Saturday, February 23, 2013

Don’t Be Afraid of the ‘W’ Word - Guest Post from Kate Lu


Don’t Be Afraid of the ‘W’ Word
Kate Lu

I’ve noticed there's an odd aversion in many young writers as to whether they should call themselves just that—writers. I've heard it time and time again, in almost every single creative writing workshop I've been a part of: "I write, but I'm not a writer. God forbid I should call myself a writer."

As far as I can tell, their thinking seems to go like this: I write, but I'm not a writer. I'm not good enough at this art form to be a writer; I don't want to sound pompous; I'm just starting out and I haven't achieved enough to call myself a writer.

I suspect there are also other undercurrents threaded through this discourse. Who doesn't know someone who's dabbled in poetry, who's attempted a novel? Does that mean that what you’re doing isn’t special? And who doesn’t recognize the stereotype of someone who calls him- or herself a writer but only dashes off haiku about beautiful souls and bleeding hearts between sips of fair-trade coffee from a country you've never even heard of—and believes those drafts to be works of genius, never to be sweated over or cried about during the revision process? Does calling yourself a writer now mean that you’re taking yourself too seriously? Does it somehow cheapen the art?

I’m inclined to take all these assumptions and anxieties, and throw them out the window. I used to be one of those people who hated to call herself a writer, but that’s because I didn’t know then what I know now. A writer is a person who is dedicated to the craft, to improving, to looking at the world and turning those observations into an artistic statement about the way we live. If you’re doing those things—or something similar to those things—odds are, you are, in fact, a writer.

The truth of it is this: if you’re not going to take yourself seriously, no one else is going to do it for you—and you do need to take yourself at least a little bit seriously if you want to dedicate yourself to anything, including art. No one else is going to validate what you do; you need to do that for yourself. You need to own what you do, and oftentimes that means, yes, giving yourself a label.

I might be only a fourth-year university student, but I’m learning how to call myself a writer because I know that this is an art form that is going to stick with me through graduate school and beyond. I want to show people that I’m serious not just about scribbling down a first draft, but into honing those words into some statement about what I’m thinking about now and what I’m seeing in my generation. I know that I’m by no means an expert craftsperson, or even a better artist than other people my own age, but I also know that to take myself seriously, I owe it to myself to call myself what I am.

So go ahead and call yourself a writer. And then get back to doing what you love: writing.



A native New Yorker, Kate Lu is currently a student at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, majoring in English with a concentration in fiction writing. Her short stories have most recently appeared in Ellipsis…Literature and Art (http://www.ellipsis-literature.com/), The Missing Slate (http://issuu.com/themissingslate/docs/issue_5_winter_2012), and, of course, The Battered Suitcase (http://www.vagabondagepress.com/10301/10301.html).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Author Insides - Geoff Hyatt

Geoff Hyatt has shown intermittent enthusiasm for electric guitars, vintage psychedelic posters, and ginger ale. He moved to Chicago after surviving the millennium, where he often sits reading a book while waiting for the bus.

His work has appeared in Knee-Jerk, Temenos, Thuglit, Criminal Class Review, and elsewhere. He recently received an M.F.A. from Columbia College Chicago, and attended the Creative Writing Workshop at Western Michigan University.

His novel, Birch Hills at World's End, is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Why do you write?

I’m really bad at math and not very strong or dexterous.

Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be?

Well, I’m not divorced or alcoholic, so no. Maybe in a few years.

What's your favorite genre to read?

It sounds like a cop-out answer, but I like any "genre" that’s well-executed by its author. For example, last month I read A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Conan: The Road of Kings by Karl Edward Wagner. I enjoyed them both immensely, but they’re vastly different works and I evaluate them by different criteria. I don’t read a sword & sorcery novel looking for a story of art and capitalism, the effects of social engineering, and the delicate balance of love and exploitation as creative people grow up and grow old. Conversely, I don’t read a literary novel expecting it will have me ripping through the pages to discover how the protagonist will stop an army of animated stone statues awakened from an underwater tomb. However, both succeed in their own ways, and there is some overlap in the storytelling methods.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a writer?

Most of my formative experiences probably happened when I was young, like most people. My dad read me Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and from that I learned to love the idea of fiction as adventure. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson was the first book that made me cry. Man, I bawled my eyes out. It was pathetic. It was the first time I experienced fiction about loss, and the almost narcotic emotional effect it can have. Cromier’s The Chocolate War was the first book that made me angry. I re-read it every year, just to stay kind of angry about everything. As an undergrad, an instructor gave me Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which gives Midwestern young men everywhere hope their messed-up lives might be able to be re-shaped into intelligent fiction. John McNally’s collection Troublemakers really showed me how hilarious tragedy could be, and I felt a regional connection to it as well.

Why did you choose to write a novel about young people?

I suppose that the problems of adolescents and young people treated with a certain amount of contempt, both in some literary circles and in society in general. The fact is, the main issues teenagers deal with are really the same ones we deal with our entire lives: Who am I? Who should I love, and how? What should I do with my life? Where do I belong? Why do things have to be the way they are? The main difference is that there’s a rawness to it. Teenage life is a more emotionally externalized version of adult life, which makes the story easier to dramatize and get at those issues.

What does your family think of your writing?

They’ve always been very supportive. In return, I don’t write about them.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing?

I’m a disorganized and random writer and overall a poor role model for artists. I set certain deadlines, like "I need to write these five scenes by August 5th." Then I do. If I slack off, I put everything aside and grind out the pages just under the wire. If I get done well before the deadline, I pat myself on the back for being so productive, then screw around until August 5th passes and I have to set another deadline.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Writing sex. Sex is not a verbal activity for me, at least not in a way that lends itself to prose. But I had to do it for the book, so I went back and read a bunch of sex scenes from novels. The one in Atonement was helpful.

What are your current projects?

I’m writing a fantasy/horror novel now with a friend. After a literary/contemporary project, I like to do genre work. And vice versa.

What are you planning for future projects?

It’s a secret. Really, it is. I think someday, though, I might check in with Josh or Erik from Birch Hills at World’s End to see where they’re at later in life.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Just keep doing it. It will take a long, long time. Don’t take things personally. Write what you like and how you are most comfortable. Believe in yourself and in your work, and understand they are two different things. Remember, this is supposed to be fun, like any sport or game. The process of becoming skilled can be frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes disappointing, but it should always be sort of fun. If it gets to the point where it isn’t, don’t feel bad about giving yourself a break as long as you get back to it again. If you are meant to, you will.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Platform First, Book Second - Guest Post from James H Duncan


Platform First, Book Second
James H Duncan

Whether you’re a poet, a short story writer, or a budding novelist, creating an effective platform is a vital aspect of turning your passion into something that might someday blossom into a career. You may think you’re the next J.D. Salinger or Charles Bukowski—holed away somewhere working on your masterwork—but the truth is that even Buk had to do readings, had to “blog” via free underground newspapers, had to network with other writers, publishers, and editors via the social network of the time—the post office. His volumes of published letters prove as much. So you may be a tough guy poet from the streets, but if you want your work to be read and, if luck is with you, purchased by readers and fans, you cannot afford to be so romantically hermetic in your habits.

And the key to building a platform is to do so before you release your chapbook or novel, not the same month you do, and most certainly not after. If you are on Facebook or another social medium, look at your page and ask, What would potential readers think of the way I present myself? If you want to share your writing with the world but maintain total privacy, you might be better off creating a specific “page” for your writing, although I do not suggest creating a page for a specific book. Some writers do that and it’s a classic example of PR overkill. People want to communicate with YOU, not just one aspect of your artistic arsenal.

Once you have a page or a profile at your favorite social media site, post often, at least a few times a week, even a couple of times a day, but not incessantly or you will annoy your friends and fans. Make sure your comments are diverse—literary news, your book’s progress, important life changes, and give shout-outs to other writers you enjoy and follow. It’s all about being part of a community.

It is also vital that you create a presence for yourself outside of social networking sites. Have a website and make sure it is easy to update from wherever you are. Have a blog aspect on the site so you can write about your writing. This should be your main means of communication with readers, and use Facebook to drive traffic to your page, not vice versa.

If you cannot afford a professional website, there are many slick-looking free blog websites out there that are designed to look just like regular websites, and many are easily customizable. Wordpress and Blogger are two, and these sites have become common amongst writers, poets, agents, small-press publishers, magazine editors, critics, etc. Everyone is blogging these days, and you should too. Again, keep your posts diverse. Offer updates about your book, share techniques and tips that work for you, maybe add a few book reviews you’ve written, anything to keep a fan interested in who you are and what you have to say.

You should begin creating your platform months and even years before you think about releasing a book, or else you will have no base audience for when your book hits the shelves. Other steps you may want to take include starting a Twitter account, regularly attending local readings and open mics, offering to do free chapbook reviews for online ‘zines that you like (with a bio/link to your website), or even starting an online radio show—all of these depend on how much you want to interact with readers. But remember to strike a balance. You don’t want to dedicate too much time to this, because after all, there is a novel or a collection of poems that needs your attention, right?

James H Duncan is a poet, writer, and the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review. He currently resides in New York City and is an editor at Writers Digest Books. His latest book, Dealing With the Devil in the Middle of the Road: New & Selected Poems, is now available at Amazon.com and his website, http://jameshduncan.blogspot.com.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reflections on Necessary Roughness in Fiction - A Guest Post from William J. Jackson


Reflections on Necessary Roughness in Fiction  
William J. Jackson

The problem I’ve been wrestling with is this: there is a great divergence of audiences, with different standards. The spectrum runs from the prim and proper audience viewpoint, not too different from the mainstream ‘50s of Ozzie and Harriet, all the way to extreme movies and cable TV shows and novels with many four letter words and complex situations, like HBO’s “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.” Even CBS and NBC TV shows now regularly use more realistic spoken language, curse words, funny slang, street banter. There is a spectrum in audiences for short stories and novels too.

I've been a writer for 50 years now. I write both fiction and non-fiction.

I often think of my fiction writing as sort of rough-edged. I've spent 50
years acquiring an eye and ear for certain colorful rough-edged materials to include in my fiction compositions. (I do the same in my collages—I like to compose visual art with found objects.) This element of roughness includes rough-edged language, which people often use when speaking unselfconsciously in private conversations, and also quirky rough and rude actions, which are later repressed by forgetfulness or denial. Unpolite, informal, spontaneous, emotional off-the-cuff reality. Controversies. Textures of everyday life. Not the slick veneer of nice ordinariness, but vivid bits of life that are unforgettable. Fifty years later you’re still haunted by some phrases and gestures—now that’s what I call vivid.

For example, in my novel Diving for Carlos, toward the end there is a graveyard scene, in which a gang of teenagers are drunk and in a destructive mood. In the darkness they stumble among the tombstones and curse, fight among themselves, using the harshest language they can think of. I wanted that scene to stand out as one full of funny adolescent obscenities. I wanted that high school graduation night scene to be wild and memorable, the climax of a phase of the characters’ lives. I used strings of slang insults and curses, vile language liberated from everyday life and captured in art.

I have encountered some editors who seem determined to remove all rough edges from texts. They seem unsatisfied until everything they've never heard of, everything they disapprove of, and everything they are embarrassed by and disagree with, is deleted and the text is smooth, with no rough edges of real life left, a cartoon book of safe conventional words being all that remains. They assume that if a writer uses harsh language it is because he is not aware that polite society forbids it in conversation. They assume it was not a conscious choice made by the writer to give life to a scene, but a lack of knowledge about how to write a proper conventional scene.

They try to make the work conform to their sense of what's right and neat, to turn it into a consumable confection, standard inoffensive fare, the expected and acceptable. Meanwhile, using realistic slang is a conscious choice in my aesthetic. I deliberately composed it to be wild, jarring, outrageous, compelling, full of life’s rough and tumble dynamism. It is through the elements of the wild and grotesque, and the power of untrammelled spoken language, that I seek to give daring vitality to my work. In the aesthetic I like to work with there are spots of rough reality, cinema verite, with tell-it-like-it-is flare, irrepressible vitality breaking through the curtain of conventions. I think these elements help keep people honest, and prevent being lulled into bamboozlement.

I'm not talking about editing to make thoughts clearer, because that is always desirable, but about the removal of language and issues that are not polite, and risk being always politically correct. I like roughneck imagination--the rugged shocks of dream images, surrealism and grotesques--Swift, Rabelais, Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers,  Bob Dylan. The weirdness of brothers Grimm folktales. I like art weird as Rimbaud and Beckett, Kafka and Burroughs. The oddness of e.e. cummings’ lower case poetry, the weirdness of Finnegan’s Wake, where it’s all familiar but dreamily mixed up—the collective unconscious is like that, so roll with it. I like a page or two composed of lists, as in a novel by Gunter Grass, and the incredibly long sentence, as in some of Faulkner—all inspired and consciously constructed, deliberate, artfully woven, intriguingly weird. In my experience anything like this is what most editors have knee-jerk reactions to. They assume it’s an unconscious mistake, and they break it down to boring correct forms they know. I always wonder, when I see any experimentation, any fun exploration, such as Gertrude Stein’s repetitive cubist statements, or Padgett Powell’s works, how did they get this past the editor, the publisher, the owner, the censor, the grammarian, the reviewer, the conventional guardians of what prose should always look like?

Those who capture something of the vitality of reality, and then try to approach the marketplace often experience philistinism. Did you ever read what happened to The Catcher in the Rye at the places where it was first submitted? Salinger must have been frustrated, to have his novel rejected by conformist drones and cowards. How did Hieronymus Bosch do it? If you don’t go along with the authorities—the buyer, the agent, the editor, you lose your voice, because they don’t publish you. But in some places, like on HBO, and in recent months in The New Yorker it’s a different story. Mrs. Grundy retires, and a new crew loosens things up. So you adapt, get away with as much as you can, hoping to get more of your vision and nuance to an audience next time.

If an artist makes a representation of the collective unconscious, people not used to encountering that may project their fears and anxieties into it. They miss the point and take it personally. So it takes an advocate, an intermediary, to make the unofficial novelty part of the mainstream. Mary McCarthy stood up for William Burroughs—then he was able to be seen for what he was in a positive light. Richard Eberhart and Lawrence Lipton wrote about the Beat poets, gaining respectful recognition for them. Allen Ginsberg served as an agent for Kerouac’s On The Road. Every original writer with creative daring using vivid language and accessing the collective unconscious needs an advocate who has faith in him, I would say. The charismatic unknown artist needs a discoverer. As Elvis needed Col. Tom Parker, and Bob Dylan needed Albert Grossman, James Joyce had to be championed by Sylvia Beach, and James Baldwin needed supporters too.

See more at my Red Room blog. http://redroom.com/member/william-jackson/blog/researching-diving-for-carlos
Find Diving for Carlos on amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Diving-Carlos-Heroes-Welcome-Blues/dp/1466435674

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Author Insides - Ben Heins

Ben Heins is currently teaching accelerated composition at Rosemont College, putting the finishing touches on his thesis, and will be graduating this spring with an M.F.A. in poetry. He holds a B.A. in professional writing with a minor in English literature from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. Though he currently resides in Greater Philadelphia, Ben was born and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he studied under the late Dr. Len Roberts.

Ben's work has appeared in several local and national journals, including Lehigh Valley Literary Review, Wild Violet, White Pelican Review, and The Battered Suitcase, among others. His poem, "Stone's Weight," won first place the Lindsay R. Hannah Poetry Contest in 2007. He also has been meeting bi-weekly with his close-knit poetry group, the Winged Poets, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2005.

 
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I started writing around third grade, but did not catch the poetry bug until 2005, when I was a freshman in college. There, I met Len Roberts and realized, "Hey, I can do this!" After my baccalaureate years, I went on to study poetry more seriously at Rosemont College. Now, this is my ultimate hobby.

Why do you write?

I write because I believe there are many things in this world that cannot be fully understood. So poetry, for me, helps to cut through all the calamity of the outside world and come to terms with the honest truth of the matter. It is a compressed form, and therefore, can contain infinite meaning in very few words. To dig through every wonderful and terrible moment I have experienced would take weeks of thinking, so instead of just sitting silently, I sit silently and let my mind talk through writing.

Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be?

Being a poet is by far the best occupation. Start-up costs? An idea and a laptop! Hours of operation? Any time! Labor-intensive? Maybe mentally taxing, at times. Really, the only setback I find with being a poet is not having enough time to write. However, after graduation I plan to create the time I need to write more.

What do you think makes a good story?

A good story takes a gripping, coherent plot, fantastic characters, and a stellar beginning, middle, and end. A good poem, however, requires none of those. A good poem will effectively tell the full story from a small moment in the middle. Alternatively, a good poem could abandon any element of story and narrative and sing forever. Really, that is what I love about poetry: its "otherness."

What's your favorite genre to read?

My favorite genre is poetry, without a doubt. A close second is compressed prose – mostly short fiction and creative non-fiction.

Who is your favorite author or poet?

My poet-of-the-moment is Andrew Hudgins. The things he can do with a poem simply amaze me. Reading his collected works, American Rendering, one could turn to any page in the book and be wowed.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer?

The book that influenced me most as a writer was The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. At age four, this was the first book I read, and the one that has the most memories attached to it. When I started writing in elementary school, I would mimic Seuss’s rhythm and it let my imagination run wild. Reading it now, it reminds me that those are two qualities a poet should never forget: rhythm and imagination.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?

The single defining moment of my life occurred when I finished Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. After reading that play straight through and studying it, I realized I could not live the "American Dream" – or even the dream that my parents had for me. I will forever forfeit excessive amounts of money if I can have personal and spiritual satisfaction.

Where/how do you find the most inspiration?

Most of my inspiration comes from new experiences or new revelations. So, if the creative well is running dry, I stop writing for a few months and force myself into new experiences. If a memory sits in my head for a few days straight, I know there is enough inspiration swelling to start a poem.

What does your family think of your writing?

Most of my family could care less about poetry; however, they love me unconditionally and will read anything I write. I remember I brought my first publication credit to my father’s house and he stood in the kitchen, reciting it like he was quoting the Bible.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing?

I find that most of my writing is done between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., and can go on for hours, depending upon how much I dig the material. The poem has to keep my interest, and when it does, I am hooked. If it does not, I shut off the computer and try again a different day.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals?

A quirk about my writing process is that I cannot read anything for at least 48 hours before writing. Also, I cannot listen to any type of music while writing – even if it is in the next room. Both of these quirks speak to my need to have my own internal rhythm when I sit down at the keyboard. Oh, and that’s another quirk – I can only write a poem in its entirety at a computer.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

My biggest challenge is that I am nowhere near being a prolific poet. In fact, I may only write one poem every few weeks. This was previously something I tried to repair, and the more I tried to nestle into some sort of regimen, the more I realized that this is my natural pace. It just happens to be slower at this point in my life.

What are your current projects?

Currently, I am putting the finishing touches on my thesis, which will ideally morph into my next chapbook of poems. Also, my poetry group is working on an anthology – our very own Greatest Hits, so to speak – and I am tremendously excited about both of those endeavors.

What are you planning for future projects?

In the future, I would like to try to write a book-length manuscript, though I have no idea where to begin. Some poets suggest writing with a book in mind; some say it should be a compilation of your best individual poems. But really, in the end, I just want to continue writing poetry and try experimenting with the "accepted" poem, pushing my own limits, exploring the world through writing. Then, if a book emerges, fantastic. In the meantime, though, I have to keep picking at my ideas and diving deeper into my work.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

In a word, honesty. Be honest with yourself, your subject matter, your form, your peers. Be honest and spare no details. If there is that one burning spot in the back of your brain that is too difficult to write about – write about that and see what comes out. Artistic honesty is hard to achieve, but infinitely rewarding.

Where can we find your work?

You can find my work here, at Vagabondage Press, and elsewhere on the Internet.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Psychological Suspense Novel - A Guest Post from Laury A. Egan


The Psychological Suspense Novel: Jenny Kidd 
Laury A. Egan

Many of my novels and short stories fall into the “psychological suspense” category, which was epitomized by Patricia Highsmith’s claustrophobic plots wherein the protagonist is unable to keep himself from falling into dangerous webs and we, as readers, watch with growing alarm at what happens next. To heighten this effect, I often create settings that are, or will become, tightly enclosed so that the action and characters are trapped in the manner of traditional “cozy” mysteries created by Agatha Christie and others. This containment intensifies the interactions between the characters, much as a half-size pool table would cause the balls to carom more often and violently against the sides. I also have spent a great deal of time studying human behavior and psychology, particularly the darker aspects, and analyzing how best to strike the cue ball so that the action drives forward to maximum effect.

In my novel, Jenny Kidd, a young American painter tries to escape the shadow of her manipulative parents and establish her independence as a woman and as an artist. She travels to Venice and is inspired by its beauty—the first web—and then is captivated by a mesmerizing noblewoman, Caterina Barbon—the second web. Creating plausible psychological reasons for her behavior was one of my major challenges; showing her growth as a character was another. Jenny could not be too na├»ve because the reader would become impatient and lose identification with her. She could be sophisticated but not emotionally sure of her attractiveness or self worth. Giving her an ambivalent sexuality was an additional way to illustrate this dichotomy, as was placing her in a city that is ephemeral: romantic and shimmering, then ominous and dark.

One of the primary differences between this kind of novel and a true suspense/thriller is the development of the characters, the time spent on crafting their uniqueness, their history, and the nuances of their personality. A thriller is a very complex construction containing myriad details, plot switches, and diverse characters—most superficially sketched, all moving at a dizzying speed through time and multiple locations. Although I enjoy reading these novels, my preferred goal as an author is to create a protagonist who feels deeply, is hurt, cries, and experiences joy, who pulls herself out of the web and survives as a stronger, more enlightened person.

A danger of centering a story on a semi-unformed narrator is that it can produce inner weakness in the book’s core, a kind of donut-hole vacuum. Despite this obstacle, I keep returning to this structure because it allows me to bombard the protagonist with thrusts and shocks, the pushes and pulls of more dominant secondary players, thus forcing a reaction, a movement when there was little or no initial dynamic activity when the book opens.

As in Highsmith’s plots, there usually is one moment when the reader cries, “Don’t do that!” But even so the character does, hopefully for reasons that make sense because of his or her personality. I’d love to hear from readers of Jenny Kidd about when they believe Jenny makes that critical decision and what they imagine Jenny will do after the conclusion of the book.

Laury A. Egan’s website: www.lauryaegan.com.

Jenny Kidd is published in paperback and eBook formats by Vagabondage Press http://www.vagabondagepress.com/bookpreviews/jennykidd.html#.UHL5ScUUbCY
Her collection, Fog and Other Stories, is available at StoneGarden.net Publishing http://stonegarden.net. Both books may be purchased through local bookstores and on-line retailers.