Hallie Lieberman talk to Adam Vitcavage about her book Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.
By Sean Tuohy
One of the most difficult parts of writing is sharing your work with someone. Screenwriter Andrew Hilton has made a career of reading other people’s scripts while also creating his own. A former story editor and screenplay reader, Hilton runs The Screenplay Mechanic, a fantastic service where he provides his clients with great feedback to better their screenplays. I’ve consulted with Andrew twice and his feedback is always pitch perfect.
In between writing his own screenplays and saving someone else’s, Andrew sat down to talk to me about how he got into the business.
Sean Tuohy: How did you get into screenwriting?
Andrew Hilton: I attended film school in the U.K. and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. I have a photography background so my goal was always to become a camera operator and work my way up to cinematographer, but my first studio gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. From there out, my path kept me in the development world and one of the execs I worked for encouraged me to start writing myself. My first script landed me an agent, almost sold for big bucks in the late ‘90s, and I was hooked.
In the meantime, I began working in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (“Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.). After six months with Joel, I jumped to Paramount to become a story editor for Mario Kassar (“First Blood,” “Terminator,” etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills. Throughout this time, I was writing on the side and every script I wrote was optioned. I was getting just enough success (and came close to huge success) to keep that carrot dangling in front of me.
ST: Which screenwriters did you admire?
AH: When I was starting out, like many other action writers, I was inspired primarily by Shane Black. Today, some of my favorite writers include Martin McDonagh, Scott Rosenberg, Charlie Kaufman, and, of course, the greats like Aaron Sorkin. He can write a dialogue exchange as exciting as any car chase and I’m in awe of that ability.
ST: What are the most common mistakes you see in first time screenwriters?
AH: Overwriting is a common pitfall. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use 20 words to describe something when 10 will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.
A poorly kept secret in Hollywood is that few execs and producers like to actually read. That’s work for them. So when they sit down to read a script, they crave a fast-paced, page-turning experience. If the first few pages of a spec are dense and verbose, they’ll skim-read or toss the script and move onto the next one.
Another common mistake is failing to create a character we can become emotionally invested in. We don’t always have to like the protagonist, but it’s essential they evoke our interest. If we feel nothing but apathy for the characters, that screenplay is DOA.
ST: What makes a stand out spec script?
AH: A spec’s potential really comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box-office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.
Obviously, a script that offers something I’ve never seen or read before is going to stand out, e.g. look at something like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” However, that level of originality isn’t essential. One of my favorite films of 2017 was “Logan,” yet I would hardly say it reinvented the conceptual wheel. I also loved “Wind River,” but that script worked because of the execution and character work, not because the murder-mystery setup was mind-blowingly fresh and inventive.
ST: What are agents/managers looking for in a script and in a screenwriter?
AH: This may sound cynical but that’s an easy question. Reps want a script they can sell, and a client who will crank out promising material consistently and have a long career ahead of them. Most reps live for the deals more than the end product. Hell, some agents don’t even read the scripts they send out but I bet they read the checks that come in.
ST: How has market changed since you started?
AH: Globalization, flat-screen televisions, and Streaming or Subscription Video on demand have changed the market completely.
The domestic box office used to be king. Now, the international box office is worth two to three times domestic, so America is really just another distribution territory to be sold off. Consequently, producers and financiers want projects that will work worldwide, not only in America. So, for instance, no more baseball movies and rom-coms because they won’t translate well in, say, China or Germany. It’s for this reason action and horror are perennial favorites.
Theatrical is dying because most folks have a 42”+ widescreen TV at home now, so the appeal of the multiplex has declined. Add to that the sheer glut of original product now available at home thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. I wish those entities would support more theatrical releases of their projects or else I fear the cinema will go the way of the dinosaurs. Big spectacle projects, i.e. all those comic book pictures and IP tent-poles, are currently keeping the domestic theatrical market on life-support. But we’re in a weird evolutionary stage that is tough to predict. My only hope is that we can still go see original features on the big screen in 10-20 years.
ST: As a screenwriter, what is your writing process like? Do you outline or write a vomit draft?
AH: I write in my head for months, and then transfer that story onto the page. I once read about a famous screenwriter, it might have been Billy Wilder, who was caught sleeping in their office. Their boss angrily asked, “Why aren’t you writing? You’re supposed to be writing!” The screenwriter replied, “I was writing. And later I’ll type it on paper.” (If I butchered that quote and anyone has the accurate anecdote, please get in touch.)
That said, sometimes I’ll simply sit down with a glass of wine, a legal pad and a pen, then see where that takes me.
ST: What is new projects do you have in the future?
AH: I have a sci-fi thriller and another action picture I’m writing. Right now, however, I’m focused on my project “The Guns Of Christmas Past.” I’m a producer on the project too, we’re fully financed, we have a director, and we’re currently making offers to lead actors.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
AH: I’m a pathological chocoholic and won’t hesitate to steal it from children.
By Daniel Ford
Boston’s Museum of African American History recently announced its new national award honoring non-fiction literature that celebrates African American history and culture.
The first Museum of African American History Stone Book Award will be presented in 2018 at the African Meeting House in Boston, and will include a $25,000 prize for the winning title.
Marita Rivero, Executive Director at the Museum of African American History, graciously answered some of my questions about the museum itself and about the new book award.
Daniel Ford: For those who may not be familiar with the museum, can you give us a brief history and share some of the museum’s featured exhibits?
Marita Rivero: The Museum of African American History was founded in 1967, and centers on two preeminent historic sites: the African Meeting House (1806) and the Abiel Smith School (1835), both in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood; and the African Meeting House (c. 1820) and the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House (c. 1774), with its outbuildings on Nantucket Island. Both of these locations also anchor MAAH’s two Black Heritage Trails, which span the Colonial Period through Reconstruction. So if you visit Boston and/or Nantucket, you can tour the museum or the Boston-Higginbotham House where you can also pick up maps to walk the historic trails.
The buildings at both sites are closely linked to key leaders, institutions, and campaigns during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The museum recovers the voices, agency, networking and community building skills of black men and women who worked to end slavery. Joined by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, these men and women formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Frederick Douglass used the Boston buildings as recruiting sites for the famed black 54th Civil War Regiment.
Aside from the historic buildings, MAAH holds more than 3,000 objects, representing more than 250 years of American history, including documents and letters, newspapers, photographs, books, fine art, archeological artifacts, and other objects ranging from household goods to weaponry. If you were to visit our Boston site right now (at the Abiel Smith School), you'd see our current exhibition: Frederick Douglass, the Most Photographed American of the Nineteenth Century, which is co-curated by museum staff and guest scholars Professors John Stauffer, Harvard University and Zoe Trodd, University of Nottingham, England. The exhibit, which is drawn from their book, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American, features objects from our collection, other institutions and private donors.
DF: How did the idea for a book award originate?
MR: The idea for the Museum of African American History Stone Book Award originated in partnership with the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation. Cathy Stone is a member of our Board of Directors and currently serves as Chair. She and her husband, Jim Stone, felt it was important to have an award that recognizes exceptional nonfiction books that celebrate African American history and culture. Both the Stones and I felt strongly that the museum should present the award at the African Meeting House which was built in 1806, largely by the labor of free blacks, and which served as the center of the free black community in the 19th century. The building is the oldest surviving black church structure in the United States and a National Historic Landmark.
The book award is a natural fit for the museum’s programming as well as an important means of highlighting the museum’s long emphasis on scholarship and research. We are able to add new stories and an enlarged understanding about the contributions of black people to the creation of what we recognize as our American democracy. This award was designed to encourage writers and promote the importance of reading—two American rights fought for and won by the supporters and activists of the anti-slavery movement in 19th century America.
Additionally, we hope that this book award—at $25,000 it will be one of the largest in the field—will help increase MAAH's visibility on the local and national stage. We're trying to draw more attention to the museum's historic buildings, collections, and programs, and spark conversations about African American history and culture among and between communities, within families, and across generations. By showcasing and promoting an accessible yet edifying, exciting new work of literature that bears the museum's "stamp of approval," we hope we can do just that.
DF: Who are some of the African American nonfiction authors that should be on our radar?
MR: With our public programs, the museum has presented writers, scholars, poets, and public readings of historical documents. In the past year, MAAH hosted Manisha Sinha, who spoke at our African Meeting House as well as our Nantucket Meeting House about her most recent book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. The book was awarded the 2017 Frederick Douglass Book Prize.
Our scholar lecture series is one way in which we focus on the history of African American life and culture. We also embrace and receive the support of faculty and scholars in our exhibitions and programs—John Stauffer, David Blight, as well as the late James O. Horton, author of Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, are just a few historians, past and present, closely associated with the museum.
We also just hosted "AM Joy" host and MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid and author and Columbia University Professor Dr. Jelani Cobb for the first in a series entitled “Race in the Public Dialogue.” Public historian, scholar and author Dr. Lois Brown presented and participated in our education programs in 2017. These are a few of the many authors and scholars of African American and American history and culture that have partnered with us over the past 50 years—all should be on your radar.
DF: What are your plans for the award going forward?
MR: Right now we are focused on a successful launch in year one, but after that, we hope to expand the award by considering other genres, e.g., fiction, poetry, and children's literature.
DF: Do you have any idea who will be on your panel of judges yet?
MR: In addition to recruiting the jury, we are currently enlisting Honorary Committee members, and are thrilled to announce that noted sociologist and author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has agreed to serve as our inaugural Honorary Committee Chair. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot is the award-winning author of 10 books and a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Prize, as well as a 2017 honoree at the museum’s annual Living Legends Gala.
DF: What has the response from your community been like since you announced the news?
MR: When the creation of the award was announced at the museum's annual Living Legends Gala on Dec. 4, the response in the room was overwhelmingly positive. We've also received positive feedback and lots of support from other organizations that present book awards, including friends at PENAmerica and the Massachusetts Center for the Book. And we've already received inquiries from interested authors and publishing houses.
DF: What's your advice for aspiring authors who want to write about African American issues?
MR: There are yet many stories to be explored, problems to be examined, and books to be written about African American history and culture. We ask writers and scholars to be diligent in their research, curious in their endeavors, and to stay the course. Their work will be greatly appreciated in the future. We look forward to reading about their discoveries and viewpoints.
By Sean Tuohy
Combining teenage angst with the ability to talk to a dead author, A.M. Wheeler’s Zebulon Harris: Teen Medium is a wildly entertaining novel.
The hardworking author and screenwriter swung by Writer’s Bone to talk about her writing process, who she based her teenage medium off of, and what’s next for her.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?
A.M. Wheeler: I started telling stories to my family around the dinner table when I was about 3 years old. I just have always been fascinated with stories and making up characters or scenarios that would make people laugh. So, I’d say around middle school, I kind of knew I wanted to work as a writer and possibly even direct film one day.
ST: What is your writing process? Do outline?
AW: My writing process is interesting. I don’t write everyday. I actually like to take some months off and experience different events, people, cultures, and then after think about my next story. I find allowing my thoughts to manifest for a while, makes my stories feel unforced and it’s my way of avoiding writer’s block.
I always outline! Before I begin writing a story, I always know the ending of the story before I even know how it begins! I find this technique best for me because if I know where a character ends up, I can then feel like a detective as I write backwards and leave little foreshadowing moments on how the characters ended up where they did.
ST: Where did the idea for Zebulon Harris: Teen Medium come from?
AW: Growing up I’ve always been interested in the supernatural world and the ultimate question of what happens after one dies. I knew I wanted to have a teen protagonist because high school was such a pivotal moment in my life. High school can be such a rough transition and once I knew I wanted to combine the world of high school with a supernatural twist, Zebulon Harris: Teen Medium, was born! I always find coming of age stories to be timeless and the ultimate of message really is universal to everyone.
ST: Zebulon “Zeb” Harris is a great main character. Unlike most characters he rejects his special abilities and sees them as a burden. Where did he come from?
AW: I think most teens in high school reject their situation or identity at one point or another. You know, if you’re tall you wish you were short; if you have curly hair, you wish it were straight. The concept of wanting what you can’t have is a struggle I really related to in high school. So, once I knew I wanted to write about the supernatural world and was trying to create this relatable protagonist, Zeb, I realized making him reject who he is would be what can connect teens to this book. You don’t have to have powers to understand Zeb’s struggle. I think readers can appreciate the concept of trying to discover yourself and accept yourself for who you are.
ST: Is there any of you in Zeb?
AW: I think Zeb is a lot cooler than myself! However, definitely his closeness to his family is something I think is similar to own life. I also think his sometimes sarcastic nature was exactly how I was in high school. He tended to not really care about school that much, and for a while I was the same way! It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I started taking school more seriously. Otherwise, Zeb is actually more like my best friend from high school. A lot of Zeb’s mannerisms mimic his, and I think that’s why Zeb feels authentic. He’s actually partially based on a real person.
ST: What's next for you?
AW: I currently teach screenwriting and creative writing courses at a university. I have taken some time off from writing. However, I do have a few ideas for some scripts in the future, and I definitely think I’ll get back into the film festival scene starting after the 2018 New Year. I’m hoping to eventually get involved in some film shorts and possibly even end up behind the camera.
ST: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
AW: The best advice I can give other writers is to stop overthinking before you write. Just write the story. It’s okay if the plot has inconsistencies, or the story doesn’t make total sense when you reread it. Editing will always be there, and rewriting. But, you can’t do anything if you stop yourself from getting anything on the page. Lastly, don’t take criticism personally. You may hear “no” way more times than you hear “yes," but don’t stop writing. Your writing can make a difference.
ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
AW: One random fact about me would be that when I get to a part of a story where the character is going through an extreme emotion of anger, or being in love, or sad, I listen to music that correlates that emotional state. Music helps relax my mind and makes me feel what the character may be going through. So, usually I’ll have my headphones on and I just allow the music to make me feel certain emotions before I begin writing. I find this is the closest way to be as authentic in the moment as possible, especially when writing a piece from a first person narrative.
To learn more about A.M. Wheeler, follow her on Twitter @amwheeler90.
By Caitlin Malcuit
Andy Weir shoots from Mars to the Moon in his latest novel Artemis, introducing us to a wealthy and exclusive lunar colony where Jasmine Bashara works as a porter, struggling to get by. There's not much money to be made in that gig, so Jasmine—“Jazz”—must survive and earn her keep as a smuggler. When a heist too good to pass up unearths a larger conspiracy, Jazz is thrown into the seedy underbelly of the glitzy Artemis.
Weir talked to me about the new and exciting setting for his story, his influences, and imparted some valuable advice for writers navigating the publishing world in the digital age.
Caitlin Malcuit: What is your process for writing a novel, especially the research that goes into science fiction?
Andy Weir: I start with a bunch of research. For me, the science and setting have to be right before I’m willing to work on the story. Once I’m into the actual writing, I set myself a daily word count to shoot for.
CM: Which authors influenced you?
AW: I’m a Gen-Xer, but I grew up reading my father’s sci-fi collection. So, despite my generation, my main influences are the Baby Boomer era authors. My holy trinity are Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke.
CM: What drew you to setting Artemis on a lunar colony?
AW: I wanted to write a story about the first human settlement off of Earth. And I just really think that’ll be on the Moon. It’s so much close to Earth than any other celestial body. Most importantly, it’s close enough for trade and tourism.
CM: Jazz is certainly driven to survive, as Mark Watney was when he was stranded on Mars, but, given the wealth disparity on Artemis, what inspired you to tackle Jazz’s unique situation?
AW: Well I’ve always had a love of heist stories and crime novels. So I figured why not do a sci-fi heist story?
CM: Are you excited to see where Phil Lord and Chris Miller will take Artemis as they bring it to the screen?
AW: Absolutely! Though it’s still early days yet. I try not to get myself too worked up about it. A lot of things have to go right for a film project to be greenlighted.
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially now that NaNoWriMo is in full swing?
- You have to actually write. Daydreaming about the book you’re going to write someday isn’t writing. It’s daydreaming. Open your word processor and start writing.
- Resist the urge to tell friends and family your story. I know it’s hard because you want to talk about it and they’re (sometimes) interested in hearing about it. But it satisfies your need for an audience, which diminishes your motivation to actually write it. Make a rule: The only way for anyone to ever hear about your stories is to read them.
- This is the best time in history to self-publish. There’s no old-boy network between you and your readers. You can self-publish an ebook to major distributors (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.) without any financial risk on your part.
CM: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
AW: I like to do woodworking. It’s a hobby that’s helpful to me to clear my mind when I’m stressed out or when I’m stuck on a plot problem in whatever project I’m on.
By Sean Tuohy
Three hunters stumble onto a crashed plane filled with cocaine in the Montana wilderness.
That’s the premise of acclaimed author Mike Bond’s latest thriller, Snow.
Bond recently took a few minutes out of his day to sit and chat with me about the new book and his advice for aspiring writers.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?
Mike Bond: By the time I was 10 I was writing poems and thinking of stories. To the young the world is magical and full of stories. All you have to do is write them down.
ST: What authors did you worship growing up?
MB: I never worshipped anyone, but I read everything, especially Hemingway, Edna Ferber, Jane Austen, the Brontës, Walter Scott, Jack London, Willa Cather, Poe, Camus, Sartre, St. Exupéry, Tolstoy, and many others.
ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline or just vomit a first draft?
MB: I tend to write each book differently. Most I just pick up at the first sentence and write a lot of it without an outline. Or I outline only the next several chapters as I go along.
ST: What inspired Snow?
MB: I was bowhunting with a friend on a two-week horse trip back into the Montana wilderness. The constant snow and frigid conditions, plus several unpleasant encounters with grizzly bears, started the process.
ST: Snow follows four characters, but the breakout is a former NFL player named Zack. Where did this character come from?
MB: I played a lot of football, tried to make it into the NFL, but like so many football players I got so repeatedly injured that there was no way. I love playing football but have no use for watching it on the idiot box. (That’s the difference between living and being entertained.) I know a lot about the game and have a lot of friends who’ve played it, and I wanted to show it as it really is. Zack is the average football star today—multiple lifelong injuries, traumatic brain damage, constant pain, atavistic impulses, and lots of painkillers and other drugs.
ST: Snow is an edge-of-your-seat thriller but it has a fantastic human element to it as well. When writing, do you focus more on the character or the plot?
MB: I just tell the story as it is told to me. Often I can’t tell it right and have to keep rewriting it till the drama I’m seeing in my head is correctly depicted on the page.
ST: What’s next for Mike Bond?
MB: I’m finishing a 1,000-page epic on the 1960s, due out next year. And finishing the third in my Pono Hawkins series, also due out next year. This one is set in Tahiti and Paris.
ST: What advice do you give to young writers?
- Live deeply or you won’t have much to write about.
- Writing is developed from experience—from many places, lifestyles, experiences, relationships, dangers, fears and great joys. Write about that.
- Don’t write about what you don’t know about or haven’t lived through.
- Avoid creative writing classes, writing clubs, and any other collective self-reassuring groupthink.
- Don’t ever tell people what you’re writing about till it’s done, or you can kill the deep subconscious affinity between yourself and it.
- Expect to write a million words before you begin to get the hang of it.
- It’s very difficult these days to get published. But writing daily is a very good way to “Know Thyself” as they used to say at Delphi.
- Don’t expect too much of yourself. If the writing is fun, keep going. If it’s not, stop. If it’s boring to you it will be boring to the reader too.
ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
MB: I love wild animals, wilderness, women, booze, fast cars, mountain climbing, and risk.
By Adam Vitcavage
Jesmyn Ward is the only author I think about on a weekly basis. Her stellar Salvage the Bones is the only novel I recommend to nearly everyone looking for a new book. If I don’t murmur the words, “Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones,” in any given week, then I at least think about how much her bleak and beautiful novel punched me in the stomach while simultaneously uplifting my spirits. Now, there’s a new novel from her I can suggest: Sing, Unburied, Sing.
I recently interviewed Ward, and I felt aspiring writers and readers of Writer’s Bone might find her comments about her writing process both encouraging and educational.
Adam Vitcavage: What excites you in the undergraduate writers you teach at Tulane University?
Jesmyn Ward: The writers who take my courses write across multiple genres. Some are writing YA, fantasy, or surreal literary novels. It just depends on the student. I love it all. What really attracts me to my students work and what makes me appreciate them is the passion that they have. I think that comes out in the work even if the work is not that polished or developed as it could be. That’s what I’m there for. I’m there to help them develop and polish it. Their passion for writing, telling stories, and creating worlds is what attracts me to their work.
AV: Once you get going with a draft for a novel, do you have a set writing process?
JW: I am a very linear writer. I work from the beginning to the end. I start at the first chapter and end at the last chapter. I don’t revise as I’m going because I feel if I stop to revise the things that I’ve written that I will get bogged down and will never complete the book. So I don’t revise and I just write straight through. I try to write for at least two hours a day for five days a week. Sometimes that is easier. I have two children, so when I have child support for them or when they’re in school is when it’s easier for me to do that. Sometimes I have to patch those hours together. I’ll wake up early and work for an hour then work for an hour later in the day when I have time.
I feel like the more disciplined I am about writing for two hours a day five days a week then the easier it is for me to access my creativity. I think it takes less time to sink into the world and to do the writing I need to do when it’s something I do five days a week. That’s how you write a book: it’s something you work at every day pretty regularly for at least a year if not a year and a half or two years. And that’s considered fast. I know some people take a decade on a book. I understand why.
It’s all about hours of dedication and discipline.
AV: Once you get the draft done, what does your revision process look like? What do you look for?
JW: The way that I revise is a little weird. I finish the first draft and then I let it sit for a month. I’ll work on other small things during that time and then I go back. I’ll read through the rough draft. Just read and take notes about things that need to be revised, changes that need to be made, things that can be cut or moved around, or whatever. I make a list and go through that list. I’ll concentrate on one thing on the list while reading through the draft. I devote an entire revision to just one aspect or one correction.
If I need to develop a character, then I’ll go through and develop a character throughout a revision. I’ll cross it off the list and go back again to concentrate on another aspect. My list can have 12 or 13 items on it. That list is just things I’ve noticed. If I went into a revision with the aim of correcting all thirteen of those things I feel I would miss something. It’s easier for me to focus on one thing through a revision. I revise twelve or thirteen times before I feel confident enough to show my work to a group of first readers.
First readers are just people that I’ve gone to school with, other writers I met at Stanford or Michigan. I’ll email them a draft and ask for their help. After a couple of months, they’ll give me suggestions and I’ll go back in and revise based on their feedback. That might take six or eight revisions. Once I’ve done that I feel confident enough that I won’t embarrass myself and I’ll send it to my editor.
And then [laughs] we revise for months. I mean, it is definitely a process. I’m the kind of writer who feels nothing is ever perfect when it’s fresh. The first rough draft is never perfect. I actually enjoy revision because writing that first rough draft is difficult. It’s different work because you’re creating this world and characters from nothing. It takes a different literary muscle than going back in and revising.
Revising is more enjoyable and more fun for me. I already have something, so at least I have the security of knowing I have something to work with on the page. Then it’s all about shaping. I enjoy knowing the security of just having to focus on making something better.
To learn more about Jesmyn Ward, follow her on Twitter @jesmimi. Read more of Adam Vitcavage’s work on his official website, or follow him on Twitter @vitcavage. Also check out Adam's full interview with Jesmyn Ward on The Millions.
By Lindsey Wojcik
The heat is on. By now, most of the country has experienced the familiar stickiness that comes with the summer season. The humidity has undoubtedly driven many to the beach or pool to cool off, and here at Writer’s Bone, no beach bag is complete without a sizzling new novel.
In her new book, Carpenter transports readers from New York City to a small, humid island off the coast of Georgia where Megan Ashley, the daughter of an acclaimed novelist, travels to discover more about her mother’s famous book, Kitten, for a tell-all memoir she has agreed to write. Kitten tells the tale of an island murder that fans believe may have been loosely based on a real crime. As the truth about where Megan’s mother, Frances Ashley, found the story for her infamous novel unravels, Megan must decide what is real and what is fiction.
Carpenter recently spent some time answering questions about transitioning from a career in television to writing novels, what inspired The Weight of Lies, and why it’s important for writers to appreciate their “customers.”
Lindsey Wojcik: You've been writing since a young age. What are your earliest memories with writing? What enticed you about storytelling?
Emily Carpenter: I’ve told this story a few times—the one about how I plagiarized The Pokey Little Puppy when I was 5. It’s my secret shame. I basically copied it word for word and illustrated it with crayons. I am not sure I actually finished it, so maybe I’m off the hook? After that, there were a couple of false starts on a novel about a girl with a horse when I was around 14. I’m not sure I had a handle on a coherent story, but I was definitely enamored by the idea of a girl (me) owning a horse. I absolutely lived for reading. I was an introvert, bookworm, a dreamer, and really imaginative. And while I didn’t really have a reference point for becoming an author, I was drawn to the whole world of storytelling.
LW: Who were your early influences and who continues to influence you?
EC: I read all of the Nancy Drew books, The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys multiple times over. Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder were early favorites. I loved those biography books with the orange covers, and there was another series where I remember reading about Madame Curie and Helen Keller. I read a lot of suspense books now because that’s the genre I write, but I enjoy all kinds of fiction. I’ve gone through periods when I read YA and literary classics, romance and horror. I’m really inspired by television writers right now. Noah Hawley, who writes “Fargo,” is immensely brilliant and funny. I also admire Ray McKinnon, a fellow Georgian, who wrote “Rectify.” Both those guys really inspire me.
LW: Tell us a little bit about your experience at CBS television’s Daytime Drama division. What did you do in that department? How did it influence your writing?
EC: I was the assistant to the director of daytime drama, so I basically answered phones, did paperwork, that kind of thing. I also read all the scripts for upcoming shows and wrote summaries for the newspapers to publish. I got to take contest winners on tours of the productions and assist with a couple of promo tapings of commercials for the shows. Once I took a bunch of contest winners and some of the actors to lunch because my boss couldn’t do it. I had the company credit card and had to pay for the whole thing, and it made me really nervous. I was, like 24, or something, and I’d never seen a check for a meal that big. In terms of influencing my writing, I think I really soaked up the concept of how to write tension and cliffhangers. “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns” had some really talented writers on staff who were great at writing really funny, snappy banter, and I picked up on that—the rhythm of dialogue is so important and they were such masters at it.
I remember something my boss told me once when the writers had brought in a secondary character who was a part of this new storyline. So one Friday at the end of the show, they ended the final scene with a close up on his face. She got so mad about it and said, “You don’t end a really important scene—especially a Friday cliffhanger scene—on a day player!” She understood that, bottom line, the audience cared most about the core characters of the show. They loved them, not this random guy they’d brought in to be a temporary part of this new storyline. She knew that the show needed to leave the audience anticipating, thinking about those core characters all weekend long until Monday rolled around—not this day player. That really stuck with me, how important it was to understand who your audience was and what they wanted and giving it to them.
LW: You assisted on the production of “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.” Both of those soaps were on daily in my household growing up—three generations of women in my family, including myself, watched both shows, which are no longer on the air, and soap operas in general have been on the decline. What do you think influenced the change in daytime television?
EC: First of all, let me say, thank you for watching. I have a deep admiration and enduring fondness for those two shows. I watched them long after I left New York and moved back down South, and when they were cancelled, I cried. It really was such an end to an era. Although I’m sure there is an answer for why daytime TV changed, I’m not sure I know. I think, in the end, it’s probably to do with money, like everything else. And new technology and our capability to access streaming shows and binge watch really high quality programming. There’s no more appointment TV. We really have gotten out of the habit of showing up at a certain time to watch a show. I suppose the decline started with cable and cheap reality programming and TiVo. But I’m not sure what the deathblow was. And look, we still have four soaps running. I turned on “Days of Our Lives” the other day, and Patch and Kayla have not aged a whit since I watched them in the late ’80s.
LW: Tell us a little bit about your experience with screenwriting. What influenced your decision to change career paths from film production and screenwriting to writing novels?
EC: I was pretty naïve, hoping to break into the screenwriting business with zero entertainment connections or really any knowledge of the business at all. I think I had a good sense of story and structure in a general sense—I had some raw materials—but in terms of writing a kickass commercial feature, I wasn’t there. I didn’t know how to do it. And I think I was really sort of just learning the technique of writing as well. Learning how to write good sentences and evoking emotion with my words. I hadn’t majored in creative writing in school or even taken a single writing course in my life, I was just winging it. So really, it was audacious of me (or plain, old ignorant) to think I was going to write a spec screenplay that would sell to Hollywood.
But I just loved movies so much and writing and kept plugging away at it. I worked really hard and placed in a few contests, but ultimately couldn’t get an agent interested. After working on two indie productions with friends, I finally decided it was not going to happen. I took a break for a few years and hung out with my kids, enjoyed being a mom. Then one day, it suddenly occurred to me that there was this whole world of storytelling that I had overlooked. I started mulling over the idea of writing a book and researching the business side of publishing. It turned out to be much more accessible world. And I’ll say that my screenwriting experience, self-taught though it was, has formed the basis of my novel writing. I use a lot of the outlining and scene structuring tools that screenwriters use in my books.
LW: How did the Atlanta Writers Club guide you as a writer?
EC: They provided amazing access to a whole community of local writers, some of whom have become critique partners and dear friends. I found a critique group through them, which was where I read something I’d written out loud for the first time. And I attended several conferences the club sponsored and pitched my books to agents. I actually met my agent at one of the conferences.
LW: What inspired The Weight of Lies?
EC: I love classic horror books and films—Stephen King is just the master, of course. Carrie is one of my all-time favorites. One time I read that he had based aspects of Carrie on this girl he knew in school who was awkward and bullied by the other kids. That fascinated me, and I wondered if she ever found out what he did, what she would think of it. I mean, can you imagine? I get asked that question a lot, as an author, is my book based on real events or real characters? My books aren’t, but it intrigued me to imagine a writer who had the audacity to base her novel on a real murder and maybe even a real murderer, and so now there’s this eternal question out there among her fans about whether it was real.
LW: When you were writing The Weight of Lies, was there something in particular you were trying to connect with or find?
EC: Well, at the heart of the book, it’s really a story of this young woman who doesn’t feel like her mother has ever loved her or really even wanted her. And she’s so angry because she’s desperate to be affirmed and loved. She’s also a bit lost because she doesn’t have a whole lot going on career-wise, she hasn’t really been successful in the romantic department, and she’s getting older. She’s got a lot of resentment toward her mother to work through, but she’s really blinded by her pain. And her mother really is a monumentally self-centered diva, so there’s plenty of blame on both sides. That whole situation felt really compelling to me, that search to try to understand your mother as more than just the figure you rebelled against or had conflict with. Where you reach a crossroads at which point you have to decide whether you’re going to give your mother the benefit of the doubt and forgive her, or feed your childhood bitterness and hurt and go for the scorched earth option. Needless to say, Meg opts for earth scorching.
LW: How was the process of writing The Weight of Lies different from writing your debut Burying the Honeysuckle Girls?
EC: With Honeysuckle Girls, I had a lot of time. A lot of freedom. I was 100 percent on my own timetable. Then, once I signed with my agent and went on submission, it became a process of listening to my agent’s opinions and the opinions of the marketplace and deciding what to pay attention to and what to bypass. The great thing was that I had a lot of time to tinker with the book, which is a luxury. It wasn’t that much different writing The Weight of Lies because I didn’t sell the book until I had completed it. My next books, though, were sold on pitch, so that’s been an entirely new process, to deliver something you’ve already been paid for.
LW: What’s next for you?
EC: I’m writing my next book, which is about a young woman with a secret she’s kept since her childhood, who agrees to accompany her husband to an exclusive couples therapy retreat up in the mountains of north Georgia so he can get help for the nightmares that have been plaguing him. And then things start to go sideways, and she realizes that nothing at this isolated place is as it seems.
LW: What’s best advice you’ve ever received and what’s your advice for up-and-coming writers?
EC: My agent told me once, “Remember, this is your career…” I can’t even recall what we were talking about exactly—it might’ve been a deadline, or what I was going to write next—but the point was, she wanted me to clear away all the noise from other people’s expectations and do what was best for me. To follow my heart. It was just what I needed to hear at the moment, especially because I have the tendency to go overboard to make other people happy and overlook what’s in my own heart. It really settled me down and gave me the confidence to go forward.
I think one of the things I’d like to remind up-and-coming writers is that they are getting into a business and many of the decisions that editors and publishers make have to do with money. So when new writers encounter perplexing situations, I think they need to understand that financial bottom line motivates many of them. It’s sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s reality. And as writers, we have to be able to nurture our art in that atmosphere of commercialism.
The other day I heard Harrison Ford say in an interview that he doesn’t like to call people who see his movies “fans,” but “customers.” It was a really pragmatic, non-romantic way for an actor or artist to view what they do, but it did sort of speak to me because I tend to lean toward being really practical. I do see the artistic side of writing, and I can get really swept up in the magic of creating characters and a story. On the flip side, I also do really appreciate my “customers,” and I consider it an honor to have the opportunity to entertain them. And I think what the customers wants and expects should matter to writers. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it is something to keep in mind.
By Daniel Ford
The Cambridge Public Library announced earlier this week that it is hosting literacy-themed library parties at locations across Cambridge, Mass, this summer and fall.
These parties—hosted in partnership with the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA), the Department of Human Services, and the Cambridge Public Health Department—aim to increase awareness of the library system in Cambridge, get more children signed up for library cards, and generate excitement for the library.
On July 19, the library (partnering with Agenda for Children) will participate in the Cambridge Story Walk. It will also host a party at the Corcoran Park Housing Authority on Sept. 30 that will focus on signing children up to get a library card and explain services that are offered at the library (snacks will be served, of course!).
Maria McCauley, director of libraries for the Cambridge Public Library, graciously answered a few of my questions recently about the initiative.
Daniel Ford: Where did the idea for these literary-themed library parties you have planned for this summer and fall originate?
Maria McCauley: This program is part of a national framework to encourage grade level reading through the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) who encourages member libraries to create their own local initiatives around this theme. We reached out to the CHA and they were excited to work with us.
DF: How important is it for children living in HUD-assisted housing to do so in a “book-rich environment?”
MM: Research has shown that all children thrive by living in a "book-rich environment" and the Cambridge Public Library is committed to serving all youth in Cambridge. We're especially eager to focus on initiatives that will help to close the achievement gap.
DF: How excited are library employees, as well as the local agencies you’re partnering with, to help spread literacy in a fun way?
MM: Our library employees and local partners are extremely committed to supporting literacy in fun and creative ways. If you asked our employees, I think they would say that it is programs like this one that inspires us to do what we do.
DF: Are there plans for future programs like this in the future?
MM: We're always looking for new ways to partner with various agencies and for opportunities to promote literacy. Because this is a pilot program, we will assess the program for future expansion. We're excited by the possibilities!
By Sean Tuohy
Author Nick Kolakowski loves crime fiction. From his work with ThugLit, Crime Syndicate Magazine, and his upcoming novel A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps (out May 12), it’s easy to tell that the author truly values the hardboiled crime-fiction genre and knows how to write it well.
Kolakowski sat down with me recently to talk about his love for the genre, the seed that created the storyline for his new novel, and “gonzo noir.”
Sean Tuohy: What authors did you worship growing up?
Nick Kolakowski: I always had an affinity for old-school noir authors, particularly Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. What I think a lot of crime-fiction aficionados tend to forget is that a lot of the pulp of bygone eras really wasn’t very good: it was all blowsy dames and big guns and writing so rough it made Mickey Spillane look like Shakespeare. But writers like Chandler and Thompson emerged from that overheated milieu like diamonds; even at their worst, they offered some hard truth and clean writing.
ST: What attracts you to crime fiction, both as a reader and a writer?
NK: I feel that crime fiction is a real exploration of the human animal. You want to explore relationships, pick up whatever literary tome is topping the best-seller lists at the moment. You want a peek at the beast that lives in us, crack open a crime novel. As a reader, it’s exciting to get in touch with that beast through the relatively safe confines of paper and ink. As a writer, it’s good to let that beast run for a bit; I always sleep better after I’ve churned out a lot of good pages.
ST: What is the status of indie crime fiction now?
NK: I’d like to think that indie crime fiction is having a bit of a moment. A lot of indie presses are doing great work, and highlighting authors who might not have gotten a platform otherwise. Crime fiction remains one of the more popular genres overall, and I’m hopeful that what these indie authors are producing will help fuel its direction for the next several years.
Not a whole lot of authors are getting rich off any of this, but writing isn’t exactly a lucrative profession. There’s a reason why all the novelists I know, even the best-selling ones, keep their day jobs. We’re all in it for the love.
ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline or vomit a first draft?
NK: I keep notebooks. Over the years, those notebooks accumulate fragments: sometimes a line of two I’ve overheard on the subway, but sometimes several pages of story. Usually my novels and short stories start with a kernel of an idea, and I start writing as fast as I can; and as I start building up a serious word count, I begin throwing in those notebook fragments that seem to work best with the scene at the moment. It’s a haphazard way of producing a first draft, and it usually means I’m stuck in rewrite hell for a little while afterward as I try to smooth everything out, but it does result in finished manuscripts.
I simply can’t do outlines. I’ve tried. But outlining has always felt very paint-by-numbers to me; once I have the outline in hand, I’m less enthused about actually writing. But I know a lot of other writers who can’t work without everything outlined in detail beforehand.
ST: Where did the idea for A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps come from?
NK: A long time ago, I was in rural Oklahoma for a magazine story I was writing. It was early February, and the land was gray and stark. Near the Arkansas border, I saw a Biblical pillar of black smoke rising in the distance; as I drove closer, I saw a huge fire burning through a distant forest. This would be a really crappy place for my car to die, I thought. It would suck to be trapped here.
So that real-life scene rattled around in my head for years. Eventually I began depositing other figures in that landscape—Bill, the elegant hustler, based off a couple of actual people I know; an Elvis-loving assassin; crooked cops—to see how they interacted with each other. The result was funny and bleak enough, I thought, to commit to full-time writing.
ST: You referred to A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps as “gonzo noir.” Can you dive into that term?
NK: I love crime fiction, but a lot of it is too serious. That seems like an odd thing to say about a genre concerned with heavy topics like murder and misery, but more than a few novels tend to veer into excessive navel-gazing about the human condition. As if injecting an excessive amount of ponderousness will make the authors feel better about devoting so many pages to chases and gunfire.
But real-life mayhem and misery, as awful as it can be, also comes with a certain degree of hilarity. You can’t believe this dude with a knife in his eye is still prattling on about football! A reality television star might dictate whether we end up in a thermonuclear war! And so on. With gonzo noir, I’m trying to blend as much black humor as appropriate into the plot; otherwise it all becomes too leaden.
ST: Your main character, street-smart hustler Bill, is on the run from an assassin and finds himself in the deadly hands of some crazed town folks. Why do writers, especially in the crime fiction genre, like to torture their characters so much?
NK: Raymond Chandler once said something like: “If your plot is flagging, have a man come in with a gun.” I think a lot of current crime-fiction writers have a variation on that: “If your plot is flagging, have something horrible happen to your main character. Extra credit if it’s potentially disfiguring.” It’s an effective way to move the story forward, if done right, and how your protagonist reacts to adversity can reveal a lot about their character through action.
Done the wrong way, though, it becomes boring really quickly. Take the last few seasons of the TV show “24.” Keifer Sutherland played a great hardboiled character, but subjecting him to the upteenth gunshot wound, torture session, or literally heart-stopping accident got repetitive. When writing, it always pays to recognize the cliché, and figure out how to subvert it as effectively as possible—the audience will appreciate it.
In A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, Bill has done a lifetime of bad stuff. He’s ripped people off, stolen a lot of money, and left more than a few broken hearts. I felt he really needed to really pay for his sins if I wanted his eventual redemption to have any weight. Plus I wanted to see how much comedy I could milk out of a severed finger (readers will see what I mean).
ST: What’s next for you?
NK: I’ve been working on a longer novel (tentatively) titled Boise Longpig Hunting Club. It’s about a bounty hunter in Idaho who finds himself pursued by some very rich people who hunt people for sport. I’ve wanted to do a variation on “The Most Dangerous Game” for years, and the ideas finally came together in the right way. It’s an expansion of my short story, “A Nice Pair of Guns,” which appeared in ThugLit (a great, award-winning magazine; gone too soon.)
ST: What advice do you give to young writers?
NK: A long time ago, the film director Terrence Malick came to my college campus. He was supposed to introduce a screening of his film “The Thin Red Line,” but he never set foot in the theater—unsurprising in retrospect, given his penchant for staying out of sight. However, he did make an appearance at a smaller gathering for students and faculty beforehand.
All of us film and writing geeks, we freaked out. Finally one of us cobbled together enough courage to actually walk up to him and ask for some advice on writing. He said—and you bet I still have this in a notebook—“You just have to write. Don’t look back, just get it all out at once.”
I think that’s the best advice I’ve ever heard. It’s easy to stay away from the writing desk by telling yourself that you’re not quite ready yet, that you’re not in the mood, that somehow the story isn’t quite fully baked in your mind. If you think like that, though, nothing is ever going to have to come out. Even if you have to physically lock yourself in a room, you need to sit down, place your hands on the keyboard, and force it out. The words will fight back, but you’re stronger.
ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
NK: I like cats and whiskey.
By Lindsey Wojcik
Nearly 50 years ago, Israel and the neighboring Arab states fought in what is now known as the Six-Day War. Just in time for the 50th anniversary in June, young adult author Tammar Stein's The Six-Day Hero will officially be released (it is currently available on Amazon).
While The Six-Day Hero is not directly about the conflict, it does aim to transport readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem during that time. The story follows 12-year-old Motti, a boy who dreams of being a hero, and thinks the only way to become one is by being a soldier like his older brother (who serves in the Israeli army).
Stein, the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, recently talked to me about her writing process, what inspired The Six-Day Hero, and her advice for other authors.
Lindsey Wojcik: What made you want to pursue writing, specifically young adult fiction?
Tammar Stein: I love books, the physical feel of them, the look of them, the way that they’re gateways to making connections and getting lost in adventures. Even as a young child, I remember my mother scolding me to go outside and get some fresh air because I had been inside reading for hours. It felt inevitable for me to try and create that same kind of magic for someone else.
I never set out to write for young adults, but when my agent read my manuscript for Light Years, she felt it could be a great young adult title. The character was 20 years old; it never crossed my mind that that could be a YA title. But the themes were classic YA: figuring out who you are, who you want to be. We got great response from the YA editors and I never looked back.
LW: What is your writing process like? How has it evolved over time?
TS: My writing process used to be: sit, write, delete, and repeat 50 times. This is not the most efficient way to write a novel. Light Years, my first book, took me five years to write. It turns out that just because I knew a great book when I read it, didn’t mean I could just write a great book myself. My second novel, High Dive, was also kind of a pain to write. I wrote the whole draft of it, almost 300 pages, before realizing it just didn’t have that magic spark. And I started back on page one.
By my third novel, Kindred, I wised up. I outlined. Now I do that for all my books. Not necessarily a detailed breakdown of each chapter, but a strong, two-page outline so I don’t get lost getting from the beginning to the end. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s helped me so much.
LW: What kind of research went into outlining and writing The Six-Day Hero?
TS: The first thing I did was read. Other than the fact that it lasted six days, I really didn’t know much about the war. So I read dozens of books on the subject. I read newspaper articles from the time period. I watched documentaries. I'm also the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, and once I had a good sense of the events, I started interviewing Israelis who had experienced the war. Some as soldiers, some as children. I ended up speaking with half a dozen Israelis, including my parents, whom I pestered on a weekly basis for more details.
LW: What made the Six-Day War an intriguing and important topic for you to write a fictional story about?
TS: In 1967, Israel teetered between existence and annihilation. By winning the Six-Day War, it averted annihilation…and began the modern dilemma of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This summer (June 5-11) marks the war’s 50th anniversary.
The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Jewish Settlements are constantly in the news. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How in the world did we get into this hot mess?,” the answer is, the Six-Day War. That’s the war that started all this. This is a 50-year-old hot mess. In this book, I look at the history of the war through the eyes of the people living through it. And it's the first English book for younger readers set during the Six-Day War, giving context and perspective to the complexity the world is still trying to solve. I do believe this is a situation that will be resolved one day. We will move on. We will find a way for all these millions of people to live in peace with one another. But to do that, we have to understand how it got started.
You cannot shape the future without knowing the past. But because there are so many hard feelings, because people are tired of constantly hearing about the same conflict, there’s this tendency to just want to move on, to ignore it. Especially when it comes to kids. So there’s no one writing about it, no one publishing about it. And kids are just left in this vacuum. They hear the news, but they don’t have any basis for truly understanding it. I wanted to change that.
To be clear though, the book is not about the war. The book is about Motti, a 12-year-old boy, who wants to feel heroic. But when you read the book, you learn about the history of the war through his eyes. The violent details of war didn’t strike me as the best way to tell a kids’ story. Rather, I wrote a book about the struggles of a 12-year-old, struggles shaped by the same forces that shaped the war. I hope the book will transport young readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem 50 years ago.
LW: What inspired you to write it from a 12 year-old’s point of view?
TS: Motti just came to me. It’s one of the moments that felt almost mystical. I just had this scene pop into my mind: a restless, bored kid forced to sit through an assembly, desperate to get away. Motti is a scrappy boy, always looking for mischief and fun. He struggles to shine in the big shadow cast by his successful older brother, Gideon. Straight-arrow/Gideon is now a soldier in the Israeli army, and Motti is equally proud and jealous. Over the course of the next month, everything Motti knows about Israel, his brother, and himself will be put to the test. He will realize that war is not a game, and he will face harsh challenges to be the hero he always dreamed of.
LW: The Six-Day Hero will be officially released in time for the 50th anniversary of the war. How does the book honor its history?
TS: When you hear that something happened 50 years ago, there’s this reflexive feeling that it’s ancient history. That it barely matters. But I spoke with people who lived it, fought through it, and are still haunted by what happened. The whole world is still being shaped by what happened. It’s far from ancient history, and I wanted to make sure that there was something there for kids to connect to.
LW: What's next for you?
TS: The Six-Day War was just one in a chain of wars for Israel. The history of an Israeli family can really be told by tracing the family’s lives through the wars they fought. Six years later was the Yom Kippur War, and my next book is about Beni, Motti’s younger brother, with the Yom Kippur War as the setting.
LW: What's your advice for aspiring authors?
TS: My best piece of advice is to try to balance a sense of urgency with lots of patience. Both are absolutely necessary to write a book. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll never write. It’s always much nicer to plan to do it later, in the evening, tomorrow morning, over the weekend. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll always put it off. But you have to be patient with yourself and your work as well. Your first draft will be terrible. Your sense of urgency will shout at you to share it with your family and friends, to start sending it out to agents, to publish it as an e-book. Don’t do that. You need to go back and revise. Then you let it sit for a month (or three) and come back to it with fresh eyes. And just as you get comfortable with your patience and want to keep tinkering with your manuscript forevermore, your sense of urgency needs to rise up again and urge you to send it out and share it with the world.
By Stephanie Schaefer
Ever since my fiancé (Writer’s Bone co-founder, Daniel Ford) and I set a wedding date, I haven’t had as much time to read or contribute to the blog as I would like to. My free moments are filled with comparing color palettes on Pinterest, emailing wedding vendors, and traveling to trunk shows in hopes to find the perfect dress.
For these reasons, I was eager to get my hands on Desiree Hartsock’s wedding planning book and was even more thrilled when the former reality television star accepted my interview proposal. Below, Hartsock talks about her process for writing her first book, what attracted her to the wedding industry, and her advice for aspiring bloggers.
Stephanie Schaefer: First off, what inspired you to create a wedding planning book and what attracted you to the wedding industry as a career?
Desiree Hartsock: I first fell in love with the wedding industry while I was in design school and discovered my love for designing wedding dresses. I then went on to work at various bridal salons where that love grew and experience formed. I was inspired to write my book to help brides plan their wedding without any distractions or stress. I would constantly see brides so stressed out during the wedding planning and it should be a special time that doesn't create anxiety or worry. Also after planning my own wedding I was able to experience it for myself and wanted to share what I learned through it all.
SS: While working on your book, did you notice any similarities between writing and dress design?
DH: I suppose they are both creative pieces of work and have to go through a similar thought process. Just as a design comes to fruition by inspiration and thought out detail the book had to be planned out like a pattern to ensure it came together as a whole.
SS: How did writing for your blog and website prepare you for your book?
DH: The blog is an outlet to help brides with all aspects of wedding planning and wedding style so it definitely prepared me to write the book. The experience of writing for my blog allowed me to condense information in an easy to read and follow format that every bride needs to prepare for her wedding.
SS: What advice can you give others who want to launch their own blog?
DH: Running a blog is extremely time consuming and requires much attention to detail so I would say to make sure you want to and have the time to cater to the blog to make it successful.
SS: Much like launching a new project, planning a wedding can be overwhelming. Are there any stress-busting tips you can offer future brides (like myself)?
DH: The best stress busting tip I can offer is to take it day by day and moment by moment and to keep the end goal in mind: marriage. At the end of the day no one will know if the color of the flowers is slightly off or if a bridesmaid wore the wrong shoes.
SS: By the way, congratulations on your first child! Do you foresee writing a baby-related book in your future?
DH: Thanks! We will see. I have learned so much already as a new mother and hope to share some of that with other new moms.
SS: We ask all of our contributors to share a fun-fact about themselves. Care to share an anecdote?
DH: Fun fact…hmmmm. I can throw a football like no other (used to be a tomboy as a child). ;)
By Adam Vitcavage
Wade Graham is a Los Angeles-based historian who has written two books exploring urbanism, landscape, and architecture. His first book, American Eden, entwined gardening and history into an insightful exploration on what gardens throughout history can reveal about our culture. His second book, Dream Cities, explores seven concepts, ranging from castles to malls that shaped the modern world.
While these ideas may sound tediously specific, Graham’s writing is engaging and welcoming. You don’t need to be an expert or academic studying these topics to enjoy the books. In fact, they weren’t written for that purpose. Dream Cities gives a person walking down the street an insight into why the world is the way it is.
Graham was kind enough to offer a primer on his book, what it’s like to write nonfiction for the general public, as well as briefly discuss his next project.
Adam Vitcavage: I wanted to start with your background. You seem to have a lot of titles, but they all seem to work hand in hand.
Wade Graham: I have done a series of things in life and still do a series of things. One of them is as an academic. I’m a historian; my PhD is in U.S. History and with a master’s degree in the History of Science. I teach at Pepperdine University’s graduate School of Public Policy. I teach Urban and Environmental Policy.
I also design gardens, which led to my first book American Eden. I’ve also done journalism, which is recently been about environmental and cultural topics.
Those things just are just a mix of cultural history and policy analysis.
AV: The structure of this book are the seven major trends of cities. There’s a little bit of biography and history. How did you come up with these seven trends?
WG: I was trying to answer a baffling question. If you look at modern cities—built since 1850—there are two things that are irreconcilable about modern cities. First, they are very chaotic. They’re made of all different parks; they’re not coherent. Pre-modern cities tend to have one type. You go to Venice and all of the buildings are the same height except for the churches. Everything is made out of the same stuff. Modern cities you don’t get that coherence. You get things banging into each other. There’s a skyscraper here, there’s a freeway there, there’s a mall over there, and a weird suburbia here.
Everywhere you go in the world, you see the same things. You can be in Mongolia and you can see skyscrapers that look the same as the ones you’ll see in Australia, Russia, and Detroit. You’ll see malls that look the same in Singapore. They’ll look a little different, but at the same time there are what architects call typologies. Which are not what buildings look like on the surface, but their basic form. Those are the same all over the world. That struck me as an odd fact.
Why would Melbourne look exactly like Moscow and exactly like Atlanta?
I tried to boil it down to what the basic types were and I got seven. I gave them names to treat them like types of birds. That way you can look out at any modern city and point at something and say that’s a mall or that’s a skyscraper.
In every case there was one person behind each idea who either invented it or built its example and sold it to everyone in the world. I had to begin with the biography of one—or sometimes a cluster—of architects, designers, and thinkers. Then I had to explain what the idea was. Each of these carries intention and an idea forward. In some cases these were very utopian ideas. Even in the case of slab high-rise skyscraper housing. It started as a utopian idea, but ceased being that. This book is my way to understand to see where these ideas came from and how they changed people.
AV: You wanted to know about this, but when did this idea first seep into your mind?
WG: It seeped into my mind when I was trying to understand landscape and how it structures space. One thing interesting about people in the west is that we notice a lot of things. I could look at your car and know a lot about you. I can look at your handbag and know even more about you. I can psychoanalyze you. But we’re pretty stupid about our physical environment. I can put a very well educated person in the street and ask them what they see and where it came from and they come up blank.
We’re trained in our culture to notice certain kind of objects and ignore the context we’re in. That struck me as interesting because context has a lot of meaning.
I live in a little 1921 wooden bungalow. It’s kind of unremarkable for my neighborhood, but it was utopian form. It was built by white Methodists from Iowa to build with the strict intentions to build a white, religious community on the west coast that was going to be different than the cities that they came from. Most of modern cities are a rebellion against cities at all. They’re anti-urban. The way we build cities is a rejection of the idea of a city. Even the skyscraper has its roots in the rejection of the city. Cities were thought to be chaotic and have too many things going on, too many mixes of people going on. They were meant to bring order and control to the city.
AV: How was the research for this conducted?
WG: It was really research intensive. Training as a journalist and as a historian makes you not question how much research needs to be done to get to the bottom of something. A huge amount of my research was based around going to the Los Angeles Public Library and going through their catalogue and making notes.
The way I write nonfiction is just to collect all of the footnotes you’re going to end up having and put them in order. Then you put sentences in between them. It’s a bit like building a building out of bricks. You go get all of the bricks and put them in the write order, then you stack them up one by one.
It was very methodical research: finding a clue then being led to another clue. The story just builds itself.
AV: I found your book’s voice very friendly. I’ve read some nonfiction that is a lot of academic, dry jargon. Yours was very intellectual, but very accessible. When you’re writing a heavily researched book like this, is it ever for the academic or for the general public who just happens to be interested in the subject?
WG: Absolutely not for the academic. I’m a reformed academic in a lot of ways. I learned as a journalist that you need to speak simply and clearly so that people get what you’re saying. To be honest with you, these books have been written for non-academic people. For smart people, yes, but for people who are generally interested in their culture. I have to hit my academic knuckles with a ruler to keep that type of writing out of the book. It’s difficult, but it’s required.
AV: Moving forward, are you working on another book?
WG: I am researching another book. I found myself really tired of all of that footnoting and the careful legalistic way of writing where you care about facts more than anything else. Also as a historian you’re taught to write from 30,000 feet. You see the big picture, you use statistical layers of proof, and that’s how you proceed.
When I moved to where I live now, which is three blocks from Dodger Stadium, one block from Sunset Boulevard, on a two-block long street that was put together in the 1910s and 1920s. It suffered white flight and gang infestation and now is reviving the way many of our central cities are.
I realized on this two-block long street that there were thirty different nationalities. Most of them were refugees from American wars. There are Cambodian refugees, Vietnamese boat people, Guatemalans whose families were killed by American bullets in the 1980s, there are Latvian refugees from World War II, and so on. I thought about how this is the history of the world on two city blocks. It’s also the history of the American cities rise then decline and rise again.
What I’ve been doing is interviewing every type of person in my neighborhood I can find. I mean every kind: homeless, prostitutes, gang members, prosecutors, old ladies, hipsters, skate punks, everybody. I’m trying to layer a story like a journalist would. It’s a collection of different stories, how they intertwine and how they coexist.
I’m trying a textured, more human thing than flying overhead way of academic writing. I’m writing the history of Echo Park. Through Echo Park, a history of Los Angeles. Through Los Angeles, a history of American cities over a hundred years.
By Adam Vitcavage
Boris Fishman’s latest novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, is about a young Jewish-American couple that immigrates to the United States from Eastern Europe. (You can read my full review in March’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.”)
While traveling abroad to participate in panels for the London Jewish Book Fair, Fishman was kind enough to answer some questions via email about his perspective on immigration, global affairs, and his new writing project about food.
Adam Vitcavage: You immigrated to America at a young age. You’ve also been in American longer than I have—I was born a year after you came to the country as a boy. Now, I’d say you’re probably more “American” than I am because, technically, you lived here longer than I. Whatever that means. What has it been like being an immigrant in America in 2017?
Boris Fishman: I’m more curious about your question than my answer. In what way do you feel less American than you imagine I do? My own condition on this is all over the place. Despite having very strong sympathies with their side, I don’t feel like one of the immigrants who are centrally affected by what’s going on in this country right now. But I couldn’t feel less “American” than you imagine me to. (Equally curious why you do.) Perhaps because I was born in another country—and continued to live in it, so to speak, emotionally and psychologically as I grew up in my family home here in the States; the immigration shouldn’t be dated to 9 years old but my post-college twenties, if that—I have very different values when it comes to certain things. More Russian values, more European values. The two areas in which I am proudest to be an American—now under attack—are its rule of law and civil liberties. There are many other issues where that’s less the case. But that doesn’t make me feel like an immigrant. It makes me feel like a foreigner.
AV: In a recent interview you said, “The problem with Russia reporting—just like, say, Iran reporting—is that the political tension makes non-political stories rare.” I’ve noticed a trend since the election that a lot of topics have become politicized in America. Do you feel American rhetoric is shifting in tat direction? Or are we just in a wave of tension right now?
BF: In the Soviet Union, we used to have three television channels. At American airports—I’m writing this at JFK—it feels like there’s only one: CNN. I travel a lot, and there’s no airport gate that isn’t besieged by poor Wolf Blitzer droning on about the same things over and over. (I have to imagine that the airport people are trying to split the difference between Fox and MSNBC.) Meanwhile, serious newspaper journalism—an indispensable safeguard, a civic necessity—is dying. And social media makes it too easy to gaze at no navel other than one’s own, and heap scorn on the other side that one would never dare heap were one doing it to someone’s face. So I’d say not so much that we’re becoming more politicized, but that the loudest among us seem to be eagerly, rapidly becoming stupider and lazier. Less interested in nuance. Less tolerant of dissenting opinion. Less thoughtful before we speak. More gratuitously provocative. More indulgent of our baser instincts. The dominion of social media is one of the reasons it’s so hard for me to feel at home here right now. This country is full of thoughtful, moderate people. But they’re not the ones shouting at us everyday. I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I don’t have a television. But I still can’t escape it.
AV: You recently traveled to Estonia and Latvia to discuss creative life in America. What can you share about the arts and literature in Eastern European countries like those?
BF: There are lots of fascinating things going on there. Estonia, a country the size of your fingertip, is so much more technologically advanced than America is, it’s embarrassing. Riga, in Latvia, is an enchanted place—the best of Europe at a third of the price. Latvia is in a real nationalist mood, which leads them to cut off their noses to spite their faces politically, but on the other hand, it’s so nice to see a capital city untouched by the globalized sameness you see in so many places around the world, from Brooklyn to Moscow and even Tallinn, whose proximity to Finland is curse and blessing both. Latvian food, Latvian fashion designers, Latvian jewelry designers—you get a very strong sense of place. But there’s no way to be in either country without feeling the political shadow cast by Russia next door, and Trump’s abdication of NATO guarantees to the Baltic states. It takes real effort to see past, indeed, the swarming political questions.
AV: This novel explores themes of immigration, acculturation, assimilation, and more. Your first novel touched on similar themes What entices you to explore these topics?
BF: They’ve affected every moment of my life.
AV: When you’re crafting a story to tell, do you write for a particular audience? For Americans? For Jewish immigrants?
BF: I want to write the smartest possible book for the broadest possible audience. What this means is that in my books there are no sinners or saints; no easy feelings; no straightforward answers. Because those things exist in real life very rarely. But that ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity can never be an excuse for vagueness, diaristic philosophizing, or gratuitous difficulty in the writing. I am fanatical about giving my reader as many tools as I can to help him or her make sense of the human mess I’m describing. So to the extent I imagine an audience, I imagine smart people reading carefully, and I thank them by making it as easy on them as I can. But I’m incapable of doing that by simplifying the story, by making the ideas simpler, the language homelier. And that isn’t for everyone. Someone told me recently, “I was really affected by your book, but I really couldn’t do anything else while I read it.” As far as compliments go, it was a begrudging one. For my part, I don’t want to write a book that would be simplistic enough to make full sense of while watching television or doing the laundry. That book would be a lie, as I see it. But some people read to escape into a better, or easier, world. And that’s okay. We all worship different things.
AV: Writers often embed truths about themselves in their own writing. Did you do that with your last novel? Did you discover anything surprising about yourself?
BF: Yes. I thought I was writing a novel about the many women of my mother’s generation who have given their lives to taking care of the men around them, and then I realized that in writing about an adopted child I was writing about myself. Immigration renders you so foreign to your elders that you might as well be adopted.
AV: Your first novel came out in 2014. This came out in 2016. Can we expect the next book like clockwork for early 2018? If so, can you share a little bit about the project?
BF: I’m in the last third of the first draft, so very possibly! It’s a food memoir. The first part is the story of our Soviet lives, and immigration, told through food—Soviet food was way better than its reputation suggests because it was, by necessity, local, seasonal, and organic, at a cost of next to nothing. Refrigeration technology came late; supply chains were inefficient; agriculture didn’t make industrial use of pesticides in the same way; and so on.
The second part is the story of a woman who came into my family’s life after my grandmother passed away in 2004—a home aide from Ukraine who took care of my grandfather. She was a phenomenal cook, and her tables, not to put too fine a point on it, ended up bringing me back to a family and culture I was trying very hard to abandon. I followed her to Ukraine, and learned to cook from her, and then ran with it on my own: I worked in a restaurant on the Lower East Side for five months.
So Part 3 is all the ways my own time in the kitchen has saved me. I had a very difficult personal experience several years ago; cooking brought me out of it. It was also how I met the woman with whom I now live. And it was our proving ground. We spent the first week of our courtship using some very inadequate tools to cook for 40 screaming Lakota Sioux kids on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, part of a traveling summer camp for which she was a counselor and I, somehow, a chef.
To learn more about Boris Fishman, visit his official website.
By Daniel Ford
Sean Tuohy and I have voraciously listened to podcasts for years (so much so, we decided to start this humble literary podcast in 2014!). We’re constantly looking for innovative storytellers that use the format to broaden our understanding of the world.
We’re also constantly recommending the podcasts we love (as well as shamelessly promoting our own) to others, so we couldn’t have been more excited to see NPR start up a hashtag (#trypod) in order to combat “podcast unawareness.”
Edison Research found that “one in five Americans listened to podcasts every month as of early 2016 – a number that has grown by double-digits for five years,” according to NPR. The #trypod initiative brings together a wide range of the top podcast hosts who will attempt to make people curious enough about the format to download new shows.
Israel Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, graciously talked to me about how the idea for the program originated, how podcasters can participate, and why podcasts are becoming more and more popular.
Daniel Ford: How did the idea for the #TryPod initiative originate?
Israel Smith: At a meeting of major podcasters late last year. We were talking about audience building, and I suggested a collaborative “tell a friend” campaign that became Trypod.
DF: What has the response been like from some of the podcasts that are already involved?
IS: Everyone has been extraordinarily generous and supportive. Things will really kick into gear tomorrow when the project goes live and wide. An example of collaboration: What happens when WBEZ makes kick ass audio promos, and then Jeff Gross and Bill Irwin at Midroll make a video based on that audio and use graphics made by the NPR Marketing team? This:
DF: How can podcasters participate?
IS: Email firstname.lastname@example.org for the project guide.
DF: You mention research that shows that more and more listeners are tuning into podcasts every month. Why do you think the medium is getting more traction?
IS: Podcasts are easy, they’re personal, and they always waiting for you when you’re ready to listen.
DF: NPR has more than a few podcasts that would be on our #TryPod list, but we want to know what you are listening to!
For more information on #trypod, visit NPR’s website.
By Sean Tuohy
As I’ve said before, South Florida is a sunny place for shady people. Author Alex Segura explores the Magic City and its seedy side with his main character Pete Fernandez. Much like the city he lives in, Pete is on the edge. He’s a burned out reporter with a drinking problem. Segura uses this broken but compelling character to explore the culture of South Florida.
The Miami native took a few minutes to talk to me about his writing process, his love for the city, and what his main hero is up to next.
Sean Tuohy: Which authors influenced you?
Alex Segura: Too many to list. But I regularly go back to the work of George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Reed Farrel Coleman, Megan Abbott, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, Charles Willeford, Vicki Hendricks, Duane Swierczynski, Henning Mankell, Raymond Chandler, Ian Rankin, James Ellroy, and Don Winslow, each for different reasons. I value stories with strong settings and protagonists that are far from perfect. I also appreciate vivid language, and all of these writers have that in spades.
ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline or just vomit up a first draft?
AS: I start with an idea, and then I proceed. Sometimes that involves writing a few chapters to get a feel for the story followed by a bare bones outline, other times it means jumping into a structural doc if the story is more complicated. I’m trying to move away from planning too far ahead, so I’ve settled into this gray area between writing and outlining, where I give myself a few crumbs to follow, but I also leave a lot of breathing room to let the characters and story take me where they want to go.
ST: Does your writing process change between novels and comic books?
AS: A bit. Comics are much more collaborative—you’re the screenwriter writing for the artist, who’s in many ways the director and sets the visual tone for the story. So, you have to be open and willing to lose some things and gain others because you’re working together. With a novel, even though you do get some guidance and feedback, it’s all you. You’re sitting alone in the dark pecking away at your keyboard. You’re also creating from nothing, where in comics, you may be writing pre-existing characters that come with rules and existing issues. For me, prose is more liberating and comics are akin to putting a puzzle together, especially in terms of making sure you complement the art, don’t over-dialogue and hit the right beats.
ST: For the most part, Miami is rarely visited in detective fiction world. What attracts you to the city? What makes the Magic City a great landscape for fiction?
AS: I’m from there, born and raised, so there’s a lot of knowledge about the city and its history that I carry with me. It’s always struck me as a great setting. You have this beautiful, tropical veneer that masks something darker. Miami is no stranger to scandal, crime, and weird mysteries. It’s also a big place—sprawling, with lots of nooks and crannies that have their own personalities. It’s diverse, complicated and lovely. It’s like a femme fatale in metropolitan form, if that makes any sense. I never get tired of writing about it.
ST: How much of you ends up in your main character Pete Fernandez?
AS: A bit. I like to describe Pete as a guy I knew growing up. We went to similar schools, had similar experiences, but at a certain point, he went one way and I went the other. He also has great taste in music!
ST: Pete is a flawed character but the readers continue to root for him. As a writer, how do you balance keeping him imperfect, but not so much that you lose your reader?
AS: It’s tough. I want the stories to feel realistic but I also know Pete is the hero and you want readers to root for him. His problems are twofold—he’s an alcoholic and he’s also put himself in this position, where he’s investigating these terrible crimes with minimal experience. So the reader sees him try to succeed at not only solving the crime, but being a better person. Success with one does not guarantee success with the other. But, like you said, you don’t want to be completely doom and gloom. I try to show some character progression from book to book, otherwise I’m just writing a bunch of static standalones, which doesn’t interest me. I want to feel like he’s moving forward, that his world is evolving and he’s becoming better at his job and at his life. But for every step or two forward, we’ll see him stumble. Because that’s life.
ST: The third Pete Fernandez comes out in April. What can we expect from Pete’s new adventure?
AS: When we see Pete in Dangerous Ends, he’s established himself more and moved past the wreckage of his last adventure, Down the Darkest Street. He’s trying to make it as a PI, he’s trying to live a simpler, cleaner life. But that all goes out the window pretty fast. His partner, Kathy Bentley, wants Pete to help her reopen an old cold case. A saga that’s been a true crime staple for Miami residents for a decade—the saga of former Miami cop Gaspar Varela, who’s doing life in prison for the murder of his wife. Varela’s daughter, Maya, has hired Kathy and Pete to hopefully find some lost piece of evidence that would exonerate her father. Hesitant at first, Pete finds himself hooked by the case. But the deeper he goes, the more dangerous it becomes, and he finds himself in the sights of a deadly Miami street gang known as Los Enfermos and an even older case that dates back to the early days of Castro’s regime in Cuba. It’s a bigger, more ambitious book—dealing with more stuff and adding a lot of history and texture to not only Pete, but his world. I hope people enjoy it.
ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?
AS: It sounds simple, but it’s true: you have to read a lot to write well, and you have to write a lot to hope to write well. Get into a routine. Write every day or as close to that as you can manage. Finish stuff. Then revise. Then start something new. If you don’t treat the craft of writing seriously, you can’t get upset when people don’t treat your work seriously.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
AS: I have a cat named David Byrne.