Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Read Before You Write

You want to write, but where do you turn? Unless you're still a student, and can afford to get help at the MFA level, finding writing courses is difficult. Colleges offer them, for a price. Workshops offer them, for a price. Even writers offer them, for a price. But there are alternatives.

Going to college in the late 60s, I had no idea there even was such a thing as creative writing courses (turns out, there was). So I picked an English/general lit major, with a dual bachelors in social sciences. It was good preparation for a career in journalism. How was I to know that fiction writing would fill my creative pores many decades later?

I decided "all the facts, ma'm" just wasn't enough in my life, and fell out of love with my career field (though I appreciate what I learned in it). Since then, I've spent a lot of time self-educating. I've been to workshops at Grub Street and immersed myself in all the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative has to offer—for free, no less! But very importantly, I've collected books to help me ferret out the secrets of good writing.

Perhaps some are born to write perfectly. Shakespeare, whoever he was, and Chaucer. But these days, even writers of great repute and ability spend time learning from their peers. Often enough, too, they write about their craft to help those who will follow. John Gardner, Elizabeth George, Anne Lamott, Marge Piercy, Ray Bradbury, Bill Bryson ... literally dozens! Writers cannot resist writing about their love for books and writing. They'll share wisdom on grammar, style, and various elements of crafting a story or book, so take advantage of what's available.

Many good books on the craft can be found at Thayer Memorial Library, where our programs are based. Librarian Joe MulĂ© is amassing a healthy collection of books for writers—novelists, historians, poets, essayists, etc.; you'll find them in the nonfiction section, in the 800s (as in any library). You may also request a book there, and it is most often obtainable shortly, even if the library has to buy it.

Read before you write.

If you want to write short fiction, read anthologies. If you want to write a certain type of fiction, read authors in that genre. Same goes for nonfiction, which also requires vast amounts of research through reading what others have already explored about your subject. You're not trying to copy, but to build a cushion of knowledge for when you put that well-prepared seat into a chair, to type.

Here are some books in my home library that I've found indispensible, in no particular order—I've put an asterisk by the title if I know it's also on the library shelves. But remember, more are always available.

Josip Novakovich, "Writing Fiction Step by Step"
Elizabeth George, "Write Away"*
Jeff Gerke, "Plot versus Characterl" "The First 50 Pages"
Heather Sellers, "Page after Page"
Ray Bradbury, "Zen in the Art of Writing"
N.M. Kelby, "The Constant Art of Being a Writer"
Stephen King, "On Writing"
Linda N. Edelstein, "The Writer's Guide to Character Traits"
Jessica Page Morrell, "Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing"
John Gardner, "The Art of Fiction"*; "On Becoming a Novelist"
Julia Cameron, "The Right to Write"*
Goldberg, "Writing Down the Bones"*
Pat Schneider, "Writing Alone"*
Anne Lamott, "Bird by Bird"*
Laraine Herring, "Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice"
Marie Arana, ed., "The Writing Life: Writers on How they Think and Work"
Donald Maass, "Writing the Breakout Novel"
Robin Hemley," "Turning Life into Fiction"
James V. Smith Jr., "You Can Write a Novel"

This isn't all, but it's a good start. The library's collection also includes these notables: Sutherland, "How Literature Works"; NTC Dictionary of Literary Terms; V. Klinkenborg, "Several Short Sentences About Writing"; L. Dale, "Shimmering Images"; Strausser, "Painless Writing"; Welty, "The Eye of the Story"; S. Burnham, "For Writers Only"; R. Peter Clark, "How to Write Short"; Goldberg, "Old Friends from Far Away" (memoir writing), and much, much more.

So slate a day at the library and review some of these offerings, buy some so you can underline at will, and, above all, read the best of what's out there.

Ann Connery Frantz writes about book clubs and authors for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. She is a freelance editor, a fiction writer and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

November Workshop


Saturday, November 15th, 2014
10:30 am - 12:30 pm

Living the Writer’s Life:
Jumping in: Writing an Effective Beginning

          Beginnings are important, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction.  Editors and readers alike decide whether they want to continue reading or not within the first couple of paragraphs of a narrative or essay. So, how do we write an effective beginning which hooks both editor and reader? Come learn tips from the trade with opportunities for practice. 

                Paula Castner holds a writing certification from the Institute of Children’s Literature and has won first place prizes for her short pieces, most recently from Children’s Writer Magazine and Champlain Area Trails.  She has freelance written for magazines such as Parents Today and local newspapers and currently writes for New England Condominium Magazine.  She lives in Lancaster with her husband and three children and keeps busy as a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative, as both a writing and a baking workshop facilitator, and as a drama director. She receives emails at pajamalivingwriting@gmail.com.   

Bridging Writers!

Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative
Open Mic

All Welcome
(5 minute maximum)

Sunday, November 16th
2-4 pm
Thayer Memorial Library

Share your work
Support local writers
Build community

Cleaning House

When I was little, my mother and grandmother turned the carpets and changed the drapes and slipcovers in spring and fall.  Most interesting to me was the semi-annual rearrangement of the furniture.  The sofa in the living room looked out in the spring and summer, in, in the winter.  The position of overstuffed chairs turned one way or another, depending on the season.  When I was six or seven, the happier time for me was spring cleaning—a promise of a fresh, new year, which is what spring really means: newness.  Today, though, autumn and winter speak to me with more effect: reminiscence and self-reflection.  This is a time to think, to slow down, to prepare for a month or two (or three) of interior work, of turning the chairs toward the fireplace and away from the gardens and lawns on the other side of the window, of looking forward to reading and writing and entertaining in a less effusive way than spring and summer encourage.

This is true of writers, especially.  It’s time to change the drapes, to re-arrange the furniture in a figurative way.  To revisit our writing and re-think what we put into it and what it’s offering us.  And to move the pieces around inside those writing projects we started a while back.  This is a good time to take a clear look what we wrote and abandoned, either in exhaustion or disgust (yes, this happens to all of us).  You will see superficiality, silliness and awkwardness you either hadn’t noticed or had struggled with a year (or two or three or ten) ago; you can fix them, now, along with the odd punctuation you had thought was clever. 

But you will also notice some good ideas that had been staring you in the face a while back.  You will find inspiration.  Take the good pieces and reposition them or recombine them—the joy of written work is that you can move that perfect sentence from one corner to another, or to another room.  You may notice a tear in an upholstered chair: move it (the chair).  You will see the perfect place for that rhetorical throw-rug; you might want to hang a piece of Oriental carpet on the wall, pull two loveseats togther and make a sofa.  You will notice, in those long winter evenings, how remarkably ugly that recliner in the corner really is: toss it.  You will see where lamps and ornamental pillows don’t belong and find new places for them, possibly right out of the room.  You will see where artistic chairs need turning, and then notice that last spring you may have missed one of those dust -bunnies.  Clean them out now.

Do this:  Think hard about who you were when you wrote whatever that was and how you have changed; if you produced your work last spring, you might want to simply keep it in a box; if you have a manuscript from last winter, this is a good time to read with revision—re-arrangement—in mind.  For those of us who are constantly writing “memoiristic” pieces, this is a time to take stock. To sit in a chair toward the fireplace, book in hand, pen and paper close by, and prepare for long evenings, looking inward, seeing the world new and old at the same time.  Re-assessing, re-visioning, re-arranging.  Tossing, recombining.  Remaking.  An artistic “spring cleaning” in the coldest and darkest times of the year.

Winona Winkler Wendth is a writer and editor who teaches the humanities at Quinsigamond Community College; she is a Lancaster resident and a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Contact her at wwwendth@mac.com.

Monday, November 10, 2014


NaNoWriMo. It echoes vaguely of medical technology, or perhaps a fictional zoological experiment gone horribly wrong. But no, NaNoWriMo is the not entirely euphonious acronym for National Novel Writing Month. Founded in 1999, the program has grown from the original 21 San Francisco area writers to over 300,000 adult writers working around the world. And that doesn’t even include the Young Writer’s Program, which facilitates events in schools, libraries, and on-line to encourage young people in their pursuit of writing of fiction.

Chris Baty, founder and spokesman, calls it noveling. And while the idea for the annual event was to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, the purpose was to rediscover our own capacities. Writing a novel is hard; a complex creative and structural challenge that can absorb a writer for years, if not decades. The NaNoWriMo goal of completing a draft of a novel in a month’s time is both terribly difficult and terribly freeing, and compresses the process in way that can alter the writer’s perspective. “And after the noveling ended…,” writes Baty. “My sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed.”

Writing is all about the possible. Without the confidence, the faith, that one word will follow the other, there is nothing; the empty page, huge and menacing as Melville’s white whale, a dumb blankness full of meaning. 

What does 50,00 words look like? That's about 200 double-spaced pages, about six-and-a-half pages per day.  Fitzgerald's, The Great Gatsby was roughly 200 pages, so was Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, as was Lois Lowry's classic, The Giver.   But NaNoWriMo is not designed to produce The Great American Novel. It's designed to circumvent the writer's usual neurosis and prognostication.  It's not about writing a finished novel, but about finishing. It's about getting the story on paper - beginning, middle, and end. It's about the process, not the product. (And that's not to say the germ of greatness won't appear.)

The rules are simple. You must begin a new novel. You must write alone. And you must email a copy of the novel, with word count (50,000 minimum), to the NaNoWriMo headquarters, by midnight, the last day of the month. That’s it. The NanoWriMo web site is full of process markers, resource links, and outreach activities to support the novel writer in this endeavor. The idea of community is important here; working alone together provides the solitary writer with a ready-made support group and cheering gallery.

Seven Bridge gets in on this idea with its annual NaNoWriMo event, Come Write In!, providing dedicated writing times during the month of November. On Mondays, 6-8 pm, and Fridays, 10:00 am to noon (no meetings Thanksgiving week), we offer for space, snacks, and  quiet support for those brave, or perhaps foolish, enough to take up the 30-day, novel-writing challenge. "Writing a novel,explains Dennis Miller, “Is like travelling the universe on foot.” 

It's a long way to go. Better get started. 

Hollis Shore is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer's Collaborative, and graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults program. She was the 2012-13 Boston Public Library Children's Writer in Residence, and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery Award for her novel, The Curve of The World, out for submission shortly. Contact her at Hollisplus@gmail.com.