We Put Words On Paper Podcast – Episode 1 – Our First Time

Using our most recent WePutWordsOnPaper.com blog posts (Brandon’s “Defeating the End-Game Boss in Several Drafts“, Elizabeth’s “A Second Look at Your Favorite Book,” and Zakk’s “The Haruki Murakami Experiment“) as a springboard for discussion, we muse about editing, rewriting, rereading, writing habits, and more.

Listen to it here: Episode 1

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Author Interview – Clare Dunkle

Clare Dunkle

Clare Dunkle

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting Young Adult author Clare Dunkle when she gave a talk at my previous job. What I found most refreshing about Mrs. Dunkle, aside from being very personable and open to helping young writers, was that she did not get in front of a large group of kids and teachers and read for 15 to 20 minutes. It’s hard enough keeping adult’s attention let alone young teens. She gave a short talk about how she became a career writer, her experiences with her editors and publishing house, and explained some of her 7 published books before fielding questions.
After briefly talking, I asked her for an interview and, to my surprise, she was quick to accept. So, here it is. Our first Author Interview.

You have what can be described as an extraordinary entrance into writing and publishing. Would you mind telling that story?

Not at all. You’re right—I tripped over the pot of gold.

My family moved to Germany in support of my husband’s job. After about a half a year of intensive language study with me, my daughters started at a German boarding school so that they could hear German day and night. That left me alone and jobless for the first time in my adult life. Within a couple of weeks of their leaving, I began writing a YA novel for them. I would send them a chapter a week to cheer them up.

Mind you, I had never had the goal of writing fiction for publication, and this was the first fiction writing I had done since middle school. But I was a trained YA librarian, and when the novel was done, I realized it wasn’t too bad. I polished it for a month and then decided to try to submit it somewhere.

Since I was in Germany, I didn’t have access to the typical writer’s manuals, and I knew absolutely nothing about the business. The only thing I could do was check the names of the publishers who had released my daughters’ books and go online to see if they took unagented manuscripts. Holt (the publisher of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, which we owned) took unagented submissions, so I shoved my manuscript into an envelope and sent it off. Then I turned my attention to the problem of getting an agent.

I had just obtained photocopies of the agents’ pages from writers’ resources and had started reading through them when my editor at Holt contacted me, ready to get to work on the manuscript. That was six weeks after the manuscript went into the mail. I didn’t get around to thinking about agents again until I had three more novels under contract and one released.

The Hollow Kingdom

For most writers, especially young writers, that first novel can be overwhelmingly daunting. What were your struggles and triumphs when you set out to write The Hollow Kingdom and how did it affect the way you wrote your following projects?

Do you remember the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence? Anything you’re not supposed to be doing is fun. That first novel was tremendous fun because it was nothing but an entertaining hobby to occupy my spare time. I had no ambitions for it. I had no obligations.

At the time, the computer game, Myst, was out. I would try things in Myst for a few minutes, get disgusted, and work on my YA novel instead. Anything is easier than solving Myst—even getting published!

When my editor complimented me on the speed with which I produced a revision, I told her, “It beats doing the ironing.” Now I have seven books out from trade publishing houses, a manuscript with my agent, and another manuscript under contract. Now I do the ironing for fun!

What was the genesis of The Hollow Kingdom trilogy?

As with most projects, it had a genesis that stretched back decades, and it also had an immediate trigger. The long-term part was my love of folklore, which began before elementary school and grew with me. My mother was an English professor who was herself fascinated by myth and folklore, so I knew all about Childe Roland when I was a kindergartner. As the years went by, I did more and more research on British folklore in particular; my mother dragged me with her to the university library on a weekly basis, and we didn’t have portable electronics back then. Nowadays, I would just rack up a new top score in Angry Birds, but as it was, by the time I was in sixth grade, I was reading master’s theses on topics like the drowned city and the holy well. The central idea of The Hollow Kingdom—the idea of being stolen by the “fairies”—was one that had been familiar to me for a very long time.

The immediate trigger was a monster movie in which (as usual) the plucky young hero triumphs in the end. I thought that was ridiculous. Give me an intelligent monster whose survival depends on whatever he or she is doing, and I don’t think the plucky young hero will stand a chance. (That’s why Marak, my monster, has done so many years of boring research and has so many shelves of useful books to help him meet his nefarious goals: whatever is crucial to your survival is worth studying.) The movie got me thinking about how these sorts of situations were handled in folklore. Our ancestors were more honest with themselves, and in their stories, the magical races often won. And that got me started plotting The Hollow Kingdom.

What made you choose to write a trilogy of books first as opposed to staggering them between novels or simply starting with a single novel?

Since I wasn’t writing for publication, I let my daughters guide my progress. They wanted to know what happened next, so I wrote what happened next. I was working with an editor by then, sure, but my daughters were still my primary readers, and this was still just a lark.

I think that’s important, by the way. I think that the freedom to write what you want to write—to please yourself—has to be there from the beginning, or the writing suffers. I think too many hopeful novelists spend far too much time thinking about the market and not enough time thinking about the story they really want to write. The result can be derivative and uninteresting. After all, if you don’t hook your first reader—yourself—then how will you hook others?

The House of Dead Maids

When you were writing The House of Dead Maids, did you have any worries about living up to or being compared to a book as well known and respected as Wuthering Heights?

Absolutely! The fear existed on two levels. On one level, there was the worry about writing a good enough work: what I called “writing for Emily.” I researched meticulously but also daydreamed meticulously; I reread and reread Wuthering Heights until its ideas were coming out my fingers. But I had something I really wanted to say, and that drove me forward.

I wanted to address the weird pact that Heathcliff and Cathy have obviously made about being buried together and staying together in the afterlife. The need to put my own thoughts out there drove me through the fear.

Then there was the fear that readers would misjudge the work and think of it as fluff. That’s happened to some extent, but not all that much, and it’s happened more with the readers who don’t know Wuthering Heights well than it has with those who do. I did a number of things to help ameliorate that. First, I published a lot of my research free on the Internet: if you search my website under my The House of Dead Maids pages, you’ll find a small book’s worth of research on the Brontës and on Wuthering Heights. I’ve even posted a page of useful criticisms of my own novel in order to explain my thinking about those issues. And I did a blog tour when the book came out so that I could blog about this background research and about my serious goals for the book.

That’s paid off. The reviews of The House of Dead Maids have taken note of the scholarship, and reviewers accusing me of shoddy work or poor preparation have been thin on the ground. Of course, in some cases they’ve found other things to complain about, but that’s fine. I never mind an honest personal response to a work of fiction.

On your website you list many of your influences and most are what can be described as classic literature. With such influences, what made you want to write YA fiction?

If you think about it, much of classic literature is YA fiction, and almost all of folklore is. It deals with the dangerous transition between childhood and marriage: Cinderella goes to her first dance, the Black Bull o’ Norroway decides to take a wife, Jack goes out into the world to seek his fortune, and the story ends with a wedding. Think about the myths, too: many of them center on the Hero Journey from youth to settled maturity. Think about the early works of literature. Is “Hamlet” an adult story or a YA story? Which one is “Romeo and Juliet”?

These are the sorts of stories that have always mattered to me. I couldn’t care less, to this day, about the bored housewife and her two tired insurance-salesman lovers; I couldn’t care less about the failed marriage or the failed job or the disappointing son whose girlfriend needs an abortion. YA is where the identity is forged. YA is where we’re scarred for life. And those are the interesting stories.

What do you think are the merits of YA fiction as compared to genre or literary fiction?

You can tell I love YA, can’t you? Of course, we sometimes make less money, but the good news is that we have more freedom. I can switch genres, for instance, within YA, without losing my editor or house or audience. And the gatekeepers of YA hold my writing to a higher standard than I think some of my adult-fiction colleagues have to face. I have to please eleven-year-olds, but I also have to please the librarians, teachers, and parents because they buy the books for the eleven-year-olds. Adult-fiction writers can get away with pleasing just their readers, who often seem as undiscriminating as eleven-year-olds. I pick up books in the bookstore, read a couple of pages, and think, “My editor would never let me get away with this.”

Do you see yourself ever writing a novel for adults?

Not if I can help it. It’s just not my genre. And I’m doing well in YA. I don’t need to switch.

What is your preparation process for writing a novel? Do you plot? Do you use note cards? Do you have scenes planned and then write between them?

The first part of a story I get is usually a character and a really big problem. Then I brainstorm some other possible problems big enough to sustain an entire novel. I also get a color palette right away, along with an emotional mood.

I do a lot of daydreaming at this point, and I continually ask myself, “What do I want to happen? What do I want to see?” The process, early on, is nonlinear. In my mind, the novel resembles an unknown continent with the scenes as towns, scattered here and there, but I’m not sure about the pathways between them yet or which ones I’ll bypass as I write. I know some scenes in perfect detail, and I have only a glimpse of others. I’m asking myself, “Who is this person? Where did she come from? Why doesn’t she look anybody in the eye? How was she raised, and what does she like or hate?”

I almost never write that stuff down. I don’t want to lose the excitement of discovery, which is part of the magic that keeps me working on a draft. When I write a bunch of details down, I’m afraid I’ll be done with it and won’t want to think about it any longer. But every now and then, I’ll write down a little bit in preparation. For my new novel, I’m actually thinking of playing with note cards for the first time and having a fun day filling them out and moving them around on the floor. It just sounds like a good time to me, and I’m sure I’ll learn something too.

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve either sold finished drafts or had an editor interested enough and patient enough to wait for a finished draft. I’ve rarely had to write down synopses of more than just a page or so in length, and even then, I haven’t had to stick to them.

How do you keep yourself energized and excited when writing a 200-page novel?

I ask myself, “What’s more fun than doing what I’m doing right now?” And the answer had better be “Nothing.” If it isn’t, then something’s wrong with the story or something’s wrong with me, and I have to fix either one of those before continuing. Honestly, if writing isn’t the most enjoyable part of your day, then why do it?

I write my novels in order, from the first page to the last. That way, the pull of the narrative and the thrill of discovery keep me going. I can never know a scene as well as I know it when I write it, and the little things I learn along the way begin to affect the story I’m telling. They surprise me along the way, so I know they’ll surprise my readers.

If things start to slow down and get boring to write, then I know they’ll be boring to read as well. That’s another clue to go looking for a problem.

Do you ever get stuck, tired, or bored during the writing of a novel? If so, how do you overcome those obstacles?

I wrote one of my novels for an editor who didn’t like my writing style. God only knows why she wanted me as an author, but there you have it. That was a difficult novel to write, and it’s definitely my weakest: not what she wanted and not what I wanted either. The writing process for that book was awful because I mentally censored myself as I wrote, knowing that she didn’t like the way I ordinarily put my sentences together. I felt as if I were writing with broken hands.

If the novel hadn’t been pre-sold, I wouldn’t have written it. But it was, so I did. In order to do it, I set a timer on my computer. At first I set it for twenty minutes at a time because we can do anything for twenty minutes, can’t we? Then I worked up until I was setting it for an hour at a time. I also had word-count goals in a big Word file and checked them off daily.

There’s a lovely little piece of productivity software called Freedom that turns off the Internet on your computer for a set amount of time. I just found out about it, but I already love it. Every writer needs it. I’m using it right now! It enables me to keep working on a difficult sentence without stopping to see if anyone’s posted something interesting on Facebook.

Our readers would be interested to know what your physical writing process consists of? Do you write longhand, use a typewriter or a word processor? How many hours a day do you write and do you write every day? How do you juggle writing as well as family and traveling promotion?

You can probably tell from the above answers that I’m an organic writer; I don’t put myself into a set place or a set routine when I write. Instead, I truck my laptop all over the house. (I always write all my drafts in Word.) I’ve written entire novels in bed, for instance. At the moment, I’m writing at the kitchen table, which seems particularly nice because it has a good dose of natural light from the nearby windows. I’ve worked on manuscripts on trains, in temporary lodgings, and in hotel rooms. Again, it has to be the most fun thing I do, and if it is, then why wouldn’t I want to do it?

The recent memoir that I wrote with my daughter was very painful, however, and her serious illness caused my family a lot of trauma and a lot of stress. She was my number one priority for a couple of years, and her illness came right behind writing for the editor who didn’t like my style. Those two things ate into my love of the craft. I honestly thought for a while that I wouldn’t write another book, and the writing I did do was turning out to be not much like me and also not very interesting to me. I began a couple of drafts and discovered that I didn’t want to read those books.

So I took a break for a few months. My editor who has the pre-sold manuscript is an old friend and understands. And already, I can feel the love for the work returning. It’s becoming the most fun thing I do again. A complete manuscript won’t be far behind, and when it comes, it’ll be what I like to write and to read again.

So I believe that sometimes it’s important to take time out to heal or to grow. Our imaginations are always with us, but we only have so many years with our families and friends, and our children grow up faster than we think they will. My hiatus meant no advance money last year, but I’d do it again. Real life needs to come first.

We are very interested in multi-media and transferring our work into other mediums. Do you have an interest in expanding any of your works to other mediums, such as podcasts, plays, film, TV series, etc?

That’s not really me. I like to write old-fashioned, atmospheric books. And I’ve held onto my movie rights when speculators came sniffing around because I don’t see them turning into movies very gracefully—at least not movies I’d want to watch.

A major discussion amongst our members and our blog readers is how to market your writing. Should you market yourself as the author (i.e. “branding”) or should you market the story?

I was at a convention recently when this question came up, and a seasoned bestselling author said it best: “Write the frickin’ story.” It’s the story that an editor or agent will fall in love with. They couldn’t care less about who you are. And it’s the story the reader will find in your bookstore or library. It needs to be the best thing it can be.

You’re not dealing with an unlimited amount of time here. A little marketing is fine, but if it’s a question of improving your writing with research and targeted reading or working on the blog that will “brand” you—then for God’s sake and for the sake of your readers, put the writing first. Yes, marketing can help in the sense that you can make friends in the business, and some of these friends can open some of those doors. But at the end of the day, if you don’t have a good story to offer when those doors open, you’re done. You’ll have to start all over with a new manuscript.

A friend of mine wrote me the other day, asking for a blurb for his unpublished manuscript.
He was hoping to interest editors with it. I checked with my editors and with my agent, and they all wrote back saying that this would do no good at all. Editors like to put blurbs on covers because readers care about blurbs, but editors couldn’t care less about blurbs when making their decisions to acquire manuscripts, and neither could acquisitions committees. Their only concern: Can we bring this manuscript to the market in such a way as to enhance our reputation and make money? They know they’re the ones who will have to invest a lot of money in that story to bring it to publication, so no amount of marketing you do will overcome an editor’s or a publisher’s own gut feeling about a manuscript.

Nothing you or I can do in terms of marketing will ever equal what a trade-publishing house can do for your book. It won’t even come close. So the best marketing strategy you can have is to write the kind of story that will become a lead title for a major house. Very little of your own marketing will affect whether that happens. Your story has to sell itself.

Another big question in the We Put Words On Paper camp for the past few weeks has been about the performance, or lack thereof, at fiction readings. Do you think the author should put on some sort of performance or is a good reading just about charisma and finding a funny or interesting portion to read? And do you have any advice for giving a good reading?

Dickens set the bar pretty high, didn’t he? But this is really up to the author. It’s a question of the place the author wants this to take in his or her career because it has nothing to do with the actual writing. For instance, I know some authors of grade-school fiction who make a lot of money on their school visits because they put on a fabulous show. That’s an important source of income to these authors, and they’ve made the conscious decision to work up the show for that reason (and also because they love interacting with the kids).

Myself, I hate to do readings longer than about five minutes. I’d rather talk to an audience, and
I know that as an audience member, I’d rather hear five really exciting minutes than twenty kind-of-boring minutes. Not every story will appeal to every member of an audience, so when I do read, I feel an obligation to choose something generally appealing, and I try to read it well. I think that’s nothing but simple courtesy and proper respect for the audience.

What’s next for you? What should we be on the lookout for?

The hiatus I took to heal and regroup is leading to a nice, quiet year or two for me. The anorexia memoir I wrote with my daughter, Vanishing Girl, is on editors’ desks at the moment. One of them is taking it to her acquisitions committee, another is thinking hard about it, and we haven’t heard from the rest yet. That’ll probably be my next book, although there’s really no telling at this point, and it’s probably eighteen months out at best. And the untitled manuscript I’m working on is still a good two years away from publication.

Thanks for inviting me to answer questions for your blog! The best of luck to you and your fellow writers, and may all your offers be higher than expected.

Clare Dunkle is a Texas native, former librarian and the author of seven YA novels. Amongst them are The Hollow Kingdom Trilogy and her most recent, The House of Dead Maids, a prequel to Wuthering Heights.

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Defeating the End-Game Boss in Several Drafts

My wife games more than me.  In recent months, she has been known to spend entire weekends engaged in battle on Dragon Age or defeating the Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Sometimes she’ll look over at me, reading or staring at the laptop while ‘thinking’ about writing, and she’ll ask:

“Do you want to play?”

“No,” I say. “You go ahead.”

With a sigh, she replies, “I don’t think you like playing video games anymore.”

“I do,” I say. “I just feel like I should be doing something more productive. You know, like writing.”

I, too, grew up in the gamer generation. My adolescence wasted away many an afternoon, pursuing a Flawless Victory against Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn in Mortal Kombat. Of course, I enjoy gaming from time to time, but as I’ve grown older, I strive to utilize my various avenues for entertainment as a way to improve my writing craft. At least, that’s what I tell myself, while the dunce inside asks with a snobbish tone, What could I possibly learn about writing from playing a video game? 

Then there was last Friday. While reading G. Christopher Williams’ article, entitled “Rewind to Advance: Jordan Mechner’s Games with Time,” on PopMatters.com, I began to sense similarities between the way some writers write and the way gamers interact with video games. In the article, Williams begins by discussing the traditional and most common form of gameplay in gaming. He writes:

[M]any a gamer has died in an encounter with an end-level boss only to respawn at the beginning of the battle to quickly fight it in largely the same way again. A better timed button press here or better dodge of an incoming attack there may mean the difference between success and failure, but little is learned besides something along the lines of: muscling through a tough challenge will eventually equate to victory; more simply, persistence pays off.

In discussions with fellow beginner-writers, I’ve found many who write in a similar manner to the way these many-a-gamers game. They get inspired by the idea or task before them. They persist, laying down words as quickly as possible and plowing towards that end-level boss: the first draft. Realizing they haven’t fully hit the mark, they return to battle, but instead of reformulating their strategy, they simply alter some grammar here, some punctuation there. Maybe, they delete a line or two. The end result being that the writer learns very little from the rewrite. Instead, by muscling through their piece, they convince themselves through various rereads that these subtle adjustments hit the mark, when in reality, they haven’t. Their perception of the draft has shifted from that of an end-level boss to that of an end-game boss. On occasion, I’m guilty of this myself; I sometimes submit pieces to We Put Words On Paper, hoping they won’t notice the unfinished game, but they always do. As will most readers.

Williams furthers his discussion, bringing into focus the main subject of his article, Jordan Mechner’s games, specifically The Last Express, in which “at any time during play, the player can slip from the confines of the train’s reality into the load screen and rewind time”.

*A Review of The Last Express, feat. gameplay footage*

In Williams’ view, this unique alteration in the machination of gameplay creates a different and more immersive strategy in the gamer, writing:

[T]he dominant strategy in this game concerns time itself and knowing the timing of certain events so that Cath [the player’s avatar] can take advantage of these events to learn something important . . . or to act on hunches . . . Since the player may not realize when or where an important event is taking place or how to take advantage of the location of a character at a given time on an initial exploration . . . the ability to manipulate time becomes an essential mechanism to achieve success in the game.

You know, if you replaced the words ‘game’ with ‘draft’, ‘Cath’ with ‘character’, and ‘player’ with ‘writer,’ Williams’s quote seems incredibly applicable for you and me, the writers. I wonder if I could let Williams’s argument argue mine? Maybe I should just play a little Mad Libs with key pieces of his conclusion. Instead of muscling through the piece:

[L]ook at a problem to see why you failed, how it could be done better, and then how to enact a better outcome in a more clearly informed way . . . there are events and locations in space and time that are inevitable, the [writer] needs to be aware of this inevitability, learn it, and then move on after he has looked at the situation from as many angles (and from as many places in time) as is necessary to take the best advantage of the way that a situation is laid out. The [draft] doesn’t offer a fresh challenge, but it does offer a fresh chance to reconsider a challenge and to try again after some reconsideration . . . Starting over is less a punishment [and more] an opportunity to appreciate an experience in a new way, to progress in a new way, and maybe see something that you would have otherwise missed in what often becomes an effort to rush to the end of story instead of lingering over its details from various perspectives.

Yikes! I think I just learned something about writing from a video game. You know those times when you know something, but you don’t always put it into practice? It takes a simple metaphor to draw your attention before you really act on it? If you’re one of those writers who occasionally allows their work to be finished after only one draft and a few tiny cosmetic adjustments, this is one of those times.

Next time you think you’ve finished a piece after only one draft, dive back in, observe the details, and force yourself to experience it in a new way. View it as a new challenge and try again after reconsideration. I guarantee you that you will see your piece expand, not necessarily in length, but in depth, moving it from the end-level to the end-game.

You do that. I’ll do it, too. But first, I’m gonna go play a video game with my wife.

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A Second Look at Your Favorite Book

Someone told me the other day that he has never reread a book. The idea jarred me. I serially reread my most favorite novels and find enjoyment in each experience. I love reading and experiencing new stories and discovering new authors. However, I find intense enjoyment in rediscovering a piece of work that I already love and can’t help but feel it is vital to revisit works.

I find that long series, such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, need revisiting in order to fully appreciate the scope of the text. The tiny clues and hints implanted early in the story that come to fruition towards the conclusions are amazing to rediscover. I find it invigorating and inspiring. (Like in Harry Potter, reread Chamber of Secrets and then reread The Half-Blood Prince: the connections between the two are thrilling!)

But I find works that stand alone are often the most wonderful to revisit. They exist in a tiny bubble. The story ends and the characters’ goals or transformations are accomplished in one book. So the connections from beginning to end are not hard to miss. My favorite in this regard is The Posionwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

I’ve read this novel at least four times and continue to be amazed by it. The characters are fleshed out to the point of seeming to pop off the page and the landscape is described with tangible detail. The scope of the storyline and content is almost hard to believe especially since the reader still can relate to it and not be overwhelmed.

Even so, all that can be experienced in one read. What brings me back to the novel is how it seems to move beneath my hands. It doesn’t continually change, I continually change and bring those fresh experiences with me into every reading. I imagine a pack of experiences strapped to my back as I ascend the treacherous mountain that is the novel. Each trip I pack better and better items that help me to interpret the words and plot with new perspective. But what is really amazing is finding a new path to the top every time.

I first read it in high school and was blown away by the sheer scope of the story. And the connections between the family members. With each subsequent read, I’ve related my relationships with my sisters more and more to the relationships in the story. I’ve also become more attached to the feminist undertones of the work and its comments on race relations. As I become more aware of the continuing hardships of minorities in the world, the novel speaks even louder to me.

Like every trip, it leaves impressions on me. I discover more and understand more than I had at the previous reading. Not only about the text but about myself as well. I believe that its vital the people reread because of this process of self discovery. Reading opens your mind and heart to other worlds and other people. Gives you new perspective; makes you think. Sounds like a bad song from the Reading Rainbow, but hell, you get to dive into someone else’s mind and come out changed.

But I must relate this to writing. Since naturally, my experiences with what I read directly correlates to my writing.

I think its important to realize that a novel (and a poem) is alive. That when you write it doesn’t just sit on the paper but enters another person. And, so,  is shaped by their own perspectives and experiences. I realized that I shouldn’t worry so much about trying to create an amazing piece of work but should focus on being honest and real. If I create scenarios and characters that are honest in how they are then I’ll have created something long lasting or maybe, if I dare to say it, rereadable.

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The Haruki Murakami Experiment

In the past month I moved into a new apartment by myself and quit my job, leaving me with a lot of unencumbered free time. Immediately I found myself in a bit of a dilemma: when I wanted to write, I felt like listening to music; when I wanted to listen to music, I felt like I should be doing something more productive (beside drinking); when I was reading, I felt like writing. My daily life became a constant struggle for the attention of all my interests. Sure I could mix a few—listen to a record while I write, and I do, but I can’t listen to the noisier ones—but I was still left wanting to do the thing I couldn’t do in that moment.

I had no solution until I remembered reading about one of my favorite authors and profound inspiration Haruki Murakami. The man gave up a nightlife owning a bar, friendships, late nights and smoking for a writer’s life.

Haruki Murakami & his Awesome Record Collection

For him that means waking between 4 & 5am to write. After about 5-hours in front of the keyboard (writing or no writing) he runs 10 km. And after that he spends a couple of hours in a record shop thumbing through the jazz section for rare vinyl. Next, he has some free time for hobbies. For him it might be swimming some laps. Then it’s back to his office for a few hours of translating his favorite American novels into Japanese or catching up on reading before turning in at 9pm.

Crazy right? Well, it’s obvious the man is a rare talent. But, even he admits this is difficult. It is a schedule he strictly maintains while writing novels. Six months of this routine for a first draft, then a couple months off. Then he’s back rewriting for a couple months. One more month off and he comes back for the final edits.

I will recognize that not all, or even a small portion of aspiring novelists, can undertake this kind of schedule. But, being out of work has made me realize that if you want to be a professional writer you HAVE TO, you MUST, NO IF ANDS OR BUTS, do things this way. OK, it’s not that extreme, but you have to find your own form of this. Some routine that is going to make you look forward to sitting in front of your keyboard.

As for me, I will not undertake Mr. Murakami’s schedule to the T, but instead adapted my own routine around it. Besides, a routine that harsh 1) doesn’t seem needed for writing short stories and 2) seems like something one, especially a young person (H.M. didn’t even put his first fictitious words onto paper until age 29) needs to gradually work into.

Over the past week I’ve attempted a diluted form of this schedule. Working out the kinks, the interruptions and distractions.

10am to 3, I sit in front of my typewriter and don’t move from that spot. This was always the hardest part for me, but now I put on an album about an hour in length (currently Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972) and don’t even get up to pee until it’s done.
3 to 5, I edit/revise a story. This is to ensure that I finish and polish stories instead of just writing first drafts.
5 to 7, is spent reading.
After 7 is slotted for what I call “Bullshit.” Reward your hard work. Watch a show, get a drink, take a walk, or, engage in a lost hobby from the 60’s, lay on the floor and listen to an entire record.

This is a tentative schedule that will most likely change when I get a job. All great writers say that making writing or staring at blank pages a part of your routine is one of the most important steps to becoming a writer.

Join in. Think of that pet project that you’ve been putting of and stick to the schedule. It will be hard but satisfying (that’s what she said). And no reason this experiment has to be limited to writers.

See ya in a few weeks.

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Cento Poetweet

TODAY, April 21, marks the National Poetry Month Cento Contest. It’s a NaNoWriMo but for POETS! 36 Judges.  3 winners.  The prize: 12 (unknown but signed) books.  Count this crazy WepWopper in!

Google Images

@Poetsorg will Tweet lines from poetry that each participate must rearrange into its own working poem by Noon EST April 23rd.

Here is an example of a Cento poem.  10 random lines from random poets:

Any day now she’ll try to eat solid food. She’ll want — Kim Addonizio

When the feast is overSharon Olds

Some things are damned to erupt like wildfire —Beth Bachmann

I’ve been in your body and it was a carnival ride. — Richard Siken

Actually, they are the real artistsBilly Collins

I am just a menagerie for bright orange creaturesAdrienne Greenberg

till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil Adrienne Rich

The girl on the bench in the Laundromat is barely eleven, the kind of girl with no hint of a figureChristine Butterworth-McDermott

to be petals; I’m not fooledJade Ramsey 

or washed or cauterizedMargaret Atwood

My Cento:

Any day now, she’ll try to eat solid food. She’ll want–

til she could no longer hold a test tube or a pencil–

to be petals–

I’m not fooled.  Some things are damned to erupt like wildfire–

The girl on the bench in the Laundromat is barely eleven

the kind of girl with no hint of a figure

(or washed or cauterized).

I am just a menagerie for bright orange creatures.

I’ve been inside your body and it was a carnival ride.

When the feast is over,  actually they are the real artists.


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The Worst Advice I Never Gave You

Due in part to the recent rash of poetry events in our city, Zakk and Elizabeth dropped some observations on us last week, regarding the poet: here and here. As a result, several of the discussions of late, amongst the We Put Words On Paper crew, have revolved around the writer as performer.

Look, I’m an extrovert through and through. Place me in a party full of people, and I feel energized. I’m loud, and I can keep the conversation going all night. But I’m no performer. Not yet. Like many people, when I’m in front of a crowd, I get nervous. My hands get clammy. I start to feel cold. My once proud voice becomes a subtle rasp projected from a dry chamber, lacking all appeal or authority. Chapped lips and cotton mouth bodes not well for a guy who wants to read his work in public. It’s also not good for a guy who on occasion directs actors. How can one convince someone else to “act a fool,” if said one has trouble with one’s self? Amirite?

While the @WepWoppers* have been discussing the finer points of what it means to be a writer in this day and age, I’ve been studying up in my spare time, watching how other author’s “perform”. [*Follow us on Twitter! Gotta love a shameless plug!]

First, it was listening to one local author’s rehearsed, energetic, and entertaining reading at the Texas Observer Writer’s Festival.  She read with enthusiasm and gravitas, riding the pace of the page and changing her voice with each new character as she performed for the crowd.  At times, I felt her love for the work, but too often, it seemed as though I were back in Kindergarten and it was just about nap time.  She was a seasoned professional, for sure, but something about the whole thing felt cheap, dishonest.

Then the other day, I came across this video of Amber Benson reading a sex scene from the new book in her Calliope Reaper-Jones series:

You might recognize her. Benson is best known for her acting work, and I’ve followed that side of her career since the introduction of her character, Tara, in the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Before I dive into the praise, let me level with you: I am a fan of Amber Benson.

A lot of people might look at the video and think her unprofessional, but naturally I would disagree, because fanboys can’t be objective. Duh! . . . No. I actually haven’t kept up with her blossoming writing career. You see, I disagree, because Benson is an actress. If needed, I’m sure she could have composed herself and performed in much the same way that the “Kindergarten teacher” mentioned earlier did.  But she didn’t.

Why’s that?

I’m not going to pretend to know what Benson was thinking during the reading; however, I’m confident when saying, and I think you’d agree, that her reading was nothing, if not honest.  I’ve been to several readings delivered with wit and a preconceived tone, but none where I felt like I really got to know the author. Through this video, I feel like I’m getting the genuine Amber Benson. Isn’t that why someone would even go to a reading? They want to get to know the author and test them out before they spend hard earned cash on some book that they know nothing about.

Here, Benson is entertaining.  She feels real. That makes me want to read the first two installments in her Calliope Reaper-Jones series that have been sitting on my bookshelf for months, waiting for me to reach them in my never-ending stack.

What’s my research taught me? Well, it’s a cliché, but it’s a good one: I’m going to spend less time worrying about how others put on a performance and more time just being myself. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to do the same, because as legendary Life editor, Tom Masson, once said:

“Be yourself” is about the worst advice you can give some people.

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Poetry Slam: The New Rock Show?


The word doesn’t usually inspire visions of crowded bars, microphones and especially cheering, but that’s exactly what a few WepWoppers found last Tuesday night at the Austin Art Authority.  As you can see, we’ve been busy visiting the local sponsored poetry and literary events around town… refer back to Zakk’s post for more details!

The Austin Poetry Slam hosted its semi-finals to the biggest crowd of poetry lovers that I have ever seen.  Standing room only! The MCs treated the event like it was a rock show by encouraging the audience to cheer, yell into the mic and create an atmosphere of high energy and excitement.  They, in turn, responded with enthusiasm and encouragement.  As a poet, it was thrilling to see such an event. I never realized that the Austin poetry scene was so prominent.

But then it hit me: is the scene only that big because the Slam was essentially treated  like a rock show?

Now, I love live music, and I love my city that fully supports it, but at heart, I’m a poet, so I can’t help but wonder: what fosters such enthusiasm? Maybe I’m not showing enough love for my own craft, but I know that poetry, in general, gauges a small audience. But maybe if treated like a rock or rap show, poetry can receive its fair share of attention.

Slam poetry is a different breed of poetry altogether. The style is quick, pieces need to be under three minutes or points are docked.  Poets accompany the words with hand gestures and exaggerated movements as to engage the audience and accentuate parts of the poem. Themes vary, but the best crafted poems had to do with social issues and above all, the reasons for writing poetry itself. The majority of performers spoke of poetry and joining together in a community as writers.

And it appeared, from a newcomers perspective, that everyone knew each other. The audience called out the performer’s names in encouragement. Every one said hello and talked to each other, as if they were all a big happy poetry spouting family! So maybe that’s where the enthusiasm and energy comes from!?

Clearly, this is a question that the WepWoppers have been grappling with for the past couple of weeks. How do you engage the audience (or find it) when it’s poetry being performed and not live music? Do we have to add instruments, a DJ, and contest to make it worth the audience’s while?

But perhaps my biggest questions are:

What do you do if, like me, you don’t write slam poetry or don’t feel the need to perform it? How do you get people involved in the literary scene with as much excitement that they give live music and slam poetry?

And above all: Where are all the poetry lovers hiding?

So let me know what you think!

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For the Love of Non-Literary Loving Tweeters

Austin International Poetry Festival 2011

I’m not much of a poet. By that I mean I don’t write poetry, nor do I see it as one of my go-to entertainments, but like all writers I have a deep appreciation for good poetry, especially in a live setting. So, a couple of us WepWoppers went to a few of the events surrounding the Austin International Poetry Festival and, compared with last Saturday’s experience at the Texas Observer’s Writers’ Festival, it is, in two words, younger and more niche.

This should not come to you as a surprise. In this age of 140 character tweets and ever shortening attention spans, poetry remains in obscurity outside the classroom. Inside, it’s academia’s pinnacle of pretension, but of all the other literary mediums, it has the most potential to grab new, younger audiences. Poems have the swift language and metaphor that its longer counterparts simply can’t compete with at live readings. It has the immediate power to connect the audience with emotions, be it humor, anger, frustration, or regret, and have them shouting or laughing in quick succession, whereas a short story or novel would sprinkle such punches over the course of 15-minutes, half an hour, or even an hour. What non-literature loving tweeter wants to sit still for that long, even with free booze?

Poetry slams, for example, have been on the rise in the past decade, from the National Poetry Slam to Austin’s weekly poetry slam. The latter of which is run by reigning champion Danny Strack, who we had the pleasure of meeting. He also hosted the “Haiku Deathmatch,” which, without mentioning our own attempt, he told us was a growing fad in the poetry community. The quick humor most of the haiku authors strive for is a factor, but it is undoubtedly the immediacy of haikus and short poems coupled with the audience’s thirst for competition that is making them a popular part of slams and poetry events.

I’m a pretty traditional guy when it comes to writing. I like 20-page stories. I like boring yet vigorous Carver-esque minimalist sentences. And I like dull readings with an author propped up behind a podium. But, I also know that not only are these things no longer appealing to the new generation of writers and readers, but they definitely won’t bring on a new revolution of literary-connoisseurs.

Which leads to the question that’s been floating around the We Put Words On Paper camp ever since our SXSCongress Literary eventHow does the author/performer make a short story as entertaining and brisk as a poem or haiku?

We have a few ideas of our own (you’ll see soon enough), but we want to know what you think. What would make reading a 10-page short story more enjoyable for the audience?

(Besides booze, we already know that)

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Books, Their Audience, and the Texas Observer

Thanks to the graces of David Duhr at Write By Night, Brandon, Zakk, and I received an opportunity to volunteer and network at the Texas Observer 2011 Writers’ Festival this past Saturday.

Though it was our main duty to set up chairs, pass out fliers, fetch the keg, and man the bar, we minions were also given the opportunity to sit amongst the crowd during panels and speak with authors about their craft, lives, literature, and our own writing group.  I learned Oscar Casares left Texas for Iowa as to avoid the stamp “regional writer.”  He started the non-Michener Center MFA program at UT that’s two years instead of three. Contrary to what I’ve been told, they do accept writers from Austin. In fact, 3 out of 4 Austinites were accepted into the program last year.

To join together with The Texas Observer, a magazine dedicated since 1954 to provoking sensitive issues about government and education, was a true and rare treat.  Their mission statement must have resonated, though, because as much as I want to write a blog completely praising the event for reeling in around 200 of the Austin public, my rebellious and inquisitive nature wants to shed light on a different observation: the average literary audience member is 40+ white males and females.

During the “Why Do So Many Writers Call Texas Home?” panel, the issue of Austin’s obsession with music sparked relevant conversation. While some writers felt happy to have their own comfy space apart from the music, I couldn’t help but publicly ask, due to the audience make-up, if there would be a way to fuse both the literary and musical communities in hopes of expanding the audience and engaging a younger crowd.

My friends, who are all early- to mid-twenties, spend their time at shows, seeing bands, buying tickets to ACL and SXSW. It’s part of our culture. We share links to YouTube videos of songs we love. We go out dancing and sing karaoke. Rarely does anyone (outside of my writer’s group) share a link to a literary magazine with a story they enjoyed or that they think I’d benefit from. Are people below age 40 just not reading? And if so, what stories do they enjoy?

In a study from the National Endowment for the Arts, less than one-third of 13-year-olds read daily–a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percent of non-readers doubled over a 20 year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. On average, Americans aged 15-24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV and only seven minutes of their leisure time reading.

This was in 2007–before Facebook allowed non-college students to join, before Twitter, before newspapers fired half their staffers and switched from print publication to digital, and when I–a bright-eyed college sophomore–still thought I had a promising future in traditional journalism.

But this is about fiction and poetry. Often times, I have to shut down my computer just to pay attention to a book. Otherwise, I’ll waste half an hour catching up on news feeds or e-mails. And I adore reading! I can’t imagine others who are not as attracted to the art, because they’re not writers trying to learn and preserve a craft.

This poses the question: why bother reading? Books are only cheap if they’re used, a best seller in Wal-Mart, or as a download. One possible argument: in a time when gas averages $3.60 per gallon in Texas, people are more likely to spend money on practical devices, not luxuries. My rebuttal: library books are free. Online literary magazines, like Fringe and Black Heart, are free. Has this hobby become obsolete in comparison to others in our society?

I know why I read.  Because words move me. Pace and language in the written form offer a completely different tone than watching a movie or TV show. A scene painted with words looks different than a scene on screen. Because, in its density, it opens up portals of my imagination that no other art form has yet to accomplish. I’m forced to think deeper, read between the lines, envision a character and hear a dialect. There’s so much freedom, and in this, a story becomes part of my own story, due to the interpretation.

The Rumpus maintains a column called “The Last Book I Loved.” I’m curious, young audience, what IS the last book you loved? What are you reading? Why are you reading? And did you know there are people in town who gather at events, like the Texas Observer Writers’ Festival, sharing their love for the craft?

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