The Writers' Loop

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Interview with Vanitha Sankaran, author of WATERMARK

By Susanne Marie Poulette

When I attended the Breakout Novel Intensive workshop last April, I had the pleasure of meeting Vanitha Sankaran, author of Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages (Harper Collins/Avon, 2010),  I must admit that once I started reading her book, I couldn’t put it down.  I was captivated by the protagonist and the beautiful flow of language in her story.  Vanitha kindly agreed to this interview, which I believe will demonstrate the depth and richness of Watermark.

WATERMARK

  • Your protagonist is such a strong, resilient, free-thinking woman, set in the Middle Ages. What inspired the development of Auda’s character? 

To be honest, the character concept came about in a very strange way. When I started what was then a short story, I was not a serious writer, per se. Writing had been a passion of mine since I was very young, but I had set it aside for a more practical career as a biomedical scientist. This story popped out when I was writing my dissertation, and was actually about a very ugly girl (who was the daughter of a   papermaker) who had captured the attention of an aspiring artist. He wanted to draw the unusual turn of her lips, the mismatched slant of her eyes, the strange way she looked at the world and didn’t notice other people making fun of her. He used her father’s paper for his early sketches and made a good sum off them, and of course left her behind and he moved onwards and upwards.

That story didn’t work out, possibly because I didn’t want to write about a girl taken advantage of. I wanted to write about an unusual girl who didn’t fit in, but because she was so far ahead of her peers. Thus was Auda born.

 

  • What was the significance in choosing mutism for Auda?
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                        Vanitha Sankaran

As a historical fiction author and a scientist, realism is never far from my writing. Books and films have seen a surge over the past two decades in terms of having strong capable women as protagonists, and that’s a great thing for literature. I have no doubt strong women have always existed, but perception of what strength means has obviously changed through the years. In this book, Auda’s strength was her thirst for her knowledge, her interest and ability in reading. But I had to need a good reason why the daughter of craftsman would know how to read—again, the realism. Mutism gave me a way for Auda to be that intelligent girl who wrote as a way to find her true voice.

  • You did extensive research on medieval France, including daily life amid widespread Church corruption, as well as the role of papermaking in those times. Were there any particular challenges you met in writing this historical novel?

It’s funny you mention Church corruption because this very well-trodden truth was one facet of my novel that was the hardest for me. It has become fashionable to malign the Catholic Church and especially in the Middle Ages, that reputation is well deserved. But at the same time, I was interested in exploring other nuances behind the Church’s actions. For me, that involved searching for the whys of someone who truly believed burning heretics was saving their souls from a much worse fate. Drawing out that personality was, for me, much harder than researching the ways of medieval life in south France (especially since I have enough of a background in French that I could decipher the much serendipitous books I found about Narbonne in that era). 

  • In reading Watermark, many themes resonated for me. I was particularly struck by the human suffering and gender injustices bred by religious fervor, still rampant in today’s world. Was your intention to make a connection to these present day issues?

Yes, and not just in the human condition, but also in how we develop new ways of communication each other, and how that new communication changes things. As with the advent of paper, the Internet and social media have changed the way we communicate profoundly. A girl who cannot read, has no value as determined by her religion except as property to a man, and who suffers terrible abuse can reach to others like her or those who can help much easier with the Internet. Or, at least, her plight can see the light of day. In its time, paper was also a way for regular people to hear truths they were blind to before. The issues I wrote about in Watermark are still true to today, and sadly, will be true for a long time. But how we overcome injustices and suffering, and how our response continues to change and grow is the connection I really wanted to make.

  • Your book cover is rich and inviting, and the elegant simplicity of your title is intriguing. How did you decide on a one-word title?  Was it your own idea to imbed Martin’s watermark in the cover design?

I had a great cover designer, for certain! I’m not sure whose idea it was to incorporate the watermark in the design but the watermark is something I made out of wire and played with as I explored homemade papermaking using medieval recipes. The title, which I think fits the novel on many different levels, was suggested to me by a writer colleague, Ejner Fulsang.

  • How long did it take to write Watermark? Did it take longer to write it or revise it?

Start to finish the whole process took 8 years. Of course in that time, I had to learn the writing process, or rather my process, finish up my Ph.D., complete an MFA in writing, and hold down a job. J But I think that type of schedule is true for most writers—how many of us can make a living off of our books alone? That said, it was definitely the revising that took longer for me. I knew the start and end of my novel when I began it in earnest, and some of the major highlights. Writing the first draft was painful, but reading it was even more so because I knew how much work it needed to be ready to submit to an agent. But others are lot smarter, quicker, more talented than I am, so no one should take 8 years as any sort of standard!

  • Do you have a particular writing routine that works best for you?

The morning are most productive for me, partly because my attention is focused and partly because I have come to understand that if I don’t make time for my novel, no one else is going to do it for me. Writing my freelance articles and grants, cleaning the house, doing laundry—all of that is important to do but after I get in some good writing hours. Leaving the home from time to time is also a good thing. Not only is it a change of scenery (and research for new character nuances), but it trains you not to be tied to one routine. Have 20 min at the bank? Write some notes to yourself. An hour at the doctor’s? Sketch out a scene. It’s the writing that is important—now when or where or even hw you do it.

  • Are you currently working on another writing project?

Yes. I am working on another historical novel, this time about how printed propaganda sways an election in Renaissance Venice, and also a young adult novel that explores how the existence of other worlds has affected our mythologies and beliefs.

  • What advice would you give to budding novelists like me, who never seem to be finished revising their manuscripts?

quillKeep writing. Write more. If your current story isn’t working, put it aside and work on something else. Analyze books that you love. Learn why they work. Then come back to your project and look at what you are missing. Writing Watermark took me 8 years. Writing the second book is almost taking me as long, because I am working on a different project from a different point of view. That’s okay with me (most days). I want to keep learning, and I think that learning process bears out in every author’s writing.

But most of all, don’t lose faith in yourself. There’s plenty of other writers who won’t believe in you. Believe in yourself, and when you feel the book is done, send it out and  listen to the feedback you get. No one said this was easy. But it is worth it.

  • Is there anything that you would like to add for our readers?

If you love a book that you read, tell someone about it. It could be loaning a copy to a best friend, telling your community librarian, or sharing why you loved it online. The thing that absolutely connects writers and readers is our love for a good story. And if you’re a writer who loves someone else’s work, that goes double! Good books propagates more good books, and there are never enough.

Thank you! I am so honored you wanted me to be a part of your blog! – Vanitha

Thank YOU, Vanitha Sankaran

To learn more about Vanitha Sankaran, visit her website: http://www.vanithasankaran.com/

 


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My Takeaways From The Unicorn Writers’ Conference

By Susanne Marie Poulette

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It was another great conference this year.  Kudos to Jan Kardys, and all the dedicated organizers and staff of the Unicorn Writers’ Conference!  Now, my takeaways, as promised:

♦ Stephanie Evanovich gave the keynote address. She’s as funny in person as she is in print, a first class comedian with a drama background, and what a hoot.  Stephanie told about her path to publication, much faster than the typical book launch, but nothing to do with the surname she shares with her aunt, Janet Evanovich.  Although she hasn’t suffered the throes of years of rejections like so many of us, Stephanie made it clear that she understands the frustrations of trying to snag a book deal. Her message was one of encouragement.  She urged writers to persevere, to have confidence in their writing and in their voices, and resist giving up in the face of rejection.  She cautioned against reading one’s own reviews.  Stephanie EStephanie cited an example of a criticism made to her about point-of-view, saying that it threw her for a loop (my words, not an exact quote, but that’s the idea).  I admit that I had the very same experience in a writing group, that sent me reeling, but also sent me researching extensively.  I learned that some comments can be well meaning and helpful, but they can also be incorrect and derail the writing process.

Stephanie said each reviewer has their own opinion, and we can’t please them all.  The important thing is to keep writing and growing as a writer.  She gave big girl pantiesa great example of a poor review when someone apparently got caught up in a Tangle of Names.  The confused reviewer wrote that “Evanovich” should stick to writing about her long-time protagonist, Stephanie Plum—who, by the way, is the star of her Aunt Janet’s series.  So much for reviews, eh?  I do want to add that I just picked up Stephanie’s latest book.  I have this annoying habit of laughing out loud while reading, (it annoys others, not me) and this book doesn’t help me break that pattern.  If you like a good laugh, you’ll enjoy Big Girl Panties.

 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

♦ Beena Kamlani is a senior editor at Penguin Viking, an award winning author, and professor.  Due to a review appointment, I attended only the first half of her workshop on editing. How I wish I could have heard more.  I’d love to pop downstate to Hunter College and take her editing course.  She speaks beautifully about the art of writing. I’ll share my snippets:

Memoir: Never overextend the readers, let the book reveal your story, bit by bit. Immediacy is important, let readers drink it in, in the present tense. Make them see what you saw, and let your feelings for what you saw speak to them.

Fiction: Drop breadcrumbs for the reader and follow through with a reason for everything. Don’t reveal too much all at once. Dramatize, don’t tell everything. All dialog has to have a reason, but what characters don’t say is as important as what they do say. It heightens interest when the reader doesn’t know. Think about what makes you turn the page. Don’t refresh the reader’s memory, trust the reader to remember, and continue on with your story.

Click on the book for a video of Beena Kamlani describing how a developmental editor works with an author on the path to publication:

♦ Lane Heymont, literary agent and author, presented “World Building,” that is, creating settings.  He described the infrastructure of a story, creating a consistent society with norms, culture, and rules.  Setting needs a history to give the sense of its existence.  It should be realistic, using the five senses to build a unique world, but it has to make sense.  Share the world of your setting throughout the book, not all at once, and get to the action right away.

Lane suggests making a setting sketch and provided a downloadable handout for those who attended his workshop.  Since it’s out there on the web, it may be fair game if you want to take a peek: http://laneheymont.com/blog/.

 

Reid Castle, Unicorn Writers' Conference, August, 2015

Reid Castle, Unicorn Writers’ Conference, August, 2015

♦ Eliza Shallcross, author, editor, and copywriter with 30 years of experience, presented “Book Copy as a Marketing Tool.”  Before this workshop, I didn’t have a clue about “book cover copy,” or any of its numerous components.  Apparently, book cover copy services ( good tongue twister?) are part of the traditional publishing process, but I wonder how many self-publishing authors are aware of all the marketing factors involved in cover copy.  So what is it?  It applies to all types of books, hardcover, mass market paperback, trade paperback, and eBook. It’s everything that goes on a book’s front and back covers, and flaps.  It’s the artwork, title, tag line (short teaser), author’s name with photo and biography, quotes from reviews, story description, and more, all within word count limitations.  The book cover itself is the marketing tool, appealing to the reader and growing the author’s readership. Eliza Shallcross provides individual editing and copywriting services. You can find her at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elizashallcross.

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Sorry, but I’m hoarding the pearls of wisdom from my two excellent one-to-one manuscript review sessions (first 40 pages).  All kidding aside, the reviews were invaluable, and I’m hard at work making revisions based on their suggestions. The Unicorn Writers’ Conference provides these affordable, 30-minute sessions with agents, editors, and speakers.  I hope you can attend this conference and the review session opportunities next year.

© S M Poulette

 

 


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Take that Story Beyond Z-ebra!

By Peggy Morehouse

Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss?

All of those life lessons wrapped up in rhymes:

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His enchanting characters:

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His fantastical illustrations:

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He even gives advice on taking care of our home:

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and love:

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That’s why I called on the good doctor when I began to revise my novel after it was finished. The End had been stamped on the final page and I had sent out query letters to several literary agents. Time to close the laptop, stretch out my fingers, and take a break before starting novel three. Get on with other activities like hiking through nature, watching the sun rise, and lounging on my kayak on some lake somewhere.

“Stop,” says Mr. Literary Agent. “You’re not quite finished with novel number two.”

I straighten up. “Yes I am. I wrote The End on page 392. A high flying editor told me ‘You’re all set to hit send!'”

With a wise grin,  Mr. Literary Agent says, “But what if you did this and tried that.”

“Ohhh!” I say with a rise of my eyes. “That would be so zip-zippity wonderfully good.”

With my tap-tappity fingers still cramped and fatigued, I pull out a gem for a bit of a prod:

On_Beyond_Zebra

I open the book and find what I need:

Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor

When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!

A letter he never dreamed of before!

And he said, “You can stop, if you want with the Z

But not me.

In the places I go there are things that I see

That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.

I’m telling you this cause you’re one of my friends.

My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!” 

With the turn of a page, the fire ignited as I typed with new passion past the end of the end.

 

Many thanks to Mr. Literary Agent, Donald Maass, and Dr. Seuss for inviting me into the world beyond Zebra.

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Growing Inspiration

By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTE

I returned from the Break Out Novel Intensive Workshop in Oregon energized with fresh writing tools and recommendations for my novel. A flood of plans and possibilities crisscrossed my brain and each time I looked at my manuscript I thought, “Not yet.” The seeds of the workshop were germinating but not ready to sprout.

0406151229At the same time, I came back with beautiful images of the workshop setting in the Hood River area. Unlike my home in Saratoga County, New York, Oregon was in the full bloom of spring. Their trees flaunted a rich array of greens and pastel flowers of lilacs, hydrangeas, and mixtures of pink blossoms. Golden daffodils and red tulips lined paths along the conference center, and tiny daisy-like flowers peppered large sections of an adjacent park. If my memory serves me—from my childhood days of eating wild raspberries as fast as I could pick them—the banks along the Columbia River just outside our hotel, teamed with budding raspberry bushes. Everywhere I looked, there was color. Everywhere, new life.

At home, the trees were bare and grass was brown, but, alleluia, the snow was gone. Then, within two days, I noticed tiny buds emerging on sprightly branches all across my yard. I gathered up my gardening tools, and headed to my april 2015 004perennial beds to see what was or was not happening. Then I saw it. Just as the writing workshop’s seeds of inspiration were germinating, so was my garden. By the end of the week, my forsythia bushes sprouted blooms, april 2015 009 the chive was tall enough for salad, and the oregano and day lilies were wild with life. Energized by the season’s promises, I now feel ready to transplant my manuscript’s sprouts from head to page.

For me, working the garden and digging hands deep into the soil is no different from writing. Both tasks require careful, thorough april 2015 011planning. I learned this the hard way when I jumped into my first novel without a road map for my plot. Likewise, I jumped into my first garden by planting 36-inch tall cone flowers in front of 12-inch high lavender, another plot without a map. Fortunately for me, drafts are revised and rewritten, sometimes for years and years. (But that’s another story.) While in the garden, most plants can be moved easily and are usually quite forgiving of the change.

Patience is essential in both writing and gardening. Neither job can be rushed. Each needs its own time to develop, grow deeper, and flourish. Writing and gardening both demand tons of weeding and pruning, yanking and tossing what doesn’t belong, what detracts and chokes.

There are libraries of books on gardens with A to Z growing instructions, designs, and worlds of information. There are books on writing fiction, developing the narrative arc and characters, creating tension, and even producing a breakout novel. But in the end, it’s a personal path in both cases. Yes, we refer to the experts and then throw ourselves into the work, filling it with our individuality, creativity, passion, and preferences. Above all, we want others to take notice of our work and feel as moved by it as we do. We want to touch hearts and lives through the voice of our writings and gardens.

Beatrix Potter is one author who enjoyed gardening and found inspiration there for her writing and her painting.  Marta McDowell’s book, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales, is a beautiful accounting of Beatrix Potter’s love of gardening and plants, and how that passion came to be reflected in her work.  McDowell told Joyce Neuman of Garden Variety:

“There are many writers who garden and who write about gardening: Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Emily Dickinson and, of course, Beatrix Potter. Why? Here’s my guess. Writing is a solitary, cerebral pursuit. Gardening is tactile, physical. Writing tends to be indoors, and it is divorced from nature.  All nature is imagined, during the act of writing. Gardening balances that, by connecting the writer to life—plant life, the life in the soil, the insects and animals that the garden attracts and sustains. You can feel alone at the keyboard, but never in the garden.  The garden is also the place to work out writing problems—other problems as well. Emerson said something like “All my hurts my garden spade can heal.”

Beatriix Potter's vegetable gardent at Hill Top, Cumbria, UK

BEATRIX POTTER’S VEGETABLE GARDEN AT HILL TOP, CUMBRIA, UK

You can read McDowell’s complete interview by clicking on the snoozing rabbits in Potter’s garden:

rabs slp

WE have a little garden,                    
A garden of our own,                                   peter r
And every day we water there
The seeds that we have sown.                                   

WE love our little garden,
And tend it with such care,
You will not find a faced leaf   
Or blighted blossom there.  

~ Beatrice Potter

View and read a bit about the inspiring gardens of famous writers such as Agatha Christie, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolfe, Beatrix Potter, and more at The Telegraph’s Twelve Wonderful Writers’ Gardens.  Click on Oregon’s hydrangeas visit:

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ENJOY


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Author David Pietrusza Discusses “1920: The Year of the Six Presidents”

By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTE

On March 18, 2015, I attended a gathering of readers, writers, and history buffs for a two-part presentation by local best-selling author and historian David Pietrusza, held at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library.  The Town of Clifton Park and the Community Arts and Culture Commission sponsored the event.

David Pietrusza

David Pietrusza

David Pietrusza discussed his book, 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, which Kirkus Reviews honored as one of its Best Books of 2007.  The book chronicles six famous men and their connection to the presidential election of 1920. At that time, past, present, and future presidents jockeyed for the Oval Office: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt.  Pietrusza told each of their stories, embellished with the social and political climate of the time as if he had been present, knew the candidates personally, and witnessed the drama first hand.  He thoughtfully set the scene and rolled out the events leading up to the election.

The incumbent Woodrow Wilson was ill, and having already served two terms, he eventually decided not to run for a third time.  Former president and front runner for the 1920 Republican ticket, Theodore Roosevelt, became ill and died in 1919. Franklin Roosevelt ran for vice president on the losing Democratic ticket with James Cox.  In the end, Warren Harding was elected the 29th President of the United States, and his running mate Calvin Coolidge became Vice President.  But in 1923, Warren Harding died in office, leaving Calvin Coolidge to succeed to the presidency.  In the next election, in 1924, Coolidge won the office of president in his own right.

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The election of 1920 took place just three months after the 19th Amendment granted voting rights to American women. Pietrusza related the events of August 1920, when Tennessee was the last of the thirty-six states needed to ratify the amendment.  With a twinkling eye, Pietrusza recounted the eleventh hour action of young Tennessee legislator Harry Burn, who changed his vote—the last and deciding vote for women’s suffrage, at his mother’s urging.

1920

The book opens the window even wider on America of 1920, unfolding the changing culture of the day: women casting votes for the first time, the appearance of the Klu Klux Klan, the rising Red Scare, Prohibition, urbanization, automobiles, mass production, chain stores, newsreel coverage, and the transforming of our economy through easy credit.

red quill ink

In the second portion of his presentation, Pietrusza discussed “The Writer’s Art.”  A recurring message was the relevant and wise advice that many writers do not like to hear: basically, to cut unnecessary words, and then cut some more.  He pointed out that researching a topic yields a vast accumulation of knowledge; however, readers may not find each fact quite so fascinating.  He asked, “Is every word wonderful?” and related the question to publication costs based on word count.

When writing for young readers, Pietrusza explained, he learned how to “ratchet down” his information, making it more concise and more easily comprehended.  He encourages this task as “good learning for all writing.”  He advised setting a writing schedule with a fixed number of words per day as a goal.  All research should be completed before beginning to write, he advised, to avoid lags in progress and extra revisions.  His suggestions for editing one’s own work were very clear.  Pietrusza advocates reading through the manuscript line by line, seven times, asking along the way, “Does this belong?”  If we ponder this question seven times on the same piece, he advises: “If you’re not sure it belongs, then kill it.”

Before concluding, Pietrusza described his experiences of self-publishing, traditional publishing, and screenplay writing, with helpful insights into royalties, advances, right for hire, and copyrights.

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For more information, follow the link: http://www.davidpietrusza.com/index.html  to David Pietrusza’s website.  There you can learn more about his critically-acclaimed works such as: 1960: LBJ vs JFK vs Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies;  Rothstein: The Life, Times & Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series; Judge and Jury, his biography of baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and much more.

 


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Three Writing Insights I Discovered at a Yoga Retreat

By Peggy Morehouse

I had a full day of relaxation and rejuvenation with a good friend this past Saturday at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It’s North America’s largest residential facility for holistic health and education and its 350 acres include forests, lawns, gardens, and a lake. The perfect retreat!

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Kripalu Center

As expected, I improved my Chaturanga, zoned out in meditation, and ate delicious, nutritious meals. What I didn’t expect was to find three writing insights, but there they were like a wonderful gift and I’m sharing them with you.

The first insight came in the morning when I was learning a simple yoga breathing technique called Nadi Shodan Pranayama or alternate nostril breathing. The instructor of the class explained that we alternate between our two nostrils when we breathe. In other words, we don’t use both nostrils when breathing.

I didn’t know that. Did you?

Ideally the breath alternates between nostrils every two hours. Most of us don’t have an “ideal” anatomy or physiology however, and the time period varies between people. According to yogi philosophy, when the breath flows out of one nostril for more than two hours, as with most of us, we may feel stressed and/or fatigued. Practicing Nadi Shodan might take care of those unwelcome feelings. But that’s not all. By balancing our breathing, we’re also balancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The result is we optimize creativity and stimulate logical verbal activity.

Could alternate nostril breathing help cure writer’s block? Why not give it a try before your next writing session? I’ve attached an instructional video at the end of the post. Your unbalanced nostril respiration woes are about to be cured.

Nadi-Shodhana

Insight One: Balanced nostril breathing can optimize creativity and help with finding the perfect word. Do this simple exercise before writing.

On to insight number two. Just like writers, yoga instructors like to use metaphors. Some I’ve heard in various classes include:

  • Flower your buttocks.
  • Melt your heart/ Melt from your heart.
  • Imagine your thigh bones are like rainbows, spiraling outwards.
  • Puff out your kidneys.
  • Balloon your belly.
  • Breathe like Darth Vader.
  • Don’t wear your shoulders like earrings.

These statements are meant to clarify and entertain just like in stories. Some work and some don’t, just like in stories. I heard a yoga metaphor during a class at Kripalu, but I took it literally. It was, “Make your collar bone smile wide.” After a few moments of actually trying to shift my collar bone into a happier position, I whispered to my friend, “How do you make your collar bone smile?” She grinned and whispered, “That’s yoga talk for don’t slouch.'”

Lotus-position

Make your collar bone smile wide or shoulders down and back.

Insight Two: Make sure your metaphors work. You never want to embarrass your reader (or your yoga student).

The third insight came when I was browsing in the bookstore with my friend. She said, “I finished reading Wild. I really liked it, but I was hoping for a more inspirational ending.”

We discussed the book for a little while as I thought, Wild is a memoir about a 26-year-old woman who is devastated by her divorce and mother’s untimely death. She turns to heroin and indiscriminate sex to suppress her pain. When she hits bottom, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to the Bridge of Gods near Portland in order to contemplate, heal, and test her resolve. She meets her goal and in the end is ready to begin a new life.

That’s quite an inspirational story, but if the final paragraph doesn’t wow readers, they’re left feeling shortchanged despite what happened up until that point. That’s a lot of pressure for a writer. Four hundred pages of riveting paragraphs, and if the last one doesn’t dazzle, the reader might close the book and say, “Eh.”

Insight Number Three: “They lived happily ever after,” just doesn’t work anymore. Practicing alternate nostril breathing is a must before writing the final paragraph of a story.

And-they-lived-happily-ever-after

Sorry folks, even with the glitter, this ending won’t work in today’s literary world.

Just for the record, I was inspired by the last few words of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: “…That it was everything. It was my life–like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”

Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique (Let me know how you like it.):

 



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The Challenge of Shifting From Writer to Reader

By Peggy Morehouse

I’ll never forget the first time I took my son, Max, to see the ocean. He was seven months old and we were vacationing on the outer banks of North Carolina. The morning after our arrival, I dressed Max in his cute little sweat suit and told him that he was about to meet one of nature’s most spectacular scenes. I carried him up a weathered wooden staircase a few yards from our house rental and voila, the glistening green sea and pristine white sand greeted us. Instead of bursting with squeals of excitement like I imagined however, Max screeched, gripped my shoulders, and buried his face into my neck.

It never occurred to me that this massive body of water with its crashing waves would frighten him. I assumed Max would view it with a sense of wonder not like a monster that might swallow him whole. We both witnessed the same sight, but we viewed it differently. I’d walked and played on hundreds of ocean beaches on the east and west coast during my life and regarded the shore as a place to contemplate, relax, and enjoy. Max reminded me that it also had ferocious side. I changed my plan of strolling toward the surf and instead, sat on the top step and comforted him with a gentle hug and soothing words.

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Max’s view of the ocean.

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My view of the ocean.

A shift occurred as I took the perspective of my young son. That is exactly what I needed to do when I  left the writing phase of my novel and entered the editing phase. It was no longer all about the story I wanted to tell. I needed to examine it from a reader’s viewpoint.

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As I read the story, I asked myself questions like:

  • Do I understand the main character’s motivation?
  • Do I find myself rooting for the character?
  • Do I laugh a little?
  • Do I cry a little?
  • Do I feel scared at certain points and happy at others?
  • Am I ever confused?
  • Am I ever bored?
  • Do I want to continue reading at the end of every chapter?
  • Do I feel I’ve changed a bit when I reach the end?

And on and on. Personally, I didn’t find shifting from being the writer to the reader to be all that simple. After a few rounds of fine tuning, the story seemed clear to me, but it was my creation. I found it impossible to be objective so I hired a professional editor.

I sent my manuscript off to Ms. Editor on December 15 and she returned it on December 26 with a developmental evaluation, a line by line edit, and her compliments for a job well done. Of course she made some grammatical corrections, which I expected. But as I reviewed her notes I was amazed at some of the other things she found.  Just like I was surprised at Max’s reaction when he first saw the ocean, Ms. Editor found shortcomings  that I totally missed.

For example, in one instance she questioned why a certain character suddenly appeared in a scene, asking, “Where did she come from?”

My response: I mentioned she was coming along in the previous chapter.

Not good enough. The reader doesn’t remember every detail, like the writer. They need reminders without being repetitive. A one sentence cue at the beginning of the chapter like, “Lani glanced at Paige who was thumbing through a magazine…” is all the reader needs to indicate that Paige did indeed come along.

Ms. Editor was also intrigued by a side character that I almost cut from the story. She even suggested that I include her in at least one more scene.

Luckily my list of content edits was short. I will be ready to start querying literary agents by the end of next week. With Ms. Editor’s guidance I added the subtle touches that will keep the pages turning.

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Like introducing a child to the ocean, a reader must be led through a story with sensitivity and  precision. Details must be carefully woven, reminders must be subtly given, and the pacing has to seamless. A writer must be acutely aware of a reader’s perceptions. As with Max on the seashore twenty-five years ago, I sensed when his body relaxed as I held him on the steps that led to the ocean. I noticed when he lifted his head and looked out more in awe than fear. I felt his hands lift off my shoulder and saw his feet flutter in anticipation. It was then that I knew he was ready to inch toward this new wonder.

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For the sake of clarity, a writer would say, “The water reached his neck.” or “The water reached his ankles.”