Friday, August 26, 2011

Writer, What a Big Story You Have! Better Cut It, My Dear

We're all told to cut our stories. We know we should. It's a rule. Give your reader the tip of the iceberg, not the whole darn thing. Jackie devoted a post to finding the "ness" instead of pouring all that we know about a character onto the page. But will cutting ever hurt the story? What if you're an over-cutter [this is like being an overachiever only with a delete button]? Do such stories exist? Have you ever wanted more?

When does cutting hurt the voice? Are you a minimalist who must flesh out the story? I can think of several examples where the protagonist's voice wouldn't be her own if the author had wielded a scalpel like Hannibal--Ida B comes to mind.

Are you a staunch pro-cutter? What happens if you cut a major plot artery? What if the voice bleeds off the page?

What do y'all think?

*Irene's fast approaching the NC coast. She's a pro-cutter; the electricity's first on her list. Time to gather the candles and lanterns and cut this draft. Stay safe, East Coasters!*

Amelie Nothomb

I've been reading AN and reading about her, so I thought I'd chat a little. She's difficult and interesting. She calls herself "a numerous being." And she says, "Writing for me is a descent into myself to a place where I'm entirely porous and where I can let myself be penetrated by all the individuals I could have been in all of humanity."

She also calls writing a sacred act and says this about her deep need to write: "Is it a matter of life or death? From the moment where it's a matter of life or death, then I have the right to write."

Jeez, Amelie -- relax. I get a little cranky when I don't write, but I don't need to call 911.

Still, I love the idea of being porous, and writing can be a sacred act. I know a writer who every morning cleans and polishes her desk, arranges some expensive paper just so and then sits quietly so she can hear the Muse in her bare feet enter quietly, look over her shoulder, then begin to whisper in her ear.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Polishing shoes and other tasks

Yesterday was one of those days between projects when it was hard to focus on any one thing. Definitely a “hummingbird brain” day. So I took to reading poetry, thinking that might help me to settle down.

And I found one of my favorites:

Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put on his clothes in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

There is much that I love about this poem, but one thing especially struck me yesterday—the heartbreaking detail of the father, alone, polishing his son’s shoes on Sunday morning.

It made me wonder about other fictional characters who reveal themselves by taking care in doing the simplest of acts.

And the other side of finding fictional characters-- inventing. Seems like it would be an interesting exercise for those times when nothing seems to be there: write about a character doing a simple, humble act, but an act that reveals heart and motive, something like washing dishes, changing the oil in the car, re-glazing a window, combing the tangles out of a child’s hair, or the young man in Liza Ketchum’s story who bakes bread.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Almost 30 dollars But Worth It

I've been a little tardy vis a vis the Inkpot (Did I say that last time?), so will make up some ground here.

I just got Garrison Keillor's newest anthology of poetry called GOOD POEMS. All of them were heard on "The Writer's Almanac" so you know they're easy to listen to and easy to read. There are way too many cool poems to quote, but here are some smidgens from the Contributors' Page where every poet gets to write a little something about poetry:

Edward Field: "Poetry is no different from newspapers. What you think about is what you should write about."

Rodney Jones: "I'm against all the games that might be played in a poem like "guess what's behind my back.' Everything I do in a poem can be seen."

Ted Kooser: "I revise toward clarity and away from difficulty, wanting the poem to appear to be written with ease."

Linda Pastan: "I stopped writing for almost ten years and I was very unhappy. Finally my husband said he was tired of hearing what a good poet I might have been if I hadn't gotten married."

There are more, but those are only the notes-in-the-back! Can you even imagine how good the poems are?


P.S. And, yes -- I'm in there, too.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Look Who's Back!

Want to take a little trip together? It's easy -- no pre-planning, no packing, no traveler's diarrhea. This is a blog tour. I have some publicity people (as in my people call their people though I'm my people and they their two people), and Barb set up a blog tour for the new book ("Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz2"): Here are the stops. Check out a couple and let me know what you think:

Aug-8 The Brain Lair - guest post - The Rialto
Aug-9 Guys Lit Wire - interview
Aug-10 YA Books Central - review
Aug-11 Teenreads - guest post
Aug-12 The Hate-Mongering Tart - TBD
Aug-15 YA Bliss - guest post
Aug-16 A Life Bound by Books - guest post
Aug-17 The Book Monsters - TBD
Aug-18 Chick Loves Lit - interview
Aug-19 A Good Addiction - character interview

I'll tell you what I'm most interested in -- do you think something like this sells books? Remember -- I'm not the only writer on the block. The sites post new/different authors all the time. Why would my day-at-the-blog entice someone to buy my book and not the person right before or right after me?

Anyway, nice to see you all again. I'll be a regular contributor for awhile.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

From the "Ask the Inkpot" Mailbag

Hello Inkpotters!
Here is a question for our illustrious bloggers, direct from the mailbag:

Y'all had offered such useful advice about narrators and my dog last semester, that I've returned with more problems. I apologize in advance... What are your opinions about narrative time--specifically the time frame in which a novel unfolds. My story begins on a Friday and ends on a Tuesday. Stuff happens. So, what's my problem? Aside from the two love birds who sit in the back row of my classroom and make-out during conversations about the legalization of marijuana (apparently weed is a gateway to the dirty deed)--my story "feels" stuffy. I anticipate that someone will suggest extending the story's time line. Here's the downfall: If I extend the story over weeks, or months, I will lose a great deal of narrative tension. Much of the story's tension comes from its five day timeline. I would appreciate any advice/solutions/medications. Oh, and I'll also accept advice about the love birds before they return to their nests and tell their momma birds about the egg they created in English class.

Thank you, (Still) Desperately Seeking Snoozin'

Word Tics: Just So Many

Do you remember Marsha Q's post two weeks ago on word tics? Oh, my, did that hit me spot on. During residency, a friend read a draft of my novel. One of her notes pointed out my overuse of the word "just." I am thinking - really? But oh, my. This morning I called in the exterminator as Q suggested and my head is throbbing.It was so intense I had to take a break from my find and replace function. I am appalled at how many times I just threw in the word "just." Tic, tic, tic. In almost every case, I could cut it out and not need to find a replacement. My first editor Virginia Buckley called it the echo effect, explaining that often writers can't even see it in their own work. A bad habit, highly irritating to readers.

This is a revision technique on the micro level. Perhaps better for the afternoon stretch of writing when I don't have the early morning clarity for the macro revision needs. But an important one indeed. What tic/echo words have you had to exterminate lately?

Shout out to all those writers on the East Coast, hoping Irene didn't do too much damage to you and yours.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Minor Characters and the Liberty Bell

"Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." These profound words [come from the Bible] but also adorn the Liberty Bell. I grew up in Cape May, New Jersey--nowhere near The Real Housewives. My second grade teacher, Miss Church, took our class on a field trip to the Liberty Bell in Philly. I was fascinated by history and stories [and cheesesteaks], as most of us are, and the crack in the Bell has its own story. It represents freedom. It represents hope. The crack on the Bell's bosom makes it real.

You must be thinking: how does the Bell relate to minor characters? Minor characters have their own stories. And they, like our protagonists, have flaws. They're human. They have cracks. Free your characters by showing their cracks ["...that's how the light gets in."--Leonard Cohen]. Let them be real. Let the light flood your story.

Got cracks?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Finding the "cow-ness" of our cows

Students who've made it to the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul and seen the cow sculptures on the lawn there will recognize the huge reclining bovine here, part of a series done by Connecticut sculptor Peter Woytuk. Woytuk has said that he wanted to emphasize the mass of the bull, to make it a part of the landscape.

The other sculpture was done by a Maine sculptor, Roger Prince. I was struck when I first saw Roger Prince's sculpture and the U of M bull how these two pieces of art had captured some aspect of bovines. Neither artist had included all the details of the real cow/bull--the reclining animal doesn't seem to have any ears. Yet in its eyes, the way the head and neck are portrayed, the bulk of the shoulders, we have a sense of an animal who has an intelligence and might be sizing us up, too.

Roger Prince doesn't want his cow, small enough to stand on a side table, to be part of the landscape. He seems to want us to view her as a curious, but solid creature. He has also chosen, to place emphasis on the head and neck, to give us a sense of curiosity in this cow. And, to give viewers a sense of solidity he's made the hooves much larger than cows' hooves are. Because of those broad hooves, we don't think anyone will be tipping this cow soon.

And the photograph shows us a real cow, one of an old breed from England, called White Park. We see its distinctive horns, the black ears and nose--a real cow, not larger or smaller, not interpreted.

Each image of cow gives us slightly different information and a different impression of "cow-ness."

When we are writing our stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, we learn so much about our characters that we often want to share all that we know, the interesting little quirks of their lives, the side roads and byways that take them out of the main direction of our story.

In fact we can't, we shouldn't tell it all , we only need to select the details that give readers a clear sense of our characters and how they are moving through the story. We bootstrap ourselves along in story-making. As we know our plot, we learn which details of character we will want to include. As we figure out details of character we have more information and more plot choices.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Pitching Houses and Stories

So life is in boxes here as my family prepares for our big move from Chicago to Connecticut (existential-identity-crisis-post tk). The good news is that our house is sold. And that’s good news for writers because selling a house right now is a lot like trying to sell a book. Everyone’s always talking about how terrible the marketplace is. And passing along horror stories of houses lingering on the market for years. Or yakking about deals that were in place but then unexpectedly fell through at the last minute. Sound familiar?

But houses do sell. With enough cleaning and painting and enough showings, eventually someone comes through who falls in love just like you did, and isn’t distracted by a rainy day, or a head cold, or any other random issue that might prevent them from seeing the beauty of a home.

During the three months of trying to sell the house, thinking about the literary marketplace helped me to remember not to take it personally each time I cleaned, and cleaned for a showing that didn’t lead to an offer. Now that the house is sold, I can find solace in the experience for the book world. There are always buyers in the marketplace looking for quality homes. And chin up, there are publishing homes out there for our beloved stories too.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fan Fiction

The Storyteller's Inkpot has been hopping with the energy of new bloggers. I have been composting ideas for a post and will go with my cool one this morning. When I returned from residency, exhausted and stimulated with ideas, I picked up the July 18th issue of Time magazine, mostly to read the article on Fan Fiction: How Harry Potter Will Live Forever. Likely you already know about the alternate universe of fan fiction and after reading the article I realized I did, too. But I had no idea how widespread this phenomena had become. Thousands of internet postings of stories not only extending the lives of favorite literary characters like Harry, but video game, movie and TV characters, too. It's not great writing by any stretch. But it's full of passion for these characters. Wouldn't we all like to write a story that readers can't let go of?

Recently I presented at the Pacific Northwest Library Conference and during our presentation on "How to Turn on Reluctant Readers," a fellow author mentioned that his son would not write a word until he and his internet gaming friends began a magazine blog featuring articles on their favorite game characters. His reluctant writer son had become an avid writer with an audience. It reminded me of the time I led a writing workshop and a student read a story that was a retelling of a TV show he'd watched the night before.

The book Your Creative Brain (recommended by Andy Cochran in this blog) suggests that one way to solve a problem in your life is to pick a favorite character and write about how they would solve it. Maybe I'll try it with Coach's smart and amazing wife on Friday Night Lights or perhaps my beloved Anne of Green Gables. A form of fan fiction, wouldn't you say? Like retellings of fairy tales and modern takes on Jane Austen novels.

What do you all think? Is fan fiction a rip-off of a writer's creativity or the ultimate compliment?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Writing Fever in the Morning, Fever All Through the Term...

'Tis the most wonderful time of the year. Packet deadlines are near. Our advisors dedicate themselves to our work. I may send my advisor a sympathy card--or five--along with a bottle of Malbec [Student Tip # 112: Wine makes your adverbs fall off and any advisor real happy]. But you didn't hear this from me [A copy of Student Tips and Blips is available for $49.99. Email for details].

Maybe you're feeling anxious [don't most of us]? Tired? Excited? Have you found your stride? Wondering where the heck it's hiding? Ever wonder how you'll tap in when you're tapped-out? Don't worry; these are classic signs of P.D.D.S. [Packet Due Date Syndrome]. And the prognosis is hopeful. Life happens. You do the work. The car breaks down. You do the work. Mom moves into the apartment. You do the work [with the door locked].

How's your semester going? How's your writing life? The Inkpot is your community. It is our community. And P.D.D.S. is perfectly normal. We're in this together.

Disclaimer: The author of this post in no way promotes bribery in the advisor/advisee relationship. :0)

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Boy oh boy is this article fascinating. It takes a look at how often phrases and words are used in fiction. Thanks to computers, that sort of thing can be studied. my thanks to Quinette Cook for calling it to my attention.

I know I have my overused phrases, and they often change with each novel. Along about the fourth draft or so I do a "tic" read and/or search, seeking out the phrases and words that appear too often. Then I call in the exterminator.

And on another subject, What are you reading? I'm reading Graceling (Kristen Cashore) and Ways of Seeing (John Berger) and catching up on the last several issues of Vanity Fair. On vacation, in other words.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A true story

I’m excited to be part of this blogging community. It gets quiet at my house and this on-going conversation will be like stepping across the street into a writers' coffee shop.

We weren't at a coffee shop, but my daughter Sarah, also a writer, and I were having a conversation last weekend. She told me the story of Marie Ponsot. It’s a story to file away for some day when you just feel not up to the task.

Marie Ponsot is a poet. Her first book of poems, "True Minds," was published in 1957, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but it was overshadowed by Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl," published at about the same time. She did not publish another poetry collection for 24 years. In 1999, when she was 77 years old, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book "The Bird Catcher."

In May, 2010, at the age of 89 Marie Ponsot suffered a stroke. According to an article in the New York Times, "her brain had been ransacked.”

On the fourth day after her stroke she said to her doctor—one of her earliest utterances—“Doctor, I need help.” The doctor replied, "What do you want me to help you with?”


The doctor told her to talk, talk about what she loved, talk with everyone, talk as much as she could. And then to listen. The doctor also told her to read, read out loud, to ask friends to read to her.

She talked and she read, talked and read. She listened while friends read and talked some more. She was aphasic. She said "table" when she meant "chair," "year," when she meant "hour."

Now, she has regained speech. I don’t speak with her of course, but she appeared on a panel in November of 2010 and was articulate and moving. (If you are interested in Marie Ponsot’s story you might want to take the time to watch, but you don’t need to start until at least 14 minutes in).

“I am lucky,” she said, but of course there was the talking and the reading and the listening. She is coming back. She said on that same panel that she hadn't started really working on poetry but she is on a regimen of prose writing for at least an hour a day. Perhaps by now she's writing poetry again.

There is so much that I love about this story. The lifetime of writing because it gave her pleasure, the acclaim that eventually came, the persistence--sheer determination-- after the ransacking. It stiffens my spine. I hope it will do the same for you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Shout Out to Alumni--Writing After Graduation

Halloooo Inkpot readers! I’ll be joining this forum as an alumni voice for a spell. During the July residency, I had the pleasure of attending alumni weekend. We workshopped together, had special sessions with agent Sarah Davies and Lerner editor Andrew Karre, and visited with faculty. We had the opportunity to sit in on the main program of lectures. And we kicked around ideas for future weekends: i.e. scheduling time to write together, or alumni presenting on special topics amongst our group. (Alumni, watch your emails throughout the year regarding developments.)

The best part of the weekend for me was reconnecting with fellow writers, some of whom I’d only met briefly during the program. We talked a lot about writing after graduation—when the pressures of monthly packets are gone, when you feel like you’re floating alone because who knows when you’ll next hear from an experienced writer/editor/agent to encourage you on, and when you can no longer defend your fortress of writing time by telling friends and family, “Leave me alone, I’m writing my thesis.”

Yet, we do keep writing. Some folks talked about assigning themselves packet-style deadlines. Others make use of writing retreats, have formed online workshop groups, or have one-on-one check-ins with writing buddies. Chime in, alumni! With a new group of grads out in the world, now would be a great time to share what keeps your words flowing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

When I Get That Feeling, I Want Subtextual Healing...

Most of y’all know me. If not, feel free to read that fancy Blogger profile. If you don't have time, here's the skinny: My name's Mellisa Tetterton. I'm a fourth semester student in Hamline University's MFAC program. And I'm thrilled and thankful to join the Inkpot this semester.

How does a post about subtext relate to Marvin Gaye? Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t. I purchased The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot [Charles Baxter], read two chapters last night, and woke up with a headache, a snoring dog, and lots of questions.

Subtext is the meaning beneath dialogue, the feeling beneath the words, that which is unspoken in a story. Why on earth am I writing about subtext?

Why not? I’m a student with questions and the Inkpot log-in information [which trumps key card access to the faculty lounge—not that I would know anything about that...]. Subtext is a daunting word. Characters do and say things that I do not intend. Thank goodness! Just because this pleases me doesn’t mean I’m not scared. The darkest parts of my soul spill onto the page. They're naked. And my advisors see THEM. I see THEM--sometimes.

How then do we create the invisible?

Drum roll… I don’t know. Our characters know the answers that we don’t. Listen to them. What do they want to say? Trust them. What is your character hiding? “Creep” your characters.

Want to know a secret? Come closer. Closer, now… Okay, keep your hands right there. Characters require our time and attention. If we devote enough time, maybe we will see the invisible. Maybe we won't. Coming to terms with the unknown is part of the writing life. C'est la vie. Well, Shell has entered the study. The leash dangles from her yap and sways to the rhythm of her tail. What have your characters shown you lately? How do you revise the invisible?

Happy Trails to Us All

When I started blogging on The Storyteller’s Inkpot last February I felt as though I were entering a brave new world. I can do this, I assured myself, even though I’ve never blogged before. Blog posts are spare, just like picture books. Blog posts should relate to writing. Doesn’t everything? Look, a rock. Rocks are hard. Writing is hard. See? It’s all related.

I jotted down ideas, wrote practice posts, found a friend to pre-read my posts to see if they made sense to anyone besides me. Now, twenty-some posts and various comments later, I’m ready to sign off for the coming semester. But I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve learned from posting and how much I’ve enjoyed the connection with you all. I’ll miss it.

So thanks to all who have read and commented on posts. Thanks to all who have read and not commented. (I’m a non-commenter most of the time myself.) And thanks to all who haven’t read but care passionately about children’s writing and literature.

We’re all in this together.