Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Bigger Picture

When was the last time you considered how your brain works? 

This may seem an odd question, and probably it is. I ask, though, because of an experience I had this week. I was viewing an installation by the artist Christina Zwart (pictured above), titled, Tuition, Room & Board, Miscellaneous Fees (Pizza Not Included), which is showcased in a building in Harvard Square owned by Harvard University. As an artist, Zwart connects seemingly unconnected details to create a bigger picture.  So, for the above piece, as she word associated about Harvard, “students”, “pizza”, and “tuition” successively came to mind.  The result was a panel created with pizza boxes, showing the current price tag for attending Harvard, in the style of a game show.

As I thought about this piece and some others Zwart created, such as Rosekill, a photomosaic of dead animals, that from a distance becomes the image of a rose, I wondered what would happen if I allowed myself to associate in this way, writing without a plan or idea in mind.  My inspiration was a quote from Chekhov,  “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” and as my eyes rested upon the sentence, an image of shattered glass appeared.  So, I wrote, “Shattered glass littered the kitchen floor,” and waited to see what would happen.

Shattered glass became a cookie jar that a mother had broken, which developed into the shattering impact of the mother’s Alzheimer’s upon both mother and daughter.  It felt remarkable because I have had no personal experience of this, and did not consciously choose to write such a narrative. When I shared the piece with friends who are actually  dealing with this type of life-changing circumstance, they marveled at how I had captured not only the truth of their situation but their feelings.

Somehow I had absorbed my friends’ circumstance, and then, through free-association created a fictional narrative that put the reality of their struggles into words.

So my question for is:  When was the last time you considered how your brain works?  The creative process is an associative one, and like the art of Christina Zwart, it’s the seemingly unconnected that gives the bigger picture.

Paula Castner is a mother of three and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer, writing and baking workshop facilitator, and drama director. She receives emails at pajamalivingwriting@gmail.com.

Friday, June 19, 2015

This is Your Book...

It's fairly simple for things to get complicated when writing a longer piece, such as a novel or novelette. As I edit one book for what feels like the thousandth time, I still notice discrepancies in eye/hair color, character activity and timing. You will too.

In these days of too-few editors (and too-many unedited novels online), it's important to take pride in your work and assume responsibility for accuracy and consistency. You can't really trust a Beta reader (helpful eyes) or editor to find it all. Nor should you. This is your book, and only you know who is supposed to do, say and think what. Editors are wonderful, but also human. You still want to check with a read-through.

So how do you do it? Here are some recommendations:

1. Keep an index card file, noting each character's physical appearance, job, background, likes/dislikes, aspirations and anything else that seems relevant. This is also a way to get to really know your character. Refer to the cards whenever you're writing about someone after a bit of time away. Cards are also good for setting scenes, for example town descriptions, landmarks. List minor characters to the extent that you're using them.

2. Do a timeline. It is incredibly easy to lose track of events in time, allowing too few days or weeks to pass from one event to another, or mixing up a scene in time. I recommend listing each scene—yes, every one of them—on a card with the basic event that's occurring and the time.

3. Lay them straight. Use your cards to discover needed changes in the order of events. I took one editor's advice and laid the scene cards out on a tabletop. It's a good way to find out where you may have jumped the gun on an event or scene, or to decide better locations for a scene.

4. Read it out loud. There is nothing like the spoken voice for pointing out awkward dialogue or prose. I find it a key way to determine where better punctuation will help, where I've repeated words and weakened a sentence (you can also do a word check to find this out—it can be shocking how much one repeats favorite words). Mistakes will pop out in front of you.

5. Look it up. Everyone has grammar monsters, those unsure structures that haunt you every time you come across them. Underline areas you're not sure of. Look them up in other writer's works, in grammar guides like "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," "The Chicago Manual of Style," "The Writer's Digest Grammar Desk Reference" or dozens of other grammar guides on your library shelves.

Finally, do not—as the saying goes—throw the baby out with the bathwater. If what you have written has flare and style, spirit and rhythm, then preserve that. Overediting sometimes stiffens and diminishes your writing. Guard against that by, again, reading changes out loud.

Ann Connery Frantz writes "Read It and Reap," a column for book clubs in the Telegram & Gazette, and is a founding member of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Death In Shorts"

Please join us for the final 
In Our 2014 -2015
 Living The Writer's Life 

"Death in Shorts" Mystery Short Story Panel

This Saturday, June 20th, 2015
10:30 am - 12:30 pm
Thayer Memorial Library

Level Best Books will present a “Death in Shorts” mystery short story panel.  The panel will feature local authors, Janet Halpin, Ruth M. McCarty, and Dale T. Phillips, whose stories are among the twenty-nine published in Level Best Books’ twelfth annual anthology of crime fiction by New England authors, Best New England Crime Stories 2015: Rogue Wave. With Leslie Wheeler, Level Best contributing co-editor, moderating, panelists will discuss how they plot, construct, and populate the mystery short story from light-hearted to noir. 

            Copies of Rogue Wave will be available for signing and sales. 

About the Panelists:

Janet Halpin is a committed genre hopper, writing mystery, romance, sci-fi, and sometimes YA, but she draws the line at poetry. She and her family live in the Boston suburbs, where, as we all know, nothing is as it seems.

Lancaster resident, Ruth M. McCarty’s , mysteries appear in several Level Best Books anthologies and Over My Dead Body! magazine. She received honorable mentions in AHMM and mysteryauthors.com for her flash fiction and won the 2009 Derringer award. She is a former editor at Level Best Books, a past president of Sisters in Crime/New England, a member of Mystery Writers of America and a founding member of the New England Crime Bake Committee.

Dale T. Phillips studied writing with Stephen King at the University of Maine, and has published over thirty short stories and four novels, three in the Zack Taylor series.  He’s appeared on stage, in televisions, and in an independent feature film. He competed on two nationally televised quiz shows, Jeopardy and Think Twice, and lost spectacularly.

 For more information, contact Karen Silverthorn at 978-368-8928 ext. 4.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Hopper: “a container for a bulk material such as grain, rock, or trash, typically one that tapers downward and is able to discharge its contents at the bottom.”  There it is: lots of material, some of which is useful, some of which is trash.  Most of us have writing hoppers—our notebooks, our journals, our idea files.  Sorting that out is not so easy, so we tend to collect everything, “just in case.” 

Poet Donald Hall suggested that New Hampshire’s state motto should be “It might come in handy,” and I have a little of that notion operating in my writing life—I should retitle my paper and electronic notebooks “Handy,” “Something Might Come of This,” “Just in Case I Need Something About the King of Albania,” and “That Man Who Was Folding his Plane Ticket into What Seemed to be an Alligator.” What I have, instead, looks more like this:  “January, 2008 - July 2009” and “Last February—now.”  These are not very useful or inspiring—those assortments of pages (keeping working on those) and electronic files (really not a good idea) are filled with grain, rock, and trash, only two of which I can do anything with.  The other?  I should just trash it.  I have to sort through all of it and start pitching.  But wait . . . . .

There is the problem.  With some perspective, I can recognize the heavy rocks in my notebooks—they are the “big ideas” I am tempted to lay down and build on: “The Problem With Teenagers” “Why Americans are Selfish,” “The Real Reasons my Boss is a Jerk.”  These might provide a foundation for opinion essays (although few people are likely to ask for such opinions), or, maybe, flash fiction (nope), short stories (they will inevitably sound stiff, forced, or didactic), or novels (don’t even bother to try—that’s not how it works).  So leave those big-idea rocks alone after you have found and hauled them out of the hopper.  I know: it’s hard.  Like so many of us, I have several projects on my desk, and a good share of them are boulders. 

Get rid of them.  Start from the specific and concrete, not the general and vague.  We should begin with the little pebbles and, maybe grains of sand—you’ll never chisel your way through the boulders, and even if you try, your readers are not likely to want to join your project.  Dig though what you thought was trash and find the little seeds of grain—an experience or observation you can see in your mind’s eye and recreate with your other four senses.  See if you can tell a grain of sand from a grain of seed, which are grit and which will grow.  If you are a journaler, make a habit to include distant memories and their concretions—the “real” part of them that call out your senses. Go back and find that old that old book or shoe or your grandmother’s watch or a family photograph and try to smell, taste, or feel the times and places they carry with them.

We never know:  Something might come in handy.

Digging through our writers’ hoppers is sometimes an excruciating process, requiring us to see trash for what it is (now), to confront a bit of slimy garbage (probably useful), and to sort through the seed and grain that could generate good fiction, personal essays, or poetry.  Lug away the rocks, which someone else might want—but not you, and not for this. 

Winona Winkler Wendth is a freelance writer and editor and writing project mentor, and teaches courses in literature, writing, and the humanities at Quinsigamond Community College; she a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative. Contact her at wwwendth@mac.com