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Taught by Professor James Hynes
Starting the Writing Process
Building Fictional Worlds through Evocation
How Characters Are Diferent from People
Fictional Characters, Imagined and Observed
Call Me Ishmael—Introducing a Character
Characters—Round and Flat, Major and Minor
Writing Great Fiction:
Storytelling Tips
and Techniques
The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue
Integrating Dialogue into a Narrative
And Then—Turning a Story into a Plot
10. Plotting with the Freytag Pyramid
11. Adding Complexity to Plots
12. Structuring a Narrative without a Plot
13. In the Beginning—How to Start a Plot
14. Happily Ever After—How to End a Plot
15. Seeing through Other Eyes—Point of View
16. I, Me, Mine—First-Person Point of View
17. He, She, It—Third-Person Point of View
18. Evoking Setting and Place in Fiction
19. Pacing in Scenes and Narratives
20. Building Scenes
21. Should I Write in Drafts?
22. Revision without Tears
Discover the Secrets of
the Writer’s Craft
23. Approaches to Researching Fiction
Writing great fiction isn’t a gift reserved for the talented few. There
is a craft to storytelling that can be learned, and studying writing
techniques can be incredibly rewarding—both personally and
professionally. Even if you don’t have ambitions of penning the next
Moby-Dick, you’ll find value in exploring all the elements of fiction.
Course no. 2541 | 24 lectures (30 minutes/lecture)
From evoking a scene to charting a plot, Writing Great Fiction:
Storytelling Tips and Techniques offers a master class in storytelling.
Taught by novelist James Hynes, a former visiting professor at the
famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, these 24 insightful lectures show you
the ins and outs of the fiction writer’s craft. A wealth of exercises will
inspire you to practice the many techniques you learn. Professor Hynes
is an able guide, showing you what has worked for him and other
novelists, and pointing out pitfalls to avoid. Writing Great Fiction is
truly an exceptional course for anyone interested in storytelling.
Ofer expires 06/07/18
24. Making a Life as a Fiction Writer
Writing Great Fiction:
Storytelling Tips and Techniques
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May 2018 • Volume 131 Number 5
Working out
Writing exercises help strengthen
your craft.
Tear off the
Authors speak out about writing
great genre iction (even if you
never set out to write a genre book
in the irst place).
Game day
8 pro tips for success in the
tabletop game-writing industry.
Learning as
you laugh
Story rules,
plot drools
Graphic noniction books
convey facts in full color.
The three crucial storytelling elements
every novel needs to succeed.
Reading for a literary journal
From the Editor
How wading through someone else’s slush pile can
improve your own chances
at publication.
Take Note
Featuring Jen A. Miller, Leslie
Jamison, and more.
42 Markets
Parallel work
47 Classiied advertising
What to do when the words
won’t come.
The Forge Literary Magazine
48 How I Write
Malinda McCollum: “A great short
story is urgent, insistent, and
propulsive. It’s like a whirlwind or
a whoosh!”
This inclusive journal offers a
wealth of opportunity for both
writers and editors.
Kauai Writers Conference
Want a little Hawaiian vacation
with your writing education?
This is the conference for you.
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address, and you’re in business.
Cover: Agor2012/Shutterstock; Forest Foxy/Shutterstock • The Writer | 3
s a former food editor (and current food-obsessed writer),
I make frequent pilgrimages to so-called Good Restaurants.
When one goes to enough Good Restaurants, one eventually learns to speak the language fluently; she can bandy
about terms like house-made, artisanal, locally grown, and grass-fed
without batting an eye. Is the tartare hand-chopped? one asks the server.
And the kimchi shaved ice, is that made with house-fermented cabbage?
But one term that never seems to come up at Good Restaurants is
fun. No one ever says the dry-aged ribeye or fried sweetbreads are
“fun.” Locally sourced or humanely raised, certainly. But fun? Please.
This is serious artisanal food; fun need not apply.
Last summer I had the pleasure of visiting a Boston restaurant that
played anime on loop and served icy tiki-inspired craft cocktails. We
dined by the pool and played Wasabi Roulette, a wicked game in which
one of six tuna rolls comes packed with an eye-watering spoonful of
wasabi. The “winner” drank soothing sweet horchata from a pink baby
bottle as the staff cheered. The fish was fresh, the service impeccable;
each dish was crafted with care, and I had a truly wonderful meal. I
haven’t ever laughed that hard while dining out.
It was delicious. But it was also fun.
Recently I read Ben Dolnick‘s Lit Hub essay, “Why I’ll Never Stop
Reading ‘Junk’ Fiction,” and wanted to stand up and cheer. After a lifetime of studying literature, he realizes his favorite genre books
“respected an aspect of my readerly life that Nabokov, in all his lordly
brilliance, might never have deigned to consider: that I didn’t have to
be reading. That I had, in my pocket, a device that stood ready to play
every episode of Breaking Bad; that I might not have slept well last
night; that the kid in the seat behind me might be playing a video
game whose soundscape was engineered to scatter my attention.”
Genre books were fun, which was just as much an “act of authorial
love” as creating well-developed characters and verbal acrobatics.
We talk so much about beauty, art, theme, and metaphor in literature
that I sometimes wonder if authors forget why they started reading in
the first place: Because it’s entertaining. Because it takes us somewhere
new, because it moves us and makes us laugh. Writers, don’t ever feel bad
for wanting to author a story that moves, that leaves us frantic to keep
turning pages. This is true for all categories of writing, but especially for
authors of genre fiction, who often confess embarrassment when they
tell me they’re writing horror, sci-fi, or romance, as if it is some shameful
secret or form of lesser writing. As the authors in “Tear off the labels”
(page 18) show us, good books come in ALL forms. A ghost story can be
a beautiful story; the best prose can star aliens, giants, or secret agents.
Good writing lies in the telling, not the subject matter.
Never feel ashamed for wanting to write fun fiction. It isn’t junk. It’s
necessary. And anyone who tries to shame you for it should be tossed
from your life like the rubbish they are.
Keep writing,
Nicki Porter
Senior Editor
4 | The Writer • May 2018
Senior Editor Nicki Porter
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart
Copy Editor Toni Fitzgerald
Art Director Carolyn V. Marsden
Senior Digital Designer Mike Decker
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James Applewhite, Andre Becker, Eve Bunting, Mary Higgins
Clark, Roy Peter Clark, Lewis Burke Frumkes, Gail Godwin,
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Lowry, Peter Meinke, Katherine Paterson, Elizabeth Peters,
Arthur Plotnik
Chairman & Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey C. Wolk
Chief Operating Officer Susan Fitzgerald
SVP, Sales & Marketing Robin Morse
VP, Business Operations Courtney Whitaker
Technical Product Manager Michael Ma
Operations Supervisor Nora Frew
Human Resources Generalist Alicia Roach
Supervisor, Client Services Jessica Krogman
Client Services Cheyenne Corliss, Darren Cormier,
Tou Zong Her, Andrea Palli
Accounting Director Amanda Joyce
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VP, Audience Development Bob Dortch
VP, Strategy Jason Pomerantz
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perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank
paper. That's heaven. That's gold, and anything else
is just a waste of time.” —Cormac McCarthy
and I
ight about the time I couldn’t tell if my eyes stung from
sweat or tears, when I tried to wipe whatever it was
away and left a streak of Rust-Oleum across my forehead, I
realized that I made a mistake.
Not about the Rust-Oleum, which was labeled as a
primer for heavily rusted metal. The railing I worked on
was, indeed, heavily rusted.
No, the mistake was my chosen listening material. I use
audiobooks to eat up the time it takes to get from point A to
point B of boring tasks like long road trips, long marathon
training runs, and long bouts of depositing sweat equity into
my house to get it ready to put on the market. For the front railing, I’d listened to Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Woman by Kate Summerscale. For the back railings, I thought it’d be fun to listen
to Running: A Love Story, by someone I knew very well: me.
world of vector/Shutterstock
despite my discomfort at listening to a sample of the
audiobook of my memoir back in March (that’s not how I
sound, that’s not how I would say that), I thought that by
May, after the initial blush of publication, when the “is
anyone going to read this book/are the critics going to like
this book/will my parents hate me/will I get sued?” terror
had passed, it could be fun. How would Randye Kaye, a 60-something, red-headed
Jewish New York native and narrator of dozens of audiobooks, who I had chosen from three potential narrators,
read the story of a 35-year-old blond Catholic writer from
South Jersey whose memoir starts in high school?
It could be fun, I thought as I picked up a piece of sandpaper to smooth the railing for primer and a new coat of flat
black paint and hit play.
Or not. Kaye, of course, does not sound like me. She says
“time” like she has all of it in the world, whereas my pronunciation is clipped. She pronounced the name of my
hometown just slightly wrong. When she used a different
tone for the angry father, when she described a nun as having little gray teeth, I sucked in a breath. She sounded a bit
too mean. I was about to add “statistics drone on” to my list
of grievances until I remembered that this was my fault, not
Kaye’s. I’d gotten so deep into listening that I forgot, briefly,
who wrote those words. She had the right to interpret them
as she saw fit. In that space, in that format, Running: A Love
Story became Kaye's. And I listened. I wrote the first draft of the book a few years earlier,
before I had an agent or editor. That draft was raw, all emotion, anger, and rage. When I went back it to edit it into a
proposal, though, I stopped being that hurt person who
experienced all these things and shifted to being a writer • The Writer | 5
—Jen A. Miller is author of Running: A Love Story.
6 | The Writer • May 2018
Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison’s
latest book, The
Intoxication and
Its Aftermath,
published in April
2018, mixes
reportage with memoir and literary criticism to
explore the experiences of those who have
recovered from addiction. Jamison is also the
author of the novel The Gin Closet and the
essay collection The Empathy Exams, a New
York Times best-seller. She is a columnist for
the New York Times Book Review, and her
works have appeared in publications including
Harper’s, Oxford American, The Believer, and
elsewhere. Jamison is an assistant professor at
Columbia University in New York City.
YOU’VE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING? I used to believe that the best writing had to
emerge from a life that had been carefully
sculpted to produce the perfect conditions for
creativity: long stretches of uninterrupted time,
days cleared of logistics and obligations, dentist
appointments and school lunches and cardboard
boxes waiting to be unpacked. But eventually I
learned that no beautiful writing comes from an
impossibly perfect world; it all comes from this
one: cluttered, obligated, distracted.
After I came to accept that beauty comes from
the imperfect mess of living, rather than the
impossible ideal of an unencumbered life, it
asked me to stop seeing life and writing as
antagonists, locked in combat, and to start
seeing the ways that even the logistics and
obligations of life might ultimately feed into the
compost heap of creativity, and certainly that
the obligated, beholden life is the only one from
which we work – that so much beauty has come
from it.
—Gabriel Packard is the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel
published by Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown.
Adam Golfer
who thought she could take this pile of pain and shove and
scrape and mold it into a readable – and sellable – form.
And I kept being shoved in that direction with every
hand that touched the manuscript: agent, editor, copy editor,
lawyer, designer, an entire marketing team. I didn’t like all of
their changes, and I registered some of the battles I lost as I
listened to Kaye’s narration.
But that’s publishing, and that’s what turned my story of
10 years of running from an extended diary entry into a
book. This is my third book, too, so I expected this, and
after one last clinical scan of the manuscript to check for
errors before it went to the printer, I accepted this in its
final, fine-tuned, and crafted form.
When Kaye read the story, though, I couldn’t change the
product. I couldn’t be the writer trying to make it just a little
bit better, but I could listen – really listen – to what had happened. I flipped back and landed into that pile of pain and
felt it all, all over again: the anger, grief, and rage.
When Kaye read my words about how I fell into a relationship with an alcoholic, I remembered what it was like to
be a sad, emaciated, tortured 26-year-old again. I hadn’t felt
so bad since I banged out the angry first draft more than
two years before. That’s when I couldn’t tell if I was sweating
or crying. That’s when I smeared a streak of rusty metal
primer across my forehead. Right before the conclusion of
chapter three, I hit stop.
Writing a memoir is an upheaval, a tearing down of the
scaffolding you put up around some of the worst parts of your
life, and I did it in the hopes that, through reexamination, I
could make sense of what happened. Deciding to publish it
meant building a more permanent structure, one with windows and an observation deck so that someone, somewhere
could look in and say “I’m there” or “my sister’s there” or “I’ve
been there, too,” or even “what’s the matter with you?”
That night, a dream I hadn’t had since March came back
to me: my alcoholic ex came into my bedroom and tried to
embrace me. I couldn’t decide if I should let him or beat in
his face. I woke up, heart racing, before I could make a decision. I deleted the book from my phone.
“Yes, it can be really weird hearing your own words come
back at you, especially when they remind you of moments
and decisions you have, shall we say, outgrown?” Kaye wrote
to me in an email after I told her I’d listened to part of her
work. We hadn’t spoken before she did the narration, and I
was curious as to who she was, but not curious enough to call.
From what I heard in the first three chapters of the book,
she did a wonderful job. But I’d heard enough of her voice –
and my story, too. I had outgrown those decisions – and the
anger and regret. I could step off the observation deck and
finally move on.
library is not a luxury but one of the
¾ “A
necessities of life.” —Henry Ward Beecher
Private library
Every writer deserves a room of one’s own – even better
when it’s stufed with books and bibliophile novelties.
We’ve rounded up all the literary swag you need to dress
your study in style.
Add some nautical flair to your
reading chaise with this Moby Dickinspired pillow. It’s emblazoned with
classic words from Herman Melville:
“It is not down in any map; true
places never are.”
These bookish bookends aren’t just
pretty to look at: They also boast four
tiny hidden compartments tucked
inside the covers.
Stylishly wrangle those quills and
fountain pens with this vintageinspired Hemingway Pencil Cup.
(Cuban cigars not included.)
Did someone suggest you pick up
The Fault in Our Stars? Is it almost
time for your annual re-reading of
Where the Red Fern Grows? Run,
don’t walk, to buy this literary tissue
box. Your tear ducts will thank us.
Why merely read Jane Austen
when you can breathe Jane Austen?
Paddywax’s line of Library Collection
candles take olfactory inspiration
from the literary greats, featuring
Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain,
Ralph Waldo Emerson, William
Shakespeare, and more.
Starts at $8.
What better way to light a literary
candle than with a set of Banned
Books Matchboxes? Each box is
decorated with art from historically
banned titles: Song of Solomon,
Black Beauty, The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer, Slaughterhouse-Five, and,
of course, Fahrenheit 451.
$8. • The Writer | 7
How wading through someone else’s slush pile can
improve your own chances at publication.
8 | The Writer • May 2018
started reading submissions for Solstice Literary Magazine as
part of a six-month internship. After it ended, she continued in that role. “In the beginning, I was vigilant about reading all the
submissions. After becoming seasoned, if the first paragraph didn’t grab me, I stopped reading,” she says. Some
topics prompted an immediate rejection: “Extreme violence
[or] super-raunchy stuff didn’t cut it for me, either.” When
considering a piece, Carota took into account the writer’s
credentials but ultimately, “the editor had full control of
what went into the magazine.” After four years of reading
submissions, “my brain seized from reading too much,” and
she stepped down. Today, Carota teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. While reading for pleasure, “I really
notice the writing,” she says, but reading for a literary magazine is entirely different. “With the submissions slush pile, I
was not reading as closely for the perfect openers as if the
Nadia Buravleva/Shutterstock
ending your work to a literary magazine or online
journal for consideration is not for the fainthearted.
The outcome can feel as random as a coin toss: Heads
you’re accepted for publication, tails you’re not. When you’re on a submissions streak, optimism fuels
every story and cover letter, but that high wears off once the
rejections roll in. In theory, you’re not supposed to take it
personally. In reality, you do. You ruminate, agonize, second-guess. Was that opening too weak? Did I miss by a
comma or by a mile? The standard response provides few
clues. You’re left wondering: What do “they” want? Why
didn’t my piece make the cut? Want answers? You can get them by reading other people’s work – not the stuff that’s published but the stuff that
isn’t. When you read for a literary magazine or online journal, you’re exposed to the good, the average, and the awful.
The more you learn to identify each and separate out the
three, the more you’ll understand what to do – and what not
to do – in your own writing. Nearly all publishing outlets are swamped by hundreds,
even thousands, of submissions. Many rely on first-level
readers to wade through the slush pile and net a manageable
handful for consideration by an editor or next-level reader. To do this type of winnowing on a large scale, it’s not
necessary to be a New York Times literary critic, but you do
need some experience. Training acquired through writing classes, workshops, and
conferences is helpful for getting the gig, as are examples of
your own published pieces. Aside from bragging rights among
writer friends, there’s no glamour in reading for a literary
journal. The work is unpaid and reading hundreds of pieces
can be tedious. You’ll have to put in long hours (especially as
the submissions period ends), reliably meet deadlines, and –
in the case of close calls and squeakers – trust your gut.
Literary magazines are typically affiliated with university
MFA programs, arts collectives, or regional writing centers.
If you are or have been enrolled as a student, that’s an in –
readers are frequently chosen from their ranks. Contact
these programs to ask about their policies and express interest in serving as an early-stage reader. While earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Pine
Manor College in Brookline, Massachusetts, Joanne Carota
piece actually grabbed me. Most submissions were well-written, so that was
already a given.” Poet Phil Memmer oversees Stone
Canoe, a literary journal that showcases
the work of writers with a connection to
upstate New York. To cull submissions,
he relies on first readers who “narrow
down the field of manuscripts for the
issue’s guest editor.” In each genre –
poetry, fiction, nonfiction – he selects
three first readers to review each submission. For Memmer, three is a deliberate number: “One or two wouldn’t
give us the breadth of responses we
wish to provide the guest editors, while
more than three might bog down the
editorial process.”
After reading each piece, each
reader weighs in with a ranking of yes,
no, or maybe. “All manuscripts are then
passed to the appropriate guest editors,
who may choose not to review any
manuscript that has already received
three no votes.”
Memmer finds potential first readers through his full-time role as executive director of the YMCA’s Downtown
Writers Center in Syracuse, New York,
one of the most successful YMCA
community-based writing programs in
the country. “We select first readers
from amongst our advanced students,
our faculty, and our board of directors.”
He looks for writers “who are wellread, serious about their own craft, and
interested in learning about what goes
into publishing a literary journal.”
Those who are chosen know it’s an
unparalleled opportunity to see the process from the inside. “Every first reader
has told me that the experience was
valuable for them,” Memmer notes.
“Most have not had past involvement
with literary journals, so it can be eyeopening to see the quantity and variety
of submissions we receive. It’s also
directly relevant experience for anyone
seeking to get their own writing published...the behind-the-scenes vantage
point is a great learning opportunity.”
Serving as a reader for a literary
magazine over the past four years, I
now know what it takes to stand out
from the slush pile. In my first year, I
questioned if I was being too picky. The
initial wave of submissions seemed
unremarkable, and I struggled to find
pieces to approve. The most common
error was the result of laziness; writers
who hadn’t bothered to read the publication didn’t realize their tone, style, or
voice wasn’t a good fit. Submissions
that were too academic, esoteric, or
amateurish were the easy rejections. The difficult ones were more subtle.
Some contained passages of insight
and intelligence; others featured
intriguing characters. What they all
lacked was forward momentum: a reason for the reader to continue. Like
Carota, if I wasn’t grabbed by a piece, I
passed on it. Several times during that period, I
thought, I’m the problem. I’d rejected a
former Pushcart Prize winner, an essayist I’d followed and admired, and a good
friend whom I knew could do better.
Then came a piece I couldn’t let go of. I
lingered over the language, trying to
figure out how a simple narrative about
a family’s summer cottage could be so
vivid and bittersweet. As the submission
deadline drew near, more of these
remarkable stories surfaced. I thought
my Spidey sense of language had been
dulled, but the opposite was true. No
matter how slight the facet, a first
reader can distinguish the brilliance of
diamond from cut glass.
If being a reader sounds interesting
but you lack any college or university
affiliations and no writing programs or
centers are nearby, see if you can read
for an online literary journal or genre
fiction site. These internet-only outlets
operate similarly to print publications
by relying on their communities –
engaged, active followers – to provide
potential readers. If you’ve been previously published, or you submit on a
regular basis and are active in these
online groups, you have a good shot.
Reach out to the editors and see. In the
long run, the effort is bound to be
worth your while.
Linda Lowen teaches craft workshops at writing conferences and festivals, and is the
founder of, a writing studio in Syracuse, New York. • The Writer | 9
Parallel work
What to do when the words won’t come.
Change location, find inspiration. Ah, the essence
of parallel work. Every tip originates from this concept.
Tethering yourself to a computer screen in the same
secluded space day after day, willing the brain to work and
the fingers to move, is madness. Interact with the world,
and you’ll be amazed at what comes forth. I have come up
with story ideas while shooting hoops on an empty basketball court, feeding my daughter before dawn broke, and
meandering through a used bookstore.
Practice self-care. Going to the gym, or embarking
on a physical activity beyond typing, is vital. Go for a
10 | The Writer • May 2018
walk outside. Take a yoga class, with a side of meditation. To
paraphrase noted legal mind Elle Woods: “Exercise gives
you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy writers just don’t create bad story ideas. They just don’t!”
Seriously, getting outside can get forgotten while staring
at a blinking cursor. Suspending the hermit’s lifestyle to
become a human being will lead to a sharper focus and better writing. Another plus: People won’t find you insufferable
at dinner parties anymore.
Take a trip to the local library. Find authors whose
prose inspires, educates, and enthralls. Research back
issues of a magazine to polish up a pitch letter. Sign up for a
program to feed the creative furnace. Also, many libraries
have access to online catalogues such as LexisNexis. A
library card, that invaluable, wallet-sized resource, can help
sharpen or fortify your reporting chops for free.
Run errands or do chores. The day always ends with
you lacking the energy to take care of personal matters,
right? Time to remedy that. Start the laundry. Unload the
dishwasher. Change the water filter. Pay bills. At least you’re
accomplishing something, and with today’s technology,
answering your editor’s worried email in the dairy aisle has
never been easier. Plus, it feels good. My wife works full
time. I work at home. On slow days, I try to pick up the
domestic slack, because I possess the flexibility she doesn’t.
Daren Woodward/Shutterstock
can’t write every day. Writing is hard. It’s thankless.
Only a few good hours exist to crank out quality sentences – usually on the day the electric bill is due or
when the internet is on the fritz.
Since freelance writing is a business, what you do daily
should improve the business. Writing is part of that, of
course, but it’s a solitary, personal endeavor – what’s on the
page comes from you. Some distance is crucial. Enter the
important concept of parallel work, a phrase I first heard
from my writer pal A.C. Shilton, which buoys your personal
and professional self.
Most importantly, it gets you in the mood to write. Here
is what to do to shake things up without losing precious
Clean your desk. It’s hard to do
interviews if you can’t find the
phone – I think it’s under that wobbly,
dusty two-year-old archive of New
Yorkers – or if you knock over 10 coffee mugs while trying to find a pen
that’s older than Betty White.
Get ready for tax season. Corral those stray receipts, expense
reports, and paychecks so that you’re
not hyperventilating come tax time,
which comes despite our fervent
prayers. If you’re dreading another year
of tackling columns of difficult figures,
solicit suggestions for an accountant.
Trust me: A thorough, responsive CPA
is worth every penny.
Research writers’ groups and
organizations. I joined the
American Society of Journalists and
Authors (ASJA) in late 2016. It was not
an easy decision, since I can’t buy a
pair of jeans without feeling like I’ve
pushed my family into a financial
black hole. But I made back that year’s
membership fee (and more) when I
landed a pitch thanks to an editor I
met at ASJA’s annual conference in
New York City. Attending that conference led me to my agent, who revived
my long-dormant proposal into my
first book contract. The biggest gains
were not financial. Spending two days
swapping war stories with other writers was priceless.
This year, my spending spree continued when I joined Freelance Success, a popular writers’ forum run by
Jennie Phipps. For just $99 a year, I’ve
accumulated advice and vented with
other seasoned writers. It’s been
Speaking of which…
Talk to another writer. Forget
DM or email or texting. Pick up
the phone and talk to a real, live
human being who’s also in this crazy
business. Even better, meet for coffee
and fortify your soul over muffins and
gentle complaining.
Tackle other projects. Jot notes
for an essay. Write a pitch for a
long-admired magazine. Touch base
with editors who have gone radio
silent. A week ago, I sent a pitch,
applied to an online job, and emailed
some editors to follow up on pitches
before boomeranging to this column.
Work leads to more work.
A new destination
can take your writing
in new directions.
Practice the timeless art of
(self-)promotion. Besides
mom, who else is going to brag about
you? Perhaps your LinkedIn profile is
accumulating dust. Maybe it’s been a
while since you’ve written a blog post.
Consider revamping your website – or
look into hiring someone to create one.
Bag the day. Some days you’ve
got nothing. That’s OK. The
glorious part about freelancing is not
having to feign working to avoid the
boss’s disdain, because you are the boss.
So, go to the movies; catch up on sleep.
Do this long enough, and you know
what’s required to get the job done. I
promise: You will not backslide into
binge watching Grace and Frankie or
sleeping until noon because you
knocked off at 2 p.m. Recharge, come
back tomorrow. The work will still be
there – ready to have its ass kicked.
Yes, creating a routine to keep your
writing on track is integral to your success, but all routines (no matter how
self-gratifying) lead to boredom and
complacency. The writer who does not
break free every once in a while will
eventually break down.
Aside from The Writer, Pete Croatto (Twitter:
@PeteCroatto) has written for the New York
Times, Publishers Weekly, Columbia Journalism
Review, the Christian Science Monitor, and
many other publications. He and his family live
just outside Ithaca, New York.
© Erik Unger
Immersive Writing
Workshops in
Santa Fe, New Mexico
--ext • The Writer | 11
Writing exercises help
strengthen your craft.
12 | The Writer • May 2018
riting exercises inspire, educate, build selfawareness, jump-start a person’s writing,
and help writers hone their craft. They are all, at
their core, about writing, but some of the best
exercises take a writer someplace new.
“A good exercise should push you up against a limit or take you to
a place you’ve not been before and are uncomfortable with. And
then afterwards, you can go there, and it becomes comfortable,”
says fiction writer David Gould.
Gould is also an assistant organizer of Virginia’s Arlington Writers
Group (AWG). We also belong to the all-genre AWG that started in
2006 and meets in person every Wednesday for two hours. The
group alternates each week between critiques and other planned
activities, which range from craft discussions to author talks, social
events, and writing exercises. After more than 600 meetings, AWG
has refined a set of exercises that are effective for maintaining
momentum and helping writers of all levels strengthen their craft.
Here are some of our favorites. • The Writer | 13
Beginning, Middle, and End
Beginning, Middle, and End
is an exercise designed for
groups – ideally groups of
three. Writers choose individual prompts, take a pad
of paper, and write the
beginning of a story – and
only the beginning. After 15
minutes, everyone stops,
and passes the pad to someone else. Writers now have
20 minutes to read the
opening they’ve been given
and write the next part of
that story (the middle).
When time is up, the pads
are passed again, and within
30 minutes, writers supply
the ending of the new story
they’ve been given.
AWG members then read
the stories aloud. The results
are entertaining, and writers
of the first sections typically
report that the story did not
end up where they expected.
Writing under this tight
time pressure can be liberating; there’s no time to overthink. The exercise also
challenges a writer to explore
different paths and voices for
stories, and maybe even
write in a new genre.
You may have decided to
turn your prompt into a dramatic coming-of-age story,
but one of your partners
may have gotten the same
14 | The Writer • May 2018
prompt and gone the sci-fi
adventure route. If you are
writing her middle, you
can’t ignore what she’s done
and keep telling your story –
you need to respect her
choices and help tell the
next part of her story.
And when you are writing the last installment of
the story, two other writers
have started you on the
journey – now it is up to
you to tie it all up. “The
exercise forces you to get
into someone else’s head. It
makes you approach scenes
in a way you wouldn’t normally. It’s helped me as a
novelist,” says Gould.
Flaming Fragment
AWG, like many writing
groups, has a policy of not
rewriting members’ work
that is presented for feedback. It’s a good policy. You
can tell the writer what
works or what doesn’t and
why, but saying, “you should
have character X do such
and such” is generally bad
form. But during a Flaming
Fragment session, all bets
are off.
This is really a brainstorming exercise where
writers present any kind of
idea they are hung up on. It
could be an entire novel that
needs a better ending or an
isolated detail such as a
character name, a profession
that would make for an
engaging protagonist, or an
interesting world to explore.
Writers are given 60 seconds
to share their fragment with
the group, and then the
group pitches ideas – trying
to “fan the fragment into
flames.” The amount of time
dedicated to each depends
on the number of fragments
you have, but AWG attempts
to give at least 10-12 minutes per author.
Marichka Melnyk, a
writer and radio producer
in Toronto and former
AWG member, conceived of
the exercise. “I have a tendency to idly come up with
scenes or scenarios, or see a
real-life exchange between
people and start to imagine
the backstory. Or I meet an
interesting person and
begin to spin them into a
character with no particular
story in which to place
them,” says Melnyk.
She felt like her creative
energy was being wasted and
found she wasn’t alone.
“Others were also collecting
these fragments, and we were
inspiring each other anyway,
so we formalized it with the
Flaming Fragment session.”
The remaining exercises are
focused on the individual.
While better in a group
environment – for both
learning and fun – the exercises can be conducted on
your own.
Written Prompts
These prompts provide
launch pads for the writer.
They can be a phrase,
rhyme, or maxim meant to
get creative juices flowing,
or they can be much more
prescriptive. For example,
writers are given a sentence
that must be the first line of
their piece (or the last line).
One AWG favorite entails
putting a dozen random
nouns and six verbs on slips
of paper in a hat. Members
draw three and are randomly assigned a genre.
Then the writing begins.
aloud is illuminating when
you hear how differently
people see the photos.
One memorable AWG
meeting featured a picture
of a beautiful house on a
cliff with a staircase leading
down to clear blue water.
One writer used the setting
for a love story. Another led
readers down the stairs to
join someone dumping a
body into the ocean.
Inspiration Field Trips
AWG has also taken field
trips to area museums and
art galleries and tasked
writers with finding one
piece to inspire a story.
Afterward, writers are asked
to share a 150- to 200-word
piece within one week of
the visit. In more than a few
cases, members reported
expanding the exercise into
a new project.
Visual Cues
While AWG often uses written prompts to stimulate
ideas, inspiration can come
from many other places.
Photographs, graphic
designs, and other visuals
are great sources. Visual
Cues treat photo prompts
just like written prompts.
Multiple copies of five or six
images are pulled from
stock photo websites, and
writers take 30 or 45 minutes to tell a picture’s story.
What happened right before
it was snapped? Or what followed? Sharing the pieces
Non-Visual Description
When establishing a setting, many people rely
solely on one sense: Sight.
To challenge this, AWG
uses an exercise that goes
beyond visual cues. Nonvisual Description tests
writers’ abilities to establish
a setting using senses other
than sight. Think about
entering a bakery or sitting
in a noisy bar. Visual cues
probably aren’t the first
things you notice.
“By nature, we are a visually oriented species and, as
writers, our first impulse
when creating a scene is to
paint a picture. But if you
are working to evoke an
emotional response in the
reader – and you should be
working very hard at that –
then you must include the
other senses,” says fiction
writer and AWG assistant
organizer Dale Waters.
“Smells are known to be the
strongest trigger for feelings
of nostalgia. Likewise, an
unexpected sound – a
human scream in the night
or the howl of an unnamed
beast in the forest – can create a terror response far
beyond simple visual
This exercise gets writers
to close their eyes and hear,
smell, feel, and taste a scene
and can be adapted in a
variety of ways. Writers can
select from any of the senses
or be assigned one to focus
on. After writing for 30
minutes, stories are
swapped for small group
exchanges or read aloud for
group discussion.
Overheard Conversations and
Missed Connections
While some exercises focus
on creating a realistic
scene, others rely on the
fact that great stories hide
in plain sight. In fact, journalists and memoirists will
tell you real life is quite
often much stranger than
fiction and can be hum-
bling to even the most
imaginative writers.
For Overheard Conversation, AWG members share
snippets of real dialogue
they overheard on the bus,
at lunch, or walking down
the street and challenge each
other to tell the story behind
the conversation.
AWG also uses missed
connections or personals
from different publications
that serve up wild glimpses
into actual lives. Glimpses
that need to be explored –
stories that need to be told:
“Tall, Dark, and Silent. I
stood in front of you on the
train this morning. You
were holding some brick
samples on your lap. We
made eye contact a few
times and you smiled. I
wanted to say something
but I couldn’t without
removing my costume.
Email me…”
How can you not tell this
story? And whose story do
you want to tell? The brick
carrier’s? The costumed
traveler’s? Your own story as
an observer of this scene?
Both of these exercises
entail 30 minutes of writing
and lots of sharing. Like
other prompt-based exercises, the assignments get
people writing without
spending too much time on
plot development and creating character arcs. They’re
intended to be fun and jump
start creativity. • The Writer | 15
Two-Sided Argument
There are also stories from
our own lives that serve as
inspiration. Two-Sided
Argument challenges writers to honestly depict an
actual personal conflict
from two different perspectives. First the writer takes
30 minutes to tell the story
of a dispute from her own
perspective. Then she writes
the same story from the
opposing person’s perspective – taking 30 minutes to
get into that person’s head.
For AWG assistant organizer and essayist Colleen
Moore, this exercise made a
difference for her as a writer
and a person. She wrote
about a decades-old fight
with her then-new stepsister, painting her in the
worst possible light. Then
Moore wrote from her stepsister’s perspective. It was a
viewpoint Moore the Person
had never considered, but
Moore the Writer was
forced to.
She came to realizations
about her stepsister and the
situation that influenced
how Moore interacts with
her now. “It completely
changed our relationship,”
says Moore.
16 | The Writer • May 2018
As a writer, the exercise
helped with her personal
essays. “It makes an essay
resonate with people when
you’re willing to go deep
into yourself,” she says. The
experience also made her
think about how to fully
flesh out believable antagonists with their own stories
and motivations.
Point-of-View Exercise
This is another opportunity
for writers to consider different perspectives – this time
by writing the same scene in
two different basic narrator
points of view (POV). The
exercise begins by telling
people to write a scene or a
story from a prompt or
theme. No other guidance is
necessary. In fact, you don’t
want to tell people what’s
coming next, because you
don’t want people to write
with a specific goal in mind.
Everyone is given 30
minutes. Next, the task is to
write the same story again
using a different narrator
POV. So if a person wrote in
third person, the next version could be in first or second person. Only 15-20
minutes are given for the
rewrite. Afterward, the
group discusses how their
stories changed, reading
samples of sections. The
exercise demonstrates the
power of different perspectives and challenges writers
to try a POV they might not
usually use.
When AWG first conducted the exercise, one new
member hated the idea.
When asked to write in a different POV, she thought it
wasn’t worth her time. But
she did it anyway. During the
discussion, she admitted her
surprise; the change to first
person made a powerful difference in her story. She
planned to rewrite other stories to see if they might benefit from a new POV, too.
Gender Switch
Another exercise that uses a
similar structure and offers a
different perspective is Gender Switch. After writing a
story, everyone is instructed
to rewrite it by changing the
genders of the main characters or everyone in the story.
This offers a new way of
approaching a story and can
challenge writers’ abilities to
write multidimensional characters. It can also reveal if a
writer defaults to stereotypes.
Writing exercises foster your
ability to be creative, write
quickly, self-reflect, and try
new perspectives.
Then there are exercises that
compel people to focus on a
single message and be concise. This is never easy, as
immortalized by 17th-century inventor, mathematician, physicist, and writer
Blaise Pascal: “I have made
this letter longer than usual,
only because I have not had
the time to make it shorter.”
Plot Summary
Whether it’s a short story,
personal essay, or novel, Plot
Summary forces writers to
find the central idea of a
piece. This exercise is particularly helpful when developing materials writers will
use in pitching, such as synopses and query letters.
First, writers are given 30
minutes to summarize a
piece they’re working on in
200 words. Next, they work
for another 20 minutes to
pare the description down
to 100 words. Finally, they
have 20 minutes to shorten
it to no more than 50 words.
All three can be read aloud
for comparison and critique.
If writers find this exercise
too challenging, it could
indicate a greater problem
in the story itself.
Six-Word Whatever
Last, but not least, is SixWord Whatever. Writers are
often advised to strip out
adverbs, but what if they
have to remove everything
but six words and still tell a
compelling and complete
story? While the true origin
of the Six-Word Novel may
not be as romantic as Ernest
Hemmingway winning a
bar bet with his famous version – “For Sale, Baby
Shoes, Never Worn.” – the
exercise is an effective one.
AWG has featured SixWord Science Fiction, SixWord Romance, and
Six-Word Memoir. This is
more challenging than it
may seem. While the first
successful result can take
some time, it usually leads
to many variations. Giving
writers 30 or 40 minutes to
pen several versions and
asking them to read their
top three always makes for
fun sessions.
Writing exercises foster
your ability to be creative,
write quickly, self-reflect,
and try new perspectives.
Whether in a group or on
your own, try these exercises to give your writing the
workout it needs.
Jennifer L. Blanck is a freelance
writer who has been a member of
the Arlington Writers Group since
2008. Her writing has appeared
most recently in Christian Science
Monitor, Entropy, Toastmaster,
Whole Grain, and Wine Business
Monthly. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jlblanck.
Michael Klein is a founding member of the Arlington Writers Group
and has led it for more than 10
years. He has penned and ghostwritten hundreds of articles and
speeches and is interested in
hearing about your writing exercise experiences @mkleinwrites
on Twitter. • The Writer | 17
you’re a genre writer, do you
pin down exactly what you’ll
write beforehand: romance,
mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, horror? Many
writers do; their genre is their brand.
But this isn’t true of every writer who
writes a book that falls into a particular
genre. Maybe their novel shifts toward
science fiction as they write it. Maybe,
as their imagination runs full steam
ahead, they find they’re writing horror.
If you find yourself writing such a
novel, how closely should you pay
attention to traditional conventions of
that genre? Can you still find success if
you depart from typical genre conventions as needed to tell a good story?
And, finally, what’s all this fuss
about literary genre novels: Literary
thrillers, literary sci-fi? Literary historical novels? What makes these so-called
“literary-genre hybrids” literary in the
first place?
Let’s start by considering genre
itself, its appeal, its conventions, and
how to handle said conventions. Let’s
hear what the experts say about four
types: thrillers, speculative fiction, historical novels, and YA.
Cafe Racer/Shutterstock
What attracts writers to different genres?
According to Tom Franklin, the
two biggest influences for his thriller
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter were
George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane.
“Both are ‘crime’ writers, but both use
‘crime’ as a lens through which to
study human behavior,” says Franklin.
“Their books are not about ‘who done
it’ as much as about ‘why did they do
it?’” He goes for the latter as a writer,
plumbing psychological depths in his
characters. Still, he wants his book to
be viewed as more than a thriller. “I
don’t really like being pigeon-holed
into being one kind of writer or
another,” he says.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time
Traveler’s Wife is catalogued as several
genres: fantasy, science fiction, and
romance. Niffenegger sees the novel as
closest to science fiction, and, yet, she
says, “the most correct (and vague) category would be speculative fiction. But
fiction that sits firmly in the [sci-fi]
genre could also fit that description.”
What drew her to speculative fiction is her enjoyment of what-if
thought experiments: “What if a lady
married a time traveler? What if your
aunt is a ghost? What if the afterlife is
an enormous library?” She values
speculative fiction for the way it
“allows writers to play, to be very free.
It mutates, it is rebellious.” Influenced
by such writers as Richard Powers,
Henry James, and Donna Tartt, all of • The Writer | 19
Excerpt: Endangered
Concrete can rot. It turns
green and black before
crumbling away.
Maybe only people from
Congo know that.
There was a time when I
didn’t notice that sort of
thing. When I was a little
girl living here, it was a
country of year-round greenery, of birds streaming color across clear skies. Then,
when I was eight, I left to live with my dad in America,
and ever since then coming back to stay with my mom
each summer meant descending into the muggy and
dangerous back of nowhere. The fountain in downtown Kinshasa, which I’d once thought of as the height
of glamour, now looked like a bowl of broth. Bullet
holes had appeared up and down it, and no one I
asked could remember who had put them there. When
I looked closely, the pockmarks overlapped. The Democratic Republic of Congo: Where Even the Bullet Holes
Have Bullet Holes.
Kinshasa has ten million people but only two paved
roads and no traffic lights, so the routes are too
crowded to get anywhere fast. Almost as soon as the
driver left the house to take me to my mom’s workplace, we were stuck in traffic, inching by a barricade.
A police roadblock wasn’t common, but not all that
unusual, either. Some of the Kinshasa police were for
real and some were random guys in stolen uniforms,
looking for bribes. There was no way to tell the difference, and it didn’t much change the way you dealt
with them: Show your ID through the windshield. Do
not stop the car. Do not roll down the window. Do not
follow if they try to lead you anywhere.
A man was approaching each car as it slowed
down. At first I thought he was a simple beggar, but
then I saw he was dragging a small creature by its
arms. I crawled over the gearshift and into the front
seat to see better.
It was a baby ape. As the man neared each car, he
yanked upward so that it opened its mouth into a wide
grin, feet pinwheeling as it tried to find the ground.
The man had a lame foot but got around agilely, his
scabby stump pivoting and tilting as he maneuvered.
Behind him was a rusty bike with a wooden crate
lashed to the back, which he must have been using to
transport the ape.
Excerpt from Endangered © 2012 by Eliot Schrefer. Used with permission
from Scholastic Press.
whom she finds “original and rigorous in their freedom,
language, strangeness, and brilliance,” she feels freed up,
she says, “to pursue my own ends.”
For Rene Steinke, author of the historical novel Holy
Skirts, “It was not so much the genre as the fact that I fell in
love with the baroness and the [early 20th century] time
period.” As a graduate student, Steinke was captivated by
the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s intriguing
mix of personae: “a poet, collagist, Dadaist, nude model,
fashion avatar, sexual libertine, and provocateur,” who was
“ahead of her time in the ways she thought about gender
and sexuality and poetry and art.” Steinke felt compelled to
tell her story.
Some of Steinke’s favorite historical novels are Jeanette
Winterson’s The Passion, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Peter
Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. “Each of these novels
translates the historical events/time period in a way that
speaks to a contemporary reader; each novel has a particular
kind of language that seems invented for this purpose, and
so the novels strike me as both historical and contemporary
at the same time,” she says.
One final genre – or is it a genre? – is YA fiction. You can
certainly find the designation “YA genre” all over the internet, but Eliot Schrefer, author of the YA novel Endangered,
assures us this genre designation is a misnomer. “I wouldn’t
really call YA a genre,” he says, “at least not in the way that
romance and thriller are genres. It’s an age category, and the
only limit to writing YA is that the book has to be concerned with the experience of being a teenager.” YA can
include a number of genres, such as romance, fantasy, and
mystery, he says.
Schrefer says he’s “long loved survival stories like Gary
Paulsen’s Hatchet.” The storyline, premise, and style of this
YA novel meet his highest standards for a good novel: “It’s
about a kid in the wilderness, trying to survive after a plane
crash. Take away the trappings of family and civilization
from a kid, and their survival techniques – and existential
concerns – are the same as an adult’s. In spare and beautiful
language, Paulsen got to the heart of what it means to be
alive at all.”
Schrefer began his novelistic career by writing two books
for adults, but then he was invited by Scholastic to propose a
book outline for The School for Dangerous Girls – they
approved it, and, he says, “suddenly I was writing for teens.”
He’s glad of his commitment to YA. As an author, he
believes he’s able to do his best writing in this area. “I think
my writing improved once I started writing YA. I was murkier, more arch, and less vulnerable when I was writing for
adults. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”
If you’re writing genre fiction, how important is it to “stay in
your lane” and abide by typical genre conventions? How
much room do you have to roam?
Franklin didn’t actually think about the “thriller” genre
when he wrote Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. He just wrote
the story he wanted to tell with a “fairly traditional” plot and
structure, “aside from some time-jumps/flashback chapters.”
Any substantive departures he’s made from the standard
genre thriller might be, he says, at the sentence level and “at
the level of psychological detail, making the characters more
vivid, more realistic.”
Like Franklin, Niffenegger didn’t worry about genre conventions when she wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife. Even if
she sees her novel as speculative fiction, she didn’t set out to
match her work with the work of other speculative fiction
writers. “I didn’t worry about that at all. It is important to
have rules, but I didn’t worry about whether my rules
matched anyone else’s.”
In writing her historical novel, Steinke made sure she
avoided one type – a “comprehensive picture of a time
period” – and chose a much better one: a story that just
“happens to be set in the past.” Rather than a historical
novel that becomes little more than “a history lesson,” she
says, “I prefer novels that put storytelling, language, and
character in the foreground.”
To create this second type of historical novel, she had to
work with her characters at close range. The baroness – a
real person, not a fictitious character – was surrounded by
famous people like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Djuna
Barnes. “One of the conventions I’ve seen in some historical
fiction,” says Steinke, “is the tendency to situate the storytelling near a famous historical figure or event. The name of
the famous person or the mention of the event automatically conjures up images or ideas that the reader already
knows well, and the fiction isn’t doing the work.”
As a novelist, Steinke thought it her job “to imagine
these characters apart from the well-worn anecdotes surrounding them that had already been repeated several
times in nonfiction.”
“I wanted the reader to feel as if they were meeting this
person for the first time,” she says.
Through her research, she tried to “imagine how this
person might have spoken, or what they might have done,
given the evidence.” The more she could use her
imagination, the more she could be faithful to her story.
What partly attracted her to the baroness were the “holes”
in her biographical record, providing a fertile field for the
imagination. She began by researching the primary
sources, but, says Steinke, “I need to imagine enough of the
story that it can’t all be fact-checked. In other words, it’s
really important for me to honor the fictional part of historical fiction.”
As to YA conventions, Schrefer believes his YA novels are
typical in their pacing. “My YA works do move at a faster
clip than my adult works, and I think that’s true for most YA
novels.” But his work does vary from YA conventions in at
least one way: “There’s also a tendency for YA novels to
Excerpt: Crooked Letter,
Crooked Letter
The Rutherford girl had been
missing for eight days when
Larry Ott returned home and
found a monster waiting in
his house.
It stormed the night
before over much of the
southeast, flash floods on
the news, trees snapped in
half and pictures of trailer homes twisted apart. Larry,
forty-one years old and single, lived alone in rural Mississippi in his parents’ house which was now his
house, though he couldn’t bring himself to think of it
that way. He acted more like a curator, keeping the
rooms clean, answering the mail and paying bills, turning on the television at the right times and smiling
with the laugh tracks, eating his McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken to what the networks presented
him and then sitting on his front porch as the day bled
out of the trees across the field and night settled in,
each different, each the same.
It was early September. That morning he’d stood on
the porch holding a cup of coffee, already sweating a
little as he gazed out at the glistening front yard, his
muddy driveway, the barbed wire fence, the sodden
green field beyond stabbed with thistle, goldenrod,
blue salvia and honeysuckle at the far edges, where
the woods began. It was a mile to his nearest neighbor
and another to the crossroads store, closed for years,
and the blacktop.
At the edge of the porch several ferns hung from
the eave, his mother’s wind chime lodged in one like a
flung puppet. He set his coffee on the rail and went to
disentangle the chime’s slender pipes from the leaves.
From Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin, published by William
Morrow. Copyright © 2010 by Tom Franklin. Reprinted courtesy of
HarperCollins Publishers. • The Writer | 21
include romance of some sort, though that’s by no means
absolute.” As a writer, says Schrefer, he’s just not interested
in love and romance. As a human being, he’s interested in
both, but his “writer brain” doesn’t go there. “So I guess
that’s one way I vary from the YA tendency.”
Excerpt: Holy Skirts
Two men standing at the
lamppost glared at her. She
sucked at the cigarette,
leaned back, and blew out a
gorgeous geyser of white.
She sat down on the
bench and studied the city
roses on the bush, red and
turning in the wind like little
wheels. . . .
There had been a string of afternoons Elsa lay in
bed smoking, staring out the window at the crowds on
the street, willing him to appear. Then her longing for
him grew barbed. How could he allow her to worry like
this? How could he leave her with so little cash? She
had begun to worry only when she saw the buds on
the trees. Since then sightings of him teased her wherever she went. Going down the stairs of the train platform, the back of his head; in a café window, his
profile; in the mirror just behind her reflection, his
face. Weeks ago, she’d almost kissed a man because
he wore a gray, creased hat like one Josef liked to
wear, and she followed a tall man with dark hair all
the way to the river, past the chophouses and saloons,
pretending it was him. She knew it was unlikely, but
she couldn’t help the sightings—some physical reflex
jarred by hope.
She stood up and lit another cigarette, held the
smoke for a moment in her mouth and nose. Two
women on the pebbled path turned their heads away
from her, their wide-brimmed hats tilting into plates.
The shorter man suddenly stood in front of her.
“You know, that’s not pretty.” He nodded to the
“Why should it be?” She blew smoke into his face.
He eyed her blue fingernails, then hit her hand so
the cigarette fell into the grass. The smoke curled up
through the green blades.
“Scheisse!” she yelled. Since Josef had left, it
seemed strangers felt they’d been given orders to torment her, as if her solitariness were writ large on her
forehead, some kind of bull’s eye for men who liked to
throw darts.
From Holy Skirts, by Rene Steinke, published by William Morrow. Copyright
© 2005 by Rene Steinke. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
22 | The Writer • May 2018
As with most things, clearly with genre writers, one size
doesn’t fit all. But what about a literary-genre novel? What
makes a genre novel literary in the first place?
For some writers, the term literary suggests work that
exceeds the surface level of the story or novel in some ways.
Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has been called “a
literary thriller.” For Franklin, the term literary “simply
means that as much, or more, emphasis is put on the writing
as on the plot. That is, the way a novel is written/structured
is as important as what happens.” Though his own novel is,
overall, traditionally plotted and structured, he also uses a
more complex narrative technique (via flashbacks and time
jumps) than one might find in an ordinary genre thriller. He
says this takes us back to the old question of which is more
important: “the tale or the telling of it?” Sometimes, says
Franklin, “how it’s told is crucial to what is told.”
He cites as an example Faulkner’s The Sound and the
Fury. “The first time you read this, it makes no sense. In no
way is this novel ‘commercial.’ It’s a big, shaggy literary bear.”
But beyond complex narrative technique, there is also style,
says Franklin. “Also, obviously, literary fiction focuses more
keenly on the sentence” – as does his novel.
A novel might also be considered literary if it has thematic substance. For Schrefer, Endangered certainly seems
to fit the “literary” category. “It’s a survival story about a girl
surviving wartime in the Congo with an orphan ape by her
side, but the novel is as much about how humans treat animals, and other humans, as it is about the interplays of character and event,” he says. These thematic ideas make the
story “literary,” says Schrefer, yet he isn’t completely happy
with this term; in fact, he claims an “enduring squeamishness” about the way it’s applied. “I think reputation and perceived worth are often accidents of fate,” he says. Such
accidents, he says, depend on “who reviewed the book early
on, which award committees were interested in certain sorts
of fiction that year, etc.”
Steinke says that others have called Holy Skirts a literary
historical novel, but she says the term literary is subjective.
But for her, a literary novel “includes an inventive use of
language and a complex exploration of character and ideas.”
Story is also important, and she distinguishes it from plot.
“[Stories] could be unfolding in ways that are nearly entirely
internal to the character, in ways that most people usually
don’t consider ‘plot,’” she says. Still, while others also tend to
list these qualities as literary, Steinke often finds these same
qualities in works categorized as genre, science fiction and
suspense among them. In the MFA program she teaches in
at Fairleigh Dickinson University, she works to show her
students “how good writing transcends genres and labels.”
Niffenegger notes that the literary category is “the prestigious one,” and there are several issues to consider. Being a
visual artist, with her training in drawing, photography,
painting, and printmaking, she thinks like a visual artist. “In
the visual arts,” says Niffenegger, “the categories are slippery.
An artist might be described in terms of style, medium,
period, or who they hung out with; however, artists often try
to elude categories and labels because they can be limiting
and artificial.” It’s different in publishing, she notes. Several
things are going on with the “literary” label, some of it marketing – but not limited to this. “In the world of writing and
publishing, categories are often used to sell books, to determine whether a writer is eligible for a prize, to bestow prestige.” For her, when fiction is called “literary,” this particular
category simply means that this book “is very well executed,
and it concerns serious things. Sometimes it means: This
does not fit in any of the obvious genres.”
She does point out that in history, “categories were less
constraining.” Writers back then, says Niffenegger, “might
romp through all the genres. Now, when a genre novel is
excellent, the literary category comes to extract it from its
humble genre beginnings.” For instance, she notes that
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Henry James’ The Turn
of the Screw, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are all placed
in the literature section of a bookstore, whereas they could
be simply categorized as ghost stories or mysteries. Good
novels, regardless of genre, are “a surprising and complete
world where we are privy to the thoughts and doings of
people we come to care about and compelling ideas rendered in language that opens and blooms in the reader’s
mind and resonates for some time after the book has concluded.” All in all, we shouldn’t distinguish between “literary” and “genre,” Niffenegger believes. We should simply
look for greatness.
7ȡ3ȫ )Ȫ2ȥ
“I often advise my YA writing students to
cut their first five, 10, 50 pages, and start
the story wherever the high-octane
material begins.”
“It’s always about people, no matter
what sort of story you are telling. Create
convincing people, and then see what
sort of story they want to be in.”
“Read and read everything. Not just in
your genre.”
“If you’re including a well-known
historical figure, make sure that figure
feels credibly ‘alive’ by fully imagining
your own version of that character.”
If you’re attracted to genre fiction, keep in mind that there
are certain conventions for each genre. But the novel you
write is yours, and it might be a mistake to feel constrained
by certain conventions, even though the blogs you read
about this genre tell you otherwise or the genre novels
you’ve read usually follow these conventions. If you want to
write a great genre novel, whether or not it’s extolled as literary, then work for richness of character and story – and
beyond that, creative narrative technique, depth of idea,
and a gripping prose style, down to the sentence itself. A
great novel, genre or not, grabs us because it has these
things – it’s unique and it’s “new” – which is, after all, what
“novel” means.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and
numerous articles and interviews. • The Writer | 23
24 | The Writer • May 2018
At first glance, the topic of rhetoric doesn’t inspire a belly laugh.
Still, when professors Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander
wrote the script for their comic book Understanding Rhetoric,
they found themselves guffawing over bottles of wine in Alexander’s kitchen, reading aloud in the voices of the characters they’d
created and playing around with sight gags that would help university students speak and write more effectively.
Undergraduate composition students have responded
with gratitude. “Often, teachers will assign books in
writing classes that don’t get read because people feel
like they’re there to write,” Losh explains. “But students
have been extremely positive about the book. It’s nice to
hear that they actually read it.”
Vibrant illustrations explode from the pages of
Understanding Rhetoric. The authors become comic narrators, explaining the principles of compelling communication succinctly. At times, they draw on narratives of
superheroes and campus infestations of wild coyotes to
help make their points about persuasive writing and collaborative learning. “Sometimes, seeing a comic book,
students think they’re being given remedial material,”
Losh says. “But everything in our book is comparable to
a traditional textbook on the subject.”
Call them comic books, graphic guides, or graphic
nonfiction – the genre speaks to readers of all ages who
appreciate the blend of quirky imagery and text in stories designed to convey information on topics that range
from coral reefs to the history of flight, from explorations on Mars to the Serbian refugee crisis. Remedial?
Absolutely not. Difficult to write? Absolutely: Losh
describes nonfiction comic book writing as “the hardest
kind of writing you can do.”
For those wanting to study the craft, the quintessential textbook is Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art,
by Scott McCloud – itself a graphic nonfiction book that
explains how to use narrators and story structure in
conjunction with imagery in traditional comic book
frames. McCloud went on to write Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels.
Left: durantelallera/Shutterstock
Narrators shape the story
Alison Wilgus is the author of Flying Machines: How the
Wright Brothers Soared, written for upper middle-grade
readers. “You want to convey a lot of information in a
kid-friendly way with a narrative that builds momentum,”
she explains. To do this, she decided to tell Orville and
Wilbur Wright’s story – parallel to the history of flight –
from the point of view of their younger sister, Katharine.
“I became completely obsessed with her,” Wilgus
explains. “I read decades of Wright family correspondence in the public domain – letters to her brothers over
the course of their career. Katharine was hugely important; women family members kept early aviators’ lives
running while they were flying around in these ridiculous machines.”
Often, authors of graphic nonfiction books choose a
narrator to lead people through a story designed to convey information in an entertaining manner. Wilgus
begins with an outline of what has to be documented –
facts and breakdowns of scientific principles – and
thinks about how she’ll structure them on each page.
She submits text to
the artist (Molly
Brooks, in the case
of Flying Machines)
and they dialogue
back and forth
about characters,
text, and how to
convey scenes in
panels on the page.”
“Unlike film,
there’s no industrystandard format for
comics scripts, so
some writers
include more visual
direction than others – and some artists appreciate that
more than others,”
Panels from Flying Machines:
Brooks says.
How the Wright Brothers Soared.
“Everyone has different preferences, and if you know your artist-collaborator ahead of time, it can be helpful to check in and ask
what they’d prefer: barebones page breakdown with dialogue? Panel-by-panel ‘camera direction?’ Little thumbnail drawings of where you think panels should go? No
one’s going to see the script except the writer, artist, and • The Writer | 25
editor, so you’re the only ones who need to be able to read
and understand it well enough to turn it into a comic.”
Not all nonfiction comics are humorous, but plenty
of lighthearted moments balance out the scientific
information in Wilgus’ and Brooks’ Flying Machines.
“For me, all the humor comes when I get to write the
dialogue,” Wilgus says. “In Katharine’s case, I kept a list
of funny things she would say in her letters – turns of
phrase like ‘scarce as hens’ teeth.’ All the best lines in the
book are Katharine’s.”
She notes that even though she’s writing nonfiction,
she relies on fiction techniques such as characterization
and narrative arc to shape the narrator’s story. For
example, in the first panels of Flying Machines, Katharine Wright, dressed in period clothing, is trying to
explain early aircraft to a classroom full of contemporary students who just want to talk about jets. “You
weren’t there, and these conversations wouldn’t have
happened,” Wilgus explains, “so you’re functionally fictionalizing the dialogue.”
She also notes it’s tricky to distill a great deal of information into pithy speech bubbles, especially when
explaining a complicated concept. Wilgus worked
closely with Brooks to hone the text in each comic
frame. “Every once in a while, she’d send me a blank
template with my script filling half the page, and I’d be
like ‘Yeesh, OK,” and we’d break it into two pages or I’d
take half the text off the page,” Wilgus says.
Losh and Alexander had the same challenges when
writing Understanding Rhetoric. They themselves were
the narrators in the book, drawn as cartoons. “We found
it hard not to be ‘talkie,” Losh says. “In early scripts,
speech bubbles would fill the entire panel. Jonathan and
I would read as our characters, since we wanted the dialogue to sound natural, and then he’d cut words and I’d
cut words, and we’d go back and forth again trying to
cut words whenever we could.”
Their scripts included extensive setting and character descriptions, panel by panel, so that the artists
would know exactly how each should look. The script
for panels 11 and 12 from the introductory chapter
read like this:
“Layout of a commercial block with a series of
storefronts featuring permanent store signs, temporarily painted windows announcing sales and
new products, public notices from the city about
permits, warning signs, commercial billboards,
political advertisements, educational posters,
graffiti, etc. JA and LL are walking by as if window shopping.
26 | The Writer • May 2018
For instance, just think about the actual
real-life material SPACES in which writing
The block continues on to a school, where janitors are removing the graffiti and advertising. A
defaced “teacher of the month” sign is being
pulled down by the school principal.
All of this writing is public, and yet some
of this writing is done without first seeking
the permission of others. Rules about ownership, authorship, and customary behavior may prohibit some kinds of public
writing in certain situations.
Since Losh and Alexander could create new characters rather than relying on those from history, they paid
particular attention to ensuring that students in the
book represented the diverse demographics at their
respective universities.
“The character Luis is Latino, and Cindy is Vietnamese American,” Losh explains. “We had a nontraditional student character in the book, as well – Carol,
Cindy’s mom. We thought through their backstories
and motivations. Some of Carol’s experiences are based
on those of students I taught when I was first at U.C.
Irvine, where a lot of students were part of the Vietnamese diaspora.”
The artists, Kevin and Zander Cannon, contributed a
great deal to characterization in the book as well. Losh
and Alexander discussed the backstory of each student
character with them and gave insight into the habits and
idiosyncrasies of contemporary college students who
filled their classrooms.
“The artists often had great suggestions – visual jokes
and ideas about how to explain concepts more clearly,”
Losh says. “You want to open up the possibility for collaboration and creativity. An artist isn’t going to want to
do layouts for something that doesn’t let them express
themselves and be creative.”
Research reflects the reality
Don Brown has been a writer and illustrator of a wealth
of graphic nonfiction books for children and teens for
25 years. Most of his books are short on sight gags and
one-liners, more focused on straightforward descriptions of historical events and people.
He works from home in an office full of drawing
tables and large computer monilabor intensive, more labor inten Feynman by Jim Ottaviani tors, with art covering the walls. He
sive than a conventional book. But
 Oil and Water by Steve Duin
describes the marriage of words
it’s an artistic and intellectual puz Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer
and pictures as magical. “It’s a
zle that appeals to me.”
by Alberto Ledesma
unique art form, and I can feel
 Everything Is Teeth by Evie Wyld
Be tenacious – and network
good about reaching readers who
Brown describes the genre of
wouldn’t otherwise necessarily
by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
graphic nonfiction as relatively
read,” he says. “[Besides] that, it’s
 Filmish by Edward Ross
new – new in the sense that there
fun for me.”
are no hard-and fast rules about
He began his career with Ruth
 Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
what a book should look like. “If
Law Thrills a Nation, a book about
 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
you can figure out a way to do it
a young woman who tried, in 1916,
 Science Comics: Bats: Learning to
differently and better than
to be the first person to fly from
Fly by Falynn Koch another book, you win,” he says.
Chicago to New York City in one
 Maus by Art Spiegelman
“You’re not breaking a canon or
day. “My daughters were little at
 American Born Chinese
convention that stands in the way
the time,” he says. “I wanted to read
by Gene Luen Yang
of a reader.”
to them about real women who
 El Deafo by CeCe Bell
He tells potential graphic nonwere brave and heroic and accom District Comics: An Unconventional
fiction writers to be tenacious in
plished things on their own. I
History of Washington, D.C.,
honing their craft and pitching to
wrote a manuscript, and an agent
edited by Matt Dembicki
agents and editors. “I’m stubborn.
sold it immediately.”
That’s carried me through,” he
Since then, he’s written graphic
says. “You’ve just got to keep at it.
nonfiction books about Dolley
 My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
Someone has to write a book.
Madison, famous “newsie” Kid
 Older Than Dirt: A Wild but True
Someone has to illustrate a book.
Blink, the Gold Rush, the 1930s
History of Earth by Don Brown
and Michael Perfit
Why not you?”
Dust Bowl, Hurricane Katrina,
Losh reminds writers intrigued
and the book America is Under
 The Forgotten Man: A New History
of the Great Depression (Graphic
by graphic nonfiction to read a
Attack: September 11, 2001: The
Edition) by Amity Shlaes
great deal in the genre. “UnderDay the Towers Fell. He’s currently
stand the back end,” she says.
at work on a graphic nonfiction
“Look at scripts and learn how to give instructions to an
book about the Syrian refugee crisis. For that, his
artist. You have to write text like a movie script and offer
research took him from his home on Long Island to
instructions on scene and layouts.”
three different refugee camps in Greece.
Wilgus cites a large and supportive community of
“I wanted to see with my own eyes the life in a refucartoonists eager to welcome new members. She tells
gee camp, to see their living conditions and what types
beginners to practice creating graphic nonfiction with a
of people they were,” Brown says. “I wanted to confirm
subject they know well. “If you can’t draw very well,
that the things I read were in fact true and accurately
that’s fine,” she says. “If it’s well written, you’ll learn how
reflected the reality on the ground.”
to draw better.”
At the camps, he picked up small details that he
She urges people to exhibit their work at local comic
hadn’t found in his extensive reading back home. “One
shows and ‘zine fests. “Make a little photocopied, stapled
of the refugees said they get a lot of donations of
book of your comics,” she says. “If there’s someone
T-shirts, which they don’t need,” he explains. “What
whose work you really like, you can trade.” She notes
they need is diapers for older kids because tweens are
that this is a good way for graphic nonfiction writers to
so stressed out that they’re wetting the bed. And they
need shoes for men. The men in the camps are so bored find an artistic collaborator, as well.
“[Creating] comics is a difficult job,” she says. “It’s
that they wear out their shoes pacing the camps. That
lonely, but if you can find other people to be on the
speaks volumes.”
journey with you, you’ll stick with it.”
Each of Brown’s books takes about a year to create in
a process that includes research, writing, creating a
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of the forthcoming
mock-up, soliciting editorial comments, rewriting, and
Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy
drawing all the art. “The creation of the art is the slow
and Compassion in Children (Sasquatch, 2019). Web:
part. It takes months and months,” he says. “It’s very • The Writer | 27
By Ryan G. Van Cleave
hy are more and more writers interested in
working for the tabletop game industry?
Here are three of the top reasons.
One: The market is huge. The tabletop game market – comprised of collectible games, miniatures, board games, card and
dice games, and roleplaying games – had nearly $900 million in
North American retail sales in 2014 alone.
Two: The market welcomes beginners. “‘Indie’ is a term
that is as meaningless in tabletop gaming as it is in movies,” says
Ken Hite, the writer for 80+ tabletop games, including Dracula
Dossier, Night’s Black Agents, and the forthcoming fifth edition of
Vampire: The Masquerade. “Almost no games are first made by a
company that’s large enough to call them ‘corporate games.’”
Simply check out how many tabletop games are being offered
up on Kickstarter right now from “companies” that are really just a
couple of people. That’s not even taking into account how many
downloadable tabletop games can be distributed entirely online at
sites like
Three: Games are fun.
So if you want to get involved in a booming story-making
industry that’s both fun and welcoming to beginners, here are a
few tips to help out. • The Writer | 29
TIP 1:
Play Dungeons
and Dragons.
and learn from the granddaddy of them all!
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) isn’t just
a classic tabletop game, it’s arguably THE
classic one, says Hite. “It all began in
1974 with the publication of three completely illegible and unplayable booklets
cumulatively entitled Dungeons and Dragons.” Today, D&D is on the fifth edition,
which Hite says is “very playable, with
sleek, fast, well-play tested rules.” Playing
D&D now is a great way to experience a
game that’s rooted in character and conflict versus burdensome rules and glitchy
game mechanics.
Plus, a 2014 New York Times article
celebrating the game’s 40th anniversary
identified a number of writers who
acknowledge the role that D&D played in
the development of their own storytelling
abilities: George R.R. Martin. Matt Groening. Junot Diaz.
Playing D&D helped make them who
they are. Now get out there and kill some
kobolds in the pursuit of your own better
storymaking ability. It’s time to be a
twenty-sided troubadour!
Lose a turn!
TIP 2:
Focus on
the fun.
spending too much time and space on elements that players won’t interact with?
That’s a common error, says Rick Dakan,
who teaches “Writing for Tabletop Games”
and “Advanced Game Writing” courses at
Ringling College. “Figure out what’s interesting and unique about your game, then
consider how players make choices. If the
interesting part doesn’t line up closely with
actual gameplay, the game won’t be fun or
interesting,” he says.
The most beautiful artwork, complex
rulebook, and cool miniatures won’t matter
if the game ultimately isn’t fun.
Creating Game Conflict 101
A tabletop game writing activity by Rick Dakan
Game settings should be designed to incite conflict between players. The following activity helps you imagine
what a setting primed for conflict might look like.
Pick a real-world place and time, like New York in 1970, Baghdad in 1600, or even your hometown
during the year you were born.
Identify at least three separate sources of conflict that aren’t directly related to each other. It might
be rival political factions, a struggle between two influential residents, a natural disaster, or a host
of other things.
Now come up with a short summary of potential plot hooks for each of the conflict sources you’ve
Challenge yourself to create a single final plot that incorporates all three hooks.
The outcome? A game setting that’s ripe for conflict – something players will thank you for.
TIP 3:
TIP 4:
Study great
game writing.
Don’t reinvent
the wheel.
hugely successful games are worthy of serious study. Dakan suggests that “the storytelling in Pandemic Legacy is very clever
and something that could only be accomplished in a board game. Robin D. Laws’
DramaSystem game is not only well written
but provides a perfect model for how to
gamify dramatic scenes from books, television, and movies.”
Don’t just play these for fun. Pay attention to WHY they work, and ask other players what worked for them and why. Take
notes. Identify the elements of story success in play.
A few other games with quality storywriting? Netrunner, City of Remnants, and
Dead of Winter.
Roll again!
another tabletop gaming phenomenon
when you don’t have to?
As Hite explains, “Once you dive
deeper into the gaming world, you find
how much open content there is or, in
many cases, licensing that is so ridiculously easy to get that it might as well be
considered open content.”
Like D&D. Like Fate. Like RuneQuest.
Hite’s point? “Not only can you make a
game that is your own game, but it’s built
for a game system that plenty of people
already play and love.” Talk about a readymade consumer market waiting for what
you have to offer.
Thanks to open-source opportunities,
Hite says, “it has NEVER been easier to
make a game that people want to play. It
was always easy to make a game that
nobody wants to play.” • The Writer | 31
TIP 5:
Explore different
gaming styles.
are characteristically about aggression
and winning, and they often require a
high degree of luck to win. Put simply,
these games have heavy themes and dramatic gameplay.
Some examples of highly thematic
games? Risk. Axis & Allies. Arkham Horror.
Other games – often European ones –
typically have indirect conflict, where
instead of fighting other players directly,
you might compete for a pool of resources
or points. In these games, the leader often
finds it harder to stay ahead, which makes
runway victories less likely. These games
tend to be characterized by great artwork
and complex game mechanics.
Examples of these? Settlers of Catan.
Ticket to Ride. Carcassonne.
32 | The Writer • May 2018
TIP 6:
Keep an idea
file, a physical diary, or a Word doc, jot
down your ideas as you have them. Hite
says he has a dozen ideas for games in his
head at any one time, so to help keep your
own straight, get them recorded before
new ones crowd in.
An added bonus of this practice is that
if you’re ever in a situation where ownership of ideas is in question, you’ll have
solid evidence to support your intellectual
Befriend your local
game store.
TIP 7:
Playtest. Playtest.
And playtest again.
Their feedback won’t be as brutal, but
they’ll likely have a few suggestions. If your
game passes muster with these softies,
take it to other gamers beyond your immediate circle and watch as they struggle.
Take notes. Don’t jump in and help – let
them figure it out (or not!). It’s valuable to
see if your rules, mechanics, and plot hold
up without your on-the-spot clarifications.
The last stage is to get complete
strangers to try it out without you around,
and then report back on their successes
and struggles. A good local game store can
likely help set this up.
have well-curated selections that you can
inspect, touch, and often test out in person, but they also have game experts with
strong opinions. Use their expertise. It’s
worth spending a few extra bucks at these
stories than shopping at Amazon. I can’t
tell you how many games I’ve learned
about and loved (or not!) at The Dark Side,
my own local comic and game store in
Sarasota, Florida. These places – and the
people there – are pure gold.
Whether your goal is to create the next
decade’s D&D, Magic: The Gathering, or
Apples to Apples, or you just want to
explore the cool world of tabletop games,
the practice of playing, thinking about, and
making your own game can be an invaluable learning experience for any writer.
Great games require terrific stories and
compelling thematic elements, just like any
other type of storytelling. You can never
have too much practice at creating intrigue,
action, and audience engagement.
Plus, it’s worth repeating: Games are
Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books,
and he runs the creative writing program at the
Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota,
Florida. Web: • The Writer | 33
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34 | The Writer • May 2018
The three crucial storytelling elements
every novel needs to succeed.
writer is basically a storyteller, said Isaac Bashevis
Singer, winner of the Nobel
Prize for Literature.
On my bookshelves, I
have many books of advice
that focus on formulaic elements of
fiction – plot, conflict, character development, and such. But story is much
harder to pin down. As Flannery
O’Connor famously said, “I find that
most people know what a story is until
they sit down to write one.”
As an editor and indie-press publisher, I encounter many submissions
that have decent plots, likable characters, required conflict, and all that. But
the manuscripts have a fatal problem:
The storytelling is poor. These works
are headed for the rejection bin.
Beginning writers often believe that
the plot is the clever thing that a writer
does, and so they craft intricate plots –
plots that do not pay off until late in
the story, if at all. The truth is that plot
is like a skeleton; it’s good to have but
has little intrinsic appeal. Story is a
stronger attention-getting device.
Recently, scientists have studied the
power of story to attract our attention,
trigger empathy for characters, and
shape values. It might best to say that
story is essential and elemental, while
plot is constructed and can be somewhat artificial. Both are good and
enjoyable when done well. But story is
closer to the heart – closer to why we
value stories and storytellers.
As Ray Bradbury said, plot is nothing
but footprints left in the snow after your
characters have run by on their way to
somewhere else important to them.
So what makes a good story? A
good story delivers three key elements:
1. Something curiously odd at the
2. Selective and delightful details to
draw out the tale through the
3. An ending that makes it clear
why this story was worth telling.
Let’s look at a few techniques for
each part.
Intriguing eccentricity
Odd or quirky, it turns out, is naturally
interesting. We are intrigued by something peculiar. We want to know more
about it.
A story is by definition eccentric; it
is about something different from the
norm. If you want to get published,
something odd should appear in the
first pages of a manuscript to catch the
attention of an agent or editor. It could
be an odd image, a peculiar voice, a
curious incident. Remember, there is
an immense stack of fairly equivalent
works available to any editor. Unless
your story offers a quirky hook, it will
quickly be tossed aside.
If you are going to be eccentric,
why wait to reveal it? A fisherman
doesn’t save his bait ‘til he sees a fish.
He baits the hook before he drops a
line in the water. • The Writer | 35
Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds he is a giant
insect in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. What
could be odder? It loads the story onto a catapult and
hits the launch button on page one.
Dorothy from Kansas is spinning aloft in her house
and on her way to Oz by page three.
In the first line of Charlotte’s Web, Pa walks past the
window carrying an ax, on his way to the hoghouse to
kill a runty piglet.
Some beginning writers think it best to create a
slowly developing sense of what their story is about,
hoping that this will intrigue the reader. However, this
often fails because the reader is just mystified…and
not engaged enough to read on.
The trick is to avoid the predictable incident, the
easy plot point, the comfortable character. To develop
quirky ideas, there are many techniques for brainstorming, journaling, collecting odd scraps of conversations, always pushing harder to ask “What if…?”
again and again.
Quirks, of course, are just the beginning. Once you
have the reader interested, it’s up to you to embellish
and develop the story.
A story will sink or swim based on the appeal
of these three elements: intriguing eccentricity
to draw us in, delightful details to make us
enjoy the middle course of the story, and a
satisfying conclusion to wrap it up well.
Delightful details
Why do people read fiction? In many ways, readers
want to experience in a story what they experience in
eating delicious food. Joy in eating comes from a craving not for nutrition but for delightful tastes. Eating is
not about the outline of a recipe; it’s about the pleasure
of tasting what appears on the plate.
The same is true of literary creativity. The details
you put on each page of your manuscript are the spices
that make the words tingle on the tongue of the mind.
The good story is full of distinctive, flavorful details.
The problem is that beginning authors often overlook the need to create delightfully rich, savory details
in favor of addressing the needs of the plot. In other
words, they organize the menu and serve the food but
forget to spice it properly.
36 | The Writer • May 2018
One good way to develop details is to use more
senses. In the first Narnia book, C.S. Lewis describes
the youngest child, Lucy, entering that magical land
through a wooden wardrobe. The several paragraphs
are full of sensory imagery:
Looking into the inside, she saw several coats
hanging up – mostly long fur coats. There was
nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and
feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the
wardrobe and got in among the coats and
rubbed her face against them...It was almost
quite dark in there and she kept her arms
stretched out in front of her so as not to bump
her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took
a step further in – then two or three steps –
always expecting to feel woodwork against the
tips of her finger. But she could not feel it.
“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!”
thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing
the soft folds of the coats aside to make room
for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching underneath her feet. “I wonder
is that more moth-balls?” she thought, stooping
down to feel it with her hands. But instead of
feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of
the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold…
And then she saw that there was a light ahead
of her…. A moment later she found that she was
standing in the middle of a wood at night-time
with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling
through the air.
Another way to develop rich details is to build a
strong sense of place. Too many beginning writers set
their story in a place that can only be called generic,
with few concrete details, and those provided tend to
be stereotypical.
Consider David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on
Cedars, which takes place on San Piedro Island in
Puget Sound in the 1950s, involving the mysterious
death of an island fisherman and the trial of a Japanese-American man for the crime. The story’s plot
revolves around characters and their actions. But significantly, it happens in a place that sets the stage, confines the people, and shapes their interaction.
Here’s how Guterson introduces us to San Piedro:
San Piedro was an island of five thousand
damp souls…Amity Harbor, the island’s only
town, provided deep moorage for a fleet of
purse seiners and one-man gill-netting boats.
It was an eccentric, rainy, wind-beaten sea village, downtrodded and mildewed, the boards
of its buildings bleached and weathered, their
drainpipes rusted a dull orange…Rain, the
spirit of the place, patiently beat down everything man-made. On winter evenings it roared
in sheets against the pavements and made
Amity Harbor invisible.
Writing rich in specificity is a major element that
literary agents or acquisitions editors look for. If I were
an editor at a publishing house reading a passage like
that first glimpse by Guterson of the island of San
Piedro, would I want to read more? Yes – and I’d be
eager to get a chance to publish it.
The satisfying surprise at the end
Does your ending satisfy the reader with surprises? As
writer Carol Bly noted: “An essential difference
between experienced and beginning writers is the
amount of surprise they give us.”
If you want to achieve both satisfaction and surprise
at the end, a good place to start is to identify the main
characters’ desires. In Katherine Paterson’s novel
Bridge to Terabithia, young Jess begins the novel wanting to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. “He had
to be the fastest ... the very best.”
But soon he is thwarted, beaten in a foot race – by a
girl who becomes his friend. As the story moves forward, we learn more about what Jess cares most about.
His true desire is to have a close friend, to be liked and
understood. We share in his desires and challenges, as
the story builds to its surprising emotional conclusion.
A good story will reveal something about important
human needs: love, understanding, friendship, following a path of rightness in the world.
Do you know what the core theme of your story is?
This is a logical source for the surprise at the end. The
theme of Bridge to Terabithia is friendship, and what
can be lost and what endures. The surprise at the end
speaks to that theme.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “[Stories are a] series of events:
but it must be understood that this series – the plot, as
we call it – is only really a net whereby to catch something else.”
That “something else,” said Lewis, is the “real
theme.” Plot’s purpose, he suggested, is to catch the
theme, like a bird in the net, if only for a few moments
in the story. “The bird has escaped us. But at least it
was entangled in the net. We saw it close and enjoyed
the plumage.”
Beginning writers may feel embarrassed to have the
theme too visible, even briefly. You may be afraid that
someone will accuse you of being too moralistic. But
the whole purpose of novel writing, to some extent, is
to look at something important. Pull the theme forward, especially as you shape your ending.
Of course, theme is not a fortune cookie or an
Aesop’s Fable moral. We need to be artful. We need to
create complex characters and develop interesting
challenges for them. But in the end, your story should
speak to something important to you, your characters,
and your readers.
The heart of the story
The three aspects of story I’ve discussed here are not
the only ones needed for good fiction. A story needs
other things too, including a functional plot. But in my
experience, a story will sink or swim based on the
appeal of these three elements: intriguing eccentricity
to draw us in, delightful details to make us enjoy the
middle course of the story, and a satisfying conclusion
to wrap it up well.
Consider Shakespeare’s plays. It’s not the plot, it’s his
storytelling skill that has made these works so beloved
over the ages. He is master of the play of words, the
frolic of fancy, the comic interludes, and many other
techniques that beguile the heavy gait of plot. As poet
Howard Nemerov noted, the clever bard “tells the
same stories over and over in so many guises that it
takes a long time before you notice.”
If you do it correctly, you will attract, delight, and
amaze your readers. A good story will shed new light
on the human condition. As John Steinbeck, another
winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote:
We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our
life trying to be less lonesome. One of our
ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – “Yes, that is the way
it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.” You’re
not as alone as you thought.
So I recommend that you focus your novel-writing
process on story, not on plot. If you do it well, story
will be always at the core of your strongest writing.
Or, as I’ve said elsewhere: story rules, plot drools.
Philip Martin is director of Great Lakes Literary (
and runs an indie publishing house, Crickhollow Books
( He is a past acquisitions editor for The
Writer Books, when he worked with many prominent authors,
agents, and editors. His most recent book of literary advice is an
expanded edition of How To Write Your Best Story; this article is
drawn from it. He is also the author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature
and The Purpose of Fantasy. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. • The Writer | 37
The Forge Literary Magazine
This inclusive journal offers a wealth of opportunity
for both writers and editors.
ohn Haggerty, founding editor of
the 2-year-old literary magazine
The Forge, worries about people
who are forced to abandon their
writing because of careers and
family. To encourage and showcase
their talents, he and his fellow editors
launched the 2018 Forge Fellowship
for writers over 50 years old. Winners
receive $500 and the opportunity to
read and edit for the magazine over a
year. Forge editors offer a separate fellowship to a writer of color.
“We decided upon the two initial
Fellowship categories because we
want to be more active agents in
encouraging and facilitating diversity
in the literary community,” they note
on their website.
Volunteer editors from the international writers’ forum “Fiction Forge”
contribute their vision to this digital
publication. A rotating selection of editors chooses one piece of fiction or
nonfiction for publication every week.
The website also includes “wish lists”
from current editors.
Tone, editorial content
Haggerty appreciates submissions that
show a writer’s willingness to go to difficult and painful places. “That’s really
where the art is,” he observes. “Nonfiction, especially, hinges on telling some
sort of deep truth that you’ve discovered in your own life. That takes a lot
of courage. When we see that, it really
stands out.”
He sees that same sort of bravery in
skillful fiction writing. “Since it’s
invented, you have to have the courage to really inhabit that fictional
38 | The Writer • May 2018
piece, to bring something new into
the world even though someone
might say that it’s ridiculous and
makes no sense,” he explains. “It’s a
willingness to go to a difficult place,
to do something that people haven’t
seen before.”
As an example, he points to “Rain” by
Tricia Amiel (10/23/17), which begins:
“So I’m sitting there, in the
deepest funk, flipping through
the channels with the remote.
Some made-up blonde shows
“The story doesn’t tie everything up
in a nice bow,” Haggerty says. “But
there’s something there that happens,
and it feels like a profound shift and a
reason to read that story.”
Forge editors published author Nahid
Rachlin’s piece “Three Sharp-Edged
Memories” (1/23/17), about a Persian
woman revisiting three traumatic recollections of her childhood in Iran.
Haggerty selected this particular piece.
“It’s strong and visceral writing,” he
explains. “It would have pushed me to
the edge to write it.”
He also points to Natalia Theodoridou’s “The Emptiness Machine”
(4/3/17) as the type of fiction he likes
to highlight. The story begins, “You’d
have thought it was a mad scientist
who gave me the Emptiness Machine,
but that’s not true. It was a poet.” He
notes that the piece could almost be
classified as speculative fiction, on the
edge of experimental.
Generally, Haggerty and other editors at The Forge don’t publish genre
writing – submit plot-driven ghost stories and zombie stories elsewhere. “But
if a piece includes good characterization and a strong theme, we’d definitely
be willing to print that,” he says.
Advice for potential contributors
Haggerty hopes that writers will pay
particular attention to crafting power-
“Our taste is wide-ranging
and eclectic.”
Genre: Fiction and nonfiction.
Reading period: Year-round.
Length: Up to 3,000 words.
Submission format: Anonymously
online via magazine website.
Payment: $.05/word.
Contact: Current editors, via website.
ful first paragraphs and thought-provoking conclusions. “A lot of times, we
get stories going along really well, and
the characters are good, and the piece
feels like it might be emotionally resonate,” he explains, “and then it seems
like the writers just trail off. They’ve
written themselves into a corner and
don’t know what to do.”
If a story concludes ambiguously, as
Amiel’s “Rain” does, he wants to see
that the writer deliberately intended to
leave readers with a sense of unease
and lack of resolution.
Forge editors appreciate shorter
pieces, particularly flash and microprose. However, they will consider
submissions up to 3,000 words. All
pieces must be submitted anonymously
via Submittable.
Readers hoping to have work published in The Forge can read prose
selections for free on the magazine’s
website. Additionally, an online
department called “The Smithy”
includes interviews with writers talking about their newly published pieces
and announcements regarding the
winners of the Forge Fellowship.
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the
author of Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and
two adult memoirs. Web:
“If it hadn’t been for this conference,
I’d probably still be sitting on a rerun
of The Dating Game somewhere.”
Fannie Flagg, NYT bestselling author
Writers Conference
June 17-22, 2018
Join us for 6 days
beachside, at the
Santa Barbara Hyatt
• Workshops
• Agents
• Speakers
• Panels
• Improve your craft
• Find your tribe
• Make lifelong connections
© Peanuts Worldwide LLC
up, talking about Russian
women being sold as sex slaves.
‘Shocking story at eleven.’ I flip
again, and another blonde
appears, something unbelievable this time – some brother
getting the shit beat out of him
‘cause he’s in the wrong neighborhood. These people on the
TV don’t live nowhere ‘round
here, I know that. Else they
wouldn’t have the heart to be so
damned surprised all the time.”
Register online:
(805)568-1516 • The Writer | 39
Kauai Writers Conference
Want a little Hawaiian vacation with your writing education?
This is the conference for you.
40 | The Writer • May 2018
Katz explains. “We don’t want to be just a conference that
happens in Hawaii. We want to be genuinely Hawaiian.”
What you’ll learn
Master classes on Nov. 5-8 include a four-day focus on
memoir or poetry and four half-days of instruction in
screenwriting, voice in fiction, character psychology, independent publishing, and how to find and work with an
agent. “Go to a master class, if possible,” Katz advises.
“They’re all run by people who were specifically chosen
not just as well-known authors but as outstanding teachers
of writing.”
The writing conference, Nov. 9-11, offers a blend of craft
workshops, inspirational presentations, and opportunities to
pitch work to agents and editors. Participants can sign up for
manuscript critiques and consultations as well. These
John Sartin /
n November, when most of us settle in for a long,
chilly winter, participants at the Kauai Writers Conference gather at the Marriott Resort to learn and
network, kayak and surf, and stroll across white
sands under palm trees. “We have such a rich and diverse
faculty that writers are torn,” explains conference director
David Katz. “Should they go see a best-selling author or go
to the beach?”
There’s so much to see and do, in fact, that people end up
taking advantage of the conference hotel’s reduced rates for
three days before and three days after the conference – the
better to merge business with pleasure.
The first day of the conference begins with a traditional
Hawaiian blessing and concludes with a luau featuring singers, dancers, and traditional slack key guitar. “The luau
brings people into the understanding of Hawaiian culture,”
Kauai Writers Conference
DATES: Nov. 9-11, 2018
COST: From $695
LOCATION: Kauai, Hawaii
Conference director David Katz,
sessions take place in gazebos and
nooks overlooking the hotel pool and
the ocean.
To ensure that participants get to
meet with the agents and authors who
will be of most value to them and to
their particular writing project, the
conference offers free phone consultations prior to registration. (Interested
writers can visit the conference website
for details about these consultations.)
“We’ll ask you about what you’re
writing and whether you’ve published a
book before and get a feel for who you
should meet at the conference,” Katz
explains. “Maybe you should be sure to
connect with Christina Baker Kline or
be sure to have lunch with Jane Smiley.”
Featured presenters
This year, the conference welcomes
best-selling authors Smiley, Garth
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Stein, Alice Hoffman, Sara Gruen,
Kristin Hannah, Scott Turow, Baker
Kline, and others. Ellen Bass will speak
about the power of metaphor in poetry
and prose, while Kaui Hart Hemmings
will teach writers how to create a sense
of place. Jeff Arch will give a talk titled
“How a Schoolteacher wrote ‘Sleepless
in Seattle,’” while Stephanie Cabot and
Emma Sweeney will discuss “The
Agent/Author/Publisher Triangle.”
Independent publishing experts Jon
Fine, April Eberhardt, and Brooke
Warner will be on hand to talk about
exciting alternatives to traditional publishing. “The reality is that the majority
of people who attend any writers’ conference are probably not going to get a
big advance from Random House,”
Katz explains. “We want to serve a
broad community of writers. Independent publishing is not a second choice.
Years ago, there was a real stigma
against self-publishing. Now, because
of e-books, those days are gone.”
Don’t be afraid to grab those opportunities, he adds, from master classes
to informal discussions in the lush gardens to impromptu walks on the
beach. “All of our attending authors are
just people,” he explains. “They weren’t
born famous authors. They’re here to
share their stories with people who
would like to follow in their footsteps.”
Katz counts as his favorite part of the
Kauai Writers Conference the spontaneous interactions and meetings between
faculty and participants. “There’s this
informal openness because we’re meeting at this beautiful place right on the
beach,” he explains. “Everyone just kind
of lets their hair down.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the
author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the
Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and two memoirs for
adults. Web:
Advice for first-time attendees
Katz urges newcomers to spend time
on the conference website, clicking
through the various links and reading
participants’ bios to see what they’ve
written and what they teach. “If you
spend an hour or two going through
our website, you’ll gain a good understanding of the opportunities that are
available at the conference,” he says.
Creative Writing
Classes in NYC
& Online
GOTHAMWRITERS. COM • The Writer | 41
By the rules
Some rules are made to be broken, but in the world of writing contests, that’s not the case. Here are common elements to double check
before you submit your work. You don’t want to be disqualified for a
clerical error. 1.
Blind submissions are called such for a reason. If the contest you
enter is one of them, make sure your name and other vital details
don’t appear anywhere in the submission file. This includes: cover
page, title line, and header/footer. Online submission managers
have their own ways of identifying you – trust that they will work.
Be sure your submission is within the specified word count.
Judges may be willing to let 10 or 20 extra words slide, but if
you’re more than that, definitely make cuts. 3.
Stick with the theme of the contest you are entering, if there is
one. If you are on the fence over whether your story can be interpreted in just the right way to fit the theme, rethink the submission. Others will write a story with the details in mind, so your
stretch of a tale could get knocked out immediately.
The following contests are a sampling of what the industry has to
offer. You’ll find even more listings at, including our
own short fiction contests.
Information in this section is provided to
The Writer by the individual markets and
events; for more information, contact
those entities directly.
Subscribers to The Writer have online access to
information on publishers, publications,
conferences, contests and agents. Go to and click on Writing Resources.
F = Fiction N = Nonfiction P = Poetry
C = Children’s Y = Young adult O = Other
F THE WRITER SHORT STORY CONTEST Regularly hosted by The Writer magazine. Max 2,000 words. Submit via online
portal only. Deadline: Check website. Entry
fee: $25 for first entry, $15 for every additional entry on the same transaction. Prizes:
First place receives $1,000 and publication
in The Writer magazine. Second place
receives $500 and publication on The Writer
website. Third place receives $250 and publication on The Writer website. Contact: The
42 | The Writer • May 2018
three prizes for short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Submit via online submission manager only. Opens June 1.
Deadline: Oct. 1. Entry fee: $15 for one
work of fiction under 8,000 words, one work
of nonfiction under 6,500 words, or up to
three poems. Prizes: The winner in each
category will receive $1,000 and publication
online. Contact: American Literary Review.
O AMERICAN ZOETROPE SCREENPLAY CONTEST Aims to find new creative and compelling film narratives and
introduce the next generation of screenwriters to the leading production companies.
The winner and 10 finalists will be considered for representation by various agencies
and for film option by big-name studios.
Deadline: Check website for exact date.
Entry fee: Check website for fees. Prizes:
Grand prize winner receives $5,000; the
winner and finalists are considered for representation. Contact: American Zoetrope.
Email from website.
FOR POETRY Open to all poets regardless
of experience or past publications. Submit a
48- to 100-page collection of poems via regular mail or online submission manager.
Deadline: May 31. Entry fee: $25 for hard
copy entries, $28 for electronic submissions.
Prizes: $2,000, publication by Anhinga
Press, and a reading tour of select Florida
colleges and universities. Contact: Anhinga
Prize for Poetry, P.O. Box 3665, Tallahassee,
FL 32315.
CONTEST Seeks previously unpublished
short stories up to 5,000 words. Submit
using online submission manager. Deadline:
Check website for deadline. Entry fee: $20
per submission. Prizes: Winner receives
$1,500 and publication in Boston Review.
Runners up may also be published. Contact:
Short Story Contest, Boston Review, P.O.
Box 425786, Cambridge, MA 02142. Email
via online form. F N P AUTUMN HOUSE PRESS
CONTESTS Open to full-length collections
of poetry of 50-80 pages and fiction and
nonfiction submissions of 200-300 pages.
Deadline: June 30. Entry fee: $30. Prizes:
Winners in each category receive book publication, $1,000 advance, and a $1,500 travel
grant to promote his or her book. Contact:
Autumn House Press, 5530 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15206. 412-362-BOOK.
fiction (max 8,000 words), nonfiction (max
8,000 words) or up to three poems. Submit
by online submission manager. Deadline:
May 1. Entry fee: $10. Prizes: $1,000 in
each category and publication in Redivider.
Contact: Redivider.
PRIZES Honors outstanding writing in the
themes of health, healing, illness, the mind,
and the body. Fiction and nonfiction up to
5,000 words, and up to three poems. Deadline: Check website for deadline. Entry fee:
$20 per submission, max four submissions.
Prizes: First prize in each genre is $1,000
and publication. Honorable mentions
receive $250 and publication. Submit by
online submission manager only. Contact:
Bellevue Literary Review. 212-263-3973.
AWARD Recognizes a previously unpublished collection of poetry. A 48-page minimum, 96-page maximum. Submit through
online submission manager. Deadline: Oct.
31. Entry fee: $25 per submission. Prize:
$3,000 and publication by Red Hen Press.
Contact: Attn: Benjamin Saltman Award,
Red Hen Press, P.O. Box 40820, Pasadena,
CA 91114. 626-356-4760.
F P BLACK RIVER CHAPBOOK COMPETITION Semiannual contest for unpublished chapbooks of poems or fiction 16-36
pages long. Submit via online submission
manager. Deadline: May 31 for spring, Oct.
31 for fall. Entry fee: $15. Prizes: Publication, $500 and 10 copies of the chapbook.
Contact: Black Lawrence Press.
POETRY CONTEST Submit up to five
unpublished poems, no more than 10 pages
total, by regular mail or online submission
manager. Simultaneous submissions not
accepted. Entry fee includes three-issue sub-
scription. Deadline: June 1. Entry fee: $20.
Prize: $1,500 and publication in Boston
Review. Contact: Poetry Contest, Boston
Review, P.O. Box 425786, Cambridge, MA
previously unpublished poem, short story,
or flash fiction. Poems up to 42 lines, short
stories under 5,000 words and flash fiction
under 250 words. Open to anyone age 16
and older. See website for proper formatting.
Deadline: Check website for deadline.
Entry fee: £8 for flash fiction, £9 for each
poem, £10 per short story. Prizes: Short stories and poetry: £5,000/£1,000/£500 and 10
£100 prizes; flash fiction: £1,000/£500/£250
and three £100 prizes. Contact: The Bridport Prize, P.O. Box 6910, Dorset DT6 9BQ,
UK. Kate Wilson, Bridport Prize administrator:
POETRY PRIZES Awarded annually to the
two best book-length manuscripts of original poetry submitted in an open competition. Submissions are considered for both
prizes. Submit manuscripts between 50 and
90 pages. Deadline: Sept. 15. Entry fee: $28
per entry. Prizes: $1,000 and publication to
each winner. Contact: Brittingham and Pollak Poetry Prizes, c/o Ronald Wallace, UW
Press Poetry Series Editor, Dept. of English,
600 N. Park St., University of Wisconsin,
AWARDS Genre writing competitions for
fiction and nonfiction featuring more than a
dozen separate themes. Work must be at
least 40,000 words in length. Books may be
published, unpublished, indie, or traditional.
Deadline: Varies depending on award. Entry
fee: $75. Prizes: First-place winners receive a
prize package and marketing package; grand
prize genre winners receive $200; one overall
grand prize winner receives $1,000. Grand
prize winners announced at Chanticleer
Awards Gala. Contact: Chanticleer Book
first 50 pages of an unpublished mystery or
thriller manuscript of any subgenre. Affiliated with the Killer Nashville conference.
Deadline: April 1. Entry fee: $40. Receive a
written critique for an additional $20.
Prizes: Over $3,000 in prizes, plus possible
book advance, agent representation, and
movie deal. Contact: Killer Nashville
Award, P.O. Box 680759, Franklin, TN
37068. 615-599-4032.
Free contest awards unpublished poems and
stories with publication in the literary journal
of Barton College. No simultaneous submissions. Online submissions only. Submit up to
five poems or one story (8,000 words max).
Deadline: May 1. Entry fee: None. Prizes:
$150 in each category (poetry and fiction)
and publication in Crucible. Second prize,
$100 in each category. Sam Ragan Poetry
Prize of $150. All submissions to the magazine are automatically considered for the contest. Contact: Crucible. 800-345-4973.
Hosted by Artists Embassy International.
Forty lines maximum each poem. No limit
on number of entries. The grand prize-winning poems will be “danced” at the Dancing
Poetry Festival in San Francisco. Deadline:
April 15. Entry fee: One poem for $5 or
three poems for $10. Prizes: All winners will
receive a ticket to the Dancing Poetry Festival. Three grand-prize winners: $100 each.
Six first-prize winners: $50 each. Twelve second-prize winners: $25 each. Thirty thirdprize winners: $10 each. Contact: AEI
Contest Chair Judy Cheung. 704 Brigham
Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95404.
PRIZE FOR FICTION Open to writers who
have not yet published a book of fiction, either
a novel or collection of short stories. Submissions must be under 8,000 words. Deadline: • The Writer | 43
May 1. Entry fee: $25. Prize: $1,000 and publication in Southwest Review. Contact: The
Meyerson Fiction Prize, Southwest Review,
P.O. Box 750374, Dallas, TX 75275. F DRUE HEINZ LITERATURE PRIZE
Open to writers who have published a booklength collection of fiction or at least three
short stories or novellas in commercial magazines or literary journals. Eligible submissions
include a manuscript of short stories; two or
more novellas (a novella may comprise a
maximum of 130 double-spaced typed pages);
or a combination of one or more novellas and
short stories. All must be between 150 and
300 pages. Deadline: June 30. Entry fee:
None. Prize: $15,000 and publication by the
University of Pittsburgh Press. Contact: Drue
Heinz Literature Prize, University of Pittsburgh Press, 7500 Thomas Blvd., Pittsburgh,
PA 15260.
AWARD Submit unpublished fiction in any
style or with any theme. Maximum length of
3,000 words. Send manuscript via regular
mail only. Deadline: April 30. Entry fee: $15
for a single story, $10 for each additional.
Prizes: $1,100 for first place and additional
$100 to the editors’ choices. All winners are
eligible to be published on
and for inclusion in the permanent website
anthology. Additional P.L. Titus Scholarship
of $500 is awarded to the winner if they are
currently attending college. Contact: Koeppel Contest, P.O. Box 140310, Gainesville, FL
Website features multiple contests in all
genres running throughout the year. An
independent volunteer community reads
and discusses all entries. Contest entries
receive feedback from readers and other
authors. Deadline: Varies. Entry fee: Varies.
Prizes: Vary. Contact: Email from website.
44 | The Writer • May 2018
1-3 unpublished prose poems and shorts up
to 500 words. Deadline: June 15. Entry fee:
$10 per each set of three prose poems/shortshorts. Prizes: $1,000 and publication in the
Mid-American Review for first place. Ten
finalists also receive notation and possible
publication. Contact: Mid-American
Review, Department of English, Bowling
Green State University, Bowling Green, OH
CONTESTS Submit 8,500-10,000 words of
short fiction, multiple essays, or a self-contained manuscript excerpt. Any subject matter is welcome, and writers from all
backgrounds are encouraged to submit.
Enter online or by postal mail. Deadline:
Check website for deadline. Entry fee: $17
online. Prizes: $200, chapbook publication
and 25 free copies of the chapbook. Contact: Gertrude Press.
to a previously unpublished literary novel
between 30,000 and 100,000 words. Deadline: May 30. Entry fee: $50 per novel.
Prize: $3,000, publication and 20 copies of
publication. Contact: Robert L. Giron, Editor. Gival Press Novel Award, Gival Press,
LLC, P.O. Box 3812, Arlington, VA 22203.
contests held every month with various
themes. Word counts 300-12,000 and categories include family matters, open fiction,
and short story award for new writers.
Deadline: Varies. Entry fee: Up to $20.
Prizes: Range from $700 to $2,500. Contact:
Glimmer Train Press, P.O. Box 80430, Portland, Oregon 97280. 503-221-0836.
P GUY OWEN AWARD Southern Poetry
Review seeks unpublished poetry. Submit
three to five poems. 10 pages maximum.
Deadline: May 31. Entry fee: $20; includes
one year subscription to journal. Prize:
$1,000 and publication. Contact: Southern
Poetry Review, Guy Owen Prize, Dept. of
Languages, Literature and Philosophy, Armstrong Atlantic State University, 11935 Abercorn St., Savannah, GA 31419.
“Write about a difficult experience in your
life, how you overcame this obstacle, and
how you were changed by it.” Hosted by the
Writers’ Workshop of Asheville. Winning
stories chosen based on originality and style.
Unpublished stories only. Should not exceed
5,000 words. Deadline: May 31. Entry fee:
$25; $20 for members. Prizes: First place:
Choice of two-night stay at the Mountain
Muse B&B, three free workshops, or 50
pages (or 10 poems) line-edited and revised
by editorial staff. Second place: Choice of
one-night stay at B&B, two free workshops,
or 35 pages (or eight poems) line-edited.
Third place: Choice of one free workshop or
25 pages (or five poems) line-edited. Up to
10 honorable mentions. Contact: The Writers’ Workshop, 387 Beaucatcher Rd., Asheville, NC 28805.
Submit up to five unpublished haiku. Contest
held by the Haiku Society of America. Deadline: July 31. Entry fee: $5 per five haiku for
members, $7 per five haiku for nonmembers.
Prizes: $150/$100/$50. Winning haiku will
be published in Frogpond and on the HSA
website. Contact: Henderson Haiku Contest.
WRITERS Looking to discover and publish
new writing talent. Entries are assessed by
the Impress team and a shortlist from which
a panel chooses the winner. The panel is
comprised of representatives from the publishing industry and the writing community.
Deadline: Check website for deadline.
Entry fee: £15. Prizes: Winner gets a publishing contract and book published in
paperback and ebook forms. Runners up
also considered for publishing potential.
Contact: Impress Books Limited, Innovation Centre, Rennes Drive, University of
Exeter, Devon, EX4 4RN, UK.
F IOWA SHORT FICTION Submit a previously unpublished collection of short stories
of at least 150 pages. Manuscripts that have
been published in periodicals are eligible.
Authors cannot have a published book of
fiction. Submit by regular mail only. Deadline: Sept. 30. Entry fee: None. Prize: Publication by the University of Iowa Press.
Contact: Iowa Short Fiction Award, Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, 507 N. Clinton St., 102
Dey House, Iowa City, IA 52242.
Submit up to two poems per entry, no longer than 40 lines each, via online submission
form. Deadline: May 15. Entry fee: $20,
includes a free copy of Ruminate. Prizes:
$1,500 and publication for first place, $200
and publication for second place. Contact:
Ruminate magazine. Email via form on website.
F Y LEAPFROG PRESS FICTION CONTEST Submit unpublished adult, middle
grade, or YA fiction, novella or novel-length,
including short story collections. Minimum
length is 22,000 words. All submitted unpublished stories will be considered for publication. Email entries only. Deadline: June 15.
Entry fee: $33. Prizes: First prize: publication offer with an advance, in addition to the
finalist awards ($150 and one or two judge
critiques, permanent listing on contest page).
Contact: Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest.
Send unpublished poems up to 2,000 words.
All styles welcome and all entries considered
for publication. Deadline: July 15. Entry
fee: $10 per set of six poems or $15 for a set
of 10. Prizes: $1,000/$300/$200. Contact:
Literal Latté Awards, 200 E. 10th St., Suite
240, New York, NY 10003. 212-260-5532.
Email via online form.
CONTEST Send unpublished shorts, up to
2,000 words. All styles welcome. Deadline:
June 30. Entry fee: $10 per set of three
shorts or $15 for a set of six. Prize: $500.
Contact: Literal Latté, 200 E. 10th St., Suite
240, New York, NY 10003. 212-260-5532.
Email via online form.
unpublished fiction, no longer than 3,500
words. Only open to writers whose fiction
has not appeared in a nationally distributed
publication with a circulation of 5,000 or
more. Deadline: May 1 for regular entry;
May 15 for late entry. Entry fee: $15 per
story until May 1; $20 per story between
May 1 and 15. Prizes: $1,500 and publication
in Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts; second
and third place receive $500 each. Contact:
The Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, P.O. Box 2011, Key West, FL 33045.
FUTURE CONTEST Awards short fiction
up to 17,000 words written by emerging scifi, fantasy, and dark fantasy writers. Deadline: Quarterly. Entry fee: None Prizes:
$1,000 first prize awarded each quarter; one
of these winners also receives the $5,000
annual “Gold Award” grand prize. Each quarter, second place receives $750 and third place
receives $500. Contact: L. Ron Hubbard’s
Writers of the Future Contest, 7051 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Joni
FICTION Submit previously unpublished
works of fiction up to 8,000 words through
online submission manager only. All entrants
receive a complimentary issue of Philadelphia Stories contest issue. Deadline: June 15.
Entry fee: $15. Prizes: $2,000, an invitation
to an awards dinner at Rosemont College,
and publication in Philadelphia Stories; second place $500; third place $250; both published online. Contact: Philadelphia Stories.
AWARDS Includes the New Letters Prize
for Poetry and Fiction and the Conger Beasley Jr. Award for Nonfiction. All entries will
be considered for publication in New Letters.
Fiction and essays are not to exceed 8,000
words. A single poetry entry may contain up
to six poems. Deadline: May 18. Entry fee:
$24 for first entry, $15 for every entry after.
Includes one-year subscription to New Letters. Prizes: $1,500 for first place in fiction
and poetry; $2,500 for nonfiction. Contact:
New Letters Awards for Writers, UMKC,
University House, 5101 Rockhill Rd., Kansas
City, MO 64110. 816-235-1168.
CONTEST Open to writers who have never
published a full-length book of poetry or
who have published only one full-length
book of poetry. Max 120 pages. Judge: Srikanth Reddy. Deadline: June 30. Entry fee:
$27. Entrants who add $3 shipping will
receive an Omnidawn book of their choice.
Prize: $3,000, publication, and 100 copies of
the book. Contact: Omnidawn Publishing,
1632 Elm Ave., Richmond, CA 94805.
AWARD Open to Canadian citizens or residents who have not yet published a first
novel or short story collection. All submissions will be considered for paid ($250)
publication in the magazine. Submit via
online form. Deadline: May 28. Entry fee:
$40; includes a one-year Canadian subscription to The New Quarterly. Prize: $1,000.
Contact: The New Quarterly. 519-884-8111
ext. 28290. Email from website. • The Writer | 45
WRITER’S CONTEST Open to writers
who have not published a book or chapbook
of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. Submit
three to five pages of poems or up to 6,000
words of prose. Deadline: Check website for
deadlines. Entry fee: $24. Prizes: $2,000 in
each category and publication. Contact:
Ploughshares. 617-824-3757.
POETRY CONTEST Send up to three
poems, no more than 14 pages total. Submit
online or via regular mail. Deadline: April
30. Entry fee: $20 (includes a one-year subscription to River Styx). Prize: $1,500. Contact: River Styx International Poetry Contest,
3139A South Grand Blvd., Suite 203, St.
Louis, MO 63118.
all poets. Winning poems will be published
in the quarterly magazine, the Poets Touchstone. Limit 40 lines. Subject and form are
open. Poems must not be previously published, have won a prize, nor be currently
entered in another contest. Deadline: May
15. Entry fee: $3 for the first poem and $2
each for others. Entries limited to five
poems per poet per contest. Prizes: First
place, $100. Second place, $50. Third and
fourth places, $25 each. Contact: National
Contest Coordinator, Robert Crawford, 280
Candia Rd., Chester, NH 03036.
PRIZES Entries must be previously unpublished and fiction entries should be no longer than 25 typed, double-spaced pages.
Poetry entries can include any number of
poems up to 10 pages. Submit online or by
regular mail. Deadline: Sept. 15. Entry fee:
$14. Prizes: $1,000 and publication in The
Greensboro Review. Contact: The Robert
Watson Literary Prizes, The Greensboro
Review, MFA Writing Program, 3302
MHRA Building, UNC Greensboro, Greensboro, NC 27402.
Awards an original story with a minimum of
150 pages. Submissions accepted via online
submission manager. Deadline: Aug. 31.
Entry fee: $20. Prize: $1,000 and publication. Contact: Attn: Red Hen Press Fiction
Award, Red Hen Press, P.O. Box 40820, Pasadena, CA 91114. 626-356-4760.
Awards a nonfiction journalist or essayist
whose work “combines warmth, humor, wisdom, and concern with social justice.” Submit at least two articles, published or
unpublished, maximum 30 pages. Deadline:
July 1. Entry fee: None. Prizes: $5,000 stipend and month-long residency at the Blue
Mountain Center, a writers’ and artists’ colony in the Adirondacks. Contact: Richard J.
Margolis Award of Blue Mountain Center,
c/o Margolis & Bloom, 667 Boylston St., 5th
floor, Boston, MA 02116.
46 | The Writer • May 2018
nearly two centuries of existence, the Saturday Evening Post has published short fiction
by a who’s who of American authors – ultimately helping to define what it means to be
an American. Submit any genre of fiction
between 1,500 and 5,000 words. All stories
must be previously unpublished. Electronic
submissions only. Deadline: July 1. Entry
fee: $10. Prizes: Winning story will be published in the January/February 2019 edition
of The Saturday Evening Post, and the author
will receive $500. Five runners-up will each
receive $100 and will also have their stories
published online. Contact: Editorial, The
Saturday Evening Post, 1100 Waterway Blvd.,
Indianapolis, IN 46202. 317-634-1100.
P SLAPERING HOL PRESS CHAPBOOK COMPETITION Seeks poetry collections by authors who have not previously
published a poetry book or chapbook. Submit 16 to 20 pages by mail or online. Deadline: June 15. Entry fee: $15. Prizes: $1,000,
publication, 10 copies of the chapbook, and
a reading at The Hudson Valley Writers’
Center. Contact: The Editors, SHP Chapbook Competition, The Hudson Valley
Writers’ Center, 300 Riverside Drive, Sleepy
Hollow, NY 10591.
EDITION Submit works of poetry (60-line
limit), nonfiction (5,000-word limit), or fiction (5,000-word limit). Any topic will be
considered. Previously published work is not
admissible. Deadline: Check website for
deadline. Entry fee: None. Prizes: Check
website for prizes. Contact: Snake Nation
Press, 110 West Force St., Valdosta, GA
PRIZE Offered annually to a poet who has
not previously published a full-length collection of poems. Submission must consist of 50
to 70 pages of poetry, with no more than one
poem per page. Winner will be chosen by
Ellen Bass. Submit by regular mail or through
online submission. Deadline: May 1. Entry
fee: $25. Prizes: $2,500 and publication by
Kent State University Press. Contact: Stan
and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, Wick Poetry
Center, Kent State University, P.O. Box 5190,
AND POETRY Submit original fiction or
nonfiction of up to 5,000 words or submit
three to five poems or one long poem of at
least five pages. Submit online only. Deadline: Sept. 3. Entry fee: $15 per entry.
Prizes: $500 plus online publication in each
genre. Runners-up may also receive online
publication and a small monetary prize.
Seeks writing that expresses a religious or
spiritual experience or promotes tolerance.
Submit fiction or nonfiction up to 20 pages
or submit up to six poems. Online submissions only. Deadline: June 1. Entry fee: $15.
Prizes: $500 and publication in Tiferet for
best entry in each genre. Contact: Tiferet
POETRY CONTEST Open for poems in
any style or theme. The Margaret Reid Prize
awards poems with rhyme or traditional
style. The Tom Howard Prize is given to the
best poem of any style. Submit through
online form. Deadline: Sept. 30. Entry fee:
$12 per poem. Prizes: $1,500 for each of the
two categories. Ten honorable mentions will
receive $100 each. Top 12 entries published
on the Winning Writers website. Contact:
Winning Writers. 351 Pleasant St., PMB 222,
Northampton, MA 01060. 413-320-1847.
Adam Cohen, president:
READERS should use caution when entering into any
legal contract with a literary service offering agentingtype assistance; publishers who charge, rather than
pay, an author for publication; publishers who require
a purchase before publication and contests that charge
high entrance fees. The Writer also recommends
requesting a list of references and submission
guidelines before submitting a manuscript. If you have
any concerns regarding the advertiser’s commitment
or claims, please contact the advertiser and make
certain all questions are answered to your satisfaction.
ADVERTISERS We do not accept ads from agents
or businesses that charge a reading or marketing
fee; Subsidy Publishers: Copy of contract. In
order to effectively handle questions from our
readers regarding the products and services of our
advertisers, the staff of The Writer asks that you
provide us with some supplemental information,
especially for first time advertisers. Examples
include—Contests: Fee requirements, prizes and if
purchase is necessary to qualify; Correspondence
Schools: Copy of student’s contract, copy of
critiqued assignment, documentation if course
is accredited; Editing Services: Resumes showing
qualifications of service providers, a sample critique,
general cost of services; Literary Services: General
cost of services, resume of service providers,
verification that at least 50% of business income
is from commission on sales. For our private
records, please provide us with a street address
and contact telephone number. The Writer reserves
the right to reject or cancel any advertising
which at its discretion is deemed objectionable,
misleading or not in the best interest of the reader.
Send Your Ad To: The Writer, Sales Account
Manager 25 Braintree Hill Office Park, Suite 404
Braintree, MA 02184 or call (617) 279-0213 E-mail: Major credit cards accepted.
POETRY Submit a manuscript between 75
and 100 pages. Previously published work
is eligible. Deadline: Aug. 31. Entry fee:
$25. Prizes: $1,000 and publication. Contact: Snake Nation Press, 110 W. Force St.,
Valdosta, GA 31601.
A Cutting Edge Editing
Respect for Your Voice
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$3/double-spaced page
9971 Cabanas Ave., Tujunga CA 91042
PROFESSIONAL EDITOR, Award-winning Author
(Bantam, Berkley/Ace, others) offers extensive
critiques, respectful in-depth editing. Fiction, nonfiction, juvenile/YA. Carol Gaskin 941-377-7640.
Email: or website:
EDITING WITH PANACHE. Editor-writer is an
acclaimed novelist, biographer, critic, and creative
essayist. Fiction and nonfiction. Responsive and
meticulous. Competitive rates. Free 10 page sample
edit with critique. Geoffrey Aggeler, Ph.D. (805)
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feedback. Free sample edit. New Leaf Editing. or e-mail
Unlock the potential of your manuscript!
Want to write a good book? I can help.
Helga Schier, PhD,
AND COMPETITION Open to West Virginia residents and students attending school
in the state. Awards unpublished fiction of
up to 5,000 words that fosters an appreciation of Appalachian culture and values. The
submission may not have received any other
award, recognition, or special honor. Deadline: May 1. Entry fee: None. Prizes: $500
first prize and possible publication, $100
each for second and third place. Contact:
West Virginia Fiction Competition, Department of English, Shepherd University, P.O.
Box 5000, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. 304876-5000.
published author and former
publishing executive, offers
powerful, comprehensive,
personalized and effective
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“When Helga entered the picture, my manuscript
went from promising to a published and critically
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Malinda McCollum
hort story writer Malinda
McCollum’s work has been
recognized with a Pushcart
Prize, the Plimpton Prize, and
the prestigious Stegner Fellowship. Her
first book, The Surprising Place, winner
of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is a
collection of linked stories set primarily in Des Moines, Iowa. Deeply affecting, her stories about Midwesterners
and their struggles are engrossing and
full of humanity.
Though the stories in The Surprising
Place take place pre-2000, before technology became a ubiquitous part
everyday life, her current writing project involves present-day stories that
roam up and down the East Coast.
Why short stories?
In Tobias Wolff ’s Paris Review interview,
he says he values short stories for their
“exactitude, clarity, and velocity.” I think
the qualities of “exactitude” and “clarity”
draw many writers to the genre – short
stories allow for a precision that may be
tougher to achieve in novels. But for me,
it’s the term “velocity” that truly captures
the short story’s appeal. A great short
story is urgent, insistent, and propulsive.
It’s like a whirlwind or a whoosh!
On teaching writing
When I was younger, I thought writing
ability was innate – you either have it
or you don’t. Luckily, my foolishness
was tempered by studying with brilliant teachers like James Alan McPherson. Jim had a way of enlarging the
stories that were up for discussion.
He’d take a draft others might dismiss
as shallow or stupid and – without
relying on empty flattery or intellectual
sleight-of-hand – locate something distinctive and essential about the piece.
48 | The Writer • May 2018
Jim operated on the assumption that
everyone has valuable stories to tell
and that workshops can help writers
discover and evolve those singular stories. To this day, I try to follow Jim’s
example in the classes I teach.
Midwestern settings
I was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and
lived there until I was 17 and went to
college in California. Since then, I’ve
resided all over the country, but I still
go back to Iowa every summer. It’s a
deeply familiar place to me. It’s also a
mysterious and sometimes maddening
place to me, especially in recent years,
with the state’s political shift toward
bombast and bigotry. In my stories, I
wanted to go beyond the archetypal
image of Midwesterners as clear-eyed
and level-headed – or as provincial and
repressed – and explore characters
with more complexity.
The physical landscape of the Midwest fascinates me too, as does the
region’s collection of natural disasters:
floods, tornadoes, and the 17-year
cicadas that pop up throughout my
book. I remember the cicadas emerging one summer when I was a kid, and
being amazed and horrified by their
non-stop singing and by their crispy
corpses on the sidewalks and in the
trees. Those cicadas transformed an
ordinary landscape into something
unsettling and surreal, and I aimed to
do something similar with the stories
in The Surprising Place.
Creating a linked story collection
I didn’t plan to write a collection of
linked stories set in Des Moines.
Instead, it was a gradual process, as I
found myself revisiting earlier settings
and characters, sometimes years later.
I also started to notice certain images
resurfacing in multiple stories, which
got me thinking about how different
characters’ paths might intersect. My
hope is this indirect approach to
structuring the book has kept the collection from feeling overdetermined
or contrived.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based
in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Get your free guide to inding a literary
agent, including the contact information
and submission preferences for more
than 80 agencies!
to download this valuable resource today!
At last!
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0 off
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You can't find this in print.
Sam’s Tackle Box
was wall-to-wall
packed so tight it
fooled most customers into
thinking that
everything for sale was already on display. But Elana Hall wasn’t fooled.
Though the store stunk of bait and
brine, she could still catch the sour
odor of methamphetamine, which Sam
himself cooked regularly in a wellvented room above the sales floor.
Elana came to the Tackle Box with
her daughter Jeanette every week,
though neither had much affection for
fish. Still, the kid went wild in the
place, and broke away from her mother
as soon as they passed through the
door. Elana, troubled and aching,
paused next to an arrangement of
musky lures and watched her go.
Weren’t children’s senses supposed to
be more acute than adults? Shouldn’t
Sam’s reek and clutter be too much for
her girl? A dim memory surfaced from
her own past, a trip to New York City,
to Chinatown, the smell of fish so
overwhelming that she begged her dad
to return to Des Moines straight away.
The fact that her daughter could handle Sam’s – the fact that she sometimes
seemed to love it – suggested Jeanette
was already leaving childhood behind.
Physical senses dulling, their loss soon
to be offset by increased insight and
guile. A pain pulsed behind Elana’s
eyes. It frightened her, this coming Jeanette. This clever spy replacing her
dreamy little tot, who understood and
wanted not much at all.
“Friends!” Sam’s third wife called
from behind the register. Her name
was Janice and she wore studded
wristbands, a leotard, and a long, low
ponytail, as if any minute she might
either punch somebody or pull out a
sticky mat and pop into DownwardFacing Dog.
Elana allowed a thin smile of anticipation. Janice pushed a button beneath
the counter, and they both listened to a
faint bell ring overhead. There was the
solid sound of boots hitting the floor.
A door closing. The ee-aw of the stairs.
Then Sam himself, from behind a
green curtain on the side wall, still
handsome and imposing at sixty. And
Elana as happy to see him as a kid at
the Ceilidh, when he’d grab her to join
a Gordon dance with his now-dead
first wife and her dad.
She moved toward him quickly. But
out from an aisle ran her daughter,
crashing into his legs. Sam lifted Jeanette, and she opened up to flaunt her
horrible new braces.
“Mom said they make me look
beautiful!” she squealed.
“Your mom’s a real sweet lady,”
Sam said smoothly. “Your mom’s
something else, that’s for sure.” He set
the girl down. “In fact, I’d like to talk
to your mom in private. I have an idea
for your birthday present that I need
to float.”
“We got some Fuzz-E-Grubs in,” Janice called enticingly. “I haven’t put them
out yet, but I’ll let you take a look.”
Her daughter rushed to the counter, and Elana followed Sam through
an aisle of rigs and out a rear screen
door to the Mirage. Thirty years ago
he’d created it by fencing off half his
parking lot and planting oak trees and
grass. The last six months had seen the
addition of motion-sensitive lights
and barbed wire. The lights were
designed to function only at night, but
through the years, the oaks had grown
aggressively, and the Mirage was overhung with a dense awning of leaves
that nearly blocked the sun. As Elana
and Sam entered, individual floods
clicked on and spotlighted their movements – her sitting in a ratty mesh
lounger, him hauling himself into the
bass boat he’d parked on blocks.
This was in June, during a summer
when the seventeen-year cicadas
emerged from underground. The trees
were filled with buzz, males drumming
their abdomens while females laid eggs
and died. But in spite of the noise, the
headache Elana had been fronting all
day stepped back. Around Sam, things
settled into place. He took over whatever story you were telling so you
could sit down and shut up.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
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