Category: Fiction

Writing and talent

Recently I showed someone a story-in-progress of mine, and they said I had talent. Naturally it pleased me to hear this. But I was also aware of how misleading the situation was. To the reader, who’d never seen the piece before, it perhaps seemed like a fresh new story, one I might have composed quickly and with inspiration. In reality, it was the product of several labored drafts, and it will go through several more before I finish. In addition to this, I’ve made conscious effort to improve my writing craft over the last five years. This has involved classes, critique groups, and hours of reading, thinking, and practice.

Sometimes I’m in the reverse situation, in which I read a piece somebody has written and impulsively form a judgment about whether they have talent or not. This, too, can be inaccurate. A single piece of writing may be good or not, but it doesn’t give a whole picture of the writer. Writers’ stories vary in strength. In addition to this, the writer exists in time, developing their skills over an extended period.

I have no idea whether I’m a good writer or not. It’s impossible to judge one’s own abilities. And when it comes to judging others, there is a great deal of taste and subjectivity involved. Many excellent books elicit polarized reactions from readers. One example of this is Madame Bovary. Of people I know who’ve read the book, some love Emma Bovary and others hate her. This affects their enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but there are a few things I know to be true. One is that I’ve been published and paid for my work. The other is that I’ve improved significantly over time.

I took my very first writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had just started to write seriously around that time. There were two levels of the writing workshop class, and both had competitive admission. I was admitted to the beginning level—barely. It soon became clear that I was one of the worst writers in the class. In retrospect, it was one of the more difficult workshops I’ve been in (or maybe I just wasn’t used to it, since I’d never been critiqued before). I remember some particularly harsh comments about my characters and dialogue. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about my writing, especially since some people in the class had written remarkable stories. I’m sure that I seemed quite untalented.  That spring, I applied to the advanced fiction workshop. Other people in my class got in, but I was rejected. The worst part was you had to go to the English department and look for your name on a list posted on the wall. When I didn’t see my name on the list, I rushed out of the building in shame.

Now, when I look at the stories I wrote back then, it surprises me how amateurish they seem. Over the years, I kept at it, and it’s unquestionable that my writing is much better for the work.

The point of all this is sometimes people appear successful, but there’s a whole story of struggle behind how they got there. If you’re just starting out as a writer, don’t be discouraged because other people seem more accomplished or talented than you. Chances are they’ve already been working at it for a few years. Also, it’s impossible for other people to judge your talent. They’re looking at you at a moment in time, when in reality your life is a trajectory. You’re the one who gets to decide that trajectory—i.e., whether to keep working or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you’re a writer.

Pale Hearts reviewed in Compulsive Reader

I am thrilled to share Compulsive Reader’s review of PALE HEARTS.  Reviewer Ruth Latta had many kind things to say about the book.  She also took the time to write in detail about some individual stories. The stories she focused on were somewhat different than the ones that occupied the greatest part of my attention, and it was refreshing to see the book through someone else’s eyes.

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I particularly appreciated the assessment that “the fifteen thought-provoking stories in Pale Hearts are both literature and entertainment.”  I’m starting to realize that I sit right in the middle of the great supposed “literary” and “genre” divide.  I love Melville, Flaubert, and Faulkner.  I also love Stephen King and Michael Crichton.  I find a lot of so-called literary fiction pretentious and boring, while many great genre fiction books are overlooked by the literary world.  Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Donna Tartt, are people who don’t fit neatly into genre/literary distinctions.  I hope I can achieve that balance in my own work.

Writing ambitious characters

How do you center a novel around one character’s ambition? This is something I’m wrestling with in my current project. You’d think it would be easy, since most fiction is driven by characters’ desires. But, like most things in writing, it’s deceptively difficult. Ambition is not so much a desire as a character trait. It may be focused on a specific goal, but if the character existed in a different setting, her ambition would latch onto something else. Sometimes readers ask why a character wants something, but there’s no why to ambition. It’s something people are born with; they either have it or they don’t.

I’ve noticed that many fictions use some sort of proxy to show that a character is ambitious. Academic characters want to get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford. Musical or theatrical characters want to go to Juilliard. Writers either publish in The New Yorker or write an instant bestseller. There are many problems with this strategy. First, it’s lazy. It relies on general associations, taking a short cut around details and development that would actually convince us the character is ambitious. Second, it’s cliché. This makes the character seem more like a stereotype than a person. Third, it’s unrealistic. For some reason, it’s rare for characters to fail at these goals. In many fictions, the character is accepted to an Ivy League school after minimal struggle. In TV shows, it’s common for a mere hobbyist to get into Juilliard after auditioning on a whim. These one especially bothers me. It takes years of training and hours of practice every day for a dancer or musician to be good enough for Juilliard. Such breezy portrayals undermine the difficult nature of achieving these things in real life. Also, real life is unpleasant and arbitrary. There are many more deserving students/musicians than there are spots at flashy schools. Unfair as it is, politics and luck play a role.

All of this leads to another problem. If you’re writing about characters who, in real life, would actually audition for Juilliard (i.e., serious high school musicians), then you have to somehow surpass all the clichés and fabrications that have built up around this plot point.

How to be productive as a writer

Don’t wait for inspiration.

There will never be a perfect time to write. We’re all busy, stressed, and tired; these seem to be the default conditions for about 90% of life. Moments of inspiration are rare. If you rely on them, you won’t finish anything. It’s better to work steadily, even when you don’t feel like it. Often the feeling of being “uninspired” is actually procrastination in disguise. If you push through the first twenty minutes or so of drudgery, you will start to enjoy the work.

Set a daily goal.

This gives you something to work toward. Many writers aim for a certain word count or amount of time. Meeting the goal forces you to be productive.  It also gives you a reason to feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Block the internet.

The internet is a pernicious influence. After writing for “a while,” I’m often tempted to spend “five minutes” checking email. Five minutes is never five minutes. Checking email leads to clicking on a blog update or visiting an online sale. Soon this becomes reading “just one” article, which ends up being more like five or six. Few among us can resist the internet once that enticing browser window is open. Save yourself by investing in an internet-blocking app. Freedom is a good option. Alternatively, back away from the computer and write longhand.

Join a writing group.

Even disciplined individuals benefit from having other people involved in the writing process. Writing groups provide valuable feedback, and they hold you accountable when your productivity starts to flag. This is especially important in periods of personal difficulty, when life events threaten to derail your writing. I went through a challenging time last year when I was in real danger of not writing a word. Instead, though I wrote badly and with great pain, I continued to produce new chapters of my novel—simply because my writing group required these chapters for meetings.

Be selfish with your time.

Writing takes time, and time is in short supply. Most writers have other responsibilities that come first, usually working and/or being a parent. With all the “real” things you have to do, it’s hard to justify spending some of your time alone, creating a document of questionable value that may or may not get published. It may seem like you “should” do the laundry first, or clean the house, or socialize. These things are important.  However, if you always put writing last, it will never get done. If you really want to finish your story/essay/book, you must take the time to do it. No one is going to give it to you. Lock yourself away for an hour in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now if you don’t progress on this project. If the thought of not finishing your story/essay/book doesn’t bother you, then maybe it’s not worth it. But if the idea of not finishing makes you feel sad or disappointed, then you owe it to yourself. The laundry can wait.

Out and About With Pale Hearts

It’s been a fun first month for Pale HeartsMy first reading was at Trident Booksellers in Boston.  The atmosphere in this bookstore is especially nice because they have a cafe, so reading attendees can relax with a glass of wine or a snack.  Although I had a cold, I forged through and had a great time.  I’m so grateful to all the enthusiastic people who came!

Next up was a book signing at Richards Memorial Library in North Attleboro.  I was there as part of their Local Authors Fair.  It was wonderful to meet other authors from the area and see their books.

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In other news, Pale Hearts is now available at Norton Public Library.  Richards Memorial Library will also be adding a copy to their collection.  I was so excited to see my book right in the middle of Norton’s new books shelf.

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It’s great to see Pale Hearts listed in the library catalogs.  (Also, how fitting that Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes up as a related result!)  If your library is part of the SAILS network in Massachusetts, you can request Pale Hearts.  But you’ll have to wait–the book is currently checked out!

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Dispatch from book launch

Pale Hearts is out in the world! The books are printed, orders have shipped, and my first book signing went wonderfully yesterday.

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I’m so grateful to the readers who stopped by!  I was impressed to hear that someone already read the entire book on Kindle.  Thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to say hello, and thanks especially for buying the book.  I am truly appreciative.

My next event is on November 7, when I’ll be reading at Trident Booksellers in Boston (7 pm).  I’m looking forward to it!

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In other great news, Pale Hearts made it to the shelves of Harvard Library!  I’m very thankful for and excited about this development.

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Putting a few copies on my personal shelf realized a lifelong dream.

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Independent publishers that accept fiction submissions

Looking for a publisher?  Here are some independent publishers that accept submissions of fiction.  Note that for most of these publishers, you first submit a query, synopsis, and sample chapters.  If they are interested, they will ask for the full manuscript.  Some small publishers have started hosting contests with substantial reading fees.  The winner of the contest gets their book published.  I do not recommend this strategy, as odds of publication are low and the fees add up quickly (usually they are at least $25).  The publishers listed below do not have submission fees.

For further research, Poets and Writers has a list of small publishersWriter’s Market (published yearly) is also a helpful resource.

Black Lawrence Press — free open reading period is June 1-June 30

Black Rose Writing

Bronze Man Books

Coffee House Press — watch for their open reading period

Dock Street Press

Dorothy

Educe Press

Hopewell Publications

Insomnia Publishing

Jellyfish Highway

Leapfrog Press (UPDATE 5/1/17: A commenter notes that Leapfrog now charges $33 for fiction submissions, which they’re only accepting through a contest. This is an unfortunate development.  Once again, I don’t think writers should pay to submit to contests, as chances of publication are slim.)

Louisiana State University Press (Yellow Shoe Fiction Series)

Outpost 19

Persea Books

Rescue Press

Tailwinds Press

Twisted Road Publications

Two Dollar Radio ($2.00 fee–I included this since the fee is small)

Vandalia Press (imprint of West Virginia University Press) — reopening for submissions in 2017

Zumaya Publications

Pale Hearts is available October 4th!

My long-anticipated short story collection will be available for sale on Amazon exactly one week from today!  The collection includes 15 stories: some that appeared only in print, a few online favorites, and 5 all-new, never-before-published stories.  In this book, I explore the idea of crime, from the newsworthy (arson, kidnapping) to the everyday (lies, betrayal).  You’ll read about a young girl who poisons her best friend, a college student who steals a classmate’s ring, and a journalist who contacts the girl she once bullied.  What causes these ordinary people to make such bad decisions?  You’ll have to read the book to find out!

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First book, first residency

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Photo source: Morguefile

I am very excited to announce that my first book, a crime-themed short story collection titled PALE HEARTS, will be released by Insomnia Publishing later this year.  Stay tuned for more specific updates!

In addition, I was just awarded my first artist residency.  I’ll be spending a month at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center to work on my novel, a story about the rivalry between two teenage classical musicians.