Tag Archives: writer

The Passing of a Storyteller

trevorpicture

Yesterday I learned that the celebrated Irish author William Trevor passed away at the noble age of 88.  The world will undoubtedly mourn the passage of a veritable literary lion—the recipient of nearly every major literary prize except, regrettably, the Nobel—but it is a true personal loss for me. Not just as a writer, and his influence on my writing has been immeasurable but even having never met the man I owe him a tremendous debt as a person.

How many times have I retreated to his world of extraordinary “ordinary” characters? I still do. In fact, it was inside the pages of his hundreds of short stories that I began to truly accept my own flaws and embrace my quirkiness. In doing so, I found that my compassion for my fellow misfits in the world deepened. His words have made me cry and laugh  – the belly-aching kind – the best therapy of all. It is no exaggeration to say that this man saved me thousands of dollars in psychotherapy, I’m sure.

Although he wrote 14 novels, as masterful as they are, he is most revered for his short stories. “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch” and “A Complicated Nature” are two of my favorites, or at least they come to mind right now, for their Trevoresque blend of humor and pathos. “Access to the Children,” “Her Mother’s Daughter, and “A Wedding in the Garden” are three more poignant stories. And thanks to his inimitable variety, Trevor crafted unforgettable stories of quiet horror that resonate deeply, such as “Miss Smith,” “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” and “The Teddy-bears’ Picnic.” More recent collections yielded other small masterpieces such as “A Bit on the Side,” “Marrying Damian,” and “Sacred Statutes.” This last story earned him one of his four O’Henry Prizes, a nice little connection to North Carolina, since this award is named after a native son also famous for his short stories! The list goes on and on.

While I will mourn this man, as is his due, I will not descend into tearful blubbery. I will not. I cannot. His works have brought me such joy, consolation, and communion with my fellow humans that my overriding emotion is one of gratitude.

“My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so,” Trevor told one interviewer in a story posted by the Associated Press yesterday. “I am a storyteller.”

From one storyteller to another, I thank you, Mr. William Trevor, pardon me, Sir William Trevor, for all that you mean to me.

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A New Year’s Resolution: 5 Easy Steps for a Pain-Free Year of Blogging

IMG_3254I’ve decided to use the down time before the New Year to do something I’ve never done before: write a strategic plan for my blog. Allow me to confess. Other than scheduling some book reviews in advance last summer, I’ve just relied upon serendipity for my blog. While I’ll always leave room for sudden inspiration, I’m planning for a more meaningful (and painfree!) experience for 2013. Here’s 5 steps that might help you.

Step 1: What are your writing goals for 2013? Before you address your plans for your blog, ask yourself: what are my writing goals? For maximum benefit, the two ought to be aligned. Do you want to find a publisher for a completed novel? Do you want to create a following for your writing interests in the hopes of bringing people together? Or, do you want to explore a new topic in the interests of learning something? My overall mission (as a writer) is fairly simple and it’s in the tagline of my blog: Exploring the joys of fiction writing and learning from the very best.  With this in mind, my goal for 2013 will simply be to improve my writing. I’ll then create a blogging plan that supports this goal.

Step 2: Take advantage of holidays, birthdays, and other milestones. It’s common sense to celebrate your own writing milestones and traditional holidays such as Valentine’s Day. But one of my favorite things to do is to take advantage of the abundance of wacky holidays. This worked well for me last year, as I was heavily promoting Naked and Hungry. In honor of one of my main characters, a cantankerous canine, I blogged about National Mutts Day. Which bizarre holidays (tied to your own writing goals) can you commemorate? Check out the list for 2013. And a year’s worth of blog entries means that somebody’s going to have a birthday. Will I have a blog entry for Flannery O’Connor or Anton Chekhov, two of my writing idols? You betcha! On this subject, why not celebrate a victory or milestone earned by a writer friend? I promise that this will be time well spent.

Step 3: Link to other blogs or websites. Have you been interviewed on a blog or garnered a new review? Did you read an online article that you applied to your own life? These can be the simplest of blog entries. You need only write a paragraph from your perspective and link back to the article or interview itself. This can be made easier by subscribing to other blogs or newsfeeds as a way to get ideas. I recently read a great article that could easily inspire multiple blog entries of my own. Conversely, did an article or opinion rub you the wrong way? Don’t be afraid to write about a controversial topic. Hemingway made a living doing just that. Can you imagine the following he would have generated if he had had a blog?

Step 4: Interview another writer. Whether you’re a writer, chef, or gardener, you’re bound to know others with similar interests. Let their wisdom be a part of your blogosphere. I need to get better at this. It can be as simple as emailing other writers questions ahead of time and asking for a picture. Easy-breezy. They do the writing and you do the posting!

Step 5: Give yourself a vacation by writing in advance. Take advantage of technology and schedule content ahead of time. You can create a “mini-series”, such as I did this summer with book reviews, parts 1 and 2. I scheduled them in sequence, which meant that I could take a vacation with impunity. Whew! My writing friend, Rick Bylina, is a natural at planning; in fact, he posts a book review at least once per week.

There are some technical things I should mention here, too, such as linking your blog to your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts but I’m going to assume you have that figured out. As for me, I now have a smorgasbord of exciting blog entries planned for the new year. For your inspiration, I’ll jot down my own outline for January. It really can be this simple!

  • January 7 – Celebrate the patent of a primitive typewriter in 1829
  • January 8  – Ashley pens guest blog on Dames of Dialogue Blog
  • January 15 – Review of Write Like the Masters by William Cane
  • January 19 – The master of suspense: Edgar Allen Poe’s Birthday
  • January 29 – A storyteller for all time: Anton Chekhov’s Birthday

So now I’ll tackle February, March, April and so forth. With the time saved, who knows? Maybe, just maybe, 2013 will find me floating in a Bahamian bay reading a book!

Here’s to a great year ahead. Whatever your plans, may 2013 bring you bountiful rewards, enduring fellowship and joy!

Ashley

More Musings From Flannery on Writing…and Softball!

Lately, due in part to the amazing short story class I’m currently taking led by my friend and teacher Ruth Moose, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the responsibility of the writer. Is the writer supposed to merely entertain? Or is she supposed to teach the reader something as well?

The reason I’m pondering is because I’m in the middle of writing a short story about a middle-aged man who is the self-appointed captain of a city softball team.  Entertaining the reader is easy enough as humor abounds in the circumstances. But the teaching part is a little daunting because if true, it implies that the writer should have a little wisdom of her own to share. Shouldn’t entertaining be enough?

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve embarked on an independent study of Flannery O’Connor, one of my most favorite authors. She died at the too-young age of 39 which makes her musings on the subject of writing all too brief. However, those that exist are all the more poignant because of their paucity. So, when I need a little help, I turn to Mystery and Manners, a collection of prose cobbled from Flannery’s lectures and the like.

The book is chock-full of wisdom but today I’m drawn to this statement in an essay titled The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than can ever be to his reader.”

What I take from this pithy sentence is that yes, the writer may start with an aim to entertain, but the story that emerges may end up instructing the writer. In the same essay she writes: “It’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb dropped on Hiroshoma affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it.”

As I ponder further, Flannery’s comments strike at the heart of what it is like to be writer. It explains a lot about why we do what we do. Sure, we wish to record our impressions of a softball-obsessed control freak, but we also long to write stories that give meaning to such impressions and in our own way, make sense of the world. This is why, as Flannery also concludes, that writing is so difficult to teach; it’s constantly evolving, even in the best of writers. It’s not easy work but the pay-off is every bit as rewarding as hitting that elusive grand slam!

 

Who Is Your Publicist?

Today I had the honor of appearing as a guest blogger for good friend and fellow writer Rick Bylina, the author of One Promise Too Many and other great books. The subject was publicity, a necessity for any writer nowadays.

Can’t afford to hire a publicist? No problem. Hire yourself.

Read more here.

Advice to a Poet…and All the Writers Out There

A friend of mine recently asked that I share some advice with a friend of his, who happens to be an emerging poet seeking publication. It’s always a pleasure to connect with other writers, so I decided to post my response here, in case that my journey might help someone else.

Dear Poet:

As much as I love poetry, I am a novelist so I’m afraid I don’t have the kind of specific advice that an experienced poet might offer, but I can tell you what I might do if I were you. So please take this with more than a grain of salt.

Because of the explosion of the internet (a market of 2-billion+ users) and the need for quality content, short stories and poetry are very much in demand, so yes, you should continue to pursue publication in online publications. And if you haven’t already, I would definitely enter my work into contests. This is a way for your work to attract attention and to develop a following. It also helps you develop early credentials for your work. Naked and Hungry did not win the 2009 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, but it was one of 7 finalists in a field of 653. So I included this note in all query letters and eventually added it to the bio section of my published book. More valuable than a cash prize? You bet!

Next, if you haven’t already, I would purchase a copy of The Writer’s Market. Pronto! There’s a specific edition available just for poets and other genres such as children’s books, for example. This is the best way to get a bead on all the available markets for poetry and contests.  It also provides guidance on the development of a query letter, which is essential for approaching agents and publishers. This book is how I found my publisher, Ingalls Publishing Group, which specializes in regional and N.C. writers.

Also, you should strongly consider joining a writer’s group, in person or online. It’s a great way to get honest feedback on your work and trade ideas on publication opportunities. And again, you will have an instant “fan base” when you are published. Writers have a long tradition of supporting each other, and I am so fortunate that at least a handful will show up at my readings. They will also write reviews for you, an action that is absolutely immeasurable.

And finally, as you probably know, the publishing industry is undergoing radical changes, with the advent of e-books and the tragic closure of so many bookstores. Printing is an expensive business, which is why the big name publishers rarely take on new writers. However, the upside is that there is more opportunity for the little guys, at least those who are willing to work at it and pursue new markets for their work. Self-publishing should be strongly considered, especially for those writers with an entrepreneurial instinct. If you believe in your work, I would probably explore the idea of self publishing a small book of it and offering it for sale on Amazon. It would be an interesting experience and well worth the exploration, especially if you are doing all you can to develop a following.

In conclusion, due in large part to all the changes in the publishing world, there is no clear-cut path to success. Every writer has their own journey and unique story to tell. It’s tempting to stress about how hard it is when you’re not a big name like John Grisham. But look at the flip side. Think about the freedom that comes with NOT being a big name like Grisham. Can you imagine what it would be like if your publisher had the authority to dictate to you what you should write? Or told you where you had to go and what you had to do to promote your work?

When times are tough, I always find comfort in the words of another writer, yes, a poet, the legendary Maya Angelou. She once wrote:

“The world owes you nothing. Accept that and you are truly free.”

Believe in yourself, blaze your own trail, and have fun!

 

Dig Deeper

I recently read a profile of writer Pat Conroy and his wife, Cassandra King, also a novelist. I can’t remember his exact words, but in the article, Pat stresses the importance of “digging deeper” when he reaches an impasse in his writing. The answer is there, but he must dig deeper within himself to find it.

As an itinerant gardener, I found this advice to be very useful. My efforts are mostly confined to container gardening—quick payoff for minimal effort—but I’ve always admired the true gardeners, those who know what they’re doing. They’re willing to invest the time to make sure the soil is properly prepared. They, too, “dig deeply” to tender the loving care necessary to yield maximum blooms.

It’s the same way with writing. When I’m struggling, I can drift off the page for “research” but the truth is that most solutions are within my reach if I think carefully enough. Curiously, some of the best solutions happen when I’m not writing. They happen when I’m gardening, cooking, or walking the dog. Or, they can also arise during time spent with other writers.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a workshop hosted by the Burlington Writer’s Club in Graham. Young adult writer Maureen Wartski, novelist and teacher, led a group of us on revision. From description to flashback, we spent time on the little tricks that writers use to propel their stories. At the end, she encouraged us all to created detailed outlines—much in the way that a gardener might create a landscape blueprint—to help guide our stories. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much writers and gardeners have in common. Gotta go…it’s time to prune my bushes!

Leaving A Trail

Last year I had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian and The Swan Thieves, speak at the National Book Festival in D.C. about her personal writing process. She said that unlike some writers, she never plots too far ahead. Instead, she lets the story tell itself and trusts that all ends will fall into place eventually. While crouching on the grass in the heat, and trying not to worry about the camel cricket just inches away from me, I remember admiring her faith.

Just as this picture demonstrates, the trick for me is balancing my knowledge of the present moment with the trail I’ve got to leave behind me. It’s not easy to remember to plant nuance and clues for the reader. For the fiction writer can leave very little to chance.   If you drag a toe in the sand, there needs to be a reverse action that makes sense for the reader.

Now at work on my second novel, and thoroughly enjoying the new characters and complications introduced into the familiar town of Yatesville, I still work from a rough outline. It’s at the top of my file and serves as a guidepost of where I hope to end up. Not sure that’s the best way but it works for me. It’s like my little yellow bucket of shells. It’s a catch-all for the tidbits I can’t bear to leave behind.