Monday, June 30, 2014

Platypus Begins with P

Writers need to consider their audience, but who is their audience?

Is it the target audience children, young adults, mystery buffs, romance readers?  What about the secondary audience:  the parents reading to the children, the adult reading the YA book along with the teenager, the grandfather receiving the mystery novel as a gift, the husband who finds the romance book in the laundry basket? And we mustn’t forget the publishers and editors, those folks who have definitive ideas about what makes for good writing and what will sell.

In fact, can’t the “audience” even be that “going market” for what is selling and what isn’t?  Think about Jan Krosoczka’s popular Platypus Police Squad.  Originally they were penguins, but he was told penguins had been overdone the year he submitted.  Fortunately for him, platypus begins with a “p”, too.

With such diverse readers, with competing likes, dislikes, priorities, needs, and wants, what exactly is a writer to do?

On the one hand, writing for an intended audience helps writers. More often than not, we write with a deliberate purpose when we have a specific reader in mind; we make choices about the writing style, vocabulary use, and type of character development. What we know about the audience affects the plot and story structure.

On the other hand, writers often write for an audience of one – themselves.  We write for the joy it brings us.  We write because the muses insist we must. We write because we have stories to tell and characters and worlds clamoring to be made real. If we are pleased, is that not enough?     

Stephen Wright, the comedian, asked, “If all the world’s a stage, where is the audience sitting?”  For writers, our writing is the stage, and we must ask the question:  “Where is our audience sitting?”  Whether we write simply for ourselves or with hopes for publication, the truth is that we do need someone to appreciate what we write.  If our audience is only ourselves, the appreciation usually comes more easily. If, however, we want to publish, it may take a while to find our particular audience.

Be assured, though, that somewhere there is an audience. Numerous publishers rejected Madeleine L’Engle’s ever-enduring A Wrinkle in Time and J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter series before they each found the one publisher who appreciated and believed. One wonders what might have happened if they had given up.

Writers write for a specific audience in mind because it helps to direct our work, but in the end, we must always remember that an outside audience can be fickle; and fickleness should not mean our writing is unworthy. We must keep in mind Oscar Wilde’s variation of the “stage” quote:  “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.” Sometimes only when changes are made to the casting of the audience, will we find our readers.

 Paula Castner is a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer and workshop facilitator. She receives emails at

Monday, June 23, 2014

Keep On Writing!

Summer is high season for writing "retreats," and there are many to select from—if you have the time and the money. These outings aren't cheap but they're usually beneficial to aspiring and practicing writers. Being a newbie is no reason to avoid them, but pick what suits you best. Looking through Writer's Digest, Poet & Writer or The Writer magazines will provide lists of summer workshops in Massachusetts and elsewhere. I can name a few opportunities.

You can tie workshops to a vacation or find workshops closer to home. Some combine recreation with creation, supplying both inspiration and fun. You'll often find sessions led by noted authors in a variety of fields, as they seem to be fond of working in these lovely surroundings.

Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative's last seasonal workshop, on writing emotions, was scheduled for Saturday, May 17, and that's the last one until fall. The best thing about these workshops is that they're filled with quality content, presented by working writers, and free. You do not find free very often. Catch us in the fall.

For less "retreat" and more "hands-on work," Grub Street in Boston—near Emerson College and Boston Common—offers a lot of specialty courses. Costs are relatively low, depending on the length and intensity of the course you choose. You'll have to move fast, though, as deadlines approach and classes fill fast. (

Nearer the beach, Cape Cod Writers Center presents its annual summer retreat Aug. 7-10 in Hyannis. CCWC members also have the opportunity to participate in a special publish-shared profits event with Books by the Sea book store, by the way. At least a dozen authors lead the sessions. (

Write It Out an "Expressive Writers Retreat" for sharing life-altering events in writing, is held Aug. 18-22 at Wellfleet-by-the-Sea. ( Cost is $540 for the weekend, and you have to find accommodations separately. Like I said ...
Juniper Summer Writing Institute, in Amherst, Mass., June 22-28, offers specialized workshops and an impressive faculty of coaches. It, too, is costly—$1,250—and doesn't include room and dinner. (

What should you know before you go?

You don't have to know a thing, actually, other than who-what-where-when and how much. Read the information carefully, explore them on the internet, tally up the costs. Once decided, here are some tips:

* Dress comfortably but nicely. Jeans are fine, as are shorts in the summer. Halter tops? Not really.
* Bring a notebook and/or laptop for research, taking notes, or referring to a piece you're working on.
*  Listen. To others. I can't stand people who dominate a class with their own-little-worldview while others are waiting for a turn to ask a question or comment. Share the time and learn from others by using your ears more often than your mouth.
* Say hello. That doesn't mean to sit in the back of the room all day and never talk to anyone. Tell the leader what you gained from the session and say thanks. Visit with other members during breaks.
* Don't be afraid. We're writers—which makes us all rather nervous about revealing ourselves. But we're there for the same reasons, and willing to help others learn. We've all been beginners (some for longer than others).
* Try to attend as many sessions as possible without skipping an important session or being rude. People who waltz in and out of rooms during a session aren't easy to tolerate, as they cause distractions.
* Depending on your level, go easy on the agent meetings. Nothing is more discouraging than going away from an agent with a list of how many ways your book fails, and new writers take the words much too much to heart. Remember, an agent is just one person, who has likes and dislikes. Take what you can from it, but don't let it discourage you. But that's why I'd advise against these meetings when you're just getting started. You're vulnerable to criticism, and you're not likely to hear great things when you're starting out. There are exceptions, though, and meeting an agent is usually instructive. You'll pay for it, of course, but on the whole the agents aren't charging. The workshops use face-to-face meetings as a way to raise funds for their workshops and seminars.
* Write down all contacts you make. You'll forget later, and these can lead to all kinds of information or opportunity.
* Be a little cautious about unknown retreats. Nothing wrong with having a good time, but some, I suspect, are focused on income over quality. Do some research or make calls to writing centers to research an unfamiliar center. You may do well, or you may waste money.
* Bring a satchel to tote hand-outs or new books. This is especially true if you're taking the T back home.
* Have fun. Writing and meeting writers should be enjoyable. Have a drink, ask others about their writing (people love to talk about themselves), and don't overdo, leading to missed sessions the next day!

Regardless of whether you go to a retreat or not, keep on writing! Daily writing, no matter its length, is critical to establishing the best writing habits. In the end, it's the writing that is at the heart of what we do.

Ann Connery Frantz is a retired journalist turned freelance writer and editor, and cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Contact her at

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Gentle Reader . . ."

Not long ago, Former President Jimmy Carter reported that in light of Government surveillance, he has begun to write letters again.  If it matters, he says, he takes out pen and paper.  Jimmy Carter has the advantage of a presidential seal on his letterhead, a design element that makes even the most mundane observation seem significant, but the simple fact of writing something down on paper does that too—especially if we can see the writer’s hand.

Why is that?  To begin with, a hand-written document letter tells the receiver that thought has gone into the message: a letter-writer has the end of his or her sentence in mind when he or she begins it; possibly, the overall project of the letter is in the mind of the writer, as well, which tends to keep the message coherent and on-track; and, most of all, we have a sense that the writer is writing to us—to the reader, personally (which, of course, is the case).

The novel, both in the Western World and in Japan, was born of letters: one person writing to another, telling a story, explaining events, weighing in on clothing, manners, and issues of taste, sharing emotions, assessing the emotions and actions of others.  Lady Murasaki, writing in 11th century Japan, Samuel Richardson in 18th century England, Mary Shelly during the next century, and Aravind Adiga, winner of the 40th Man Booker Prize six years ago, told their stories through letters.  They did not write to save themselves from the spying eyes of the Government (although some Haitian and Czech writers did encode their work for self-protection), but because the form provided them a method of direct address. 

Beginning and experienced writers find that the voices of their characters will become clear when they write letters from one to another, or by taking a persona, themselves, and writing to their readers.  The exercise forces a rhetorical identity—what we call voice, or what is similar to his or her handwriting on paper.  A writer’s voice helps the reader know who the writer is and helps the writer locate his point of view.   

One good way to do this is to take out pen and paper and simply write in your own voice to someone in your story.  Write a letter to the character you like or dislike most.  You will discover that, rather than typing along and backspacing or cutting and pasting, you will think of what you want to say before you put the words down—usually a good thing.  You might look at your handwriting and see characteristics of your own persona you hadn’t thought about before.  You’ll also have a better idea of your overall project if you write it as a series of letters.  Unlike a journal or diary, a letter assumes a reader other than yourself, and its purpose is not self-validation or self-exploration so much as narrative and observation—another good thing. 

When you are done with this pre-writing exercise, you might discover that your work is more clear, more direct, and more immediate in its language. The position of the narrator is present and accounted for. 

The NSA is probably not tracking your emails or hacking into your word-processor while you’re working on your next short story, but take President Carter’s advice, and if what you want to say matters, write a letter.

Winona Wendth

Friday, June 6, 2014

Narrative is Everywhere


It is a struggle this time of year, to get out of the garden and back to the writing desk.  There are new beds to prepare, old beds to mulch, pots to be planted, trees and shrubs to be pruned, and weeding to be done, always the weeding.  It is like a deep breath to be outside, after the long winter, an exhalation, a kind of release to be among the growing things. Damp earth, scented flowers, form and color, the music of the birds; the garden is a rich place for the senses and a restorer of the soul. 

It’s a satisfaction too. And I’ve come to realize that my work in the garden is not so much an escape from my writing, but an extension of it. Like walking and cleaning, gardening involves that kind of Zen-like, often repetitive, action that frees the mind and allows the seeds of inspiration to grow. Many a mot juste has appeared while clipping the yews, many a plot issue resolved pulling pigweed from beneath the beauty bushes.

More than that, the garden tells a story. It pulls us in, it pulls us along. The garden gate, a winding path, the open field; these offer, what Jim Scott, in a Fine Gardening article, called, anticipation, tension, and release. Narrative elements applied to the natural world. The first moments in a….  garden should immediately cause the visitor to begin wondering what happens next. The master gardener crafts the garden experience, much as the novelist crafts the novel. A garden, like a good book, has an arc, it appeals to reason, the senses, and to memory.  It invites us in.

I once heard that it took twenty years for a garden to mature, a number I found oppressive at the time. I wanted my garden now, my flowering crabs, my stone walls, my climbing vines, my pathways, my arbors. Patricia McLachlan once told a group of rapt listeners at Vermont College that it took her six years to complete her novel Speak.  I had the same sinking feeling then. One of the gifts of gardening (and novel writing), however, is the subtle, internal shift in appreciation for process over product.  Yes, results are exhilarating, but even a books changes with the reader.  Nothing is every truly truly complete.  Paul Valery said, a poem is never finished, only abandoned.  And the same could be said for the garden. Life goes on, and best we can do is to keep planting, and weeding, and watering.

Hollis Shore