Miss WEPWOP on the radio?

If you were unfortunate enough to miss the WepWoppers on KOOP’s Writing on the Air because you were working or scrambling to find a radio in a dusty corner of your apartment, then you can still listen via their PODCAST.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed waxing philosophical about writing.

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B&A FRINGE Book Reviews

Brandon and I started reading fiction submissions for Fringe Magazine this time last year.  And now, we’re writing book reviews for the blog.  For those of you unfamiliar with Fringe, we aim to publish edgy, experimental work.  What does that even mean? It’s best to just read for yourself.  My favorite stories: Terry & Tawny & Lucinda, by J.A. Tyler and My Magpie Eyes, My Trampoline Heart by Claire Mapletoft. We’ve even gone so far as to publish pornographic photos in a post-modern type piece about suspects involved in burning down a theatre.  Not for shock value.  But because it fit.

The past two weeks, I’ve reviewed three books (here): Ethel Rohan’s Hard To Say, J.A. Tyler’s A Man of Glass & All the Ways We Have Failed, and Yelizaveta Renfro’s A Catalogue Of Everything in the World: Nebraska Stories. 

My absolute favorite: J.A. Tyler’s A Man of Glass.  

Check ’em out if you want something new to read.

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KOOP RADIO SHOW!

More on the show here: WRITING ON THE AIR

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Oscar Casares Interview

Oscar Casares

You might not expect it on first glance, with his chiseled jawline, dark hair, and perfect teeth, but Texas native Oscar Casares is not a model. He is the author of two books, a program director, and an instructor.

We met in the vacant halls of Parlin, and he invited Amanda and me into his office. Outside, the foldout chairs lined the South Mall lawn, leading up to the Tower. “15…16…17…” the man on the microphone tested as we made idle chitchat. Finals had been the week prior, but one glance from Casares’s cheery smirk and you wouldn’t know it. Looking at his disheveled office, though, might give off a different impression.

“It’s a never-ending process,” Casares told us, “trying to carve out time.” With a family and the responsibilities of directing UT’s MFA in creative writing, on top of teaching, we wondered how he ever has time to write. “I try to design my day so that the time remains somewhat sacred, but there’s no way the rest of my responsibilities won’t encroach on that.” Large chunks of time are especially precious to him now that he is working on a new novel. “It’d be different if I were working on stories. That’s a little more manageable.” In addition to that, he is also working on a collection of essays. “The essays are a good break from the novel, because it’s a lot more immediate, easier to pick up and put down.”

“That was the first lesson I learned when I started writing,” he said, regarding finding time to write, “because I was still working another job, in advertising, and I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to actually write stories; I just didn’t know if I could make that leap.” Creating during what little free time he had, he wrote at night, in airports and hotel rooms. The “commodity” all writers are searching for in their daily lives, he realized was just time. Though he was comfortable in his advertising position, Casares quit his job in favor of full-time writing in the summer of 1996. Not having the responsibilities he has now, he was able to concentrate solely on writing. “I woke up and wrote. Maybe went to lunch and then I read and then I wrote again. That was what I did, that was my life.”

“At some point, everyone needs that, whether it’s for 6 months or 2 years,” Casares stated. He pressed on, publishing stories here and there for the next three years until he was admitted into the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in ‘99. “You definitely pick up some tangible lessons that you can go home that night and say ‘oh, that’s what I needed to do,’ but there’s a misconception of, ‘I’m going to go learn how to write and become a better writer.’” Casares mentioned that, while graduate creative writing programs are about giving you time, they also help speed up the process of a young writer’s development. And, if they’re teaching you anything, they’re teaching you about your own writing. “You have people discussing your work very candidly with an effort to make it better. In that way, you begin to learn, but you really are learning about your own work. This is what I do, here is something I need to improve.”

Brownsville

Brownsville

During and leading up to his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Casares wrote story after story and later realized they were all taking place in the same world, the world of his childhood in the Rio Grande Valley town of Brownsville, Texas. “I began to realize these stories were taking shape. There was a world I was writing about that wasn’t common to most people’s experiences,” said of the development of Brownsville, his first book. “All that time, each story was an apprenticeship of sorts, my learning curve.”

“I knew how to tell a story in this oral tradition, and was very aware, intuitively, how to structure a narrative. I didn’t know what literary stories were like, I hadn’t been enlightened in that way.”

I wasn’t much of a reader when I was a kid, though I desperately wanted to be. Casares didn’t read when he was young either. “If I read one book a year, I was pushing it. Seriously.” While my disinterest in reading came from learning problems, Casares simply lost interest in the lack of urgency compared to the family stories he was raised on. “In a way, I think it was good, because I didn’t have preconceived notions of what a story should be,” Casares said, “what I knew was what I’d heard.”

When he decided he wanted to be a writer, however, he realized, as we all do, that writing and reading go hand in hand. Sometimes, though, the reading turns into research as opposed to entertainment. “When I started reading, it was to search out these answers, and to understand how someone like [Raymond] Carver or Flannery O’Connor were having such effect. Everyone that I read and even now when I read them, I’m reading to learn something beyond the text. They were doing something that I needed to figure out and solve for myself.”

Mimicking, Casares said, was one of the techniques he employed when first starting to write. Young writers shouldn’t hesitate to attempt mimicking other authors until they manage to be comfortable with their own voice, he said. “That’s how we learn languages, we hear accents, we try to reproduce the same thing but eventually we develop our own tongue. So in this same way, I could pick any writer who anyone adores and say, write a story this way, and you would maybe capture some of that cadence for a couple of pages, but eventually your own voice would come through, and that’s just the way it is. The method is only a way to get started.”

Casares eventually did find his own voice and through the help of a friend got an agent to help him publish his first book in 2003. Brownsville, a collection of stories that come together from the authors childhood inspirations and observations to personify a community on the Texas-Mexico border, was one of the American Library Association’s Notable Books of 2004 and gained acclaim from, amongst others, The New York Times.

Amigoland

Amigoland

Since then he has helped develop the creative writing program at UT from an MA to an MFA and released his first novel, Amigoland, which was the 2010 Austin Mayor’s Book Club selection. Not being the stereotypical writer who “can’t put a book down, and then at 6 or 7 they start writing their own stories” and coming from a tradition of oral stories, Casares found the best way to keep himself, and the eventual reader, interested during the writing process of Amigoland was to pretend there was someone in front of him to tell the story to. “So that becomes part of my motivation, not to lose that relationship.” But there is a “schizophrenic” relationship in writing, he said. “Your dream reader should be yourself,” he explained, “I’m writing and writing for myself, would I keep reading at this point or would I find this boring and not compelling?”

Struggling with the complexity of the novel, he reached out to a former Iowa Workshop friend. “I didn’t have the thread yet, he was really very helpful. That’s another benefit of graduate school, the friendships that last.” After being lost in the story for five years, though, he finally rose from the darkness and published the novel in 2009.

Sadly, his first novel was released into a publishing market worse off than six years prior when his first book was released. It doesn’t seem to affect Casares too much, though. “It’s scary, but the point is the entire industry is in flux and changing.” He is confident, however, that writers, as well as their readers, will adapt even if we don’t see physical books on physical shelves. “I worry about it, but I worry about it for two seconds a day. There’s nothing I can do about it. Trying to figure out a novel, it’s consuming. I just worry about doing my job. If I do my job well enough, it’ll find its medium.”

Marketing and knowing your market certainly has an undeniable affect whether it’s the publisher or the author doing the marketing. “The publishers still do quite a bit, but there is a definite transition to move toward having the writer as more of a salesperson with social media, and what have you.” One notable difference between the publishing of his first and second book, Casares said, was that with the publication of the second he received a letter outlining various things he could do to promote the novel.

Despite these changes in the industry and in his personal life, having a wife and kids, Casares’s goals haven’t changed. “I’m still learning. The goals haven’t really changed. It’s still about writing and figuring out for myself how to tell a good story.”

“The one piece of advice I give all the time is that whether you’re working on something specific to a project or not, I think even more important is to be writing consistently. And that means writing when you have nothing to write about. I kept a journal, but the journal wasn’t the important part, 90 percent I’ve done away with, but the reason for them, is it gave me time to get comfortable with a blank page. It’s much easier to write a novel if you’re used to writing every day. That voice changes every story, so getting into that routine is a major part of being a writer. So that when you do see that blank screen, you’re able to work through it.”

Oscar Casares was born in Brownsville, TX and is the author of two books. Brownsville, a collection of stories, was released in 2003 & Amigoland, a novel, was released in 2009. He currently teaches creative writing and heads the MFA program at the University of Texas at Austin.

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No Podcast & No Monday Post?????????

Last week found every member of the We Put Words On Paper crew busy. We didn’t even get a chance to hold our weekly workshop. We apologize for the lack of content. It will probably happen again . . . someday. We’ll do our best to keep it to a minimum.

Today, I’ll leave you with this quote from the recent indy flick, Hesher, which keeps circling around in my head:

Life is like walking in the rain… you can hide and take cover or you can just get wet.

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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

“Sure,” I say to the massive pile of dishes infesting the kitchen sink, begging for attention, “I’ll wash you.”  Maybe one coffee cup is mine.  And who knows how long that purple fuzz has been rotting inside the unopened Tupperware containing some foreign specimen unfit for bare human hands? It is the plight of the mother, the roommate, the unacknowledged middle slave child, and also, the plight of the writer.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

That Hemingway!  Such an OCD genius!  Why the need? Cleanliness provides structure.  Things have places, and when disorderly, the ingredients for a panic attack stir. Anxiety.  Stress.  Discouragement. Focus shifts from “What benefit is it to my plot to turn my antagonist into a fire-breathing dragonfly” to “When the hell will I have time for THE TEN LOADS OF LAUNDRY CARPETING MY ONCE-WOODEN FLOORS? I don’t even have detergent!”

There’s a reason offices hire cleaning crews.  Bosses would rather their precious employees worry about deadlines and innovative financial schemes, not pesky trash pick-up! But since your working space probably doubles as your home, both are your responsibility.

Our minds are already mad and messy enough without all the physical clutter.

So, I put away the dishes.

Spoons go with spoons, forks with forks.  Similarly, it is confusing to mix metaphors.

Small plates stack on top of big plates.  Your story must have a strong foundation.  It might not fall over, but it will surely fall flat.

If the mug still has a brown ring of coffee on the inside, do not put it up.  Cut excessive language.  If you need inspiration, turn to Hemingway.  Always.

If you do not know where the cookie pan goes, ask.  Read books or blogs, consult other authors in or outside of your writing group.  Knowledge is often attainable by simply paying attention.

Throw out scratched pans.  This has no direct relation to writing, but it does cause cancer.

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Black Metal Writing

I’ve been listening to a lot of black metal lately–two bands in particular–though it’s not music I’ve historically enjoyed. The body painting, studded leather, and fake blood, not to mention the music in general, all seemed ridiculous to me. Even when I did find good black metal songs, I couldn’t really enjoy them because the vocals were always drowned in the mix. I don’t mind screaming, but if I can’t even hear the vocalist over the guitars, then it might as well be instrumental. In that case, I wouldn’t want to listen to 10 minutes of blast-beats.

But this April, a new American Black Metal band called Deafheaven came out with their debut, Roads to Judah. After listening to the album a few times, I found myself actually enjoying the music but still wanted them to turn the vocals up. As I wrote a review for the album, I was forced to consider my conflicted feelings. I reached the conclusion that the vocalist in this genre of music is just another instrument, adding to the atmosphere and emotion rather than being the focus, like in almost every other genre.

This got me thinking about my writing. I’ve always known that I don’t write deeply layered stories, and part of that is because I’m terrible at revising. Just like listening to this music for the first time, I can only see what’s on the surface. And just like how the vast majority of music listeners often cling to lyrics, I often cling to one aspect of the character, the setting, or the plot. I fail to see any other problems for fear of loosing that one aspect or having to start over.

I wondered how I could give my stories more layering.

One way, I thought, was to write a large back-story, most of which I wouldn’t use. Since I usually write from one moment to the next, developing the story and the characters along the way, I felt that diving too much into back-story before writing the first paragraph would take away a lot of the fun.

While pondering Deafheaven’s songs, I thought a more fitting technique for me would be to build my stories as a musician records a song. Throw down the drums, bass, and some guitars on a demo and the song takes shape. Just as writing a complete story on the first draft allows me to have something to work with.

Now it’s time to take the demo into the studio. I focus on a question or an aspect of the story I feel is weak and revise only with that in mind.

What brought these characters to this place in time? Why is she breaking up with him? Is this setting appropriate? Where should this metaphor recur? Like musicians concentrate on one layer or instrument in the song as they record, develop these layers one at a time, making them as full and rewarding as possible. Build one off of another and make them compliment each other. This way I will have a piece that is balanced, and every part has been given it’s proper attention. As opposed to having parts that sing over the weaker ones, it keeps the reader from noticing them in the background.

This technique allows me to keep my spontaneity while writing, but will hopefully add more depth to my stories. So when I’m finished (if there is such a thing), it has been layered so much that, just like a “headphone record,” it will be full of meaning and worthy of a reread.

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We Put Words On Paper Podcast #2 – Low Energy

We bring it to you a little low energy to start, but the conversation heats up as we discuss the merit of author corporations like James Patterson. Plus, we provide an example of our goal-setting discussions. Lots to chew on. Accomplish with us on Twitter (@WepWoppers) using the hashtag #wepwopgoals. We promise to bring a little more energy next week.

Listen to it here.

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Tips When Cruising Through Writer’s Block

I often think of writing stories as a wide, slow-moving river.  At first, the water is smooth and still.  It’s a beautiful, warm day.  Prospects seem high.  But every word makes a wave.  The further you travel in your story, the stronger the current and the less containable.  A tree branch snags you.  And, once again, you’re stuck.

It’s the inevitable question: how do you push through writer’s block?   We WepWoppers have explored different solutions (some which we will share on our next podcast!).  While always open to new, creative ideas, here are a few that seem to pull us ashore:

1. Reading other works: it seems strange, consuming words that aren’t yours with hopes to inspire your own story.  Isn’t that, in some way, stealing?  Let us assure you, it is not.  Reading gets the mind back on track when its run rampant from self-induced hysteria during an unforeseen crisis mid-plot.  It familiarizes your mind, again, with tone, style, and rich, inspiring language.  Often, when stuck, I flip through Margaret Atwood’s short stories and poems.  They’re short, easy to digest, and recognizable.

2. Note Carding: Jotting down ideas onto notecards helps visualize elements of a story in a different space than a paper or computer screen.  This change in scenery keeps the mind fresh and even brings forth issues that may be glossed over when placed with the original draft.

3. Seek Constant Inspiration: As my favorite movie, Stranger than Fiction, states “like all great stories, it came inexplicably and without method.” In other words, you have to be engaged. Really see, really hear, really exist in every moment. The consistent plight of the writer–being both a part of and separate from every moment. This takes practice.  Keep a notebook.  Record what people say.  My best ideas recently have come from my interactions with people at work. A customer will speak and a phrase or word will jump out, and before you know it: STORY! You’re a journalist as much as you are a writer, a philanthropist as much as a plot-ician, a detective as much as an editor.  In order to find your fodder, each moment must be potential inspiration.

We’ll keep throwing writer’s block buoys out, to hopefully help keep you afloat.  In the meantime, feel free to listen to Neil Gaiman’s tips below or post your own creative ways to keep cruising while writing in our comment box!

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First, Finish Small

I am a chronic starter:  books, web sites, plot lines, learning other languages, new relationships, golden ideas that will flourish into financial, spiritual, emotional, and sexual success!

And as if hexed in a previous life for teasing a kid with ADHD, I inevitably grow bored, sometimes only minutes later, and start something else. 

The grim reality: What’s the use of a thousand first pages gushing in rich, inspiring material, when there is absolutely no follow-through?  Oh, right.  There’s a market for that: Flash Fiction.  (I’m kidding! I’m kidding! Besides, it doesn’t even pay!)

Damn the internet, damn TV, damn the man for the millionth time–still, there is no excuse.  As artists, if we expect to produce something more worthwhile than an elaborate, dazzling idea, we must be like pregnant mothers and DELIVER!

Like the idea of “starting small,” one can also finish small. Menial tasks, such as putting ALL the laundry away (even mismatched socks at the bottom of the bin!), is a good example.  You’ll notice it doesn’t take much time or effort or mind power.  Now translate that into writing: before you start working on yet another poem or short story or novel, go back to a first draft of something already completed, bust out that red pen, and edit! In my experience, editing takes far less time than the initial writing, and it’ll remind you how magnificent it feels to–say it together now– finish.

Setting goals is vital in this business.  That could mean writing 1,000 words a day or translate into something more specific, like writing out the backstory for your main character’s sister just to have a clearer idea of what she’d say in conversation.  Either way, when starting projects, there should also be a realistic estimated due date. WRITE THIS DATE DOWN, OR YOU WILL FORGET!

You’ll soon discover, there are exorbitant benefits to being a finisher.  You can review the books you’ve actually read all the way through and post it on your professional-looking web site, perhaps even translating it into the foreign language you’ve mastered, which might reel in a partner you can stand for more than two months, because your wallet is fat enough to travel to faraway places, where you can hole up for days, mapping out plotlines for your next novel, finishing all kinds of things….  Like Miracle Jones said, in the story he read for our Literary Extravaganza, “Don’t ever walk away from a bed of sex unless your partner has also climaxed.  Stay there for days if you must.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to put away my laundry.

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