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The Writer - February 2018

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Top tips
your writing
The cardinal rules
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February 2018 • Volume 131 Number 2
Trapped in the middle of your manuscript? Here’s how to move forward.
Residency, workshop, or conference:
Which is right for you?
Cardinal rules
of writers’
Three must-follow guidelines to
ensure a successful writing
Putting words
to work
Figurative language in fiction
results in deeper meanings and
poetic beauty.
Drafting those
many drafts
The 10 revision phases your novel
needs to endure before publication.
The art of visualization
From the Editor
Take Note
Featuring Jeannie Vanasco,
Libby Cudmore, and more.
How to make your characters
and settings come alive.
Making connections
42 Markets
Online critique groups offer
support, guidance, and
Black Fox Literary Magazine
47 Classified advertising
48 How I Write
Kristen Iskandrian: “I really wanted
to plunge into the all-consuming
world of the novel. I wanted to try
it because it really scared me.”
This seven-year-old
publication courts writing
of all genres.
Killer Nashville
This thrilling conference
allows participants to learn
about the industry, sharpen
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Put our free e-mail newsletter
to work: Check out our weekly
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Cover: mr_bigote/Shutterstock
thewritermag • The Writer | 3
Senior Editor Nicki Porter
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart
Copy Editor Toni Fitzgerald
Art Director Carolyn V. Marsden
Graphic Designer Jaron Cote
eaders, I have a confession: Every time I step into a home
décor store, I get a little nauseous.
Naturally, this is a bit of a problem when you’re still trying to furnish a home you moved into last July. But every
time I enter these stores, I become overwhelmed at the sheer amount
of words plastered on every mug, rug, or pillow shanty. “IT’S FALL,
Y’ALL!” scream the decorative cheese plates. “LIVE EVERY DAY LIKE
A NEW ADVENTURE!” admonishes the wall art. “I LOVE TO
COOK WITH WINE,” confesses the cutting board. “SOMETIMES I
I hate it. I hate it so much it makes me dizzy. And for the longest
time, I couldn’t figure out why. It doesn’t bother me a bit when others
fill their homes with meaningful quotes or clever sayings. Words are
my life’s work, my most loyal obsession. Why didn’t I want to paper my
walls with them?
Eventually, I realized my nausea had nothing to do with taste; it was
about my needs as a writer. I craved a home full of images that tell
their own stories. I wanted a house full of metaphors, not similes. And
most importantly, I needed to make room to write my own words. I
couldn’t have my private space cluttered up with someone else’s.
That’s not to say we mustn’t seek out the words of others; we must
read, widely and often, to become better writers (and humans). But
these words have their place: between covers of books, magazines,
journals. Then it’s time to close them and tell our own stories.
Please, please do not underestimate the need for a safe space from
which to call forth your own magic. Tear the clichés from the walls.
Rip down the weighty words of others and give yourself permission to
tell your own. This is your home, your cocoon, your well. Make room
for it.
Perhaps “room” means a literal room of one’s own. Maybe it’s time
apart from kids, chores, work obligations. Or perhaps it just means you
muster up the will to write unfettered by self-editing or self-doubt.
Whatever your own room is, please promise you’ll find it.
Chin up, chest out; seize it with both hands.
That’s the easy part, dear readers.
Now you must work – every day – to never, ever let it go.
Keep writing,
Nicki Porter
Senior Editor
4 | The Writer • February 2018
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in the U.S.A.
is no greater agony than bearing an
untold story inside you.”—Maya Angelou
Once more,
to Pen in Hand
One writer owes her career
to a small-town conference.
Seventeen years later,
it was time to repay
that debt.
Olga Tropinina/Shutterstock
he Travelodge at Little Falls looked exactly as I’d
remembered it. Same tired carpet, same deep-fried
buffet lunch, same slightly-musty smell, as though the
ghosts of cigarettes smoked and coffee brewed during sales
conferences from the 1970s still lingered in the ceiling tiles.
The only thing that had changed about the Pen in Hand
Young Writers Conference, it seemed, was me.
Soon, the ballroom at the Travelodge would be filled with
student writers, carrying battered composition books and
leather-bound journals, anxious to work with published
writers to polish their craft. Seventeen years ago, I entered
that ballroom for the first time, armed with a spiral-bound
Five Star and spiderweb lace gloves, an overly chatty goth girl
thrilled to finally be recognized as a writer. Seventeen years
later, I was entering as a mentor, having just published my
debut novel, The Big Rewind, to critical acclaim, including a
starred review from Kirkus and praise from USA Today. I
had become the writer I’d always dreamed of being, and it
was time to give back to the place that set me on my journey.
The Pen in Hand conference was the brainchild of Diane
Wager, an English teacher at Dolgeville Central School who
envisioned 24 hours where students from small schools
across upstate New York could celebrate and workshop their
writing with published authors. For many of us, it was the
first chance to admit we were writers, to confess to scribbling stories instead of math problems, that we preferred the
solitude of study hall to the wild rumpus of gym class. Many
of my peers didn’t even have a creative writing elective they
could take; their writing was relegated to a few class assignments or their allotted free time on the family computer.
And we’d all been chosen for our talent, selected and invited
by Ms. Wager to participate. The moment I got the news
that I had been chosen was one of the highlights of my high
school years, an honor I would never forget.
But standing at the entrance at that ballroom again, I felt
that same giddy hesitation I recognized from my teenage
years. Would they like me? Was I as good as I believed
myself to be? What if they could detect that I was another
dorky adult trying too hard to be cool, like a youth pastor or
a camp counselor not quite comfortable in her own skin?
Seventeen years may have meant a published novel and the
absence of those great spiderweb gloves, but the anxiety was
still there, the temptation to hide in my room, to call my
husband to come get me as I’d once wanted to call my mom.
Returning to my hotel room, I made a cup of bitter black
coffee. I’d taken my first sip of this same acidic brew in one
of these same anonymous hotel rooms years ago, trying to
stay awake to talk all night with new friends Jason and Stacy
and Laura and Raphael. I thought about the coffee dates
with my favorite college professor where we drank French
roast and talked about Raymond Chandler, my morning cup
of Café Bustelo in my Steely Dan mug as I sat down to write
The Big Rewind. How none of that would have been possible
if not for this conference. I had come back to this place
because within these walls, I had learned that what I did was
important, that it was valuable, that it was a viable career • The Writer | 5
option when every other teacher told
me to be reasonable and focus my
studies on practical work. Now it was
my turn to instill that same confidence
into the next generation, to praise and
encourage them, to make them feel
like the literary rock stars I knew they
could each grow up to be.
Back in the ballroom, the kids had
arrived and were starting to gather.
Some were greeting old friends with
hugs and loud voices, others were
clutching their journals to their chest
or sketching quietly in the corner. I
even saw one girl with black lace
gloves. (Some things never change.)
But what really struck me was their
enthusiasm, their desire simply to write,
unfettered by submission guidelines
and form rejection letters. They wrote
solely because they loved to write. Some
of them would make careers of it, others
would let it fall by the wayside as other
hobbies took its place, but for now, they
were here for the craft – not the glory,
not a grade. Just to create. It was a lesson, I’m ashamed to admit, that I had
forgotten in my drive for awards and
recognition and publication.
Seated at a long table in the back of
the ballroom, I could have lectured
them about character and plot, chided
them about motivation and dialogue,
sneered at Twilight and fanfiction. But
the truth was, I didn’t remember one
writing exercise from my time there.
What I remembered was how being
among other writers made me feel.
They would have college writing
classes and workshops and assignments to tighten up those descriptions
and flesh out those characters. My task
was to celebrate them as writers no
matter what they wrote, to encourage
them to keep writing when their lives
would be filled with people who told
them to give up. I wanted to show
them that books aren’t written by
magic, that it’s hard and beautiful and
fulfilling work, but that they were just
as capable as anyone of turning those
notebook pages into typeset print.
I let them leaf through the handmade journals I wrote The Big
Rewind in. I talked about the process
of publishing, from my first short
story in Hardboiled to prize-winning
works in The Stoneslide Corrective, on
writing for a newspaper and music
magazines and anthologies. I gave
them magazines and asked them to
find a picture that spoke to them, to
cut out and glue that picture into
their notebooks and write a story
around it. Some were silly, others
were epic, and one was told from a
dog’s point of view.
And when it came time to read, we
tossed my good-luck dinosaur, Valerie,
around the table to squeeze when they
got nervous, just as I did at my own
readings. Every kid in my workshop
held Valerie. Every kid in my workshop read their work, smiles stretching
across their faces. I knew that look. It
was the look that radiated Someone
finally hears me. Someone finally
believes in me. I’d been there, my feet
on this same carpet, and it was that
same glorious feeling that kept me
going when it felt like I would never
succeed, when three different novels
came back with rejection letters. More
than the comb-bound anthologies,
more than the photos on my disposable camera or the photocopied writing assignments in the red folder that
identified me in the fiction writing
group, that confidence was the real Pen
in Hand souvenir. Ms. Wager was the
first person to acknowledge me as a
writer, not just the girl in the corner
with the notebook. I’ve been to plenty
of other writing conferences, but none
of them as meant as much to me as
that first Pen in Hand.
At the end of our session, I asked all
of my students to sign their stories in
my copy of the anthology. “Practice
your signature now,” I told them.
“Because you’ll need it to sign your
own books someday.”
I’ve been there. I would know.
—Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind
(William Morrow, 2016) and has written for
Barrelhouse, Paste, PANK, and the anthologies
Hanzai Japan, Welcome Home, and Mixed Up.
She is the managing editor of the Hometown
Oneonta and Freeman’s Journal newspapers in
Cooperstown, New York, and hosts the weekly
#RecordSaturday live-tweet at @LibbyCudmore.
6 | The Writer • February 2018
often we write down a sentence too early, then
¾ “Very
another too late; what we have to do is write it down at
the proper time, otherwise it’s lost.” —Thomas Bernhard
Jeannie Vanasco
Jeannie Vanasco’s debut memoir,
The Glass Eye, was published by
Tin House Books in 2017 to critical
acclaim. It’s a poignant, haunting
story about her complex family
relationships and struggles with
mental illness. It was named a
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, an
Entertainment Weekly Best Book, and a Publishers Weekly
Big Indie Book; it also won praise from a number of other
publications, including New York Magazine and Newsweek.
Vanasco’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The
Believer, and elsewhere. She currently
teaches at Towson University in Baltimore. WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU’VE
I’m trying to think of a way to say this that doesn’t sound
banal or obvious, but a writing routine helps. It’s essential
for when I feel stuck or uninspired. After I find a good
routine – which, for me, usually involves absolute quiet, at
least two hours of uninterrupted time, and a pot of black
coffee – the writing starts going well, and then I can forget
about the routine. I can write wherever I am. I can be
watching a basketball game at a bar, or I can be between
student office hour appointments. But when I’m trying to
finish something – that’s when I need the routine again.
The middle, unstructured period is the best.
For a good two months or so after finishing The Glass Eye,
I sank into a mopey I’ll-never-write-another-book-again
mode, which made me horrible to be around. So, I set a
schedule for myself: between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., I’d write
aimlessly, no project in mind. But unlike in the past, the
rule was: only one mug of black coffee. The refill was the
thing I had to look forward to when I was done. The first
week, I wrote garbage and knew it was garbage. And then
one morning I woke up and wrote a 1,600-word essay,
start to finish. That morning felt magical. But the essay
didn’t emerge mysteriously or suddenly from my
unconscious mind. It took a solid week of writing badly.
And that’s an important lesson – about as important, I
think, as having a routine; let yourself write badly.
—Gabriel Packard is the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel, published by
Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown.
Theresa Keil
What Editors Do: The Art,
Craft, and Business of
Book Editing
Edited by Peter Ginna
We know how important
book editors are; we know
our manuscript will eventually need one if we intend to
see it traditionally published.
Editors are usually listed
right behind an author’s
spouse, parents, or god on acknowledgement pages –
and sometimes even before. But what do they really do?
That’s the question this anthology attempts to answer,
featuring essays written by 27 different publishing professionals. The book tackles both the editing process as
a whole (“from proposal to book”) and in-depth analyses of editing niches: literary fiction, genre fiction, academic nonfiction, freelancing, line editing, and more.
I Should Be Writing:
A Writer’s Workshop
By Mur Lafferty
This colorful handbook
from the host of the popular award-winning “I
Should Be Writing” podcast
promises to contain “a writer’s workshop in a book.”
Bite-size, easy-to-read
chapters coach new writers
through everything from
imposter syndrome to writer’s block. “I am here to tell
you not to quit,” Lafferty says. “Don’t lose years off
your writing life for no better reason than ‘I’m not
good enough.’” When Lafferty’s writing and life lessons conclude, it’s time to write; the book finishes
with 50-plus pages of writing exercises to get readers’
creativity flowing. • The Writer | 7
Getting pitched, getting hitched
nyone who’s read the romantic
classics of the past few centuries is well-versed in literary
marriage proposals. There’s Mr. Darcy’s courtly declaration of love and
admiration for Elizabeth Bennet in
Pride and Prejudice; Rhett Butler’s
coarse but witty proposition to newly
widowed Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with
the Wind; Benedick and Beatrice’s
begrudging confession of mutual adoration in Shakespeare’s Much Ado
about Nothing.
When Portland, Oregon, writer
Jason Brick considered how to craft a
memorable marriage proposal to his
girlfriend, literary agent Rachel Letofsky, he knew he was up against some
historically steep competition. So he
pitched her the first page of a
Flash back to the year before, when
Brick and Letofsky met at Write on the
River, a conference in Wenatchee,
Washington. Brick fell immediately in
love, and the two began a long-distance relationship. Eventually, they
began to talk about marriage. She
didn’t want a big wedding but longed
for a memorable proposal.
That’s when Brick came up with
his plan.
“Willamette Writers was going to
do a one-page live manuscript critique
event at the Lombard Pub in Northwest Portland,” he explains. “Rachel
and author Linda Needham would be
up on stage, listening to the emcee
read each page aloud to the audience,
and then they would offer their notes
on the writing and the plot.”
8 | The Writer • February 2018
Jason Brick and Rachel Letofsky at their wedding
in Portland, Oregon.
After talking with Letofsky’s two best
friends to ensure that such a public proposal would be welcome, Brick wrote it
into a one-page story. He invited a few
of his literary family members as witnesses and made sure emcee Julie Fast
read his anonymous submission last.
There’s a YouTube video that shows
Letofsky and Needham up on stage in
the dimly lit bar, taking notes as the
emcee reads into a microphone.
Letofsky smiled slightly as she listened to the first paragraph of Brick’s
piece. “I thought I recognized his sense
of humor in the opening lines,” she
says. “I thought he snuck in a piece to
be critiqued.”
And so he did.
His carefully crafted page followed a
conversation between two friends, one
of whom lamented about how YouTube videos intimidate him, especially
when he watched marriage proposals
taking place in hot air balloons or as
part of flash dance mobs.
“I have the piece of paper on which
Rachel wrote a critique of my first few
paragraphs,” Brick says. “She wrote
down, ‘Ooh, who’s the girl?’”
His piece continued with the protagonist complaining, “How does a guy
like me compete with stuff like that?”
He has the friend offer this advice:
“You get her in a room a lot like where
you met her a year ago. You get her
doing the thing where you first noticed
her kindness and her beauty and her
intelligence. What is it you always say
about her brains: How she shines without casting shadows?”
At this point, Letofsky recognized
the latter phrase, blushed deeply, then
began to laugh. Brick got down on
one knee in front of the stage and
offered her a ring made of dinosaur
bones and meteorite with a fire opal
at the center.
Letofsky stepped off the stage and
jumped into his arms. “Yes, of course I
will!” she cried.
One writer called out, “Well
Another cried, “Turn the page!”
And the couple embraced to
applause and shouts of joy from an
audience grateful to be included in
the story.
Brick and Letofsky married in the
Shakespeare Garden at Portland’s
International Rose Test Garden, surrounded by roses named after
This proposal swept an agent off her feet.
best ideas will eat at you for days, maybe even
¾ “The
weeks, until something, some incident, some impulse,
triggers you to finally express them.” —Criss Jami
—Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Wild Within: How
Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2015) and Avenging the Owl (Sky
Pony, 2016). Web:
characters in the Bard’s plays. “How lucky I feel to build a
life with someone in the same industry,” Brick says, “someone who also works from home, so that we can build a literary career together.”
Want to craft a memorable marriage proposal yourself?
Brick says to listen carefully to your partner, pay attention,
and take notes. “It’s just like any writing project,” he
explains. “The 30 seconds it takes you to write down a sentence isn’t when the work happens. It takes years of experience, work, training, critique, and education to be able to
write that line you typed. The whole proposal took a couple
of minutes, but I spent hours getting my ducks in a row, asking her friends for advice, listening to her about what she
wanted, etc.”
For her part, Letofsky concludes with this advice for
those about to propose to a beloved: “Be original,” she says.
Watch the marriage proposal at “A Writer’s Proposal” on
Jason Brick’s YouTube channel.
What kind of proposal would your
main character like? Something
quiet in nature, with no one else
around? A big, public jumbotron
affair? In a cave, a lab, or on a walk
on Planet Zeptair? Or would your
character reject a proposal
altogether? Write how you
think the scene would play
out, from initial idea
to final answer.
The Oldest Low-Residency
Fiction | Nonfiction | Poetry
Past and Present Guest Writers and Editors Include:
Richard Bausch, Michael Connelly, Lydia Davis, Arthur Flowers, Nick Flynn, Roxane Gay,
Hal Hartley, Amy Hill Hearth, Eli Horowitz, Leslie Jamison, Denis Johnson, Miranda July,
Ben Lerner, Jamaal May, Susan Minot, Rick Moody, Francine Prose, George Saunders,
Heather Sellers, Patricia Smith, Wesley Stace, Deborah Treisman, Lidia Yuknavitch
Teaching Faculty Include:
Jessica Anthony, Sandra Beasley, John Capouya, Brock Clarke, Erica Dawson (director),
Mikhail Iossel, Stefan Kiesbye, Kevin Moffett, Donald Morrill, Josip Novakovich,
Jason Ockert, Alan Michael Parker, Jeff Parker, Corinna Vallianatos, Jennifer Vanderbes
Learn more at
or by calling (813) 258-7409. • The Writer | 9
The art of visualization
ou know those wonderful stories with a complicated protagonist who goes through a profound
internal struggle? Where you can see her in your
mind’s eye and experience exactly what she’s feeling? You temporarily forget you’re just reading – that you’re
not actually the character herself. Every writer wants their
characters to feel so real you can not only reach out and
touch them but actually walk around in their skin. But how
do you make it happen?
Here are two methods that will help you zap readers right
into the heads of your characters.
I like to practice what I call “writing blindfolded” (well, I
actually just close my eyes). Before you bruise a rib from
raucous laughter, just give it a try. Let’s write about someone
going through an embarrassing experience; think of a time
when you suffered an embarrassment.
Now, close your eyes.
10 | The Writer • February 2018
Transport yourself to a time when something outrageously humiliating happened to you. Imagine yourself in
that very moment. What do you hear? See? Smell? And
most importantly, what do you feel?
What is your body language? Are your shoulders
slumped in surrender? Is your head hanging low, looking
down at your feet? Are your cheeks hot to the touch and
turning a bright apple-red? Are you trying to make yourself invisible? Are there people around you who saw what
happened? Are they laughing or defending you? Are there
any smells surrounding you? (Does the scent of freshly
baked school cafeteria yeast rolls still make you want to
run and hide?)
OK. Now I’ll close my eyes.
I am again twentysomething, hustling into work, my
nose running from the cold wind. I speed-walk through the
parking lot and count my steps – one, two, three... I wear
Teguh Jati Prasetyo/Shutterstock
How to make your characters and settings come alive.
“I find that visualization
comes best from immersion,”
says Jodi Picoult.
my calf-length woolen dress coat over
my office attire, stockings and high
heels included. Seventy, seventy-one,
seventy-two…At last, I come to the
periphery of the parking lot, enclosed
by a foot-high metal cord. Two things
happen that make me want to melt
into the concrete. First, I notice my
half-slip with the loose elastic waistband has just fallen and puddled
around my ankles. Oh crap! I scan the
parking lot – did anyone see my pitiful
wardrobe malfunction? Once sure I’m
alone with my embarrassment, I grab
my slip and hike it back up to where it
belongs. Next, as cars whiz by on the
street beside me, I lob my leg over the
enclosure cord and unfortunately
catch the heel of my pump in my coat’s
hem, then tumble to the ground. The
humiliation rises up my neck and
blossoms across my cheeks. The only
thing I know to do is pop back up as if
nothing has happened. Denial is a
magical thing! I brush off tiny pieces of
gravel clinging to my coat, then run
across the street. Eighty, eighty-one,
Now think about a scene you’re writing for your current work-in-progress.
Close your eyes and zoom in on your
character. Imagine yourself in her skin,
down to every last detail, and put these
elements down on the page.
If you have the time and means,
another wonderful method to intimately visualize your characters, their
environment, and how they would
react in any given circumstance is to
totally immerse yourself in their
world. Like learning a new language,
having to live it makes you absorb it
from the inside out.
Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels, is a master
at taking readers into the intimate lives
of her characters. She uses a very physical method to capture their thoughts,
feelings, and how they react to the circumstances she creates for them.
“I find that visualization comes best
from immersion. I do extensive
research to learn what my character
does, where she comes from, who she
associates with, what her history may
have been. Walking through those
experiences personally, and meeting
with those who actually live the life I
am planning to have my character live,
allows me to pick and choose moments
and images, and weave them together
into a fictional character’s life,” she says.
As an example, for her 2012 novel
Lone Wolf, Picoult visited Shaun Ellis,
author of the memoir The Man Who
Lives with Wolves, to learn about his
work at The Wolf Centre and Foundation. He even taught her how to howl
and get a response from wolf packs in
return. Now that’s immersion!
Whatever method you use, just
remember that to have fully fleshedout characters in your fiction, you’ve
got to include all the details: their
appearance, environment, sensory perceptions, and inner thoughts and
beliefs. So whether you close your eyes
or physically immerse yourself in their
place in the world, make sure you capture those intimate particulars that
make all of us real.
K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: Teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is
passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy
clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word
normal. Her historical novel, Life Before, is about
two women separated by a century who discover they’ve shared a soul. Web:
or @klromo.
“Revision is the spiritual
practice of transformation—
of seeing text, and therefore
the world, with new eyes.
Done well, revision returns
us to our original love.”
Award-winning author and
teacher Elizabeth Jarrett
Andrew guides writers
through the writing and
revision process. Andrew
asks writers to flex their
spiritual muscles, helping
them to transform their
writing as they in turn
transform into more
curious and reflective
human beings.
Making connections
Online critique groups offer support, guidance, and friendships.
ritique groups can help you
improve your writing by
offering feedback, perspective, and ideas. They also
can provide emotional support, motivation, and accountability, as other
writers understand the joys and struggles involved in writing. Many prefer
meeting in person, but what if you
have a crazy schedule, niche writing
focus, or rural address? Online critique
groups can be the perfect solution.
Getting plugged in
12 | The Writer • February 2018
connect. Even if you live in an area
with a robust writing scene in your
genre and language, your schedule or
lifestyle may present challenges.
Online groups are important options
for people with busy travel schedules,
commitments that keep them at home,
limited transportation options, or
health issues that limit mobility.
For some, the online environment
allows freedom when writing. “I think
if we were meeting in person, on
some level I’d be more reserved in my
writing,” says Nicole Saltz, a Toronto,
Canada-based writer and House of
Stories script consultant. “Maybe
that’s my own neurosis, but having the
screen between us all feels like a modicum of protection.”
Can you hear me now?
While some writers may feel more free,
others, particularly those working on
creative nonfiction, such as memoir or
personal essay, can feel vulnerable
about what they share. Trust concerns,
including plagiarism, are typical when
joining a critique group.
Chicago-based writer, speaker, and
educator Lea Grover is writing her
memoir and has wondered: “Will people like it? And what does that say
about me?” In one of her earlier online
groups, a male member suggested she
add more comedy to a rape scene. She
realized some people were reading the
scene wrong. Since then, her memoir
group has grown and split into two.
One is comedic, and one is serious.
Online critique groups allow you to
connect with people you couldn’t or
wouldn’t otherwise. Writer, producer,
and comedian Joanna Castle Miller
was living in Washington, D.C., and
belonged to an in-person writing
group for all genres. However, she
wanted more screenwriting feedback,
and there was no strong local film and
television presence. She joined an
online screenwriting critique group to
give her the focused community she
needed, as well as new viewpoints.
Miller says, “It’s a good way to get perspectives that differ from your immediate circle or culture.”
Online groups are particularly
helpful when living in a country where
you don’t speak or write in the native
language. Karla Valenti, a writer in
Frankfurt, Germany, has no local
access to English-speaking writing
groups. “I knew that if I intended to
take my work to the next level, this
was going to be a critical part of the
process,” she says.
In addition to expanding your writing network, online groups offer flexibility in how, when, and where you
Trust issues can be factors for inperson groups, too, but it can be more
difficult online if you haven’t developed a personal connection or can’t
read visual cues. It’s important to be
mindful of these barriers online, such
as making sure you set the right tone
in your feedback. Miller says, “In person, you can keep things light and
friendly with just a smile, but online
you have to be careful that constructive
criticism really does feel that way.”
Any kind of critique group can suffer from issues concerning quality of
feedback, accountability, and commitment levels, whether for specific individuals or the group as a whole. But
these issues can be exacerbated with
online groups. “When things are
online, it’s easier to bail,” says Saltz.
For groups using platforms with
open posting options, you can miss
meaningful conversations if you’re not
constantly checking in. And like anything requiring technology, connectivity and other technical issues can arise.
Finding your tribe
Many find that the pros far outweigh
the cons. If you’re considering an
online critique group, make sure you’re
ready for the writing and time commitments. Grover says, “Don’t show up
and be that unprofessional guy who
doesn’t have your work done or the critique done. Treat it like a job.”
You can connect with potential
group members through writing associations, conferences, classes, and
forums, or even friends. Don’t worry if
it takes you a few tries to find the right
group. It’s most important to find people at your writing level who share
your commitment and you can trust. If
you’re joining an already-established
group, start with a trial period, where
you and the members can get a sense if
you’re a fit before committing.
If you’re starting a group, make
sure there’s a clear leader or delineated group roles, along with
well-defined processes, goals, and
expectations. Small groups tend to
work best. Pick a format and technology that work best for you and your
group. For example, conference or
video calls offer opportunities to ask
follow-up questions and brainstorm.
Some critique groups work with just
one platform, such as a private Facebook group or Scribophile. Other
groups use a combination of file sharing and call or video applications,
such as email and Facebook, Google
Docs and Hangouts, and Dropbox
and WebEx.
Consider ways to form connections
with your writing partners outside of
the critical exchanges. This can build
trust and even develop friendships.
Valenti says, “I have Skyped with a
number of them, and we do email on
non-writing related matters, so I feel as
if I’ve developed a broader relationship
with my critique partners that extends
beyond critiquing.”
If a group doesn’t work for you,
consider a one-on-one arrangement.
Miller’s group lasted for six months.
She now lives in Los Angeles and connects with individuals for online critiques. She likes the flexibility and
control it offers. She recommends
including guiding questions when submitting writing for online critique. She
says, “It takes a good deal of time to
type out my thoughts, so if I can know
in advance what concerns you, you’ve
saved me time and made the most of
the experience for yourself, too.”
Online critique groups can
improve your writing, expand your
network, and keep you connected
wherever you are. Writing may be a
solitary activity, but you don’t have to
do it alone.
Jennifer L. Blanck is a freelance writer who
belongs to an international online critique
group. Her writing has appeared most recently
in Christian Science Monitor, Entropy, Toastmaster, USA Rice Daily, and Wine Business Monthly.
A new destination
can take your writing
in new directions.
© Erik Unger
Immersive Writing
Workshops in
Santa Fe, New Mexico
and Havana, Cuba
--ext • The Writer | 13
Trapped in the middle of
your manuscript? Here’s
how to move forward.
Illustration by Jaron Cote
14 | The Writer • February 2018
You wrote 20 pages in ONE NIGHT. Your brain was popping
with ideas. Scenes flowed. You were sure you’d be done with
the whole thing in a month. And then, one quiet morning, you
sat down at your keyboard and nothing happened. Your fingers felt heavy. You started reading over the last few paragraphs. Awful! You clicked back a few chapters. Dear God.
What were you thinking? You don’t know how to go forward,
you can’t bear to go back. You’re stuck.
It’s a terrible feeling, and it’s one that almost all authors
confront. As a longtime teacher for Gotham Writers Workshop
in New York City, I see this phenomenon a lot, and it can be
devastating. Some writers just quit and take up needlepoint.
Others spend years revising one chapter, trying to get it just
right. Everyone who’s been in that rut, myself included, feels
frustration and self-doubt.
But the good news is that being stuck is not a permanent
situation. There are a number of techniques for propelling
yourself out of that sinkhole. Here are 12 of them. • The Writer | 15
Go back to the beginning. Often a story stalls because you
just haven’t given your protagonist enough to do. Making an
adjustment at the beginning can vault you forward in the middle.
For example, imagine you’ve decided to write a romance. Your protagonist is a young woman named Molly who lives in New York City. She
goes on some dates, she falls in love, and she gets married. You could
probably write some fun scenes here, but you might find yourself running out of steam by about page 140. It’s all a bit meandering. What if we
charge things up a bit? What if we start the story by writing that Molly
wants to get married? She’s the same Molly, but now she has a specific
goal. Now she has to do something. We could also give her a timetable.
Let’s say Molly wants to get married by the time she’s 30. And her birthday is next month. Immediately I’m feeling more anxious. What will happen if she doesn’t get married by her birthday? How is she going to find a
man so quickly? What is she going to do? Do you see how one small
quest invigorates the whole story? Now, instead of a string of anecdotes,
we have a quest. What does your protagonist want? Maybe the Iron
Throne? Maybe world peace? Maybe to fit into a size 6 dress?
Look at your protagonist’s backstory. Your
characters’ histories offer rich veins of material. The
more you know about your character, the more you
have to write. For example, why does Molly want to get married when she’s 30? Because her sister got married at 30, and
she’s always felt less loved than her sister? Because she
promised an old friend she’d marry him on her 30th birthday if
she didn’t have anyone else, and now he’s waiting for her, but
she doesn’t really want to marry him? Because her mother
has reserved a reception hall for Molly’s 30th birthday?
Because she doesn’t think she’ll live to be 31? Recently I was
reading Tracee de Hahn’s mystery novel Swiss Vendetta, which
is about a woman trying to solve a murder during an epic
Swiss snowstorm. Tracee’s protagonist is a young and inexperienced detective, and she’s struggling to project authority.
But, about a third of the way through, she discovers something unsettling about her husband. It doesn’t necessarily
relate to the case, and yet it bothers her, and offers a whole
new and exciting vein of material to explore. What sorts of
secrets is your protagonist concealing? What is she afraid of?
What does she feel guilty about?
16 | The Writer • February 2018
Throw obstacles in your
character’s path. Ask yourself: What is the absolute worst
thing that could happen to my character right now? And then have it happen.
This is something Stephen King does
so well (though, quite honestly, I don’t
think he ever gets stuck). In King’s
novel, Mr. Mercedes, the protagonist
strikes up a friendship with a young
neighbor. The neighbor has a cute sister who wants to go to a concert. Suffice it to say, that girl gets into terrible
danger, and King draws it out so that by
the time the whole thing is over, you’ve
just about chewed off your fingernails.
But you don’t need to be writing horror
to do this. Let’s go back to our romantic
Molly. What’s the worst thing that
could happen to her? Maybe she
meets a man right before her 30th
birthday, but it winds up being her best
friend’s new boyfriend. Or he’s about to
be shipped overseas. Or (because I’m a
mystery writer) he’s a killer. Or he has
red hair and she’s always sworn not to
marry a man with red hair. Or his mother’s in jail. I could go on forever. Just
keep in mind that the more you raise
the stakes, the more things you throw
at your protagonist, the more quickly
the story will move forward. Not only
are obstacles interesting, but they also
make characters change and grow.
They inspire us. They inspire the writer.
You’ll be amazed at the things you can
come up with when you put your character in a corner.
Introduce someone new. This is a great
way to spice things up. If you are stuck on
page 140, which is often where people get
stuck, and you are feeling just a bit bored with your
characters, why not have someone new appear? In
my first mystery, Maggie Dove, I have a romantic
interest appear around the halfway point. (Of
course, a good thing about being a mystery writer
is you can always kill someone off when things
slow down. But my mystery takes place in a small
town, and I can only kill off so many people.) Going
back to Molly, what if she gets a new neighbor? Or
what if her mother calls and says she’s coming for
a visit? Or what if she finds a stray dog, and when
she goes to return it, she finds out the owner is a
really nice man. Or a really nice woman, and she
realizes she’s not looking for a man at all? In real
life, people have a way of popping up unexpectedly.
You get an email from someone you haven’t heard
from in years. Make use of this unexpectedness in
your fiction. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself.
Unsettle your character. We all, characters included, have a particular way of
seeing ourselves in the world. We believe
we are good mothers, for example. Or good people. We think we’re smart. Savvy. Loved. But what
happens if something challenges that belief. In
Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies, one of the
major characters considers herself a good mother.
Her husband deserted her when her daughter was
little. She formed a special bond with that daughter and has always believed that she would be her
daughter’s favorite parent. She deserves it. But
then, her ex-husband and his young new wife
move back into the town where Madeline lives,
and, to her horror, her daughter actually prefers
the young wife. Suddenly Madeline is not the person she thought she was. Instead of being the
good mother, she finds herself becoming the
angry, bitter mother. Some of the most touching
parts of that book deal with Madeline’s efforts to
figure out who she is. So maybe Molly’s always
thought she could get married whenever she
wants, and now she’s having to confront the fact
that at 30 years old, in New York, she’s on the
older end of the dating spectrum. (I hesitate to call
anyone who’s 30 old, but New York City is tough.)
What does your character believe about herself?
Jump ahead. Recently I was working with a student who was
very enthusiastic about a scene that she expected would take
place around page 240. The problem was that she was on page
140, and she wasn’t sure how she was going to fill those 100 pages in
between. So I said, just write the scene you’re excited about. See what
happens. She wrote the out-of-order scene, and buried within it was an
idea for something that had to have happened earlier. Suddenly it
became clear to her how she was going to fill those 100 pages. Try shaking things up. If you have two characters who’ve been separated, write
their big reunion scene. Write the climax. There are a lot of writers out
there who do just that. They like to have the ending mapped out. So
much of being successful as a writer has to do with finding what works
for you. If you’re a person who writes backward, go for it! • The Writer | 17
Consider the weather. Weather has a huge
effect on our lives. Heat waves make us testy.
There’s a reason the murder rate goes up in the
summer. Good weather makes us joyful, unless it makes
us anxious that we’re not feeling joyful. Hurricanes unleash
dangerous forces into the ordinary routine of our lives.
What would your character do if she found out a hurricane
was headed in her path? Would she evacuate or stay?
Would she save her pets or leave them? Is she prepared
or not? These huge forces of nature force our characters to
reach inside themselves and find out what they’re made
of. Last summer, as Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida,
a man I know from New York decided to get on a plane
and go to Miami. He had some business properties there,
but mainly he just wanted to see what the storm was like.
I was dumbfounded. Up until that moment he’d seemed
like a perfectly ordinary and pleasant person to me, but it
turned out he had this intense risk-taking side, which I
never would have known about except for this storm.
What unexpected side might your characters reveal in the
face of bad weather? An added bonus to the weather is
that it can come out of nowhere. If your character is stuck
with nothing to do, give him a major snowstorm.
Don’t forget holidays. Valentine’s
Day is coming. Or Christmas or Thanksgiving. These are occasions that bring
expectations. We want to feel loved on Valentine’s Day. We want to be with family on
Thanksgiving. Or we don’t want to be with
family. One of the things that makes holidays
so resonant is that they force us to reconcile
the reality of our lives with expectations. They
also bring us together with people we might
only see once a year. Weddings and funerals
can also set off drama. They force people
together. Secrets may emerge. Feelings are
running high. That cousin of yours who seemed
like such a loser is now the CEO of a big company. Or perhaps a man comes up to you at
your mother’s funeral and tells you that he
always loved her, and that they’d been in touch
for years. Or maybe on Valentine’s Day, an
unexpected present shows up on your doorstep. Who sent it? If you’re feeling stuck, look
at the calendar. What holidays are coming up,
and how might your characters react?
Give yourself a deadline. Probably the number one reason students
sign up for my novel-writing workshop, or any workshop, is to impose a
deadline on their writing. When you know that 14 people are waiting to
receive your manuscript on March 14, it focuses your mind tremendously. You
have to get it done. It doesn’t need to be perfect; you simply need to get out the
pages. Maybe it’s that quest for perfection that slows a lot of people up. That
obsessive tinkering, that hope that you will get it exactly right. There’s something
freeing about knowing that you can’t revise your work 3,000 times. YOU MUST
HIT SEND! So take a workshop. Or join a writers’ group. Or submit to contests.
There are a lot of them out there, many of them mentioned in this magazine.
NaNoWriMo, which takes place in November, is a great way to just force yourself
to put words on a page. You have a month to write 50,000 words. I do it every
year and am surprised at how that deadline forces new ideas out of me.
18 | The Writer • February 2018
Look inward. Many of
us write about topics that
are painful: loss, heartbreak, mental illness, family breakdowns. Often we’re drawing on our
own experiences as we write, which
can mean reliving painful associations.
We can get stuck not because we
have nothing to say, but because we
have too much to say, and don’t want
to say it. This happened to me when I
was writing my first novel, The Fiction
Class. It’s the story of a woman who
heals her relationship with her dying
mother by teaching her to write. I
knew, from the moment I wrote the
first page, that the mother in the story
had to die. It was built into the story.
And yet, as I got closer and closer to
that scene, which was toward the end
of the book, I just could not bring
myself to write it. Every time I started,
I froze. My own mother had died not
long earlier, and I was devastated, and
writing that scene brought me intense
pain. It was like losing her over and
over again. The fact was, I didn’t want
to write that scene. But I was under
contract and I had to do it. So one
night, I poured myself a glass of
scotch, locked myself in my office, and
raced through the scene. And I’ve
never read it again. The book came out
and often people have told me they
like the ending, and I’m sure it’s very
nice, but I’ll never look at it. I got it on
the page, and that was enough. So
think about what might be stopping
you. The one comfort I can offer is that
when you write something difficult, it
does offer a form of healing. It can provide a way forward for the book and
for your life. It can also help other people going through the same thing.
Step away from the desk. Sometimes, trying to
force words is the worst thing you can do. You stare at
your computer screen, determined to get it all done, but
the words come out sullen, and you know you’ve written something awful. At times like this, the best thing to do is walk away.
Not forever! Just for half an hour. Do a crossword puzzle. Watch
House Hunters. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Let your mind relax. I’m
always surprised at the ideas that pop into my head when I’m
doing something else. Quite often, I’ve had whole plots pop into
my head when I’ve been walking my dogs. You can trust your mind
to do some of the work without you bossing it around.
When all else fails, try to
remember why you started to
write this in the first place.
What drew you to the story? Did you want to
write about growing up on Long Island, or what
it’s like to serve in the war? But maybe you got
side-tracked. You began writing about the teacher
who was always mean to you, and the story has
evolved into an empty revenge story. Try and tap
back into that original energy. What is it that you
want to say? Try to recapture the feelings that
made you want to write in the first place.
You can do this!
Now, please excuse me while I go off
to write a story about Molly.
Susan Breen teaches novel writing for Gotham
Writers Workshop. Her Maggie Dove mystery
series is published by Alibi/Random House. She
can be reached at • The Writer | 19
Zdenek Sasek/Shutterstock
Residency, workshop,
or conference:
Which is right for you?
ommitting your time and
resources to attend a
conference or workshop is
a big step in your writing
career. The options
available for writers keep
proliferating – which is
awesome. But even if you
narrow it down to a
certain genre or region,
choosing where to go is a
difficult process.
So we talked to the
real experts – working
writers who’ve had fellowships, been residents,
netted invitations to conferences, or helped organize workshops – for their
insights. Many writers
didn’t want to use their
names when speaking
frankly about their experiences at well-known conferences, but all together
a dozen were involved in
writing this story.
What kind of program do you want?
If you have work ready to share, a
workshop is what you should be looking for. Kelly Madigan, author of Getting Sober: A Practical Guide to Making
it Through the First 30 Days (McGrawHill) and The Edge of Known Things
(SFASU Press), loves the structure of a
workshop. Getting into “student mode”
and critiquing work from other participants gets her writing juices flowing.
Some conferences include a workshop portion, usually as an add-on day
before or after the main event. This
may be a one-on-one critique with a
presenter, offered for an additional fee,
or a small group session.
Residencies generally are where you
go to create new work, while a conference can translate to a lot of different
things. Julie Iromuanya, assistant English professor at the University of Arizona, says you can have a traditional
academic-type conference with panels,
moderators, and Q&A sessions, or
simply “a way to describe a place where
workshops, craft talks, panel discussions, readings, networking, and meetings take place.”
It is crucial to know yourself as a
writer before deciding what experience
you are looking for. One writer shares,
“I’ve been to workshops that have
derailed things for me because I wasn’t
ready to hear [what was said].” If you
are too early into a project, brutal critiques from workshop participants
won’t be productive. A craft-building
conference might be more appropriate.
Lydia Conklin, past fiction fellow at
Emory University, says that conferences can also be valuable at an
entirely different stage – when looking
for an agent or publisher. Only you can
gauge what your work is ready for.
Another writer says, “Conferences
are often rather expensive, but some
have financial assistance available.
Small ones are my favorite because you
get a chance to really know and learn
from the other participants – especially
when people come from all over. An
intense three- or four-day conference
on a topic of relevance to you can be
really energizing.”
Getting a feel for things
Just because a conference boasts a fullpage ad with a great font and glowing
quotes, does that mean it has excellent
programing? Is a second-year, shoestring-budget workshop worth trying • The Writer | 21
out? Welcome to the world of trying to
read between the lines.
Any writer who has answered a job
posting only to discover the amazing
opportunities available are for a fee/for
exposure/for pennies per hundred
words is right to be wary of choosing a
workshop or conference based on promotional materials. But what else is
there to go by?
The Alliance of Artists Communities is a national association for arts
organizations with an extensive website collating more information than
you can imagine. While the emphasis
is on residencies, you can learn a lot
about different locations, such as college campus programs where a variety
of workshops or conferences are held.
Edward Porter teaches creative writing at Stanford University; his fiction
has appeared in Glimmer Train, The
Hudson Review, The Gettysburg
Review, Colorado Review, Best New
American Voices, and elsewhere. He
says it is completely acceptable to reach
out to past program participants, “so
long as you’re polite, respectful, professional, and not asking for a long reply.”
No one interviewed for this story
thought it bad form to ask past participants about their experiences.
However, you should take their comments with a grain of salt. What one
person loved about a social, busy
week of aggressive workshopping
might be a nightmare to someone
else. So take into consideration the
personality and temperament of the
writers you reach out to.
Programs also have websites, of
course, which are a first stop in the
research process. Iromuanya suggests
looking at mission statements or
“about us” philosophies, rather than
just the quotes from past participants.
These can give you an idea if your
basic needs line up with what a program is aiming for.
Several writers suggest using social
22 | The Writer • February 2018
media as a way to get a sense of the
overall vibe of a conference or workshop, rather than just individual opinions. Donna Talarico, founder and
publisher of Hippocampus Magazine,
recommends checking out a conference hashtag “to get a real-time look at
what actual attendees are saying.” That
can be a goldmine when you are
choosing between a few different
options: You can go back through old
tweets to see which conference had
people more engaged.
What to ask
Once you know the kind of program
you’re looking for, what is it you need
to find out? Basic logistics are one
thing you might take for granted –
until you’re stuck in the middle of
Nebraska trying to get a ride to somewhere without a cell phone signal. Jennifer Baker, contributing editor to
Electric Literature and 2017 NYSCA/
NYFA & Queens Council on the Arts
grant recipient, says you have to ask
questions about anything that might be
a big deal to you, especially if you have
dietary or mobility needs.
Pat Friedli, assistant director at
Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for
the Arts, says that more than half of its
applications come from recommendations of past residents. They are active
in reviewing the information on the
web about their program, both on their
own site and others, but not everyone
is so diligent. “In order to get a true
sense of the place, writers need to get
that information from a former participant,” says Friedli.
How much of your time will be
structured, and what options are available for “on-your-own” time? These are
questions one writer was afraid to ask
before her first major conference, and
it led to significant stress. Now, later in
her career, she’s sure to be upfront and
make sure she understands the schedule for all events.
Attending a
or workshop
not only helps
hone our craft
but also
brings us into
with others.
One challenge for early-career writers
is applying to writing programs with
little work or little confidence. Conklin
acknowledges “it can be difficult to
describe your own work,” so she suggests having someone else read
through your sample and try to
describe it for you.
Madigan has been involved on the
other side of things, as part of an
admissions board. “The selection process is time-consuming for the staff,”
she says, “so treat an acceptance as an
honor, and do your best to follow
through with attending.”
“Attending a big-name conference
or residency is a marker of success,”
Porter confirms. “But if you attend a
lesser-known conference and still learn
craft and meet people who become
part of your writing network, it’s only
to your good.”
That’s advice that many of us learn
after a few rejections. Small conferences
with a personalized or regional focus
can be phenomenal for the wallet. There
are also great niches for subgenres of all
types that may be less-well-known by
large audiences but still well-respected
by those in your field.
Setting goals
If you prepare for your writing program in advance, you’ll get more out of
the experience: What do you want to
get out of this event? Is this a workshop where you’ll polish a first chapter? A conference where you’ll meet
five agents? Or two weeks where you’ll
wander about drinking coffee and sitting in on random classes, leaving you
wondering where the time went when
you return home?
Iromuanya emphasizes, above all
else, that “it’s absolutely necessary for
authors to have a strong sense of what
they want to get out of the experience.”
Talarico, too, says this question has to be
paramount: “What will you take home?”
Baker considers meeting people one
of the goals of a conference and
includes that on her list of items to get
done. She has a full-time non-writing
job, so the time she takes for residencies and conferences is a big deal that
needs to be utilized fully. Most writers
can relate and want to make optimal
use of every moment. “Make time to
not make art as well as make art,”
Baker says, and others agreed, because
each experience you have is part of the
journey. So taking a walk while thinking about your project might not look
like writing, but it is necessary for sorting through the plot.
Porter suggests that “just going to
the conference and taking in as much
as you can is the goal.” If you can open
yourself up as a learner, engaging and
growing each day, then your time is
truly well spent.
Not all unicorns and roses
There are also big-name conferences
and workshops – names we’ve all
heard of and dreamed about attending. Few writers wanted to talk about
politics in scholarships or acceptances
in writing programs, even when
offered anonymity.
Porter graciously gives some honest
“We never escape the junior high
school cafeteria. Conferences involve
complex, formal, almost feudal hierarchies, and the dynamics vary. At most
places, the strata go something like
contributor/work-study/scholar/fellow/faculty,” he says. “During my summers at Bread Loaf and Sewanee as a
scholar, I thought everyone’s accomplishments in getting there at whichever stage were honored and respected.
Conferences are highly competitive at
every level, and people know it. However, friends of mine have gone to conferences and encountered friction.”
Iromuanya did not want to name
specific programs but was willing to
share her own experience. “While I
have served as a paying participant and
scholar or fellow for different programs, I really think how I felt in each
space came down to how I was treated
by the other participants and faculty.
I’ve been in hierarchical structures
where fellows and faculty were kind,
attentive, and encouraging, and it
really gave me the boost I needed. And
I’ve also been to places that were structured very democratically, but other
residents were unkind, competitive,
pushy, or demanding.”
Just do it
Every career involves professional
development. For writers, we’re often
isolated from others. Attending a conference or workshop not only helps
hone our craft but also brings us into
community with others. Whether during a weekend or two full weeks, this is
time dedicated solely to being a writer.
Porter says there are three vital
activities involved in both conferences
and residencies, though each may look
very different from the outside:
“Learning, writing, and meeting other
artists.” A workshop has these same
components, with the writing taking
place beforehand.
Finding a writing program to suit
your needs at a given time may take
some legwork, but the rewards will follow long after you return home.
They’ll come in the form of new or
strengthened relationships, renewed
productivity, ideas generated, and passages strengthened.
Whether workshop or conference,
resident or fellow, paying guest or scholarship recipient: If you use your time
wisely and open yourself up to learning,
your work can only improve.
Eliana Osborn is a busy freelance writer focusing on education and family issues for national
publications. She is hoping meditation really is
going to solve everything. • The Writer | 23
Three must-follow
guidelines to ensure
a successful writing
By Yi Shun Lai
A year and a half ago,
some friends and I up
and decided to start a
writers’ conference.
Well, that’s the story we tell at bars,
anyway. In April, we’ll embark on the
third iteration of our writers’ weekend,
called the Red House Writers’ Retreat.
By all markers, it’s been a wonderful,
wild, stressful ride, and we’re happy
that it’s also been a successful one.
Each retreat to date has filled to capacity, and every attendee has walked
away happy.
But writers are really just nerds
with pens and word processors, even
before John Green made being a nerd
cool again, and this particular group
of nerds wasn’t going to do anything
without a good set of guidelines.
These rules, or tenets, as we’ve been
referring to them, have made everything from faculty choices to location
scouting and where to find our
24 | The Writer • February 2018
audience way easier, and they’ve
opened up possibilities for us – not
something we ever expected rules to
accomplish. After all, rules are for
restricting things, aren’t they?
Turns out, rules can turn a good
concept, one of those fizzy pie-in-thesky things that generate a lot of excitement and ideas and joy, into something
that’s actually workable in the real
world. (Hint: That’s not the world in
which some “suited woman who works
for Harper Collins discovers you and
your work in a diner,” to paraphrase a
writer acquaintance of mine. We’re
talking about the world in which writers actually work at doing things like
building literary conferences and
thereby increasing their clout in this
crazy profession.)
Before I tell you which three rules
we follow all the time, I should say that
our group, Red House Writers, did not
start from scratch. We had a built-in
audience, left over from our MFA program, which unexpectedly closed
down one year. And we made the
deliberate choice to start small, so we
could grow responsibly. Finally, we
knew what kind of writers’ retreat we
wanted to run, since we all loved the
model our MFA residencies pioneered.
So we were well ahead of the game.
And maybe that’s the pre-rule rule. But
we wouldn’t be where we are now
without the following three tenets:
1. Pay people
Our writers’ retreat hires faculty. We
don’t ask people to come teach for
free, because we wouldn’t expect to
teach for free. (Obviously there are
exceptions to this rule: College classes
that are reading my novel or the literary magazine I edit for, or libraries
that are having me in as a repeat
guest, or friends who are writers and
who support you – the list could go
on, but use your judgment.) We want
to make it very clear that we value
people’s time and their expertise, so
we pay each faculty instructor who
comes to our event, and foot their
room and board.
We also don’t look for barter opportunities when it comes to things like
lodging or meals.
Finally, this rule also applies to
those of us who organize the conference. When we conceived of the
retreat, it was always with the intention
that we would someday be paid.
Things like free attendance at the
retreat only go so far: Everyone knows
that folks who put on any event won’t
ever get as much out of the event as
attendees, since we typically have an
eye out on the back end of the proceedings. Paying the organizers
ensures that we stay fresh and motivated, that resentment never occurs,
and that we can guarantee the sustainability of the event for years to come.
2. Seek uniqueness
Oh, I know. This sounds so obvious.
Who doesn’t want their event to stand
out, especially if it will eventually be
opened to the general public? What it
really means is this: What can you rely
on to make sure your event feels true
to the values you hold dear?
For us, it’s this: Spread literary community. From there, everything falls
into place: When we look for venues,
we look for nonprofit centers, or state
or national park venues that help us to
feel like we’re contributing to the community. From there, we also source
local: That is, we hire only local faculty,
so that we can highlight them and
introduce a new set of writers to their
work as they’re teaching.
This portion of our retreat planning, what we see as our “unique factor,” provides us with so much to work
on and draw from. It’s probably my
favorite “rule.”
I’ve seen this “uniqueness” focus
work well for other conferences and
retreats, too. Barrelhouse Literary
Magazine runs something it calls
“Writer Camp,” which was hatched at
another writers’ conference, the annual
14,000-person shindig we know as
AWP. (If you haven’t heard of it, don’t
worry. All you need to know is that it
is a hotbed of small- and medium- and
university-press publishing, and that
it’s a great bird’s-eye view of what’s
happening in this world.) Writer
Camp’s three-day event schedule lists
waking up, writing, and “optional”
activities like hiking or meeting with
editors. “I think for us, one of our biggest things is to keep it very unstructured,” said Becky Barnard, a
co-founder of the retreat and production manager for the magazine. “There
are tons of retreats that have coordinated programming, and that’s fantastic, but there are few writers that can
write full-time. We wanted to give people the chance to just write.” At Writer
Camp, even the dates of the thing can
be unstructured – the ink hadn’t dried
on the first Writer Camp when the
organizers decided to hold another
one, just six weeks later.
that everyone has to get something out
of the weekend. So we build backstops
into place: We ask everyone to get to
know each other’s works-in-progress
or anything else the attendees want to
share, and we also use a setup I stole
from a women-in-business conference:
You can write whatever problem or
roadblock you’re experiencing on a big
red house. (Get it?) You stick your
house up on the wall, and people use
sticky notes to write down potential
solutions. At the end of the retreat,
people take home their houses with all
those solutions on them.
And when we hire and talk to faculty, we give them good information
about the attendees, so our instructors
know which genres are represented
and at which stage the audience is in
the publishing process. Faculty walk in
feeling like they’re better prepared, and
we’ve then had the chance to talk to
Rules can turn a good concept, one of those
fizzy pie-in-the-sky things that generate a lot of
excitement and ideas and joy, into something
that’s actually workable in the real world.
3. Provide value
I think I’d argue that, for most conference planners, this is a pretty obvious
goal. But it’s one thing to see something as a goal, and quite another to
see it as a cardinal rule. Ami Hendrickson, who runs the #Write2TheEnd
writing program and conference out of
Michigan, says, “Everything we do has
to have takeaway value, so that [the
attendees] leave wiser or richer or
more accomplished.” During
#Write2TheEnd’s normal programming, Hendrickson and her partner,
Kim Jorgenson Gane, even refund a
portion of attendees’ registration fees if
they complete the manuscript they’re
working on.
Red House Writers doesn’t have this
setup, but we operate under the edict
the faculty once or twice, so we’re more
confident in our offerings. Plus, by
then, we’ve made new writerly friends
of the faculty members, and that’s
always a plus. (See “literary community,” above.)
Running a writers’ retreat isn’t
always buckets of fun. Lots of times, it’s
stressful. But, as in writing any narrative work, once you know what you
want your retreat or conference to be
about – once you know what the
parameters are – you’ll be that much
better off to move forward.
Yi Shun Lai is a novelist and editor. Not a SelfHelp Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is
available at booksellers everywhere. Find Yi
Shun at, thegooddirt.
org, and on Twitter @gooddirt. • The Writer | 25
o story will make it off the page if story, character, setting – and a host
of other elements – are not deftly handled. But there’s one important
aspect of fiction writing that isn’t talked about as much as character or
plot, but is just as essential to the story: the language itself. Language drives the
work. Language makes everything happen. Language that falls flat makes characters fall flat.
No matter the style, when the language really works, it charms us. It hooks us.
Some writers find that figurative language in particular – language that works on
a different level than a purely literal one – grabs the reader in ways unadorned
writing never could. It functions, in part, to meet that old saw: Show, don’t tell.
Yet how does figurative language come to writers? Does it come naturally, or is
it something we must work at? And what specifically does it contribute to a story?
Using figurative language in your fiction
What are some examples of figurative language?
How is it used? How does it work in context with
a scene or the whole story or novel?
Susan Tepper, poet as well as fiction writer,
used figurative language as a structuring device
for her novel dear Petrov. “Even the title is figurative,” she says, “since this is not a book of letters.”
The novel is set in 19th-century Russia during
wartime. Nearly every sentence – actually, they
tend to be sentence fragments – is figurative, says
Tepper. In one chapter, “White to Blue,” her
unnamed female protagonist meditates:
From the parlor looking inward to the hall,
when the winter sun is nearly over, the
blue hall paper turns the ceiling white to
blue. As if a sea had passed on through
these walls. Pressed in such a way as I’m
unable to, unaccountably...
Notice the imagery of white turning to blue
and then the analogy of the sea. “I set this story in
a cold, remote land, during a tumultuous time
period. It lent itself quite naturally to the figurative style,” Tepper says.
For Stephanie Dickinson, author of The Emily
Fables and Flashlight Girls Run, the use of figurative language is a natural tendency in Homo sapiens. “We are a meaning-making animal,” she says.
As a writer, she finds herself drawn to making
“comparisons between disparate entities and substances, between what is beautiful and what
might be considered ugly.” Notice, for instance,
this passage from “The Hermit,” part of her flash
fiction collection The Emily Fables:
Beside the hut, rabbit skins hung drying.
Why was the hermit’s mouth lost inside his
beard forest, lips grey like a pitchfork handle? Standing, he was a blackjack oak, yet
kneeling and frozen he was tall still.
A beard is not literally a forest, but it becomes
a forest in this passage. Two disparate entities –
lips and a pitchfork handle – are likened to each
other in a simile. The hermit is not literally a
blackjack oak, yet the passage metaphorically
continues to place him in the context of nonhuman nature. The figurative language is compelling itself, but it also serves a function, says
Dickinson. “Here I use both simile and metaphor • The Writer | 27
to suggest the hermit’s physical body merging
with the woods surrounding him,” she says. He is
not separate from nature; he is nature.
For Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, author of
several works of fiction, figurative language is
important not only in description but also in
developing thematic ideas. This is the case in her
recently published novel, The Absent, set in the
second half of the 19th century. Note this passage
from the point of view of her narrator:
There was a wolf with us on the floor…
Sprawled on its side like a dog sleeping, but
it was a wolf that had been skinned and
stuffed. I began petting it in the dream,
though Lucie Beale refused to pet it, and as
I was petting it,
it came back to life and leapt
up and ran away.
The visual experience of this passage is important to Stevenson, but also what the imagery suggests. The language works on at least two levels:
The wolf in this dream stands, she says, for “the
wilds,” for wilderness, for “the power and naturalness of the earth, [which are] important elements
in this novel.” But since the wolf is “skinned and
stuffed,” the imagery also suggests “the destruction
of the wilds.” When the wolf leaps up and runs
away, this action suggests “regeneration and a kind
of redemption – an important thematic undercurrent,” says Stevenson, in a novel that deals, in part,
with the violence of Westward expansion.
28 | The Writer • February 2018
Sometimes one word can take on several
meanings. Donna Baier Stein’s novel The Silver
Baron’s Wife is written from the point of view of
an 83-year-old woman facing death. Note the
word “snarl” in the following passage: “There, by
the bed, with its snarl of gray blankets.” Baier
Stein chose the word “snarl” for two key reasons:
“The woman who sleeps there sleeps restlessly,
and the dreams and thoughts birthed there are
tangled and uncomfortable.” But there’s also a
third reason: “I also chose that word because the
rest of the paragraph talks about intangible
things, like the spirit of the character’s dead
mother hanging nearby. I thought the sound of
the word was a good, abrupt reminder that even
if Lizzie may be seeing a spirit, she is still rooted
in a physical environment.”
Not all writers use figurative language. It’s certainly possible to use nouns and verbs and to be
strictly literal while still allowing the reader to
“see” or “hear” from accumulated prose detail
and voice intonation in dialogue. This is generally the case for Barry Kitterman, author of Baker’s Boy. Yet he admits that a given character may
seem to call for a bit of figurative language. “The
amount of figurative language depends on the
relative eccentricity of the narrator,” he says.
Consider the thoughts of this failing minister in
“Wedding Day,” from Kitterman’s collection From
the San Joaquin:
He had nothing new to say from the pulpit.
It was difficult enough on a Sunday morning. By Sunday evening, the words he
hoped to use felt as heavy as the air in the
church, burdened with the scent of floor
wax and old hymnals. Some days he
thought about his future with sadness and
uncertainty. Other days, like a middle-aged
pitcher sent to the showers, he felt the
sweet anticipation of release.
Notice the economy of language in the two
similes: The first likens the “words he hoped to
use” to the heaviness of the air in the church,
“burdened with the scent of floor wax and old
hymnals.” Captured here in succinct olfactory
imagery is a sense of how terribly sluggish this
minister feels, how uninspired. The second simile gives us a tactile image, the fresh shower
water washing him clean of the futile past, giving him a “sweet anticipation of release”
because the struggle’s over, finally, and he can
move on.
Where figurative language comes from
Where do those good metaphors, similes, those
clever analogies come from? Is it a native ability
you’re just born with? Or do you just reason it
out? Do you do a little planning here and there?
“I would say that my figurative language
comes from that same place that all my writing
comes from: that place of deeper consciousness,”
says Stevenson. “When composing, I don’t write
from a contrived idea of what I want to say. I
don’t approach my work from the standpoint of
‘I’ll use this here or do that there to achieve some
desired effect.’” What she does do is attune herself
to her emotional, intuitive side: “An internal voice
and rhythm are what tend to move the flow of
words onto the page for me.”
“My use of the figurative style comes as naturally as breathing,” says Tepper. “I never control a
story. First, I see a picture or a scene in my mind,
and the resulting language and style come out of
that. Any other style, for this particular book,
would have failed the characters and what they
are trying to convey. The writer has to listen to
what the characters want.”
“When I was writing in Lizzie Tabor’s voice,”
says Baier Stein, “the figurative language flowed
naturally onto the page. I intentionally put
myself in the mind of a woman who was either a
very eccentric old woman or an American
female mystic. I knew that this character would
see things in ways others might not. Her perception, and thus her language, would be more fluid
and surprising.”
But perhaps it’s not the characters that you listen to or are drawn to, but some sort of existential
need, or perhaps an artistic one. “I write to order
chaos, to survive,” says Dickinson. “I write to recreate calamity and beauty; I write to communicate my time on the planet to readers.” For
Dickinson, figurative language is an “essential
tool kit.” Much of her orientation toward thinking
figuratively comes out of her roots in rural America. “I was raised on an Iowa farm, and the lushness of the fields and sloughs, the flourishing
insect and bird life that enveloped me heightened
Tips from
the Pros
Susan Tepper
“Nothing in the artistic realm should
ever be forced. If the writer is struggling, something is off.”
Stephanie Dickinson
“Just because there are Instagram
photographs of every conceivable
thing, don’t assume description isn’t
necessary or welcome. Everyone
knows what a table at the coffee bar
looks like, but not your particular table,
not the unique people around you, not
you/your narrator.”
Rosalind Palermo Stevenson
“Don’t depend on overly familiar
phrases, often bordering on or being
actual clichés. I believe that the most
important thing for a writer is to be
authentic and to write from a place of
their own interior vision, and to develop
and discover the language and writing
style that best serves this vision.”
Barry Kitterman
“If it’s language that is natural to your
protagonist or your narrator, then it
will work. If it’s the flowery exuberance of the writer himself or herself,
then it won’t.”
Donna Baier Stein
“Look for concrete, specific, visual
imagery that is unexpected. Pair two
things that aren’t commonly paired.”
Steve Sherrill
“Reach for the extreme, the excess,
the outrageous. Using bad metaphors
will never kill you, but you might learn
how not to get bitten by them again.” • The Writer | 29
“Too many similes and too much
metaphor-making can cancel out
their power or surprise.”
my observation skills. I listened and I looked. I
daydreamed. I read everything I could, and I
loved the quicksilver words themselves – the metaphors and similes.”
Dickinson soon began honing her craft.
“When I began writing, I found the connections
came somewhat naturally, and I practiced them,
sometimes losing myself in similes.” Yet there’s a
risk with that, she says. One mustn’t overdo it.
“I have to discipline myself, as I am almost too
drawn to figurative language,” she says. “Too
many similes and too much metaphor-making
can cancel out their power or surprise.”
If the appeal of figurative language for Dickinson comes out of her native appreciation of concrete, sensory detail, the same is true for Steve
Sherrill, author of Joy, Pa and Ersatz Anatomy. “I
have been drawn to, compelled by, sensory details
for as long as I can remember,” he says. “Sounds,
sights, smells, etc., capture my imagination.
Sometimes for a brief fleeting instant, but other
times these details lock into a story or poem,
underway or brand new.”
Similes and metaphors have to come naturally
out of these sensory details, says Sherrill. He
doesn’t work at “forcing” them. Nor does Kitterman: “I would never strain to fill a story with figurative language. That strikes me as a way of
showing off, of authorial intrusion. If I work at
anything along these lines, it’s to keep the fancy
language from getting the best of a story.”
But isn’t it likely that a stunning simile or metaphor, a just-right analogy, won’t always appear in
early drafts – even when you give your imagination full rein? “I often wish startlingly beautiful
metaphors and similes would always flow
naturally, but sometimes I have to work at it,”
Baier Stein says. Yet she saves this conscious
effort for the revision stage, when she tends to
“massage or play with the language more.” If the
30 | The Writer • February 2018
language doesn’t “magically appear on its own” in
the first draft, she doesn’t worry about it. There’s
always time in later drafts.
This can be the case for Stevenson, too. “Once
all of that ‘material’ is on the page, then the critical phase of the process for me begins,” she says.
“So it is in this phase that I have to ‘work at it’ to
make certain that all the language, both figurative and literal, is organically true to the work as
a whole.”
Benefits of using figurative language
First, it should be noted that the use of figurative
language, like any tool in fiction writing, has to
be appropriate – it must serve a useful function.
In some stories, it may not. It can depend on the
narrator or the nature of the protagonist.
“I’ve been writing a series of stories with children narrators,” says Kitterman, “and they tend to
see the world in a straightforward, if naïve, way.”
Consider this example from “The King of Okietown,” which will appear in The Green Hills Literary Lantern this summer:
He rode the bus home that afternoon, and
he learned the bus driver’s name, Mr.
Harry. In the days that followed, Davey
saw Mr. Harry take care of other tasks,
sweeping and mowing and raking the
schoolyard leaves in his brown shirt and
brown pants. That was being a custodian.
It’s a simple, ordinary style, yet concrete, creating images in our minds. It reflects the consciousness of the young point-of-view
protagonist. “The language paints a picture,”
says Kitterman, “but not through the use of the
poet’s metaphors and similes.” For this particular
character, the simple, straight-forward language
is authentic.
But when it’s appropriate, figurative language
can have a decidedly positive impact on the
reader. “For me as a reader, figurative language
excites me almost as much or more as the story
being told,” Baier Stein says. “Since words are the
tools of writers, anything a writer does to manipulate those words brilliantly simply adds to the
pleasure of the reader.” The language becomes
something to dwell on and savor: “Well-done figurative language makes the reading experience,
for me, multi-dimensional. I’m not just following
the plot to see what happens next but also relishing the visceral experience of being in the hands
of a masterful writer. The language itself brings
enjoyment moment to moment.”
Figurative language can be truly poetic. “The
link between figurative writing and poetry is
pretty intense,” says Tepper. “Figurative writing
is also generally musical. It ebbs and flows, rises
and falls, crashes, offers periods of silence.”
These periods of silence are significant, says
Tepper, since they are openings into the text: “I
believe it’s the silence, a bit of the dark
unknown, that snags the reader, invites the
reader to step in. To become a character or even
part of the narrative landscape. After the flood
of language, the silence worms its way into the
reader’s unconscious.”
Knowing when to create those moments of
silence takes insight, she says: “When a writer
can pull that off, knowing exactly where to drop
silence into a piece, where the reader can
become introspective, well, that’s the ultimate:
granting permission to join in the story. Where
the really personal stuff lives and dreams.
Because what the author offers, and how the
reader absorbs, is the crux of storytelling. The
greats, Tolstoy, for instance, knew how to make
this happen instinctually.”
As we’ve already seen, figurative language is
also used for its capacity to point to something
larger than the literal, or specific.
“I love the larger context for using figurative
language, which frames it as a way of enabling
one’s writing to go beyond the meaning of the
words themselves, and by doing so to deepen or
enhance both the language and meaning of the
work, as well as the reader’s insight and appreciation of what is being said,” says Stevenson.
“Whether it is personification, hyperbole, or
understatement, whether an allusion or a simile,
figurative language is the life raft that carries the
writer’s voice, the whole work itself,” says Dickinson. In her story “Jesusita,” from Flashlight Girls
Run, “A girl-child of three is let out of a car next
to a closed gas station and abandoned,” Dickinson explains. “Alone, she waits for the car’s
return. The reader is not enlightened as to the
girl’s identity or where she comes from. ‘The
night surrounds her like hunger’ is a simile I
chose to use in this particular context, as its
placement colors the text around it. The elaboration suggests a child’s confusion of the senses
and is immediately followed by, ‘She licks the
bottom of her shoe, where leftover motor oil
clings.’” Through the simile combined with the
incongruous action that follows, Dickinson
steers her reader “toward the story’s thematic significance or unifying element, its message.” Modern readers no longer seek a story’s moral, she
points out, but they do “look for the subject that
dominates the writing.” Similes and metaphors
can function, then, to “illuminate and enrich
what is of consequence in a text and are often
central to the overarching framework.”
A few final words
Language is what makes writing – it makes story.
It’s the words themselves that mysteriously create
character, plot, setting; in short, everything. To
create interesting writing, you don’t have to use
figurative language. But it does have its appeal. It
can suggest larger ideas beyond the literal. It can
create beauty, poetic beauty. It can help put your
reader into the world you imagine in your head,
the world of the five senses, creating the very
pleasure of sensation.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews. • The Writer | 31
Drafting those
many drafts
The 10 revision phases
your novel needs to endure
before publication.
Illustrations by jesadaphorn/Shutterstock
32 | The Writer • February 2018
It takes a lot to write a novel. Even those who
haven’t tried would say, “well, duh!” to this. But it’s not so
much the mind space or the sheer time it takes to write a
novel that is as daunting as how many times any writer must
go back to the drawing board for yet another draft. To really
ready a novel for publication, a writer must spend time with
his or her book. Like any budding relationship, you, the
writer, must court your novel, take it out to dinner, meet its
parents, and see it through its most trying and desperate
times. As a writer, you have to stay up all night with your
novel crying and talking and sometimes even clawing your
hair out before that perfect moment of inspiration can truly
help you cross the finish line.
For many published authors I know, myself included, a
completed novel takes them about 10, that’s right, 10 drafts,
and at least a year of real editing. Will you be spending every
single second editing your novel? No, of course not. Just as
drafts need some real time on the surgery table, they also
need rest in the recovery room. You don’t nurture a relationship by smothering a person, spending every waking second
with them until you can’t stand the sight of each other, and
you can’t nurture a novel by breathing down its literary neck.
However, a novel should undergo many drafts – and different
kinds of drafts – before declaring it ready for an agent or editor to see.
Everyone has their own way to write a novel, and not all
craft advice (or even craft “rules”) should all be followed by
everyone, but when it comes to the many drafts of a novel,
there are specific things a writer should focus on during
each revision to help create a smooth transition from the
initial idea to final product. These are the 10 (or, really, 11)
drafts that any completed novel will have to go through, one
way or another. • The Writer | 33
Draft 0: Could this be a book?
Get to know your novel before
you even put pen to paper. After you
have the spark of an idea, sure, you
might sit down and write, but you
should also get to know your plot and
your characters; you might even
research information connected to
your novel before writing. It’s best to
do some brainstorming before really
diving into the writing process. Try
creating an outline of your novel and
do some character sketches or some
research on the time and/or place
your novel will be set in – really get to
know all of these aspects. Maybe even
read novels that are similar to the
novel you’ve planned before you start;
that way, you’ll have a base to work
with. That being said: Many writers
get caught up in the research phase
and neglect to start their novel. Don’t
fall into that trap.
Draft 1: Am I really writing
a book?
Ah, the first draft – also known as the
Honeymoon Phase. It’s kind of like
when new parents first take their baby
home, before the 3 a.m. feedings and
the crying at all hours takes its toll.
Everything is nice and breezy, you
love your novel, it’s your own magnificent creation.
Then the work starts.
The first draft is tough because this
is where most of the writing takes
place; in fact, the first draft is where so
many drop out. In the first draft, you
start with nothing – sometimes not
even a title – and end up with a 200- or
300-page (maybe even more) draft.
Here is where we get it all down.
During this draft, it can help to
make outlines not only of the novel as
a whole but also of each chapter as you
go. A friend of mine once asked, “How
34 | The Writer • February 2018
do you write, like, an entire novel?
Isn’t that daunting?” And it can be
daunting, especially when you’ve just
started. My answer to her was: “One
chapter at a time.”
The idea of a whole novel may seem
impossible at first, but if you think of it
as only one chapter (“I only have to
write this one chapter” or maybe even
“I only have to write this one scene”),
then the idea of writing a whole novel
might seem less daunting. Try outlining each chapter as you go, and then
write each chapter one at a time until
you have a rhythm going.
During the first draft, just write.
Don’t hold back. Let your characters
grow and change and see where they’re
going as the story progresses. Another
word of advice for the first draft: Write
every day. That’s important. If you
write just three pages every day, which
is a common goal among writers, you’ll
have about 270 pages in three months.
That’s a good start on a novel. If you
start skipping days, that page count
diminishes quickly.
Draft 2: Did I really just write
a book?
Draft 3: How much spackle
am I going to need?
This is a reread draft. A big part of the
drafting process is reading. Read
through your book. Make notes as you
go. Do you need to fill in something?
Add something? Change a scene?
Make notes but do not stop to fill in
unless something really gnaws at you.
Other than the big, glaring errors, wait
until the next draft to fix it up. Here
you want to just focus on reading the
manuscript in its entirety to see how it
all fits together as a whole.
This is where you take the spackle and
start to fill in the holes. Go over your
notes. Rewrite scenes that feel clunky,
check those transitions, and add and
delete scenes as needed. In this draft
you want to really smooth over your
work to make sure the characters make
sense and the story flows. Now ask
yourself, does it feel like a book? Are
my characters fleshed out? Does the
William Faulkner didn’t say
“kill your darlings” for nothing.
Look at everything that does
not add to your story and cut.
plot make some modicum of sense? Is
the theme present and clear? If yes:
Good, keep going. If no: That’s OK,
keep going.
Then cut some more.
Draft 4: How well do I know
these people?
I like to call this the character-building
draft. A lot of rewriting happens in
this draft. During this draft, you look
deeply at your characters. Yes, you
knew your characters before, but now
– after going over this book three
whole times – you REALLY know
them. You’ve read their story; they’ve
lived inside your life (just as you’ve
lived inside theirs) for months, possibly years, by now. Is she really that
shy? Could she come out of her shell
more? Is he really a nice guy? Would it
work better for the story if he were a
little bit meaner, maybe even bordering on abusive? Yes, we start knowing
our characters when our novels are
just twinkles in our eyes, but I cannot
tell you how many times I start to realize new things about my characters as
I write draft two, draft three, and draft
four. Once I realized around draft
three that my protagonist had been
sexually abused. It was not the focus of
the novel, but I could see how this
development was coming out in the
way she acted around certain men and
her reactions to violence and sex. During this draft, I started to explore that
aspect, writing scenes where she talks
about past sexual abuse and fleshing
out the scenes where her past might
affect her.
Another time I realized after many
drafts that my protagonist’s father
wasn’t just a strange man: He was also
abusive. It took me four drafts to realize that, but once I did, the entire
story made more sense. Then I had to
get in there and make that new
character trait real in my novel, which
required changing scenes, adding and
subtracting scenes and foreshadowing, and rewriting descriptions – but
at the end of the day, I had a better
novel for it.
Real flesh-and-blood people are
complicated, and while the real fleshand-blood people we know (even intimately) are always more complicated
than we will ever realize, in fiction it is
our job to realize just how complicated
our characters are and then convey
that on the page. Just as it takes a long
time to get to know a person so intimately that you might discover some
long-held secret about their past, it
takes a few drafts to know every intimate detail about our characters.
finish should be the shortest version
of itself possible. Sometimes the
shortest version of something is three
pages and sometimes it’s 1,000, but
this is where you take everything,
every detail, every scene, sometimes
even every character, and put them on
trial. Does this scene really need to be
here? Did you write a very similar
scene a few chapters back? Yes? Well,
which one is better? Then the other
has to go.
Does this character add to the story
or are they just a placeholder? Consider tweaking the character or letting
them go. In addition to repetition,
look at your long paragraphs: Are they
a little too expository? Maybe even
long-winded? Really look at those
words, those phrases, even those
beautiful descriptions, and decide
whether they truly help or hurt your
reader’s experience. William Faulkner
didn’t say “kill your darlings” for
nothing. Look at everything that does
not add to your story and cut. Then
cut some more.
Warning: This draft is painful.
Draft 5: I have to cut how
You’re halfway done, almost there –
now CUT. Cut, cut, cut. I tell all my
writing students that each piece they
Draft 6: Does this sound
Sometimes I call this “the poetry
draft” because what you’re looking at
here is the use of language and how it
flows in the novel. This is where you
painstakingly mine every sentence. Is
each sentence perfect, not just as a
sentence but also as a sentence in
your unique novel? How are your • The Writer | 35
word choices? Did you overuse
adverbs? (A friend of mine searches
for all words ending in -ly and cuts
about two-thirds of them). Is there a
clear narrative voice? Really craft
your writing here, your words and the
flow, just as a poet might. Reread each
sentence a few times to make sure it
all works. This draft takes time, but
it’s worth it.
Draft 7: Can you look at
something for me?
Around draft seven is a good time to
get your book in the hands of readers.
You might have workshopped while
you were writing your first draft, and it
might have helped you a great deal to
look at certain smaller parts with other
writers, but now it’s time to have two,
three, maybe four people, people
whom you trust to be critical of your
work, read your novel. How do you
find these people? You might consider
joining a writing workshop through a
community organization, university, or
36 | The Writer • February 2018
It’s important to understand
how to look at the comments
of others and to always
accept feedback graciously.
a for-profit company. You might set up
a meet-up to workshop a novel or go to
the many sites that help authors find
beta readers.
Be mindful of friends and family
who might not be familiar with critiquing a novel; they might not know
what to look for or they might not
want to hurt your feelings. Thus, their
feedback won’t be as critical and will
be less helpful. You don’t want a pat
on the back during this draft; you
want cold, hard criticism. Remember,
there might be a quid pro quo
attached to this, and you should plan
on reading and commenting fairly on
the work of those who workshop you.
This stage, on your end, might
involve reading someone else’s novel
and not your own while your novel is
in the hands of readers, but you can
learn a lot about your own work by
examining the approach another
writer takes.
Draft 8: How am I going to
use all this?
It’s important to understand how to
look at the comments of others and to
always accept feedback – any feedback, positive or negative – graciously. That being said, this novel is
YOURS and it will have YOUR name
on it. So you also need to be critical
of the comments as well: Did a sex
scene personally offend one person?
That’s probably not a big deal. Did
three or four people not understand
the point of said sex scene? That’s
something you might want to look at.
Be sure not to get too attached to
some of your darlings if a great many
of your beta readers question them.
But also know that the parts of your
book that made your blood race, that
made you feel as if you were about to
stop breathing as you were writing,
are probably going to have similar
effects on the reader, even if people in
your workshop had trouble with
them. That might mean you have to
tweak those parts, rewrite some
scenes, or make sure you get the right
ideas across if you see that readers are
having trouble with them, but not
every negative comment a beta reader
makes means you should delete
something or change it completely.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking or clarifying.
A four-day conference in the
Appalachian highlands offering
workshops in poetry, fiction, and
creative nonfiction. Plus craft
talks, readings, a panel on
publishing, and a fabulous, finalnight participant showcase!
Draft 9: How did I miss that?
Now that you’ve changed what
needs to be changed, it’s time to check
your grammar. This draft might be
more daunting for some whose
strengths lay outside commas and
semicolons. You don’t want to do this
draft too early in the writing process,
as there’s no point in painstakingly
going over work that’s only going to be
scrapped or changed so much that you
are going to have to go over it again
(and again) later. Honestly, grammar
is not my strong suit, and so while
there are things I can check and
change, I prefer to ask a professional.
My grandmother-in-law is a pro at
grammar, so I usually go to her.
Chances are you might have to call in
favors. You may want to hire a professional if grammar is just not your
thing. That might cost a bit of money,
but when it comes to getting your
book out there, it’s worth it.
Let us help you with your
wild and wonderful writing!
Draft 10: Could I be finished?
Here is where you read for any glaring
errors. A forgotten word or something
not caught in the grammar edit. You
read to see that it all makes sense, but
mostly what you’re really reading for is
to say, “It’s good, it’s really good.” This
is where you ask the question, “Does it
read like a book?” And answer wholeheartedly, “YES!” If the answer is not
“YES!” do not fret; go back, keep edit-
ing. Repeat draft three, draft four; consider what still needs work and revise
until it’s finished.
Once you answer, “YES! It’s really a
book,” your novel is ready to go out
into the world, whether it’s to an
agent, a small press, or maybe you’re
embarking on the self-publishing
journey. And by the way, once an
agent, editor, or small press gets their
hands on your novel, there’s going to
be a whole new round of drafts to go
through. Take comfort in the fact that
everyone simply wants your book to
be the best it can be.
What’s important to remember is
that creating a novel takes time beyond
just its writing. Just like you didn’t
know how awesome and complicated
and weird your best friend or lover was
until you spent a meaningful amount
of time with them, your novel will
grow, change, and show you things
about itself the more time you spend
with it. So be prepared to spend – and
enjoy – that time writing drafts.
Jessica Stilling is a published novelist and
short story writer. She lives and teaches in New
York City.
Mark Brazaitis, Marc
Harshman, Leslie Pietrzyk,
and more!
Visit our website:
Morgantown, home to West Virginia
University, provides the ideal setting
for a supportive, dynamic workshop.
WVU Department of English
PO BOX 6296
Morgantown, WV 26506
WVU MFA in Creative Writing
Fiction, Poetry, and
Creative Nonfiction • The Writer | 37
Black Fox Literary Magazine
This seven-year-old publication courts writing of all genres.
uring her M.F.A. in Creative Writing residencies at
Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New
Jersey, writer and professor Racquel
Henry became obsessed with seeing a
fox. “Our campus has wild animals,
and everyone kept talking about these
fox sightings,” she explains. “The red
fox is most common, but the black fox
is rare. When my colleagues and I
began our literary magazine, we
wanted it to be a different sort of publication – a mix of literary and genre
writing side-by-side, which is relatively
rare. We decided to title it Black Fox.”
Henry, along with Pamela Harris
and Marquita Hockaday, met at Farleigh Dickinson. They got together in
the sprawling Vanderbilt Mansion on
campus and hammered out the details
of their now-seven-year old literary
magazine, ultimately deciding it would
blend literary fiction with personal
essays, book reviews, author interviews, poetry, and genre fiction,
including mysteries, children’s stories,
and thrillers.
“A lot of the magazines started at
the same time don’t exist anymore,”
Henry explains. “Our goal is to be a
magazine that does stick around and
give writers, regardless of genre, a
Tone, editorial content
Black Fox editors publish a wide range
of genre writing, and they’re open to
experimental pieces. “I’ve published
some really fantastic second-person
stories,” Henry says. “I’m a huge fan
when they’re done well. They work
best when they’re in the short form,
38 | The Writer • February 2018
and we get to feel like a participant
rather than feeling like the author is
talking at the reader.”
One of these is Liza Carrasquillo’s
short story “Cold,” (Issue #15, Winter
2017), which begins:
“When you reach the clearing at
the top of the ridge, it is nearly
midday. The sun beats down
overhead on your heavy coat
and exposed neck, causing your
skin to shine. You run a sweaty
hand over your short, dark hair
and glance behind you as you
hear the clumsy footsteps of the
out-of-state college kids who’ve
probably never hiked a day in
their lives.”
Carrasquillo was still earning a
Bachelor of Fine Arts degree when
Black Fox published her story. Editors
look for compelling stories told by
emerging writers, as well as those
who have several books published.
They’re particularly excited to receive
stories by writers of marginalized
demographics and from writers
Editors were eager to publish Jack
Coey’s thriller, “Side of the Road.” “We
loved it because the author was able to
pack so much suspense and chill in
just a mere three and a half pages,”
Henry explains. “Plus, it had to do
with murder.”
Coey’s story begins:
“He pulled the car off the side of
the road, and turned off the
engine. He was breathing heavily and sweat was on his face. He
felt elated. He rolled down his
window to get some cool air.
Pictures of what he’d done
flashed through his mind.”
Editors also admired “Bloody Sunday,” a flash fiction piece by Francis
Fiordalisi. “This one was even shorter
than ‘Side of the Road,’” Henry says,
“but we loved the juxtaposition of the
setting and the murderous act.”
Both of these stories appeared in
Issue #8, Summer 2013. “We mentioned in the editorial letter that it was
unofficially our thriller issue,” she
says. “The founding editors and myself
enjoy all fiction, but we really love
dark fiction.”
Advice for potential contributors
Henry urges potential contributors to
Black Fox to read the submission
guidelines online and follow them
carefully so that the piece is properly
formatted and sent through the online
submission manager.
She and the other editors particularly enjoy well-written genre fiction,
including young adult, mystery, flash
fiction, and thriller. They look for
poetry, personal essays, and other
forms of creative nonfiction. In addition, they publish articles on the Black
Fox blog.
“We are particularly interested in
articles on the craft of writing, book
reviews, book news, and publishing
news,” they note on their website. “If
it’s writing, book, or publishing related,
then this is the place for it.”
Melissa Hart is the author of Avenging the Owl
(Sky Pony, 2016) and Wild Within: How Rescuing
Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2014). Web:
“Quality fiction of all styles
and genres, poetry, and
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry.
Reading period: Year-round; check
website for details.
Length: Prose to 5,000 words; 5 poems
Submission format: Digital submission through website.
Contact: Racquel Henry,,
Writers Retreat Workshop * May 22-31, 2018
Nazareth Retreat Center, Boise, Idaho
With: David Corbett
The Mercy of the Night,
The Art of Character,
and the upcoming The
Long-Lost Love Letters
of Doc Holliday
- 10-day/9-night retreat
- limited to 25 students
- 1-1 mtgs w/David & staff
- Private room/bath/work area
- Daily classes
Visiting Agent: Michelle Johnson
Inklings Literary Agency
Rutgers–New Br unswick
Writers’ Conference
June 2-3, 2018
Featu r i ng A lic e Hof fman & Chr is Boh jal ian
- S p e c i a l K i ck - O f f E ve n t w i t h St e p h e n S o n d h e i m o n J u n e 1 - • The Writer | 39
Killer Nashville
This thrilling conference allows participants to learn about the industry, sharpen
their crime-solving skills, and net a publishing deal all in one weekend.
ears ago at Killer Nashville,
a mock crime scene that
featured a simulated dead
body on the floor looked so
convincing that non-conference participants staying in the same hotel
dialed 911.
“Now, we take over a hotel,”
explains founder Clay Stafford, whose
conference gathers together writers,
agents, editors, fans of crime and
thriller literature, and forensic experts.
One of the latter is Dan Royse, former
assistant director/special agent from
the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
(TBI), who hosts the annual mock
crime scene. Participants try to solve
the case by watching online interviews
with potential suspects and filling out
investigative forms.
“The FBI and TBI get frustrated
with television portrayals of crimes,”
40 | The Writer • February 2018
Stafford explains. “They like to talk
with writers about proper police procedure and help them to get it right.”
What you’ll learn
Five different tracks at Killer Nashville
include the craft and business of writing, plus marketing and forensics.
Attendees can also register for breakout sessions, which include information on how to find an agent and
publisher, how to create a social media
platform and a marketing plan, and
how to find a community of likeminded writers.
“Classes aren’t just for beginning
writers,” Stafford says. “[Best-selling
crime] author Anne Perry goes to
classes all the time. People learn new
social media tools and new public relations methods. Maybe you have a U.S.
demographic of readers, and you want
Top: Best-selling author Chris Grabenstein with
Killer Nashville Founder Clay Stafford
Inset: The Killer Nashville crime scene
Conference: Killer Nashville
Dates: August 23-26, 2018
Cost: $150-$380
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Contact: Conference director
Clay Stafford, (615) 599-4032,
Featured presenters
Guests of honor at the 2018 conference
include New York Times best-selling
author Ellery Adams and best-selling
author and blogger J.A. Konrath, plus
award-winning publisher Otto Penzler,
who will be on hand for several public
book signing events.
On Thursday, participants can take
a three-hour master class in novel plotting from international best-selling
author Jeffery Deaver or participate in
a shorter workshop titled “The Sinking
Ship: Adding Suspense by Running out
of Options or Time.”
International best-selling novelist
Perry will speak on writing historical
fiction and how to create a writing
career. Judicial biographer and law and
political scholar Bruce Allen Murphy
delivers a talk titled “Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure Law for Writers.” (Check out Killer Nashville’s
website for a full list of presenters.)
Advice for first-timers
Organizers cap the attendance at 350
people to maintain an intimate, lowkey atmosphere. “Leave your ego at the
door,” Stafford says. “Our main goal is
to nurture the next generation of writers. Everyone is approachable, and the
speakers who come to present give out
their personal cell phone numbers.”
He believes that you get what you
put out at any conference, and it’s
important to be proactive and mingle
with agents and editors and other
authors, even if it isn’t immediately
obvious that your networking has
paid off.
To illustrate, he points to Alabamabased author Margaret Fenton, who –
a decade ago – attended all of the agent
and editor round tables at Killer Nashville and received no interest in her
manuscript. She went to the bar, where
author Don Bruns spotted her and
asked her if she was all right.
“She told him her tale of woe,” Stafford says. “Don went and got his editor, and she walked away with a
publishing contract. This exemplifies
that intimate feeling of Killer Nashville – you might be looking dejected
in the bar, and people come up to you
to ask if you’re OK, and then you’re
getting published.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the
author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the
Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and an editor/consultant at
Creator & Collector Services.
“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
to expand internationally. The different tracks speak to where you are on
your particular journey.”
Emerging authors find endless
support and unexpected success at
this conference. Author Angela
Crook attended one year, too intimidated by the “real” authors at the
moonshine and wine tasting event to
participate. Stafford saw her sitting
alone and introduced her to some of
the speakers.
“On Sunday, she ran down the escalator, and I swear she picked me up
and grabbed me around the waist,” he
says. “Agents wanted to see her manuscript. She was so excited she had tears
in her eyes.”
He recounts another story about
how author Jonathan Stone attended
Killer Nashville with a manuscript that
had been in a drawer for 12 years.
Stone submitted the first 50 pages to
the conference’s Claymore Award and
ended up with an agent, a publishing
contract, and a movie deal. “Those are
the moments that are my favorite,”
Stafford says.
Register online:
NOTE: The conference we profiled in our January 2018 issue, Wordcrafters Writers’ Conference in
Eugene, Oregon, was recently placed on hiatus until 2019. Both the conference organizers and The
Writer sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this has caused our readership.
(805)568-1516 • The Writer | 41
Writing conferences are packed with panel discussions, keynote
speeches, and workshops to help hone your writing. Here are some
tips for making the most out of conference craft sessions.
Do your research. Before you sign up for a conference, explore
the faculty lineup and daily schedule to see what sessions will be
beneficial to your work. Note the workshops you’d like to attend,
and find out what the protocol is for registering. And do so by the
cutoff date.
Be prepared. If you are asked to bring a piece to workshop, make
sure you have it. Likewise, pack all of the items you’ll need – notepad, pens, your tablet, a voice recorder – to ensure you and your
work will continue to benefit from the workshop once you’re back
at home. 3.
Keep an open mind. Whether commenting on someone else’s
work or hearing feedback on your own, be open to new ideas and
different ways of thinking. One person’s method (including your
own) is not the law of the land, and you can learn a lot from simply interacting with other writers.
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.
Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference
Homer, Alaska, June 8-12. Offers daily
workshops, readings, and panel
presentations in fiction, poetry,
nonfiction, and the business of writing.
Manuscript reviews and academic credit
also available. Keynote speaker Anthony
Doerr. Contact: Kachemak Bay Writers’
Conference, Kenai Peninsula College –
Kachemak Bay Campus, 533 E. Pioneer
Ave., Homer, AK 99603. 907-235-7743.
42 | The Writer • February 2018
Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers
Conference Tempe, Arizona, February
22-24. Hosted by the Virginia G. Piper
Center for Creative Writing at Arizona
State University. Schedule includes craft
classes, conversations, panels, and readings, as well as opportunities to network
with writers. Faculty includes Kaveh Akbar,
Natalie Diaz, and Tara Ison. Contact: Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing,
P.O. Box 875002, Arizona State University,
Tempe, AZ 85287. 480-965-6018.
Digital Author and Indie Publishing
Conference Van Nuys, California, 2018
dates TBA. For authors who want to learn
about the new publishing paradigms in an
increasingly digital world. Industry
experts, educators, agents, and publishers
make up the list of speakers, who will
explain new technologies and methodologies. Presentations on indie publishing,
e-books, A-Books and P-Books, your
author platform, and marketing ideas.
Contact: West Coast Writers Conferences,
PO Box 2267, Redondo Beach, CA 90278.
SDSU Writers’ Conference San Diego,
California, January 31-February 2, 2019
(conference on pause for 2018). Designed
to help every writer at every writing level.
Learn how to improve your writing skills,
develop your marketing awareness, and
meet with writing professionals. Includes
keynote speakers, breakout sessions, panels, consultations, no-host mixer, and
networking opportunities. Contact:
SDSU College of Extended Studies, 5250
Campanile Dr., San Diego, CA 92182.
San Francisco Writers Conference
San Francisco, California, February 15-18.
Top authors, agents, and editors meet to
discuss fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and
specialty writing such as children’s books
and travel writing. Other topics include
marketing, self-publishing, and internet
possibilities and trends. Also offers “speed
dating with agents.” Presenters include
Dana Gioia, Robert Dugoni, Mitali Perkins, and Shanthi Sekaran. Contact: San
Francisco Writers Conference, 1029 Jones
St., San Francisco, CA 94109. 415-6730939.
Santa Barbara Writers Conference
Santa Barbara, California, June 17-22.
Writers in all genres from various countries gather in Santa Barbara to spend a
week focused on story, voice, craft, marketing, and networking with fellow writers
and publishing professionals. Has hosted
legendary writers such as Ray Bradbury,
William Styron, Eudora Welty, James
Michener, and T.C. Boyle. Contact: Santa
Barbara Writers Conference, 27 W. Ana-
pamu St., Suite 305, Santa Barbara, CA
93101. 805-568-1516.
Aspen Summer Words Aspen, Colorado, June 17-22. One part literary festival, one part writing retreat, the Aspen
Summer Words event is hosted by some
of the nation’s most gifted and engaging
writers. Brings writers and readers
together for author readings and talks,
interviews and Q&As, writing workshops,
and literature appreciation classes. Consultations also available. Contact: Aspen
Words, 110 E. Hallam St., Suite 116,
Aspen, CO 81611. 970-925-3122.
Northern Colorado Writers Conference Fort Collins, Colorado, May 4-5.
Categories of focus include children’s, fiction, general, journalism, marketing, mystery, nonfiction, poetry, romance, and
science fiction. The conference brings in
editors, agents, and presenters from all
over the country and offers more than 30
workshop choices. Keynote speakers:
Peter Heller and Jim Davidson. Contact:
April Moore, Director, Northern Colorado Writers, 407 Cormorant Ct., Fort
Collins, CO 80525. 970- 227-5746.
Pikes Peak Writers Conference Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 27-29. The
26th annual conference held by the Pikes
Peak Writers features informative workshops, motivational speeches, networking
opportunities, read and critique sessions,
and the chance to pitch your manuscript
to industry editors and agents. Keynote
speakers: Jim Butcher, Laurell Kaye Hamilton, Jonathan Maberry, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Contact: Pikes Peak Writers,
P.O. Box 64273, Colorado Springs, CO
80962. 719-244-6220.
Wesleyan Writers Conference
Middletown, Connecticut, June 13-17.
Welcomes new and established writers.
Includes seminars, workshops, readings,
panel discussions, and manuscript consultations. Many genres addressed and
scholarships available. Contact: Anne
Greene, Director, Wesleyan Writers Conference, Wesleyan University, 294 High
St., Room 207, Middletown, CT 06459.
Yale Writers’ Conference New Haven,
Connecticut, two sessions (2018 dates
TBA). Workshops, individual conferences, master classes (session one only),
discussions, and presentations. Second
session delves deeper into specific genres,
including poetry, playwriting, historical
fiction, and memoir. Contact: Yale Writers’ Conference, 55 Whitney Ave., 4th Fl.,
New Haven, CT 06510. 203-432-2430.
AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair
Tampa, Florida, March 7-10. Writers,
publishers, editors, and educators engage
in conversation with fellow lovers of literature from across the region and the
world. More than 550 events, a bookfair,
lectures, readings, and workshops. Keynote: George Saunders. Contact: The
Association of Writers and Writing Programs, 301-226-9716.
Blue Flower Arts Fall Writers’ Conference New Smyrna Beach, Florida,
2018 dates TBA. Provides workshops,
readings, and panels in a community setting. Includes meals and one-on-one time
with the master writers and other participants. Workshops in fiction, poetry, and
memoir led by top-selling writers in each
genre. Limited to 13 writers for each of
the three genres. Contact: BFA WWC c/o
Atlantic Center for the Arts, 1414 Art
Center Ave., New Smyrna Beach, FL
32168. 386-427-6975.
SleuthFest 2018 Boca Raton, Florida,
March 1-4. Offers panels on the craft and
business of mystery writing as well as
agent or editor appointments. Keynote
speaker: Andrew Gross. Guest authors:
Hallie Ephron, James R. Benn, and Kristy
Montee (PJ Parrish). Contact: GEORGIA
Blue Ridge Writers’ Conference Blue
Ridge, Georgia, 2018 dates TBA. This
conference seeks to educate and inspire
writers with feedback from writers, editors, and agents. Includes workshops on a
wide range of topics. Contact: Blue Ridge
Mountains Arts Association, 420 W. Main
St., Blue Ridge, GA 30513. 706-632-2144.
Savannah Book Festival Savannah,
Georgia, February 15-18. Free and open
to the public with readings and presentations from authors around the country.
Past authors included Alice Hoffman, Stephen King, and Sandra Brown. This year’s
opening address speaker is Diana Gabaldon and keynote is Lisa Ko. Contact:
Savannah Book Festival, 37 W. Fairmont
Ave., #216, Savannah, GA 31406. 912598-4040.
Iowa Summer Writing Festival
Iowa City, Iowa, 2018 dates TBA. Offers a
wide selection of weekend and weeklong
workshops throughout the summer.
Choose from fiction, poetry, nonfiction,
writing for children, play/screenwriting,
fantasy/science fiction, and “genre-benders.” Contact: Iowa Summer Writing Festival, The University of Iowa, 250
Continuing Education Facility, Iowa City,
IA 52242. 319-335-4160. • The Writer | 43
Tennessee Williams New Orleans
Literary Festival New Orleans, Louisiana, March 21-25. Created to honor the
legacy of Tennessee Williams and support
and nurture writers, actors, musicians,
and other artists. Contact: Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, 938
Lafayette St., Suite 514, New Orleans, LA
70113. 504-581-1144.
Juniper Institute for Young Writers
Amherst, Massachusetts, July 22-29. A
nine-day creative writing program for
high school students finishing their
sophomore, junior, or senior year hosted
by the UMass MFA Program for Poets
and Writers. Intensive workshops in fiction and poetry, craft sessions, and studio courses designed for young writers.
Contact: Betsy Wheeler, Juniper Institute for Young Writers, c/o University
Conference Services, 810 Campus Center, 1 Campus Center Way, University of
Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003.
The Muse & The Marketplace
Boston, Massachusetts, April 6-8. See
more than 140 writers, literary agents,
editors, and other publishing professionals present on a variety of different subjects, from craft to revision to publishing.
Attendees can also take part in the “Manuscript Mart,” which provides 20-minute
individual sessions with a literary agent or
editor to provide professional feedback
about your work. Contact: Muse and the
Marketplace, GrubStreet, 162 Boylston
Street, 5th Floor, Boston, MA 02116. 617695-0075.
Bear River Writers’ Conference
Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2018 dates TBA.
Workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative
44 | The Writer • February 2018
nonfiction, as well as readings, discussions, nature walks, and time for writing.
Staffed by the University of Michigan
English department. Contact: Bear River
Writers’ Conference, Dept. of English
Language and Literature, 3187 Angell
Hall, University of Michigan, 435 South
State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109. 734-7632342.
Rally of Writers Lansing, Michigan,
April 14. An annual one-day conference,
featuring a keynoter and 16 breakout sessions led by published Michigan authors
in several genres of writing, including fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, journalism, children’s books, and business
matters. Contact:
Las Vegas Writers Conference
Las Vegas, Nevada, April 19-22. Consists
of a small group of writers attending pitch
sessions, plus talks with faculty, workshops, seminars, and expert panels, as
well as plenty of opportunities to meet
and network with other writers, editors,
and agents. Contact: Henderson Writers
Group, PO Box 92032, Henderson, NV
89009. 702-953-5675.
Left Coast Crime Reno, Nevada, March
22-25. An annual event sponsored by
mystery fans where readers, writers,
librarians, and other mystery and thriller
enthusiasts gather to share their mutual
interest in the genre. Guests of honor:
William Kent Krueger and Naomi Hirahara. Contact: Left Coast Crime. Ingrid
Willis, Chair.
Frost Place Conference on Poetry
and Teaching Franconia, New Hampshire, June 23-26; Writing Intensive June
27-28. Brings together hard-working
classroom teachers and highly skilled
poets to share their experiences of how
poetry is most effectively presented in the
classroom. Graduate-level and continuing
education credits are available through
Plymouth State University. Contact: The
Frost Place, P.O. Box 74, Franconia, NH
03580. 603-823-5510.
Rutgers Writers’ Conference
Somerset, New Jersey, June 2-3. Rutgers
University’s annual conference will host
Alice Hoffman and Chris Bohjalian as its
keynote speakers. Contact: 55 Commercial Ave., Suite 120, New Brunswick, NJ,
08901. 848-932-7565.
American Society of Journalists and
Authors (ASJA) Annual Conference
New York, New York, May 18-19. The
ASJA annual conference focuses on independent writing and will help you succeed
in a freelancing career. Learn how to market yourself to editors and agents and network with fellow writers and publishing
professionals. Features over 50 sessions.
Full schedule on website. Contact: ASJA,
355 Lexington Ave., 15th Fl., New York,
NY 10017. 212-997-0947. Email from
Colgate Writers’ Conference
Hamilton, New York, June 17-23. Readings, workshops, craft talks, and free time
to write and explore the area. Hosted on
the Colgate University campus. Highlights
fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and
short story writing. Bring a work in progress. Contact: Matthew Leone, Director,
Colgate Writers’ Conference, Office of
Summer Programs, 13 Oak Dr., Hamilton,
NY 13346. 315-228-7771.
Gotham Writers’ Workshop New
York and online, various dates. One of the
largest and most comprehensive private
creative writing schools in New York City
and online, Gotham offers classes in all
genres in addition to seminars about selling work and private instruction. Contact: Gotham Writers’ Workshop, 555 8th
Ave., Suite 1402, New York, NY 10018.
New York State Summer Writers
Institute Saratoga Springs, New York,
July 2-27. Hosted by Skidmore College
and the New York State Writers Institute
at the University of Albany. Features creative writing workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The staff is a group of
prestigious writers and authors, some of
whom have won honors such as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Offers undergraduate and graduate credit.
Enroll for two weeks or the entire session.
Contact: Robert Boyers, Director, NYS
Summer Writers Institute, Office of the
Dean of Special Programs, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs,
NY 12866. 518-580-5593.
The Writer’s Hotel Master Class in
Fiction, Nonfiction & Poetry
New York, New York, June 6-12. Three
classic Manhattan writers’ hotels host
panels, lectures, workshops, and agent
speed dating. Editors read participant
work beforehand. Writers can read their
work at iconic literary venues. Contact:
The Writer’s Hotel, P.O. Box 472, Brunswick, ME 04011.
SCBWI Winter Conference New York,
New York, February 2-4. Top professionals in the children’s publishing world
gather to share knowledge and expertise.
Speakers include award-winning authors
and illustrators, agents, editors, and art
directors. Topics include market trends,
what is hot, what is not, and what they
really want to see next. All genres are represented, from picture books and middlegrade to young adult. One-on-one
manuscript critique sessions and portfolio
critiques and showcase are available.
Contact: 4727 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 301,
Los Angeles, CA 90010. 323-782-1010.
Blue Ridge Mountains Christian
Writers Conference Ridgecrest, North
Carolina, May 20-24. One of the largest
Christian writing conferences in the
country, the conference draws writers
from across the nation and covers topics
such as novel writing, nonfiction,
screenplays, visual media, devotions,
freelance, children’s, magazine articles,
and web content. Contact: Blue Ridge
Mountains Christian Writers Conference. 800-588-7222. OHIO
Kenyon Review Writers Workshop
Gambier, Ohio, June 16-23, July 7-12, and
July 7-14. Genre workshops are held for
three hours every morning, while the
afternoons are kept free for writing and
reading. Evenings include public readings
from instructors, visiting writers, and
workshop participants. Choose from
poetry, literary nonfiction, fiction, nature
writing, and translation workshops.
Contact: The Kenyon Review, Finn
House, 102 W. Wiggin St., Kenyon College, Gambier, OH 43022. 740-427- 5196.
Sunriver Writers’ Summit Sunriver,
Oregon, May 26-27. Offers three workshop tracks from which to choose. The
beautiful Sunriver Resort Lodge makes
for a relaxing, inspirational setting.
Contact: Michael Steven Gregory, Executive Director. SCWC/Summit, 18160
Cottonwood Rd. #260, Sunriver, OR
97707. 619-303-8185.
Highlights Foundation Workshops
Honesdale, Pennsylvania, dates vary.
Workshops geared toward authors interested in writing and illustrating for children. Intermediate and advanced levels
led by children’s publishing professionals,
including editors, writers, art directors,
publishers, and agents. See website for list
of workshops. Contact: Highlights Foundation, 814 Court St., Honesdale, PA
18431. 877-288-3410.
Pennwriters Annual Conference
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 2018 dates TBA.
The conference offers more than 40 hours
of workshops, panels, and genre breakout
sessions. Contact: Pennwriters, Inc., PO
Box 685, Dalton, PA 18414.
Philadelphia Writers’ Conference
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 8-10. In
its 70th year, the Philadelphia Writers’
Conference is the oldest writing conference in the country with open registration. Optional master classes available in
addition to workshops, peer critiques, and
pitch sessions. Contact: Philadelphia
Writers’ Conference, P.O. Box 7171,
Elkins Park, PA 19027.
The Write Stuff Conference Allentown, Pennsylvania, March 22-24. The
Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group
sponsors interactive sessions with industry-leading authors, editors, and agents.
Agent/editor pitch sessions and flash fiction writing contests. Contact: GLVWG,
156 Castleton Dr., Reading PA 19607. • The Writer | 45
West Texas Writers’ Academy
Canyon, Texas, June 4-8. This conference
focuses on both traditional and self-publishing, and takes a non-traditional
approach. Unique workshops include firearms training for crime writers to plotting
a novel within a week. Contact: West
Texas A&M University, WTAMU Box
60185, Canyon, TX, 79016. 806-651-2037. VIRGINIA
Virginia Festival of the Book
Charlottesville, Virginia, March 21-25.
Festival of literary events honoring book
culture and promoting reading and literacy. Mostly free and open to the public.
Presenters include Khizr Khan, Michael
W. Twitty, Attica Locke, and Jason Reynolds. Contact: Virginia Festival of the
Book, Virginia Foundation for the
Humanities, 145 Ednam Dr., Charlottesville, VA 22903. 434-924-3296.
Northwest Christian Writers
Renewal Bellevue, Washington, June
1-2. Rachel Hauck shares her knowledge
and experience as a bestselling Christian
romance writer. Contact: Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference Seattle, Washington, September
13-16. The conference’s mission is to
develop writing talent through education,
accessibility to the publishing industry,
and participation in an interactive writer
community. Choose from general attendance or more in-depth Master Classes.
Attendees can also sign up for “Power
Pitch” sessions, allowing writers to deliver
4-minute pitches to a variety of agents and
editors. Contact: Writers’ Cottage, 317
NW Gilman Blvd., Ste. 8, Issaquah, WA
98027. 425-673-BOOK.
46 | The Writer • February 2018
West Virginia Writers’ Workshop
Morgantown, West Virginia, July 19-22.
Attend workshops in poetry, fiction, and
creative nonfiction, in addition to a variety of other activities for writers. Contact: WVU Department of English, P.O.
Box 6296, Morgantown, WV, 26506.
Novel-In-Progress Bookcamp &
Writing Retreat West Bend, Wisconsin,
May 20-26. Sponsored by the Chicago
Writers Association, the Novel-In-Progress Bookcamp is for writers working on
a novel or creative nonfiction book.
Includes instructional classes, one-onone consultations, group critique sessions, guest speakers, and special
activities all focused on your work-inprogress. Hosted at a retreat center and
spa in southeast Wisconsin. Contact:
Director Dave Rank. Novel-In-Progress
Bookcamp, Wisconsin Writers Association, 831 S. Seventh Ave., West Bend, WI
53095. 262-717-5154.
Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop and Retreat Madison, Wisconsin,
June 11-15. Choose fiction, freelancing,
nonfiction, or poetry and spend a week
creating, exploring, and polishing your
work with other dedicated writers. Graduate credit is available for an additional fee.
Contact: Director Christine DeSmet,
UW-Madison Continuing Liberal Studies
& the Arts, 21 N. Park St., 7th Fl., Madison, WI 53715. 608-262-3447.
Jackson Hole Writers Conference
Jackson, Wyoming, June 28-30. Share
your work with other writers through
critiques, workshops, and open mic
nights. Also utilize the opportunity to
discuss your work one-on-one with
experienced authors, editors, and agents.
Featured authors include Tiffanie DeBartolo, Peter Heller, Tina Welling, and
Mark Hummel. Contact: Jackson Hole
Writers Conference, P.O. Box 1974, 265
S. Cache St., Jackson, WY 83001. 307413-3332.
Literature & Landscape of the
Horse Laramie, Wyoming, May 26-31
(alumni week) and June 4-9. A unique
adventure for anyone who yearns for
nature, longs to reconnect with horses,
and hungers for creative inspiration in an
authentic western ranch setting. Combines riding, writing, and reflection with
guest facilitator Sheri Griffith. Contact:
Paige Lambert. 303-842-7360.
San Miguel Writers’ Conference
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, February 14-18. Held in historic San Miguel, a
mecca for writers, artists, and musicians.
Includes sessions and panels as well as
optional agent pitches, consultations,
and intensives. Also offers excursions.
Fully bilingual. Contact: San Miguel
Literary Sala, Box 526, 220 N. Zapata
Hwy. #11, Laredo, TX 78043. Email
from website.
Left Bank Writers Retreat Paris,
France, June 10-15. A group of less than
eight writers gather in Paris’ Left Bank for
a week of workshops and tours. Genres
include poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir, drama, and any other project that can
benefit from the writing techniques of
Left Bank Writers like Stein, Hemingway,
and Fitzgerald. Contact: Left Bank Writers Retreat, P.O. Box 968, Jackson, WY
83001. 307-734-5335.
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Kristen Iskandrian
character and establish the
mysterious relationship she
has with her mother. It
became clear early on that
the letters would be a big
part of the book.
s a short story
writer, Kristen
Iskandrian has
been recognized
with an O’Henry Prize. Now
she’s created considerable
buzz with her first novel,
Motherest. From a glowing
New York Times writeup to
starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus,
Iskandrian’s book is resonating with critics and readers
alike. Written with tenderness, depth, and humor,
Motherest is about life, early
adulthood, and family. It
also deals with motherhood
on several levels, with profound storytelling that feels
deeply honest. Using a combination of first-person narration from protagonist
Agnes and epistolary form,
the writing is nuanced,
intelligent, and realistic.
Somehow Iskandrian manages to be both subtle and
impactful at the same time.
Motherest – and especially Agnes – stays with you
long after you have finished
Creating depth of character
I wasn’t in a hurry, which
helped. The letters functioned, I hope, to establish
Agnes and her patterns and
idiosyncrasies over time.
Writing in first person, too,
gave me immediate access to
her thoughts and subconscious. Once I was able to
channel her voice and what
she sounded like, a lot of the
other choices felt organic.
Realistic dialogue
Letters as a literary device
Transitioning from short story
to novel
I really wanted to plunge into
the all-consuming world of
the novel. I wanted to try it
because it really scared me.
I’m comfortable with short
stories; something about the
story form just speaks to me.
I didn’t know if I had what it
took, the tenacity and lon48 | The Writer • February 2018
gevity needed for a novel. It
was a challenge and took the
better part of four years.
There were times when I
would put it aside and write
a short story here or there.
But it was a project I prom-
I love letters as a form. Early
on in the novel, I wanted to
find a way to unlock my
voice and write uninhibitedly. Letters have always had
that effect on me. I have the
tendency to be very careful
when I write; I’m slow, and I
edit on the sentence level.
When you write a letter to
someone, or even to yourself, there’s a freedom there:
you’re not thinking so much
about what you sound like. It
was a way to get into Agnes’
I tried to be honest about
what late teenagers and
young adults sound like
when they talk to each other.
I really tried to put myself in
the mindset of young, desirous, smart, silly 18-, 19-, or
20-year-olds so their conversation would have texture
and feel authentic. At every
turn, I thought: What would
Agnes say or do? That went
for the secondary characters
as well. Establishing who a
character is also means
establishing how they
sound, the words they
choose. It’s hard to know
what comes first.
Allison Futterman is a freelance
writer based in Charlotte, North
Hannah Slamen
ised myself I would finish.
With a novel, you have to
think more about the arc of
the characters, the arc of the
narrative, sustaining tension.
It was certainly an education.
Subscribe or renew today!
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l tak WRUGH:U
W UÀUV t code
\RXse discoun 18
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Wdrithtru 3/31/1
(see the link on our homepage,
You can't find this in print.
When my mother caught me rummaging in her nightstand, she said, You
must never look in there again. She said,
Certain things are private. Do you know
what private means? I did, but I told
her I didn’t, which was maybe my version of what private meant. When
something is private, she said, it belongs
only to you. From then on, I understood my mother to be private, in how
she kept herself to herself, and in how,
in my mind, she belonged only to me. I
really thought I was entitled to her, to
the most intimate parts of her, which
seemed to be in that drawer: photos, a
Bible, stacks of letters held together with rubber
bands, a diary. None of it helped me. Most of it
probably wrecked me. But sometimes, that’s how
you know something is working. The world may
have been destroyed by a flood—but that doesn’t
mean we don’t still need the rain.
Dear Mom,
The thing about college is the bodies. They
are everywhere. I feel like we were all sent
to one place to figure out how to be in one,
what to do with the fact of them, and how
close and how far to move them in relation
to one another. I try to imagine what we
might look like from space, clustered and
worrying, how we would probably only be
discernible in clumps, the solitary ones
not registering on the infrared screen or
whatever the technology is. I’ve been in
some rooms that reek of desperation, that
rapey cologne smell of boys sitting around
marinating their impulses, their collective
ideas about girls like some weird psychic
orgy. Those are the
rooms, the parties, you
run away from. Or to,
depending, I guess.
I want to tell you
about how many boys I’ve laid under (3)
and how each of them felt the same. I
want you to come here and wash my
sheets and tell me the truth about my
clothes, about the people I’ve met. I want
you to see me working in the dining hall. I
want you to come with me to my classes,
comment on my professors, on what
they’re making me read. None of this will
happen, I know. It wouldn’t happen even if
you were another mother. But being the
mother you are, it’s not just impractical.
It’s impossible. You are not available. You
don’t want to be summoned.
There is that picture Dad took on my
first day—the last day I saw you—where
I’m standing outside the student center,
the place they told us would be “command
central” or whatever, where we’d be spending all of our time outside of class, checking our mailboxes and praying for
packages, or playing fucking PINBALL, or
getting quarters for the laundry, or
Hannah Slamen
watching movies, or just generally loitering around with our backpacks, being
coeds. I never go in there. My roommate,
Surprise, whom you guys didn’t get to
meet because you left too early—that’s
actually her name, by the way, because she
was supposed to be a boy but came out a
girl—checks my mail for me. In the picture I am squinting and doing that ugly
thing with my jaw. I seem to be saying,
“1993, what else you got?” Dad took that
picture and must have developed the roll
because the next week I got it in the mail
with a note that said “First day memento,
Love Dad.” It’s funny how a picture of me
reminds me only of you.
I thought it was odd that he sent it to
me, tried to imagine him putting it in an
envelope and addressing it—looking up
my address, carefully copying it down—
and I couldn’t, at least not without feeling
sad and sorry for him, the same way I’ve
felt watching baggers at the supermarket
handling eggs with great care. I guess it
was that feeling that prompted me to call
him to say thanks. Thanks, too, for the
book of stamps he included with the
photo. And it was when I asked to speak to
you that I knew you were gone.
Anyway, I’ve never had a pen pal, but
this seems as good a time as any to try it
out. I’m good at remembering details and I
have a lot of time to record them. Though
“pen pal” suggests a back-and-forth that’s
impossible here. Lucky me, then. Now I
have unlimited space to talk about my
favorite subject besides you: me!!!
It’s late afternoon and I’m on my way to English,
wondering if I should skip it, trying to remember
how many I’ve skipped. I see the boy from my
philosophy class coming toward me. I have an
unbridled desire for him that wearies me and
takes up, it seems, a lot of my time. My face feels
out of control. I concentrate on my shoes, the sixeye Doc Martens I bought with the money I’d
saved babysitting the horrible Nolans, and
remember my mother’s arched eyebrows when
she saw them (“Those?”). I study the ground
right before each shoe hits it.
I keep walking. He slows down a little as if to
chat, and I move faster. I want to turn around so
badly that walking feels like pushing through the
heaviest revolving door in the world, but I keep
going. I don’t trust myself around him. When I
get to the humanities building, I stop.
This boy, this thing of beauty—I call him Tea
Rose. I’m convinced we share a brain. During our
first philosophy class, our professor asked us for
some examples of philosophical ideas in everyday
life. Fortune cookies, someone said. “To be or not
to be,” another person offered (but couldn’t name
the play it came from). Tea Rose raised his hand.
“If a tree falls in the forest,” he said. I’d been
thinking the exact same thing. How did he know?
Now we have to write a paper on one of the following topics: the theory of forms, Cartesian
dualism, the Zeitgeist, or Kant’s categorical
imperative. What I want to write about instead is
physicalized loneliness, my dead brother Simon,
waiting as a form of punishment and/or prayer.
Dear Mom,
I want Tea Rose. OK? Just be prepared to
hear a lot about him. Last night I wandered
around campus in your long coat with a
half-empty Coke, looking for him, looking
for booze. I knew where a couple off-campus parties were, so I went to one. Surprise
was there, excited. She just really likes college. Her eyes were a little drunk and she
put her arm around my waist to “introduce
me to people” but she was still mostly her
tidy self. I broke away after a few minutes
and found a bottle of whiskey in the
kitchen. Most people were hovering around
the keg. I poured whiskey into my halfempty Coke can and put the bottle back.
What did Dad used to say? If you see the
glass as half empty, just fill it? I was always
puzzled by that whole scenario. Whether it’s
half empty or half full, it’s still only half of
whatever you might want it to be. Anyway, I
thought for a second that Tea Rose was at
the party but it was some other tall boy. The
disappointment of this was enough to make
me want to leave, so I headed back toward
campus, keeping my head down.
I always hear Simon when I’m alone at
night. “What the fuck are you walking
around by yourself for? Do you have the
mace I gave you? How are you going to
defend yourself, Agnes?” When did he
first give me mace? Do you remember? I
think it was the Christmas that I was
eight. Ten years ago now. And he’s been
gone for less than three—the three longest, shortest years.
I have to write a philosophy paper. If
you wrote me back, I’d just turn in your
I get a B+ on my paper. There are red checkmarks
and plus signs in the margins, a couple “!”s. The
note at the end says, A fascinating essay, though
gravely lacking in source material and proper citations. I’m eager to see what you could do with more
research. There’s fifteen minutes left of class and
I’m upset that Tea Rose isn’t here today. His paper
is sitting on the corner of the professor’s desk
along with the other absentees’. I’m thinking
about how I can get it for him, deliver it later,
when a tall blond girl raises her hand and says
she lives in his dorm.
“I think he’s sick today,” she says, smiling
sweetly. “I’ll bring it to him.” She looks like one
of those women in commercials for feminine
products. I picture her itchy and rash-ridden and
try to calm down. I leave class to go to the bathroom and stare at my face for a while. I decide
against going back to class and head to work
early instead.
That night, I’m in line at the coffee shop, getting one of those coffee milk things everyone
here is obsessed with, along with one of the
bright pink strawberry muffins I’m obsessed
with, when I feel a change in the air, followed by
the tinny clatter of music issuing from somewhere very close to me.
“Hey. Nice dinner.” His voice is loud and deliberate, his headphones neon yellow, their cord rising out of the pocket of his olive-green barn
jacket. I take him in entirely, his cheeks flushed
with cold, his slightly rumpled hair, the torn canvas of his sneakers. To hide my panic and excitement, I try to concentrate on paying and probably
look like I don’t know how to add up money.
“Do you want a bag for this?”
I shake my head and put the stuff in the pockets of my big coat. I stand there while Tea Rose
pays for his small coffee.
“Don’t you work at the dining hall?”
“So can’t you get better food? Like, secret
food?” He is still too loud. We move to the side.
“It doesn’t really work like that. Usually we eat
before whatever meal we’re working, so I’m not
very hungry, and afterward I don’t always like
eating what I’ve been around for three hours.”
“Ah.” He puts his headphones around his neck.
There is suddenly no sound between us. “Hey, do
you know Nirvana?” He says it like we are at a
party and he is our—mine and Nirvana’s—
mutual friend.
“Um, yeah. Doesn’t everyone?”
He rolls his eyes. “I don’t mean like, ‘Smells
Like Teen Spirit.’ I mean their early stuff.”
How could he know I had an older brother
once who knew everything there was to know
about music? “You mean like ‘Bleach’?”
Tea Rose lights up. “Yeah, yes. Totally. That’s
exactly what I was just listening to. It’s fucking
brilliant. Do you want to sit somewhere?” He
looks around for a table.
“I have to go, actually. I need to get some reading done. And call my dad. And do some laundry.” I don’t know why I’m doing this. What I
want is to stay with him more than anything in
the world.
“Wow. One excuse and two alternates.
I think if I kissed Tea Rose, I would definitely
keep my eyes open. I’m convinced that if I loiter
too long in his presence, I will reach out and start
rubbing his face. It reminds me of the polished
minerals I used to covet from the gift shop of the
museum of natural history. Agate. Calcite.
“I’ll see you in class.”
He raises his cup a little, as if to toast. “Okay.
That’s a big coat you’ve got there.”
“Thanks,” I say, before realizing he isn’t necessarily complimenting me. “I mean, it’s my mother’s.” Now I’m practically mumbling. “I like to be
prepared. You have no idea the stuff I can keep
in here.”
Tea Rose laughs, an easy sound. “Maybe we
can get together and listen to Nirvana sometime.
Or, you know, talk about coats.”
I don’t tell him that I don’t really care about
music anymore. But I would listen to whatever he
wanted. Then I do feel extra grateful for my coat,
which feels like it’s actually keeping my heart,
now spinning as wildly as a piñata after the first
hit, inside my body.
Excerpted with permission from Motherest © 2017 by Kristen Iskandrian.
Published by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.
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