any useful generalisations you can make about creative careers?

One thing I’ve found is that while the specifics of different creative fields vary widely, the paths to building any kind of creative career involve a lot of uncertainty, a lot of working less-than-ideal jobs while you transition, a lot of networking, and a lot of night and weekend work.

I think a lot of writers make the mistake of only looking to other writers for career guidance, whereas there are plenty of other models they could be borrowing from. My hope is that by looking at these stories of how different creative people become successful, creative people in all fields can get ideas and inspiration about how to build their own careers.

What is your day job now?

In January I finished a second stint of teaching English in Japan—first elementary school, then at a university in Yokohama. Most of my income now comes from editing, writing coaching, and teaching private video lessons in English as a foreign language. It’s a good routine because I can set my own hours, I don’t have to answer to a boss, and most importantly, I can write in the morning while my mind is fresh.

Your website mentions you’ve done a lot of odd jobs. How successful were they for you?

The greenhouse job was probably the most successful in terms of freeing my mind and time for creative work, and I probably would have kept it if it hadn’t involved staying in Nebraska.

All of my other jobs came with one problem or another: before grad school I worked as a school secretary, but the pay was low, the workload neverending, and the environment toxic. For a while I graded standardized test essays online, but it got too monotonous. After that I picked up a job listing electronics for an online store, but I left after I discovered that the boss was breaking tax law and cheating employees out of overtime pay. I didn’t want to be associated with a work environment where other workers were being exploited.

Tell me about MFA Thesis Novel.

Much like Day Job, MFA Thesis Novel grew out of my grad school experiences in Nebraska. The novel I was workshopping was about life in Japan, a topic the other grad students knew nothing about, and it used a lot of experimental techniques I was drawn to after years of reading the 20th century modernist writers. No one around me was doing any of that, and the program was centred in more contemporary fiction, especially fiction with a rural bent. I still had a lot of craft-developing to do, but the people around me usually rejected the literary moves I was making rather than trying to understand them, which felt confusing and hurtful, but most of all, limiting.

In my grad school workshops we always talked about conflict, and it occurred to me that grad school itself was a perfect setting for conflict—work that didn’t fit the mould was being criticized, people were lonely in this strange, conservative university environment, and everyone was aiming for these high-paying tenure-track English jobs that were disappearing because universities weren’t funding them any more. MFA Thesis Novel naturally emerged from these conflicts, along with my love of campus comedies like Lucky Jim and Joseph Heller’s A Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man, which merges narration and novels-within-the-novel in a way that’s both poignant and incredibly silly.

Why that title? It’s quite brave…

The title was inspired by a Broadway musical I’d seen a few years back called [title of show] in brackets. It’s a comedy musical about two guys trying to write a comedy musical, and the audience watches them bumble through the process. I loved the metafictional concept and wanted to play with that in MFA Thesis Novel, which is also about the writing process and finding your voice as an artist.

How long was your novel in progress?

Too long! I wrote the first draft over nine months while I was working in the greenhouse in Nebraska, then took two-plus years to revise it while I was working more mentally demanding jobs after moving back to New Hampshire. In the process of writing MFA Thesis Novel and the novel I’m working on now, I’ve realised how difficult it really is to make progress on a novel when you’re working a day job, commuting, and trying to build an online presence as a writer, not to mention making time for hobbies, family, and—wait for it—sleep.

Do you have an MFA yourself?

My creative writing degree is actually an MA (don’t tell anyone), though research and more than a few late-night grad student conversations have revealed that my experience was comparable to any number of the hundreds of MFA programs in the US. My own department was at a huge R1 school that prized research and had a lot of creative writing PhDs, as well as a lot of students in literature and composition and rhetoric, which led to its more academic bent.

Was it useful to you?

It was. Aside from the time to write and hone my craft, I learned a lot about the world of literary agents, publishing and small presses, which were largely a mystery. Equally important, though, were the connections and work experience, which launched me in a whole new direction after graduation. I did internships with the department literary journal and the university press, taught a year of freshman composition, got my first paid editing jobs, and took an amazing class about copyright law and how publishing contracts work. Plus, of course, the experience gave me a cool idea for a novel.

You also have a set of zines, The Erochikan Zines, which satirise how-to pamphlets and corporate culture. Are these a reaction to situations you’ve worked in?

The Erochikan zines satirise work, but they also shine a spotlight on basic human interactions that to me feel broken, like how passive-aggressive put-downs are considered socially acceptable, or how we subtly pressure one another away from making changes in our lives. I thought, what if there was an evil corporation intentionally teaching people how to act this way—how would they make these abhorrent behaviours seem attractive?

Does that indicate a rebellious streak in your soul?

Ha! ‘Rebellious’ is a word I usually associate with teenagers who cut class and carve their initials in bathroom stalls. I prefer to describe myself as someone who points out the absurdity in the world we all live in and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. I’ve always found satire to be extraordinarily powerful in how it can show us bigger truths about society in ways that have real entertainment value while also being more thoughtful than, say, sarcastic Twitter memes.

The name Erochikan comes from the Japanese words ero, a shortening of the English word “erotic,” and chikan, a pervert who gropes women on crowded subway trains.

The Japanese have a word for that? They think of everything.

Speaking of words, you’re an editor too, with a broad set of skills – academic papers and business materials as well as the more creative side of writing – and, of course, English as a foreign language. How did you get that spread of experience?

That greenhouse job I keep mentioning actually started as an editing job cleaning up agricultural research manuscripts written by second-language speakers from India. I knew nothing about farming, but it gave me a lot of experience both in line editing and in working with dense academic writing in specialised fields I didn’t have a background in. My boss was good about recommending me to his colleagues, and I picked up other gigs editing social science and architecture manuscripts. If clients like you, they tend to use you again and pass on your info, which helped bring in different kinds of jobs, especially ones that involve coaching or talking through ideas over Zoom. Transferring those skills to working with fiction writers felt natural because I could integrate my teaching background and my writing experience, so it’s been especially rewarding to work with fiction writers as they hone their craft.

Your novel contains autobiographical material. Would you ever write a memoir?

While I’ve read a few excellent memoirs that played with form and structure in ways I found fascinating, I doubt anyone wants to read about my childhood playing Sonic the Hedgehog and having sleepovers with my friends. Aside from traditional memoir, one of my goals is to turn But I Also Have a Day Job into a nonfiction book about how creative people build careers. The book would be part research, part my own experience, and part experiences of people I’ve interviewed—a road map to the creative life.

That sounds like an excellent idea. Okay, here are some quick-fire questions.

Wordcounts or not?

In my own writing? Hell no—solving one really different problem for me is more valuable than 10,000 mediocre words I’ll have to edit out later.

Travel or stay at home?

I’m constantly torn between both—when I lived in Japan I was in travel mode, but for now I gravitate more toward staying at home and getting work done.

Fast or slow reader?

Slow—I tend to pause and process ideas as I read.

How did you end up a complete expert on the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’?

I had a chance to join this cool podcast called Blanketing Covers with Danny Getz and Jon Trainor. Every episode they choose a song or artist and look at the dozens of artists across the world who’ve covered them. They gave me a few options, and ‘Careless Whisper’ jumped right out. I take guilty pleasure in all the soft rock songs that my mom would listen to on the radio in the early 90s, and I’ve given the protagonist of my new novel a similar fondness.

Oh wise editor, what’s a word you always mis-spell?

Disappointed, recommend—any word with two sets of letters that could be doubled.

Find MFA Thesis Novel here. Find Ian on his website, the But I Also Have a Day Job blog, Instagram, Twitter @iantheroge, and Facebook.

There’s a lot more about writing technicalities in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Literary and historical novelists – your first pages: 5 more book openings critiqued by @agentpete @mattschodcnews and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members, Matt Schofield, an award-winning war correspondent who now writes fiction.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)

As you can see, there is oodles to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something does or doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or eager to read more. Then your trusty hosts discuss the whys and hows.

This time the submissions had a theme – literary and historical, so in our discussions we aimed to define the characteristics of these. We discussed how literary blurbs are not like genre blurbs, and how a blurb can create the wrong impression about a book or give away too much. We discussed how you might create a coherent literary work out of a story with many points of view. We looked at how an author might unify a novel by setting it in a short space of time or a particular geographical place. We identified a fantastic example of showing instead of telling.

We considered openings that were thematically effective but seemed to need a more human centre. We considered titles – the risks of using a name as a title, and a title that gave the wrong message about the tone of the book. We also discussed awkward phrasing – which led us to identify another hallmark of literary work, the author’s control of language and nuance.

We also discussed Matt’s own fiction, which is emerging – in various guises – from his phenomenal experiences reporting on four wars. How do you make real life into fiction? What about transitioning from journalism to fiction writing – are there stylistic habits that journalists have to unlearn? (Spoiler: yes there are…)

Find the full show here. And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

There’s a lot more about beginnings and genre/non-genre notes in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Too much TV might spoil your… prose writing

I’m aware the title of this blogpost might sound like old-fogey nagging, but it has a serious point. And, to reassure you, the cure is easy.

We learn storytelling from just about anything, and much of it without realising. TV and movies are a huge part of our lives and while they’re great teachers for some aspects, they’re not so good for others.    

There are several common issues I see in novel manuscripts where the writer is thinking with TV/movie brain. So here’s how to reboot your prose brain.

Problem: lack of description

The writer doesn’t set up the scene with description. In a movie or TV show, the scene-setting isn’t dwelt on, so it doesn’t get noticed. It comes alongside the action and dialogue. However, prose needs to take deliberate extra beats to create the environment because the reader can’t see what’s around the characters. If we don’t show this, it creates a peculiar effect, like being blindfolded. I’ve read manuscripts where I thought the character was confined to one room in a kind of blank mind-jail, when actually he was staying in a nice hotel. 

Some writers load the description at the start of the scene, then fail to keep it in the reader’s mind. They concentrate on the characters’ spoken lines and actions, but don’t keep the environment alive. This is disorientating for the reader.

Reboot your prose brain Readers need their inner vision to be fed – and their inner hearing too. Think of a radio play – it’s quite obvious there how the scene is ‘decorated’. If the characters are in a café, there might be a spoon chinking against a mug, a low hum of chatter from other customers. You barely notice it because it’s going on at the same time as the foregrounded action, but it’s been deliberately added to make the scene lifelike. There might be one or two moments where a character interacts with the environment in an aside – in the café they might make a remark about the cake they’re trying to resist.

And that’s how you keep the environment alive in a prose scene. Use it as part of the action. If a character’s sitting at a desk, they could tap their finger on it while thinking about what to say next. Make them react to it too – like the character longing for cake.

Use anything physical to bring the scene alive. What about their clothes? If a character is wearing a ballgown, the skirt material might rustle as they shift position.

Problem: lack of background about the viewpoint characters

I see quite a lot of manuscripts where we aren’t told enough about the viewpoint character. We see them doing things, but we don’t know who they are, where they are, why they are there, how old they are – and this isn’t a deliberate artistic choice. Although we don’t want to overload the reader with the characters’ life stories, there are certain things we simply can’t work out.

In a movie or TV show, we get all this at a glance. In prose, we need to be told.

Reboot your prose brain Make yourself a checklist – ensure you sneak this information in somehow. Have you let us know your character’s life circumstances? How old they are? How successful? How healthy? How happy? What relationships they have? All these details provide important context.

Problem: lack of interiority and reaction

In movies and TV, we usually can’t get inside a viewpoint character’s mind. So if something happens that provokes a reaction, we have to see it expressed – physically or verbally. But if this is how you show reactions in prose, it looks quite empty. But prose has a delightful quality that some writers underuse – it can put us inside the character’s mind and heart.

Reboot your prose brain If your narrative style allows, remember you can let the reader experience the reaction in the character’s mind and heart. Don’t just show it on the outside with facial expressions and dialogue. You have a whole other register for communication – your viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings.

There are many possible ways a character could react to a plot event – you have to specify those reactions! Furthermore, you can show the complexity of the people you’ve created. You can explore mixed feelings and unexpected responses.

But what if you want to be economical and let the reader fill the gaps from their knowledge of the context? Yes, you can do that – but you have to teach the reader about the character first. So in the early part of the story you show the reader that, for instance, a character is secretly in love with another character. Much later, you can show the character being rejected and you might not need to show the devastation this will cause – the reader will know. But if you’ve never taught the reader what emotion a character feels about a thing or another person… the reader won’t know. 

Don’t forget to go inside a viewpoint character’s reaction.

Problem: dialogue lacks an interior dimension

This is similar to the previous point. TV and movie dialogue does a lot with the characters’ actions or tone of voice. A writer might attempt to describe these in a dialogue scene – so we get reactions, gestures and expressions, but they might not mean a lot to the reader.

Reboot your prose brain Gestures and expressions can certainly be useful, but they’re not the most effective way to help the reader understand what the characters are feeling. Use interiority as well, as above.

Problem: dialogue has too many mundanities

TV and movie dialogue often has a lot of warm-up. Hello, how was your journey, sit over there, I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on, I was up at four this morning because the bairn wouldn’t sleep.

This human noise is necessary because we’re following the action in real time, it looks natural, and we’re also settling in for the real meat of the scene – perhaps seeing relationships, an environment (see my first point), getting a sense of anticipation. The actors’ actual words are quite mundane, but we’re not meant to be paying much attention to them.

However, this mundane dialogue doesn’t work so well in prose. I see a lot of scenes in novels that go:

‘Hello, how was your journey?’

‘Fine, thanks.’

‘I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on.’

‘Oh, thank you, I need caffeine, I’ve been up since four because…’

That’s four whole lines of not very much.

Of course, there are situations where this might be valuable – if there is something interesting for the reader to notice. For instance, if you’ve laid the ground for the reader to interpret awkwardness or tension, or to be very curious about every moment of this encounter. But many writers do this just to get a scene under way, because that’s how TV does it.

Reboot your prose brain Although you need some of this, and scene setting is important, you don’t need nearly as much as a TV or movie script would. You certainly don’t need to follow every step in real time – an artful condensing will work just as well. Use it, as I’ve said, if there is something the reader will enjoy noticing. Otherwise, pare down as much as possible.

Final word

Don’t just learn your storytelling from films and TV! Keep reading prose as well, to keep in practice with that medium – so you give the reader the best possible experience.   

There’s a lot more about this in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to build a reading list around a subject – and discover the best titles about the allure, tragedy and majesty of mountaineering

I’ve discovered a great site for building a reading list around a subject – Book Shepherd. It invites authors to list their personal favourite titles in subjects that they’re passionate about, whether through personal experience or diligent research. If you’re a writer, you can find what’s been written in your genre or subject area, and discover books that have made a deep impression on your favourite authors and might have influenced their work. (Psst… my Nail Your Novel workbook has sections for organising your research.)

If you’re a reader, you can, obviously, follow your nose to delightful titles you’ve never heard of.

I’ve just contributed a list, based on years researching high-altitude mountaineering. It began as burning curiosity and became my novel Ever Rest. That reading journey took in countless travelogues, factual books, websites and memoirs – and probably every novel that features a mountaineer. Certain titles really left their mark on the story and characters. Here they are. Do come over, either to check them out or to begin your own personal odyssey.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘All humans are alone… and weird’ – how I made my writing career by Elaina Battista-Parsons @BraveIrene77      

Elaina Battista-Parsons says she likes to write about what makes her weird, or gives her chills, or makes her happy. Thus was born a collection of essays and verse that became a memoir, Italian Bones In The Snow. Here, she talks about everything that makes her, and her books.  

Your Facebook name is Winterwriter Battista. Tell me what it means.

Battista is my maiden name, and I really love it. I always have. As a kid, I’d love crossing the three ts when I wrote in script. Winterwriter is for my absolute adoration of winter. It’s when I feel most creative, most alive, and most in tune with everything.

What do people call you?

Elaina.

Where did you get your urge to write?

It began in third grade when I wrote about a trip to the Poconos mountains with my family and our close friends. I won an award for that piece.

Were you surrounded by arty people as a child?

There are a ton of creative arteries running through both sides of my family—no writers that I know of, but seamstresses, painters, sculptors, instrumentalists. My mom is excellent with sewing fabrics and cooking. My dad is a mechanical tinkerer. I was exposed to music of all genres growing up, all the time. We had a set of huge speakers in the living room. So yes, literally—surrounded.

Looking at your Instagram, you are a dervish of creativity. There are lists of stuff that shouldn’t go together, but when viewed in your excited handwriting they somehow do. I quote: First loves, first lusts, bread, cemeteries.

I don’t accept that things ‘don’t go together’. You can always find the common ground between bread and lust, LOL. Also, it’s all very spiritual. I mean, isn’t bread spiritual to everyone? No?

How does your creativity work?

My creativity usually begins with a memory of a feeling or setting.

Do you have a method? How do you get from feeling to finished work?

 I wish I had a method. Instead, each project takes on a new form of being constructed. Italian Bones In The Snow flew out of my hands in a month or two, I swear as if my female ancestors took hold of the keyboard. I was just their conduit. My newer project is a full-length memoir. This project requires checklists, interviews, and daily word count goals. Less cosmic. It’s going to take much, much longer to get right.

You describe yourself as a writer across genres. Tell me about that. What do you write?

I swore my debut would be a middle-grade novel. I have written two or three full-length middle-grade novels, now sleeping on my shelf. Nobody wanted them. They need work. Then the first book contract I signed was with Inked in Gray Press. My young adult novel is called Black Licorice, and it will be in the world hopefully in January of 2023.

I also write poetry. Perhaps a picture book is somewhere in me too.

Italian Bones In The Snow is a book of memoir shorts, isn’t it? Talk me through it.

With Italian Bones there was more freedom than with a full-length memoir or a novel. I thank Vine Leaves Press for being so open to a collection as striped and asymmetrical as this.

How did you find a through-line to pull it together?

It’s arranged sort of sequentially, and sort of topically. It was like no other I have written. I wrote it fast and furiously, as mentioned above. Like I had to get it on paper, or I’d bust. It started as a series of random essays and word play, and then Melanie Faith, one of the most talented editors on Earth, helped me to see the common threads and sections. It’s divided into four sections based on concept, and many of the essays end in poetry. This collection is very accessible to people who don’t have time to read larger novels. It’s a quick, but with a salty bite. There is some chronology. I write about things that have moulded me: relationships, books, family, my mastectomy, Madonna, and music. To name a few.

You also work as a reading coach for students with disabilities. How did that start?

I have a private tutoring business where I specialise in teaching children with dyslexia. I’ve been doing that since 2005. I used to work in public schools, but our lifestyle works better when I work from home.

What other jobs have you done?

I began teaching in 2001 and remained in school systems until 2017. I’m also a three-level Reiki practitioner, but I don’t do that regularly, especially since Covid.

Have any of those jobs helped form you as a writer?

Everything helps me as a writer. Reiki gives me clarity. Teaching gives me joy.

Do you have any writing qualifications such as an MFA?

I do not! But I enrol in as many writing courses and workshops as I can, and those that work with my lifestyle. I have two daughters who keep us very busy. Currently, I am taking a fantastic creative writing class with Kathy Curto, author of Not for Nothing, Glimpses into a Jersey Girlhood.

You’re creative writing editor of Cordelia magazine. Tell me about that role.

Yes! What a lovely group of young women who’ve created this space for pertinent articles, essays, and stories. I found them on Instagram, and I am so happy to be part of their very new literary magazine. The editor-in-chief sends me submissions. I review, mend, and submit them back to her for publication. I love, love literary magazines, particularly ones run and focused on marginalised voices. I can say the same about independent presses. What a supportive community.

You’ve had poems and essays published in various magazines. Do you have a method for finding publications that are a good match for your work?

Submittable and Instagram have been great resources for finding good fits. Growing up, I’d devour any brochure, magazine, or catalogue that arrived in our mailbox. Or any I saw in waiting rooms. I love the ‘publication’, so I enjoy having my work spread out around these wonderful places that are run by passionate people.

Any advice for writers who are submitting to magazines?

Don’t overthink your pieces. They’re meant to be shared, not hidden in the caverns of your laptop. Perfectionism is paralysing.

How would you describe your style? What are the fingerprints of Elaina’s work? Any constant themes and curiosities?

I like to write what I know about. My work is rich in imagery and sensory details. I like to write about what makes me weird. What scares me. What gives me chills. What makes me truly happy. Most of all, I write about things that can maybe inspire others to not feel alone or weird. Because all humans are. Both alone and weird.

What makes you weird. What makes you happy or scared. I want to linger in this answer. It’s a perfect description of the personal essay.

Okay, a quick one. Writing or rewriting?

Rewriting!

Lennon or McCartney?

After watching Get Back for eight hours with my husband, I have a huge crush on John Lennon. What a stunning and beautiful spirit he was. But….without Paul, there’s no Beatles.

Cluttered desk or tidy desk?

Tidy.

You have a YA novel coming out soon -a different audience from Italian Bones and your short pieces. Did you have to adapt your usual approaches?

I wrote the YA novel first. I’ll be super transparent here. Fiction is significantly harder for me to get right. My editors at Inked in Gray are the reason it’s developed for me. I am a better fiction writer because of Dakota and Justine. Italian Bones was a totally fresh and new experience from that. I can’t compare any of the approaches. Like oil and water.

Why was YA the right decision for that book?

I began writing it to mourn and process the death of a dear friend. It took on a life of its own from there.

Find Italian Bones In The Snow here, find Elaina on her website, Facebook, Instagram @Winterwriter77 and Twitter @BraveIrene77

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to use research to build an authentic story – interview with @Tomokarres at #booksgosocial

How do you use research to build a plot? If you’re writing beyond your own personal experience – and most of us are – what details make a difference? How can you use your actual experience as a starting point? What are the absolutes to cover if you’re writing historical fiction, or fiction set in a special world?

Today I’m at BooksGoSocial, talking about this to Tom Burkhalter. He writes World War II novels created from meticulous research and deep understanding of his subject – indeed he’s often complimented on his flying experience, which he admitted to me was 90% research. And I have wide experience of writing what I don’t physically know, from my years as a ghostwriter and now with my own novels. Just for my most recent novel, Ever Rest, I learned two special worlds – music and mountaineering.

We also talk about how to organise material for a novel and how to teach yourself revision techniques that are effective and rewarding. If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you’ll know I’m zealous about revision – for me it’s one of the great creative processes. Do come over.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to judge writing competitions for children, adults, beginners and seasoned authors

How do you judge a writing competition? This is something authors are asked to do from time to time. How do you compare different styles and subject matter? What do you make allowances for? What do you never compromise on? What are the different considerations for child and adult competitions, local beginners or experienced authors seeking professional publication?

I’ve gathered some authors who’ve been there, done that… and asked for their tips on how to do a fair job.  

Literary

Novelist Ian Rogers @iantheroge is a slush pile reader for a prominent literary journal’s short story prize. Applicants pay a fee and submit a manuscript for a chance at publication.

What’s your system for judging?

Surprisingly, the applications tend to be relatively uniform, in the category of “serious literary fiction”.  Some take risks with humour, themes and form, which I suspect will not please the judges above me. But I value them as distinct and memorable, so I often give them a green light to get a chance of winning. If they later get a No, I want that decision to come from someone else, not from me.

What about gut instinct?

I’ve learned that certain interesting, funny or creative pieces might strike me as brilliant in some areas, but are lacking in organisation, prose quality or consistency.  In these cases, it’s a simple but painful decision to pass on them.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

Clear, meaningful decisions by the author in crafting a piece structurally, rather than haphazardly following a formula, or God forbid, slapping together a bunch of meaningful-sounding prose.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

For a contest, my standards are higher than if I’m reading for another purpose.  A brilliant idea and great potential would draw me in every time if I was reading for something less competitive, but for this contest, there will be more than enough pieces that succeed in both their potential and their execution.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

No tricks. And don’t front-weight a manuscript with higher quality material while the rest is padded out with rougher pieces. I took this route myself as a younger writer for fear of missing out on a contest, and shudder at my naiveite now. A winning manuscript should be in top shape from start to finish, and if it’s not, wait until next year.

Have you ever had to justify your decision to a disgruntled entrant?

Thankfully no—bigger contests keep the judging blind and impersonal with form letters, which takes the humanity out of the process, as if entries were being judged by machines rather than people.  Such distance sends a strong signal that entrants shouldn’t question the final decision.

Who’s Ian Rogers? More here

Literary vignettes and flash fiction

Flash fiction author and movie writer Jayne Martin @jayne_martin has judged the 50-word story contest for the Bending Genres journal. Author,  musician and small press publisher Jessica Bell @iamjessicabell used to hold an annual competition, the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award.

Jayne Martin

What’s your system for judging?

Jayne I looked for pieces where the writer clearly understood the genre and craft of microfiction. It’s a specific skill.

Jessica We had a team of five readers, including myself. We did not have strict judging criteria for the first round – vignettes do not follow standard rules – but we looked for originality, sound spelling and grammar, and the ‘it’ factor. The ‘it’ factor basically meant they impressed us.

The quarter-finalists were manuscripts we would be prepared to publish. These were then re-evaluated by three judges, including me, with a  score system. From that we decided a grand finalist and two semi-finalists. They were all then offered publication.

What about gut instinct?

Jayne Gut instinct is a big part of it. Either a piece moves you or it doesn’t. I’m looking for an emotional experience or takeaway. That is what will elevate one story over another that may be better written but leaves me cold.

Jessica We were judging for our own press, so our emotions played a big role. However, they were balanced our by our judging process.

Jessica Bell

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

Jayne Craft. Does the writer know their stuff?

Jessica If it triggers a strong wave of emotion, it’s got me.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Jayne It can’t be rough at all. It must be polished and professional.

Jessica Very rarely am I impressed by rough writing, since smooth writing is all part of making a book resonate with a reader.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

Jayne Before submitting anywhere, read your story out loud. Record it. Listen to it. You’ll find the places where it stumbles. And never ever send in a first draft.

Jessica Be yourself. Don’t try to write like someone else. Write from the heart; it shows. Make the judges cry, laugh and sneer.

Who’s Jayne Martin? I interviewed her here

Who’s Jessica Bell? I interviewed her here

An all-genres small press mentoring competition

This was my turn in the hot seat! I judged the Triskele Books Big Five mentoring competition in 2018. The aim was to find one manuscript to develop for publication.

What’s your system for judging?

My role was to choose a winner from the five finalists, so the main job of selection had been done. But those five entries were already a high standard with their own merits – and they covered a huge spectrum of styles and genres. There were narrators who were unreliable or dreaming; narrators who were unsure if they could trust their senses. Sassy voices; sad ones. Narrators who were on the brink of terrible events. Some were fiction; some were not.

To pick a winner, I looked for a writer who knew how to handle the reader. Whatever the setting or genre, did they know what feelings they were giving me? Did they know what questions I had and whether they should answer them…. or whether they should tease?

What about gut instinct?

For those questions, gut instinct became my biggest steer.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

For this competition, we were seeking potential and natural writing instinct. Roughness of craft wasn’t a problem because the right writer would pick up craft points easily.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition at this level?

Even if a competition is looking for manuscripts to bring on, don’t skimp on polishing. The judges want to see you at your absolute best, before any interventions, and they want to keep your strengths, not mould you. So show off those strengths.

Children’s writing competitions

Retired bookseller Peter Snell @peterjasnell judges the local heats of the national Rotary competition for secondary schools. The top three in each age category go to the national finals.

What’s your system for judging?

Each entry has to be considered in isolation, according to its own merits. A title is provided to entrants each year; interpretation is down to them. Each manuscript is judged on its own merits, Some entries are essays, some are poems, some are plays.   

I use three yardsticks in judging – the level and quality of imagination, the ability to engage the interest of the reader and the consistent power of the argument in each piece. I also consider grammar, spelling and punctuation, marking each script for errors as I read. I score each aspect out of 10 with a maximum of 40 points and write a short note for each entry highlighting good and bad aspects and my overall impression. This helps me with the final judging and comparison while also providing feedback to each entrant. I also produce a general report on the year’s entries. The points I raise are fed back to entrants by their class teachers.

What about gut instinct?

I read forensically so I’m able to disengage some of myself. Of course, some scripts sing to me, so I read every entry straight through first without judging. I then go back and examine with my categories. Sometimes I have to reread to make sure I understand what the author was intending.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

I enjoy a narrative flow that does not pull me up short or require me retrace my steps to puzzle out meaning. Of course, there are times when causing discomfort to the reader can enhance the atmosphere of a piece.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Some entries come from special schools. Entries from pupils with poorer motor skills can look rough but still have great merit. I make sure my judging is blind, not based on the kind of school.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition of this kind? And any don’ts?

Proof-read your entry. Don’t rely on spell checkers; they have no sense of context. Then read it out aloud, slowly. If you make corrections, rewrite the whole thing. Biro corrections on a printed submission are not a good look.

Don’t use big words unless you are sure you know precisely how to use them. A dictionary can be a good friend; as can a thesaurus if you need to avoid repetition.

Make sure you really understand the assignment title. But also try an original approach.

So, you’ve got your score sheet and your notes. What if you get a tie? How then do you pick a winner?

I discuss it with the contest organiser.

Who’s Peter Snell? You might remember him from our radio series So You Want To Be A Writer?

A local competition for first-time writers

Novelist and short story writer Annalisa Crawford @annalisacrawf judged a competition in her local town in 2017.

What was your system for judging?

Judging was easy. Most of the entrants were not writers and would probably not have entered any other writing competition. The fact it was local was the draw for them. The brief was to write a short story so I initially cast aside all the ones that weren’t stories – then had to reintroduce them when I realised I only had one left. That at least made it easy to decide the winner. I laid the others out on my floor and read the first pages a few times, removing any that had me stumbling or not understanding what they were trying to say.

What about gut instinct? I think sometimes it comes down to gut instinct. Judging a piece of writing is subjective and I think we’d be doing a disservice to the writers to stick to rigid guidelines.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

I like to be surprised, to be drawn into the lives of the characters enough for me to believe they’re real, and to still be thinking about it a few days later. I like interesting imagery and to be taken on a journey.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Not much, to be honest. I think any writer owes it to the reader to make their piece as perfect as possible. Having said that, although I’m harsh on the opening paragraphs because I need to be pulled in, once I’m there I’m more relaxed and forgiving. I’m not put off by an ending that doesn’t meet my expectations if the start is good.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition? And any don’ts?

Follow all the rules. Make the first page sparkle. Don’t overuse the thesaurus and fill the story with long, obscure words. Don’t fall into cliché. Make your characters do the unexpected.

Have you ever had to justify your decision to a disgruntled entrant?

Luckily, no. The winners were merely sent their prizes.

Who’s Annalisa Crawford? I interviewed her here

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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‘Professors told me I was below average as a writer’ – how I made my writing career – Fredrick Soukup @21stcenturyfred

At college, Fredrick Soukup was told, many times, he was below average as a writer. That didn’t stop him setting his sights on a book deal when he left. Writing was what he wanted to do. He took fill-in jobs, sent work out, received hundreds of rejections, but his commitment paid off because his debut novel Bliss won several awards. He’s just released his second novel, a family drama, Blood Up North. We talk about his journey to authorhood.

Were your family creative in any way?

I have cousins who write. One does poetry; I’m not sure about the other. And one of my uncles has written historical works about the relationship between the US government and Native Americans in Minnesota in the 19th century. Soukup is a Czech name, so I suppose I have Bohemian roots. I certainly love Czech beer.

I’ve always loved to create, and since I couldn’t paint or draw or sculpt, I fell in love with music at a young age. That and American football. After breaking my leg during a game in my senior year of high school, I was left with only the music. Unfortunately, I never had much talent for guitar or singing or song-writing, although I wrote a ton of songs in college. I felt I had some nice lyrics, though.

I fell in love with the literary greats when I was a freshman in college, read a lot of Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Morrison, Austen, Stendhal, Tolstoy, etc… and thought that fiction would give me the best opportunity to do the best creative work I was capable of.

Your website says you came out of college and took a succession of fill-in jobs. Why did you choose that path instead of a more conventional graduate job?

My biggest asset has always been my immense capacity for self-delusion. The summer after I graduated, I moved home to chainsaw oak for my parents’ woodstove and write full time. I figured I’d have a book deal by the end of the summer. Seriously. I was nuts. But I guess I still am. I always thought that whatever I was working on would be successful.

You were a meat-slicer in a deli, a ‘personal care’ advocate in a care home and a guard at a juvenile detention centre…

Yes, I worked a ton of jobs. At a deli, with differently abled adults, in a call centre, in a correctional facility for three years.

But all the while, I was writing new material, new drafts, and sending them out to editors and agents.

I had a ton of rejections. Hundreds and hundreds.

How were these formative for you?

All my experiences informed the things I felt comfortable writing about, but I was never trying to find a subject or experience a world which I could then fictionalize (ala Hemingway, or whatever). I just needed money to pay off my loans and pay other bills.

However, I was always turned off by stories whose main characters were themselves writers (novelists, columnists, and so on), or editors, or aspiring writers, all that. I dreaded the thought of becoming someone who could only write from that point of view. I’m grateful for the freedom of the past decade. Sure, I had to learn a lot on my own and work a handful of jobs, some of which were quite lousy, but I also had the luxury of living a unique life with a ton of different experiences. Now I’m a stay-at-home father and am still writing full-time, and the time I spend with my two-year-old daughter and wife at home has had a major impact on me, personally and professionally.

You have two novels. Bliss, a love story across societal boundaries, and Blood Up North, a mystery and family drama. Where did they come from?

The juvenile detention centre, in particular, had a formative impact on me. That’s where Bliss entered the picture. Blood Up North stemmed from a couple of things. First, I wanted to see if I could develop my skills producing plot-driven material. Second, I had such powerful emotions regarding the setting (Cass County Minnesota) and the venal, mendacious characters I had in mind—characters who, by the way, bear no resemblance to the people of rural Minnesota—that I was compelled to explore them.

How long did the writing take you?

Usually, a 60,000 novel takes me about eight months. Two to plan, six to execute the vision. Of course, I always put the work aside for a while and come back to it, so, ultimately, I spend years on it. From seed to stem, it’s typically three to four years.

Is there a common thread to these novels? What are your main concerns and curiosities?

I’m not sure there’s much to compare between the two novels, although as a writer, and a person, it’s impossible to be anyone other than who you are. The core conflicts in life, the things that really interest you, interest you for a reason. So I’ve found there are a few issues that constantly crop up in my writing. Socioeconomics, domestic strife, powerful female characters, mental illness, trauma and violence.

Whose writing do you enjoy?

I really liked The Round House by Louise Erdrich and Cherry by Nico Walker. Mostly I read non-fiction so as not to distract myself. World War I and II, American history, etc…

Have you had any formal writing training?

My degree is in philosophy, and I only took one creative writing course in college. I was an average writer back then. Multiple professors told me I was below-average. Here, again, my delusion took over. I ignored them.

I am considering getting my MFA in the next few years, because I feel I’m on solid footing in terms of understanding my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, my subject matter, my goals. I think I’d learn a lot in a master’s program.

How did lockdown treat you?

My family is extremely blessed. My wife has a great job, we’re expecting a second daughter in April, and we’re all healthy. It’s been sad to see the struggles so many families in Minnesota have had with food and income insecurity. Regarding my own situation, I have no complaints.

What’s next?

I have other manuscripts I’m always working on. Two are set in rural Minnesota, the other in the Twin Cities.

Find Blood Up North here, and find Fredrick on Twitter as @21stcenturyfred on Facebook and on his website.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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