People of color and the power of words

SELF

Have you read this story?

Matt Flores asked his mailman for extra advertising and reading materials to help supplement his reading. He didn’t own books. The library was too far away.

So, the mailman asked his friends to help supply books for him. The response went worldwide with books coming as far away as the UK.

Continue reading

Why you should always workshop your writing. Always.

why you should always workshop your

I know what you’re thinking and I’m telling you now, it’s a bad idea.

You’re thinking that you’re going to send that manuscript to an agent or a lit mag and that you don’t need another living soul to read it because it’s perfect.

You’re eyes are lying to you. Lies! All of it!

Continue reading

Starting the right way, right away

Starting the right way

I am convinced that the meaning of life is knowing how and when to start over.

In my life I’ve had starts and restarts. As a journalist, you have to. It’s a couple of years in one stop and then several years in another stop and then you go again and again.

In fact, a year ago I restarted, excited for the adventure in front of me.

But this time, I decided to restart a bit differently. This time I decided to be daring and bold.

Continue reading

Dear Reader: Finding art in routine. A pre-VONA post

Dear Reader (1) Dear Reader,

It’s a muggy day in the DFW.  I am listening to Coltran on my iPad and wondering where I have left my cell phone.

It’s not that my night was so wild that my phone is out somewhere. It’s that I’ve misplaced it in my apartment as my trip to VONA looms.

I leave tomorrow for a week that is sure to be life changing in some way and losing my phone is just an example of how unprepared I am for the week ahead.

There’s been several life challenges in my life lately. Some where so big that I contemplated leaving the writing world all together and drop whatever dreams or delusions I had about writing novels.  Life beat me up pretty badly the past couple of months in ways that tested my strength and character. Some tests I’ve a passed, while other I’ve failed in a gigantic ways.

A friend of mine told me to record my life as if it is art. In this I have been slacking.  Perhaps it’s because I wonder, what in my life is art?

That’s a silly question from a silly person but it doesn’t make it any less valid.  There are times when life falls into the routine — rise, work, home, sleep. But that is where the art hides, yes? Where the art is settled in like dust, waiting to be disturbed and collected. There is art in the routine, like there is art in pain and happiness. The trick, however, is knowing where to look.

For me, the thing that will disturb the dust, is tomorrow, when I hop on a plane to Miami to hear from other writers and learn from them. There will be art and laughter and learning and growing. The dust will be disturbed, yes.

But you know the dust never settles back in the same way.

I am anxious and overwhelmed.  So I’m taking it one thing at a time. And right now, the thing is trying to find my cell phone…

                          With love,

8ea87-signature

 

3 writing tips from published mystery writers

IMAG0401

Sometimes, you gotta take the plunge just to see if things work.

At least that what I told myself the night before getting the first chapter of the Jennie Manning book critiqued. I wasn’t going to do it. I came home Friday night from work and dinner with a friend exhausted and with my body asking, pleading, for quality sleep time. But, around midnight, I said what the heck.

Why was I so nervous? The critique was from the Dallas chapter of the Mystery Writers Association and would be lead by published mystery writers. Five pages. We got five pages to get our story across.

While I’ve had the first chapter of the current Jennie Manning book read by other writer friends and have revised it, this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

I’m glad I didn’t because hearing the published writers give notes to everyone’s pieces garnered some gems of writing advise. Here’s a couple that I think everyone can appreciate.

To create a hook, center on one person in a moment of crisis.

IMAG0399

I heard this piece of advice and I cheered! Yes! I always thought this, that first moment when the reader picks up the piece has to instantly involve them into the world. To put it more in more plan words and to quote an former advisor: “Books very rarely start at the beginning. They start in the middle.”

Too much play-by-play is like ketchup. A little is good but a lot is a hot mess

Play-by-play is the little things that characters do that can slow down a narrative. For example, he opened the door, closed it, walked across the room, sat down and crossed his legs. That gives every detail of action that really isn’t significant to the narrative. Of course the quick fix is, he came in and sat down.

Do flashbacks only when the reader feels firmly planted in the world

This one made a whole lot of sense when it was said during the critique session. I love writing flashbacks but is the reader ready to read it? The critiquers suggested that once the reader is in the world already, that’s when flashbacks should be introduced. It’s a matter of making sure you don’t lose your reader and that they follow you through the entire piece.

 

The feedback from the critique is back. So far so good.

A photo posted by Icess Fernandez Rojas (@writin2insanity) on May 2, 2015 at 10:41am PDT

So how was my feedback? It was great! Again, I’ve had that first chapter done for awhile and it’s been revised and read by other writers so the feedback was really zeroed in on making it better. I’m not a fan of the shallow critique which include people adding commas and periods in your copy. Seriously? I can do that myself.  For critiques, I want to work on story, if it was effective, how to make the narrative pop, etc. In short, I want to concentrate on things I am not able to see for myself because I’m in the weeds. That’s what I got here.

I also go encouragement from the seasoned vets. They all thought I had something and said to continue to write it. I loved hearing that and getting that kind of feedback too.

The feedback was so good, in fact, I decided to take the first 20 pages of Jennie Manning to VONA! It took a couple of weeks to decide but it’s a pretty firm decision now and it’s going to be interesting to take this to my workshop next month.

What’s that H-town sound?

Jennie Manning Noir

So I’ve got one week to get my revisions done before I have to send them to VONA for the workshop.

I’ve decided that the first 20 pages of Jennie Manning will be workshopped and I couldn’t be more thrilled and nervous about it. I’ve got the final 10 pages left to revise and I am needing some musical inspiration for it.

Since the book is set in Houston, I need some suggestions on great music from/about Houston or Houston artists. Beyonce is great but there was music from Houston before her (sorry Bey) and I want that to fuel me toward the finish line.

Tweet me or Facebook me your suggestions. You can also leave them below in the comments. Give me your suggestions and I’ll put them on a playlist that I’ll share!

Spring: The best time for writing resolutions

picjumbo.com_HNCK4046

Starting the spring with a writing plan is a perfect way to rededicate yourself to your writing

Sometimes, I should just take my own advice.

The last couple of months trying to write and finish (finally!) the latest Jennie Manning novel has been a practice in patience and frustration and faith.

Patience that writing time will happen but not at the times that I’m use to or as often as I’m use to.

Frustration that I am not as prolific as I once was and would like to be again. Also, that I’m not submitting as often as my contemporaries are.

Faith that it will all work out as it should and that I need to focus on the entire craft (reading, anaylizing, learning, observing) than just one aspect of the craft (writing).

Can’t say I’ve been successful at all of these practices. In fact, I will go as far as saying that I’ve failed at them. Badly. But that’s the thing about spring, isn’t it? The renewal, the chance to get to start again. 

That’s why I no longer make writing resolutions in January.  I make them when the leaves are returning to the trees and the blue of the sky is never ending and stretches beyond horizons and imaginations. Now is the time to make promises and rededicate oneself to their craft.

This year, I got some help with that promise. I’ve been accepted to the VONA writing workshop. What is that? Here’s some knowledge that, quite frankly, I read several times a week myself.

I’ve come to understand the significance of this in stages starting with the initial shock. (Seriously? This email is true?) Then it moved on to excitement. Then to more excitement. Then to if-I-don’t-think-about-it-I-don’t-have-to-realize-how-I-don’t-have-ANYTHING-to workshop. Then to this feeling:

THIS IS HAPPENING AND I’VE GOT TO GET MYSELF TOGETHER AND NOT WASTE THIS OPPORTUNITY.

This is the current state of affairs.

Then I remember what I submitted in the first place. The story I submitted was the one I wrote about last time, where I was revising at the back of a double decker bus on the way home from a visit to Houston. It’s a story that is more than 2 year old and that I’ve done some work on, including traveling on a train to Saint Louis and listening and learning about some jazz music.  From that travel, I learned so much about writing historical fiction and even found inspiration in the people who I had lunch with on the train.

I think that’s what gives me the most pleasure, that this short story (which like most of my short stories is threatening to become a book) isn’t something I sat down and wrote in one afternoon. It grew into its own and become something that people think is good enough to be part of a workshop.

A friend of mine recently said that one should record their life as if it is art. I think I did that with this story. In those words there is truth and I have used it to chronicle life.

I think that THAT is what makes me the most proud. That somehow, in the middle of the non-writing I’ve been doing, something unexpected happened because I just let it be.

So now, because it’s spring and it is the time of re-dedication and rebirth, my resolution is to let it be. Let the story, the writing life, be what is needs to be. To chronicle life as art and let it bloom.

Yup. That sounds like a pretty descent resolution to me, don’t you think?

Things I’ve learned about revision so far

Editing, revision, writing, lessons, manuscriptYou haven’t lived until you are revising a story for the uptenth time in the back of a double deck bus with a deadline two hours away.

And there’s no wifi. Even though there was promise of it.

I recently took a more than year old short story and decided to give it a old college try for some publications I was looking at. As I’ve written before, revision isn’t my bag but it was something that I wanted to work on this year in my writing.

What I’ve learned so far is that everyone has their own way of revising. After talking with a couple of writer friends quickly about their process, I’ve come to the conclusion that…I’m kinda on my own with figuring stuff out. Continue reading

The role of an advisor

3413_ZoVKVKMzZw.jpeg
A man said some very not nice things about my friends and about writers yesterday. I can’t sit here and not respond.

Or not make this a teachable moment.

A former advisor in my beloved MFA program had this to say about his former students. I did not have him as an advisor. Something kept telling me that we wouldn’t be a good fit so I never chose him to advise me in my writing. He, however, was the second reader to my thesis and wrote a lovely evaluation of it for graduation. I did think his notes on my thesis were spot on and I used them in the final version. I was part of the class he seemingly loved as he give us as a great send off during our commencement ceremony, the gift of a song.

What I am trying to understand from his comments in The Stranger is at what point did he anoint himself as the best judge of writing? What gives him the right to say some folks aren’t going to make it?

His credentials are impressive.Many years as a Goddard advisor, three published books, a TEDx speaker, executive director and founder of Seattle City of Literature. Not bad.

However, how do these things make him a judge of writing and writers? Respectfully, it doesn’t. It makes him a student of the written word not of the human condition or of the spirit.

Being an advisor doesn’t give you that right to determine who is the Real Deal and who isn’t. I should know, I am one.

I admit, however, there are differences between our advisees. He taught graduate students the art of writing fiction. I teach undergrads the art of journalism. By grad school your skill level, dedication, and, quite frankly, your gumption to pursue the writing life should be the highest they’ve been in life. Undergrads are still learning, discovering, and growing in their writing abilities in a different way than graduates.

However, our roles in helping other writers are the same. We teach, we inspire, we correct when needed, and we guide. We. Guide.

We are truthful, but we don’t pass judgement. Yes, there is a difference.

My job description does not say fortune teller and neither did his. Are there Real Deal students under my tutelage? Yes, there are. All of them are the real deal. They come ready to learn, to do their best. They work hard. Are there excuses they give sometimes? Yes. It’s my job to dispel them and to remind them that there is no room for excuse making. I tell them the truth about their writing. I owe it to them and they owe it to themselves to listen. With each truth, however, is a teachable moment.

I. Am. Their. Guide. I am not their judge.

Each student determines the course of their life. They want to work at the New York Times? Yes, you can do that. At Vanity Fair? Yes. Rolling Stone? Yes. Write a book? Yes. They can do all of that and it’s my job to help them along their path to get where they want to go. They are the real deal because they dare to dream and do something about it. That takes strength. I respect that and so should other writers.

Path. I’ve written about this several times on this blog. Every writer has one. There are as many paths as there are writers. My path is different from yours, which is different from my writer friends, which is different from my students. I mean all my students — undergrads, the ones I’ve taught in my fiction writing class, and those  I taught in English composition classes. Since I’m further along in my path than they are in theirs, I make sure to warn my students of the bumps in the road. I tell them this: this is a hard business. Money does not come as easily as it does in other careers. There is heartbreak and rejection. Publishing isn’t easy either. But if this is what you want to do, it’s the best gig in the world.

And it is. I can’t imagine not being a writer in some capacity for the rest of my life. I’m not built for anything else.

Because this writer’s path is different for each writer, with its pumps and forks and meandering ways, comparison is not possible. In fact, it’s irresponsible to compare one writer’s path to another or to say age is a factor of “making it”.

Since when has there been a destination to the art of writing? Is it publishing? Perfecting the craft? The awards and accolades? Writing is a lifelong love affair. It doesn’t matter what age one comes upon it, what matters is that the affair happens.

I was one of the lucky ones who knew early I’d write books. My path took me away from it and the voice I so cherished in my writing. I fought to get back to my writing path, to regain and strengthen my writing voice. That part happened later in life. That doesn’t make me any less of a writer or with any less opportunity to publish or “make it”.

I’ve talked about making this a teachable moment for my students and for those who read this blog. So, here it is. Ready?

In life there will always be those who will have an opinion of you, your life, and your writing. Those people will never go away. But, my darling students, equally there will always be people who are on your side. These folks are not there to stroke your ego but to make you better.

How can you tell the difference? It’s in the delivery. They are strict but just, they are truthful but not intentionally hurtful. They genuinely love what they do and cheer you on, even when you think you don’t want to go on. They bring focus to your writing and sometimes your life. They look for opportunities for you to get better, to be better, and they know your goals almost better than you do. They are your guides. Not your judges.

You’ve got enough of those in your life already.