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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Standalone or series? Get started with this course at @JaneFriedman

Just a little reminder… because this is TODAY! See you there.

Nail Your Novel

Although book series have never exactly been out of style, they’ve had a real renaissance in the era of streamed TV. People love epic-length stories with vast worlds and rich characters – and that goes for their reading as much as their watching.

What’s more, a series can be rewarding for writers too – both commercially and artistically.

So if you want to write a series, what do you need to know? How can you devise a concept that’s series worthy? What decisions should you make at the outset and what can you develop as you go? What are the bad reasons to write a series (yes, there are some).

I decided to create this course after I received this email. ‘OMG, I’ve been working on my back story and I realise I’ve got an epic. However will I beat this monster into submission?’

I’ve worked on several fiction series…

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Seven voices – how to write a novel in multiple points of view

I was chatting on a writers’ Facebook group and this question was asked: how many points of view have you used in a novel?

I used several in my most recent novel Ever Rest. Seven, actually. (Splutters in the group. And they were right; it was tricky to do.)

I didn’t plan that way at first. I imagined the novel would be one point of view. Then I wrote a scene where my viewpoint guy had an awkward meeting with another character, and the air was seething with unfinished business. I couldn’t do justice to it if I stayed only with him.

So I wrote her side.

I resisted at first. It seemed a waste of time because it wouldn’t be used. It couldn’t be; Ever Rest was not her book. I hadn’t inhabited her life in the way I had inhabited his. I knew his childhood. I didn’t know her life beyond this brief scene. It was a blank, and a blank is always worrying for a writer. A blank might be temporary, or it might not. But there she was, protesting about being forced to meet this guy.

She began to live on her own. I now had two narrators for the novel.

It happened again. As I worked on her, a person who belonged to her became more significant. He looked kind and mild, but inside, there were deep uncertainties. A third voice began to speak.

On it went, with more people revealing their complicated hearts. Until there were seven.

By this stage, you might be wondering if I should have written it as omniscient, but that didn’t appeal. For this book, I wanted deep third-person. I wanted the reader to know when one person was badly misreading another, or underestimating them. I wanted the reader to scream no you’re too naïve, or too suspicious, or simply mistaken. Each character was in their own private muddle, trying to find their way through, and none of them truly knew anybody else. The best way was multiple points of view.

But how many is too many? It’s too many if you can’t handle them properly. Otherwise, go for it. Here are some rules.

Some rules for multiple points of view

1 They don’t all have to be heard equally.

Like all characters, you’ll have a hierarchy. Some characters are secondary. Their situation is not as fraught and tormented, or they won’t go through very much change.

I used one character’s point of view to occasionally give an outsider perspective. He wasn’t seen as many times as the others, but we sometimes went to him for a grounding scene. Sometimes he was sympathetic to them, sometimes exasperated. It was a welcome relief from the characters who were facing the defining moments of their lives.

2 Take time to make them individuals.

I really made a rod for my own back here. I had seven viewpoint characters, which meant seven distinctive voices and outlooks. It meant a lot of revising. (This is one of the reasons the novel took six years to mature.)

3 When it’s their turn to speak, write them from the inside.

With two of the characters, I realised I was unsympathetic to them myself. I was writing them from the point of view of other characters in the book. X thought y was a tin-eared narcissist, and that was good, but I wrote y’s own sections like that too, which was a mistake. While x might think that of y, y would not think that of himself. So I gave my tin-eared narcissist a fair hearing. He became highly sensitive and often distressed.

4 Remember what they know, including their ideals.

You have to keep careful track of continuity. There are the obvious mechanics of who knows what. What x thinks of y, as we’ve seen.

And this knowledge also has a deeper level – characters’ attitudes. In Ever Rest, a key aspect was the characters’ attitudes to romantic love – what they thought love should be. X feels love is a shattering thunderbolt. Z feels love is educating the person about how to be in love, and watching them in case they get out of line and make themselves unhappy. I drew charts of these, so I could easily compare them.   

5 Manage the reader carefully.

Make it clear when we’re in a new point of view – unless your purpose is to deliberately obscure this. (I can’t think of a good example right now, but for every general prohibition, there’s always a person who’s broken it to great effect.)

Otherwise, make sure we know whose POV we’re in. Establish a system that will let the reader know. I began a new chapter each time there was a new POV. Some chapters were very short – a mere few paragraphs – and that was fine.

Also, I made the viewpoint clear in the first sentence so the reader knows how to interpret what they’re seeing. Each character had very different views and feelings about the action, so it was important to know whose emotions we were sharing. Is it the character who is mortally offended by this action or the character who thinks it’s a storm in a teacup?

6 Ask if you need all those POVs.

Why make it so complicated? Most things are better if you strip away complication, especially when making an artwork. However, they are not necessarily better if you strip away complexity and richness. I found I needed each of my seven voices to give the story its most lifelike treatment.

BTW, this is Ever Rest.

And speaking of managing big projects, don’t forget I have a course this week at Jane Friedman’s – Standalone or Series: how to grow your novel concept to its full potential. You can watch it live or catch up later.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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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We are full of messy multitudes: how I made my writing career – Alexis Paige @lexissima

Alexis Paige is a writing professor with a string of impressive credits for her essays, memoirs and literary editing work, but her latest book, publishing in February, is subtitled How To Make A Messy Literary Life. I was intrigued. Here are all the questions.  

Alexis, let’s begin by talking about your literary life as a whole. Your career has always been writing – local newspapers, public relations and a number of teaching roles in the writing world. However, you describe your early years as anything but stable – ‘a peripatetic childhood shaped by loss and dislocation’. Did commitment to writing come from constant change?

My career has indeed been committed to writing, but I don’t see that as a direct response to any instability I experienced as a child. Not because there isn’t a connection; rather, I feel too close to my own life to see it with any distance or clarity or conviction.

Combat pilots use this wonderful, tactile expression to describe flying at very low altitudes to avoid enemy detection: nap-of-the-earth. This is how I think of myself, as a speck lodged in the nap of my own life.

In any case, I don’t have a good sense of how others perceive me (does anyone?), but I feel more inner turmoil than I show. A student who read my first memoir— Not A Place On Any Map, vignettes of my childhood, adolescence, and 20s to early 30s—remarked that the book did not square with his image of me as an energetic, good-humoured professor, a ‘success story’. It shocked him to learn that I have struggled with depression and anxiety, with substance abuse and PTSD, and that my confidence and competence are tinged with a darker sensibility. As Walt Whitman writes in Song of Myself, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.

I think we all contain these multitudes. But still they take people by surprise. That could be a discussion in itself.  

So what did that early life look like?

We moved around a lot: I was born in Chicago, my younger brother in Phoenix, and when my parents divorced in the early 1980s, my mother went to Texas, and my brother and I to live with our father in New Hampshire. I had plenty of stability in many respects; at the same time, my life seemed quite different from my peers who spent their lives in one house and one town.

Summers and holidays were in Texas with my mother, and later, Boston. By the time I was 10 I could navigate airports with a competence that made me resent being assigned a chaperone. By the time I was a teenager, I knew how to figure out any subway, rail, or bus system, and could drive an old standard transmission truck off-road in the mountains of New Hampshire. I had this feeling of always moving between worlds, each with different customs and codes. I was comfortable in both worlds, but always happiest sitting in the window seat to the next place.

When did you choose writing, how did you choose writing, and why did you stick with it?

Sometime in my latter high school and early college years. While I had always been a devoted reader, my early English teachers were pinched taskmasters, obsessed with sentence diagrams and grammar (for which I am not ungrateful, but that’s another sidebar). They weren’t writers; they were subject experts. Writing is a subject, sure, but it’s also an identity, a way of being, a way of thinking, a means of exploration, a way of making meaning of experience, a noun and a verb.

In my last year of high school, I took a course in journalism and one in women’s studies—and writing began to click for me in a new, exciting way. These teachers were artists themselves, and that meant something, though I’m not sure I understood that at the time. There was an exchange of recognition perhaps; the more they saw in me a writer, or a thinker, the more I saw it in myself.

Was your family artistic in any way?

One of my cousins is a sublime photographer, another a gifted dancer, one aunt a talented painter. My paternal grandmother played piano on the radio with her sister on vocals—everything from boogie-woogie to standards of the 1940s and 50s. My brother is a talented singer-songwriter and musician.

But more than artistic, I would describe my family as big readers and conversationalists. My dad, brother and I were our own little debating society. Extended family gatherings were rhetorical athletic events (my dad was one of 12 children, and I have approximately 40 first cousins), with everyone jabbing and sparring, making cases for this or that, spinning yarns, playing cards, and filling up rooms with smoke and laughter.

That’s wonderful. Do they have room for one more?

Let’s talk about your latest book – Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life. Why messy?

For me writing is a messy activity. In 25-plus years of doing it, it hasn’t gotten any easier, or tidier. You have ideas and images and gestures and space junk zooming around, and that’s before you even get into the chair. The writing hasn’t even started. The real writing happens when I yield this unwieldy consciousness to the writing itself. In his essay On Writing, William Stafford said it so much better: ‘A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.’

I recognise that well. I start with a compulsion and a muddle, which torments me until I’ve spilled it roughly onto the page. Then I feel calmer because I have it fixed, it can’t get away. Then I can question it properly, see what bothered me so much about it.

My new book is partly a reckoning with, or perhaps an ode to, this—the muck and slog of the act of writing itself. The book dives into some granular concerns of craft, which is why I settled on calling it a craft memoir. By messy, I suppose I mean it’s a thing one never quite gets right. I recently re-read Anna Karenina, and I thought to myself, once again, that it is the most exquisite, perfect work I’ve ever read. But Tolstoy was probably still fiddling with semicolons or dialogue tags or something long after it was published.

Work Hard, Not Smart is a craft memoir of my life both off and on the page (and in the classroom), with linked essays on everything from writing with and about mental illness and addiction, to writing about rape in the age of Me Too, to writing about race and incarceration.

Before I quit drinking at 30 (I’m in my mid-40s now), I got into a terrible drink-driving car accident in Houston that resulted in a protracted felony case and trial in which I was facing prison because a woman was injured in the crash. In the book, I spend a chapter puzzling out how to write this complex story for another book that I’ve been working on for a long time. The more I wrote about the experience, the less I wanted to write a merely personal story of redemption, or whatever. Not that there’s anything wrong with redemption. It’s just that I am more interested in writing about the racial dimension of my experience as a white person reckoning with America’s racist criminal justice system. This is a much larger story, one that remains beyond me, and its difficulty is what I discuss in the Ars Poetica chapter.

The book is also about the messy enterprise of becoming a writer, being a writer, over the long haul. This encompasses career and life choices, literary citizenship, careerism (or anti-careerism), and other vexing concerns like time, and how to get enough of it. Years ago, I asked the poet Charles Simic how I should go about becoming a writer. ‘First,’ he said, ‘you will need to get a job—any job—that pays money.’ I didn’t see it this way in the moment, but now I think it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.

It’s the advice we’d be most disappointed to hear, but we all learn its value.

You were recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). How did this change things for you?

My own mind suddenly felt less unsolvable. There was a name for it. There was a name I could quibble with, anyway. It became less a thing to resist and more a feature I could lean into. I was diagnosed when concepts like neurodivergence and neurodiversity were becoming more mainstream, and this helped a lot too. ADHD was simply a different way of being and thinking—one even with some creative advantages, like hyperfocus when interested, for example.

And how does one define ‘normal’, especially in creative people? We train ourselves to do things that require a high level of concentration, practice and persistence, we follow impulses that are mysterious to others and often inexplicable to ourselves… we make connections others do not… 

The title of my book is an inversion of the cliché “work smart, not hard,” a nod to my own growing acceptance of ADHD as a kind of divergent-thinker magic. The book arose from this, which made me want to run out and tell other like-minded creatives what I wish I knew early in my writing life: that not all who wander all are lost. You can learn to rely on yourself, to go your own way, and to make a writing life that fits you. The essay form is especially elliptical, so having an elliptical thinking pattern is an advantage there too.

Meanwhile, what’s this picture of you with – gasp – travel writer Jon Krakauer?

For my 25th birthday, my dad took me to a Himalayan Foundation dinner in San Francisco. We had both read a lot of mountaineering books, including Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is a harrowing account of the 1996 Everest disaster, not to mention a timely polemic about the phenomenon of big mountain tourism.

I know it well! I read it several times while writing Ever Rest. If I open the pages, I fall into it again.

I love all of Krakauer’s work (he’s SO good with nouns!), and he was a speaker at the event. After the speeches and dinner, as things were winding down, Krakauer was suddenly free, and I saw my chance. I practically tackled the poor guy, but he was very gracious and kind and his eyes were dazzling—full of life. My father was ready to capture the moment on film.

Let’s talk about your first memoir – Not A Place On Any Map.

It’s a memoir in vignettes about my childhood and early 20s. This was the time when I moved around most, first with family, and then by choice. The locus of the book is also trauma itself, in particular, my first trip abroad, to Italy, where I was raped. My life thereafter spun out in painful, predictable ways. I reported the rape, nothing happened, I felt re-victimized, I drank, I drugged, and I stuffed down the assault (and others) to the deepest recesses I could find. The book is an attempt at mapping the spin out and what happens when it all comes back up.

Your website describes a few hair-raising escapades including a short spell in jail. Tell me about hellraiser Alexis. Is that a fair description? Are you still a hellraiser?

Hellraiser, I’ll take it! I do think it’s a fair description. I’m not as much an obvious hellraiser as I was in my 20s, I have more to protect and lose now. But I still have a rebellious disposition (even with myself), and I hope to be raising hell for a good many years to come.

Do you write fiction at all?

I haven’t written fiction, but I never say never. I read and teach a lot of fiction. The short story is one of my favourite forms. In my early years as a baby creative writer (a poet), I did publish a few poems. This occurred around the millennium, when publications were still print, largely, and mine are now long out of print now, thank god.

What are the hallmarks of an Alexis Paige piece in terms of concerns, curiosities and style?

I love this question, but I have no idea. I have no aptitude for this sort of self-appraisal.

I love this answer. We can’t always figure ourselves out – as you said earlier.

I’ve always been driven by an insatiable curiosity. A few years ago, I became so obsessed with underwater treasure hunting that I contemplated studying engineering at the college where I teach writing, not because I wanted to do any engineering, but because I wanted to better understand marine engineering so I could read more about it. For the last few years, I’ve been on a World War II tear that started with a book on Churchill. So, I have these interests that ostensibly have nothing, or little, to do with my field, but they’re all connected on some crazy loop that makes sense to me.

Your essays are published in several literary journals. You’ve also edited the journal Brevity. What does a journal editor do, aside from assessing submissions?

Allison K Williams just wrote this super helpful piece for Brevity about this very topic, so I want to second everything she says in this link.  

I’ve worked as a journal editor at a few places—most recently at Brevity—and the role can be different at different places. At Brevity, most of my work was reading and rating submissions—sometimes offering commentary if I loved a piece or if I felt my rating could benefit from explication (this wasn’t feedback for the submitter, more part of an internal conversation about what we loved, liked, didn’t like, or had questions about). I didn’t work directly with writers on revisions; I believe that happened at a higher editorial level, but Brevity gets such incredible work, so many publishable riches, that most accepted work requires little editing. At other journals, the Stonecoast Literary Journal where I was the creative nonfiction editor during my MFA program, I not only read submissions and managed our wonderful readers, but I made publication decisions and worked with writers on revisions and edits.

Do you have any submission tips to offer authors?

Many writers send out tons of work to lots of places. I’m not opposed to this, but it’s not how I work. I don’t send out anything until I’m really done with it, probably to my own detriment. I have trouble turning loose of even one sentence. And I rarely submit simultaneously. I send out one piece at a time, to one place at a time, one that’s been carefully researched. With publishing, I’m either risk averse, or a serial monogamist.

What’s the most common reason for rejection?

I can only speak for my niche experience. Some rejections occur because the piece is not the right fit (eg it’s a piece of reportage submitted to a journal that doesn’t publish reportage), some are because it’s not the right timing (eg it’s wonderful, but we just published an essay about infidelity). Most rejections, in my experience, occur because the submission is unfinished, it needs work on a beginning or ending, it needs one thread tugged on a bit more, it needs to be edited, but it’s close. Maybe it’s good, really good, but not great. It’s so subjective, of course.

Tell me about your editing work, both as a freelance and for Vine Leaves Press.

I do some copy editing, but mostly developmental editing, both freelance and for Vine Leaves. At VLP, development editing is with a manuscript that has been accepted for publication, so it’s about refining the work and making it the best version of itself. Editing is so satisfying to me because it’s so much easier to see the issues and possibilities in work that’s not my own.

It certainly is. It also tunes up our own awareness. Speaking of your own work, what are you writing now?

I’m in flux. I’m on the book launch, but I’ve been tinkering with a couple of longform essays that detail the grief and fear of the last few years—not only life in a global pandemic, but also some personal griefs and fears. I had a hysterectomy a couple of years ago because of health problems, my husband had a serious injury and recovery last year; he shattered his arm. We lost two dogs. So, I want to work on those; whether they’re one-offs or part of a book of essays, I don’t know yet. I also need to finish another work-in-progress, my jail memoir, which I believe is close but needs one more revision.

Find Alexis sparsely on Twitter @lexissima , on Facebook and on her website. Find Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life here.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by literary agent @agentpete , writer @simnett 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, thriller author Ed Simnett (who has a frighteningly interesting CV that will probably keep him in thriller material for years).

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 always, the submissions had many strengths, and much to teach us. There were blurbs that told us too much and blurbs that left us puzzled. There were blurbs that promised a different tone from the actual text. There were scenes that drifted into confusing reverie before we had grasped where we were and whose experience we were following. There were titles that were too generic for the striking ideas in the actual book. There were awkward expositional parts, where clearly the writer was anxious about how soon they should be ‘explaining’ everything. Find the full show here.

And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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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Device addiction, how we treat ‘others’, and a love of horses – talking to @authorgreene about World Fantasy Award longlisted Lifeform Three

I’m thrilled to share this interview with Randal Eldon Greene, who wanted to discuss my World Fantasy Award longlisted novel Lifeform Three.

We talk about the authors who inspired me, the novel’s issues and questions. Actually, where do we start with that? I love novels that pose questions! Here are some of them – what makes us human, how we are persuaded to conform even though we have free will and rights, how our devices enable us but also program us, how nature and animals are an essential escape, how we treat people who aren’t like us, why Ray Bradbury is a genius, toxic capitalism and corporate bullying, climate change, visions of the future and places I would be sad to lose. Here’s more about Lifeform Three if you want to know about it.

Randal’s also a writer, so we also get into the practical stuff – how I develop a complex set of themes and ideas into a readable story, how I juggle creative writing with other work that uses those same faculties, and why writing is always a long game for me. Do come over.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are 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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