Happy Holidays!

I wanted to wish everyone Happy Holidays and a very happy and creative New Year! I'll be taking a holiday but will be posting a brand new first line (the last one of 2011!) next Wednesday. I'll see you in the New Year!

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

package, bell, stumble.

'Tis the Season

This is a busy time of year which means it is easy for your writing practice to fall by the wayside. I know personally that I am happier writing tiny amounts than not writing at all. So I wanted to share a few ways in which I tuck writing into even my busiest days.

1. Lately I have been posting small prose poems on the blog. I like writing that kind of thing all year round because it keeps me aware of the world around me, but I especially love writing them when my days are filled from morning to night. To me they are the writerly equivalent of a few deep breaths.

2. Try keeping a one-sentence journal. At the end of even the busiest day, pause, reflect and try to capture your day in a single sentence.

3. Try writing micro fiction. How small can you go? That's the challenge. Lately I have been trying to write short stories tiny enough to capture on a Post It note.

4. Keep a small notebook or sheet of paper with you at all times. That way when those fleeting ideas come to you in the midst of the holiday madness you can jot them down. After the holidays you'll feel good having those starting points to dive back into your creativity with.

With a bit of determination and some creativity you can still fit writing into even the busiest time of the year!

Week # 163

Tonya turned when she heard her name called, but did not recognize the man waving to her.

Quote

"Art is a guarantee you are not going to go cuckoo."

~ Louise Bourgeois


What do you think? Does being creative keep you from going cuckoo?

Random Exercise

What does the word 'portal' mean to you? What images does it conjure up? What mood does it evoke? What possibililites does it present? Write about a portal.

Week #162

The red envelope was not in the mailbox, but was instead thrust between the branches of the rosebush beside the door.

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue anywhere in a short story. It can be the first line, the last line or any line in between.

"I'm going to turn the lights out."

Surf on over...

At one time or another we have all pondered the questions: what the heck do editors want, anyway? Well, now we can find out. Check out the Six Questions For.. blog where Jim Harrington asks, and discovers, what it is that editors want.

sixquestionsfor.blogspot.com/
the green moss
glows greener
as the grey day
sinks greyer

Random Exercise

Think of three things that are purple. Use these three objects in a short story.

Week #160

Jared suddenly realized his problem was much bigger than he had thought.
on the windowpane
one small black spider
tiptoeing across the sky

Occupy Imagination

Lately it has become very popular to occupy a place. So I suggest this weekend we occupy our imaginations. Let's devote some time to our creativity. Let's make a writing date. Let's take our notebooks to a coffee shop, or art gallery, or train station. Let's sit down and occupy our imaginations and see how we can change the world.

If you need a prompt to get you started use these three words in a short story:

doodle, crumb, song.

(And let me know how your own Occupy Imagination went. What did you do?)

Quote

"I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all."

~ E. B. White

Week #159

It figured that the first thing Marilyn won in her life was a prize she did not even want.

Random Exercise

If you were walking along today and saw a note on the ground and picked it up to read it - what would it say? Is it handwritten? From a child, or an adult? Does it have spelling mistakes? Is it silly, or heartfelt? Write that note.
I watched
as the last bird flew south
leaving the sky empty
between sand and snow
the crunch of my footsteps
in fallen leaves

Week #158

There comes a time when even the most patient person reaches their limit.

Half a Writing Adventure

This is only half a writing adventure because you are going to stay at home, but you get to open the window! (I know, I know, the thrill factor just went through the roof, didn't it? I felt it, too.)

I want you to open a window and just listen for a few minutes. Try listening without looking so you hear the sounds but do not see the sights. Then try to capture what you heard on a piece of paper. (And don't forget to close the window!)

Quote

"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.(...) Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

Drink and be filled up."

~ Stephen King from On Writing

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

popcorn, hulu hoop, Tarzan.

Week #157

I watched the man and woman across the restaurant unable to decide if they were on a bad first date or at the end of an unhappy marriage.
the frost-stiffened grass
glows white
in the autumn dawn

Something You May Want to Try

The next time you are reading a short story (or novel) you might want to try pausing when you are almost finished to guess how it will end. I like to pause when I am about three-quarters of the way finished. This sort of exercise can teach you a lot about plot - in a fun way!

Week #156

When Jim came down the stairs he saw that the boy had the cat trapped in a corner.

Quote

"Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."

~ Sir Cecil Beaton

Random Exercise

Write a short story that includes these three items:
tambourine, gold cigarette case, a pair of binoculars.

Musings from the Desk

On the weekend I was at a one of those giant used book sales that are absolutely irresistible. It was at the University of Toronto. As I was browsing the Canadian literature table I came across a copy of my novel, The Last River Child. It was a bit disconcerting to see my own discarded novel while searching for cheap treasures. I snuck a peek inside to see if it was signed (it wasn't) and then peeked at what it was priced at ($3). I hope someone took a three dollar gamble and loves it.

Quote

"Believe you can and you're halfway there."

~Theodore Roosevelt

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a short story. It can be the first line, the last line or any line in between!

"Hell will freeze over before I do that!"

Random Exercise

Write about an adventure. It can be a real adventure you had or a fictional adventure. But give some thought to what you consider to be "adventurous."

Author Interview: Lisa De Nikolits


West of Wawa is a cross-Canada roadtrip adventure, narrated with wry humour and filled with a cast of engaging characters. A tale of sexual adventure, narcotics, redemption and triumph.
First Line (FL): West of Wawa is your second novel. How did the writing process differ from the first book?

Lisa De Nikolits (LDN): The main difference is the amount and nature of the research that I did for my first novel, The Hungry Mirror. I read up on as many statistics and facts that I could find because I really wanted to inform the reader about the factual side of eating disorders and I worked hard to weave this information into the fabric of the fictionalized world of the novel.

I also quoted from a number of sources, so there were permissions involved – and I had to ensure that quotes I used were approved by the writers.

And now, while West of Wawa has a fair number of facts too, with regards to the buses and distances that Benny (the protagonist) travels, the rest is a complete work of fiction. I researched Benny’s route in the most pleasurable way by actually doing the journey and making careful notes at the time of the scenery. I wasn’t planning on writing a book but I always keep a travel journal and I’m very glad I did.

FL: What is your favourite word?

LDN: An interesting question! If you were to look at West of Wawa prior to editing, you’d be inclined to say that my favourite words, (albeit unconsciously) were, ‘looked’, ‘little’, ‘happily’ and ‘cosy’. They’re actually not my favourite words at all and once I spotted this weak-word trend, I weeded them out vigorously!

My favourite word is ‘serene’. I have loved it ever since I first read it in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – I was so moved by this opening paragraph and I’ve always thought it’s one of the best openers:

“Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brookly. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.”

After reading that, how could serene be anything but one’s favourite word? There isn’t too much call for the word these days but I found the perfect place for it in West of Wawa:

The ruined and the destroyed had always held a fascination for her,even before the devastation of her own world. She liked to stand among the decay and pick through the aftermath of vanished lives, searching for clues to uncover what had made it all go wrong. And finding the perfect images to capture her imaginings, well, those were moments when she felt close to serene.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

LDN: That there are times when a piece of writing cannot be salvaged. I really struggled with this because I thought that every bit of writing deserves its moment in the sun. But a lot of times that isn’t the case, and you just have to be able to ditch it. Once I get over the initial hurdle of saying goodbye, I have a great time with the new stuff and it’s always better than it was.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

LDN: A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. I found it powerful, amusing, tragic, succinct, violent, incredibly bizarre and equally inspiring.

FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?

LDN: Funny, I don’t really think of myself as a writer! I hadn’t really realized that until you asked that question. I see myself more as a lover of words who is currently enjoying the privilege of writing. And I think if I ever couldn’t write, then I would just accept that and do other things, like try to take better photographs or knit more or find some other creative outlet. But as long as the words befriend me, I say thank you!

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

LDN: I try to write daily. I always keep a notebook on hand in case I’m not near a computer. If I go for a walk, then I use that time to bond with my characters, I imagine they’re with me and I’m chatting to them, getting to know them. Or I try to imagine what they’ll do next. I write most of the weekend – if I wake up early like at 6 am on a Saturday, then I get up and write. Sometimes in a day, if I haven’t written, I find myself becoming agitated, even feeling distressed. Sometimes at the end of a long working day when I’m tired and it seems like an effort to write, I say to myself, “just ten minutes, just ten minutes.” And sometimes it does just end up being ten minutes but that’s okay, that way I don’t lose the thread of writing, the rhythm.

I write everywhere! I move around at home, from the bedroom, to the sun room, living room, back deck, my study, back to the bedroom! It depends on the time of year, my mood and where my cat feels like hanging out – she loves the sun room so I sometimes write there just for her.

I carry printouts of my writing with me so that I can edit them on the subway or if I’m in a coffee shop. When I’m working on a piece, I like it to be close to me in a physical sense. I believe that words read out loud or read from a sheet of paper, have a very different tone and message to words read off a computer screen and I juggle back and forth between them, testing the words as it were.

FL: What inspires you?

LDN: Pretty much everything inspires me. Crowds inspire me, solitary people inspire me, news headlines, snippets of conversations, picking up scraps of paper, imagining what’s going on behind the scenes of other people’s lives, imagining their motivations, their envy, their anger and disappointments. How people dress also inspires me, how we’re all so different and yet we try so hard to look the same, while also fighting to display our own uniqueness.

Life seems to be a constant battle, we’re constantly in a state of discontent, imagining how much better our life would be if this or if that happened… I let my mind wander and I imagine the consequences of the various ‘ifs’. I think the state of our human discontent is what makes life fascinating – our seeking, finding and then abandoning that which we thought we so badly wanted, and setting new goals. Danger, greed, lust, envy and love – studying the nuts and bolts of those emotions never fails to inspire me and it’s the promise of salvation (or the potential damnation of the individual) that makes it interesting.

And I must add that good writing inspires me, I love to read beautiful prose and study it like one would a painting. I am always looking for ways to improve my writing and I also get inspired by workshops and conferences with other writers. You pick up tiny nuggets that make the world of difference.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

LDN: John Steinbeck. Because I can’t help but think it would a melodious and beautiful experience. And if not him, then Mordecai Richler. Or Miriam Toews.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

LDN: I play the classical guitar with a fair amount of dedication – I try to practice every day and I take lessons weekly. I don’t paint or draw but I do knit – a sort of freeform wild knitting based primarily on the yarn I fall in love with. I knit blankets that my father has dubbed ‘the world’s longest scarves’. I also art direct as my day job, so I guess you could say that creativity surrounds me – I also love to photograph, I love infrared and so when I can, I do a lot of that also.

FL: What are you working on now?

LDN: I’m working on a number of projects; I’ve written the first 40,000 words of a new novel called, Between The Cracks She Fell and my goal is to finish that before year end. I am also polishing a collection of short stories and I’m hoping to find a home for my murder mystery entitled, The Corner of the Desert which is about a group of tourists who travel to Namibia and learn about witchcraft, the origins of Nazi theory and practice and how the Bushmen were affected by that. The travelers also start to plot and plan against one another with murderous intent. I wanted the read to be gripping and enjoyable on a fictional level while also being informative about the Bushmen and their traditions.

Thanks Lisa! To learn more about Lisa De Nikolits and her work, visit her website.

To view the trailor for West of Wawa, click here.

Quote

"Memorize and follow this never-fail recipe: get started. Don't quit." ~ Barbara Winter

Week #153

Molly stared at the television screen, too dumbstuck to even yell to Harold to come and see.

Random Exercise

For this entire week I challenge you to pick a time during the day (10:00am, for example) to look at the sky and write a description of what you see. It doesn't have to be lengthy, it can just be a sentence or two. I want you to notice how the sky changes, to see some of its endless variations. Don't just accept that the sky is blue. Have a look. Is it?

Free Workshop with Me this Saturday!

Fast Fiction Workshop


In collaboration with Culture Days and the Neighbourhood Arts Network, Toronto Public Library hosts over 80 Toronto-based artists and arts organizations in a celebration of arts and culture at library branches throughout the city of Toronto. Lori Ann Bloomfield presents Fast Fiction Workshop! at Deer Park Library.

In this sixty minute workshop each participant will create a rough draft for a short story using writing prompts and timed writing exercises. Students will learn how to overcome creative blocks and generate ideas quickly. Through several short exercises, participants will produce a theme, a setting, characters, a conflict and write key scenes. By the end of the workshop everyone will have a rough draft of a short story to take home and continue to work on. All this, in just sixty fun, creative minutes!

Date & Time:

Saturday, October 1, 2011 — 12:30 PM - 1:30 PM

Location

Deer Park Library, 40 St. Clair Ave. E. Toronto

Quote

"The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it."

~ Michelangelo

(Think about that a bit. How can you adjust your aim and reach a bit higher in your creative pursuits?)

Interview: Sage Cohen


Sage Cohen is the author of two nonfiction books, The Productive Writer (reviewed on this blog yesterday, click here to read) and Writing the Life Poetic, as well as the poetry collection, Like the Heart, the World. She also writes the popular blog, The Path of Possibilities. She is one of my favourite writers and I am so happy she has stopped by to chat. Welcome Sage!

First Line (FL): Sage, I loved The Productive Writer. You are obviously a very organized writer. As I was reading it I couldn’t help but wonder if your organizational skills extend to other areas of your life, as well. Tell me the truth, does your house look like an Ikea showroom?

Sage Cohen (SC): I'm thrilled that you love The Productive Writer! Thanks for taking the time to read it and talk to me about it!

The truth: My house looks like an Ikea showroom collided with a preschool in a high-speed chase. My office, however, is a space that I still have some control over. It's my sanctuary, and I try to keep it as beautiful and orderly as I'd like my client work and creative writing practice to be.

The other truth: I know how to be an organized writer; which doesn't always translate to actually being an organized writer.


FL: I know that you are also a talented poet. Do you have a favourite word?

SC: Oh, gosh. Favourite word. That's like choosing a favourite child or animal or type of potato. I will say that every year I choose a word for the year -- one that I am curious about understanding and inhabiting. This year, I am in pursuit of: grace.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

SC: It was more like anti-advice. A world-famous poet, who also happened to be my thesis advisor, told me that the problem with my poetry was that I was good at too many things. I couldn't figure out how such feedback might actually improve my poetry manuscript -- or anything else for that matter. And, like a pebble in my shoe, this strange comment has kept me just uncomfortable enough to eventually clarify that this teacher was giving name to an archetypal changing of the guard. He had bought into the "suffering artist" archetype, as was typical for artists of his generation. And here I was, good at all kinds of things, including poetry: the "thriving artist" archetype. I don't think he liked seeing a woman who could tie her shoes, chew bubble gum, and write a poem, and that's fine with me--change is uncomfortable for all of us. What that anti-advice did for me was clarify my position of which side of the artist fence I was on. It inspired me to take a stand for the balanced creative life in which poetry was an expression of abundance. I've been going public in defense of the thriving artist archetype ever since.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

SC: Every writer needs something different in the way of education and inspiration; I don't presume to have the single answer that will work for everyone. The book that was most significant to me in my foundational years was Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. It gave me both permission and strategies to access what was most true and free in my thinking and writing. That book became the foundation of my writing practice. My suggestion is that each writer commit to finding the book that is their true companion -- and ignoring / discarding any advice along the way that doesn't resonate.

FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?

SC: 1. Painter. 2. Rock and roll star 3. Animal rights + world hunger activist

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

SC: I write for a living, and I keep regular, work-day office hours for my marketing communications business. I do that writing in a home office, at a desktop computer. My creative writing happens generally on my laptop, in bed, at all hours of the night. My prime creative writing time is 4 p.m. to midnight. Before I was a mother, I was able to honor this rhythm somewhat. These days, I'm lucky if I get an hour from 9-10 p.m. Then, I often find myself awake and writing between 4 and 6 a.m.

FL: What inspires you?

SC: Forests. Oceans. Bathtubs. Sushi. Literature. Good company. The right drum beat to match my mood.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

SC: Jhumpa Lahiri. I would like to thank her for keeping me company in the woods that winter in my 20's, broken-hearted, swimming in words, with the most perfect collection of short stories I have ever read. She lifted me completely out of my small sense of possibility into some other place sculpted of words.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

SC: I sing, drum, paint, and dance. I have also done some really terrible acting.

FL: What are you working on now?

SC: I have a collection of poems and a memoir in the works. I'm also getting ready to lead an online course for women to guide them through the death and rebirth process of divorce.

Thanks Sage!

To learn more about Sage Cohen and her work, visit her blog at: pathofpossibility.com

Book Review: The Productive Writer by Sage Cohen


Sage Cohen is one of those writers I have longed admired. And who wouldn’t? She has written three books, runs her own copywriting business, teaches writing workshops, is an accomplished poet, writes the wonderful Path of Possiblilty blog and raises a family. In my opinion, Sage Cohen is a phenomenon. So, when I learned that her latest book was called, The Productive Writer: Tips and Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less and Create Success, I had to read it.

The Productive Writer is two hundred pages of tightly packed information and inspiration. The first five chapters are about getting started as a writer, creating goals and finding ideas. Chapters six through twelve focus on getting organized, developing good work habits and finding time to write.

I especially liked Chapter Eleven, called “Embracing Fear.” Here, Cohen reasons that we all feel fear and since fear isn’t going to go away we should learn how to make it work for us. There are brilliant tips in this chapter on dealing with our inner critic, accepting ourselves as we are now, committing to taking risks and using fear as fuel.

Once Cohen has given you plenty of strategies to be more productive, she turns her attention to helping you build your career as a writer. Topics such as using the web and social media, finding and maintaining momentum, revising your work, getting published, building community, going public and promoting yourself are covered in the last third of the book.

The final chapter is called, “Skipping Down the Hill.” In it Cohen reminds us to celebrate our successes, and ourselves, and urges us to, “Take the Risk to be Happy.” It is a wonderful reminder of what is truly important in the writing life.

In addition to all the great information found in The Productive Writer there are also bonus downloadable worksheets and examples available on Sage Cohen’s website, The Path of Possibility to help get you even more organized!

The Productive Writer is overflowing with fabulous tips and advice that you can begin implementing immediately to see results in your writing life. If you are the type of writer who finds yourself starting projects but struggling to finish them, or you are trying to fit more writing time into your day, I especially think you will love this book. I know I did. Get yourself a copy of The Productive Writer and put yourself on the path to becoming your own phenomenon!

Week #151

Phil thought there was a fifty-fifty chance that what Larry said was true.

Quote

"To be a writer is to sit down at one's desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone - just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again, and once more, and over and over..."

~ John Hersey

Week #150

Ruby took a deep breath and, with a shaking hand, added her name to the list.

Random Exercise

Read today's horoscope. What you will find is twelve possible stories (because there are twelve signs in the zodiac). Pick the one that is most intriguing to you and write a short story.

Writing Adventure

The seasons are changing and we are in a time of transformation. Take a walk with your notebook and notice what is changing. Really notice your surroundings. Are summer flowers giving way to the blossoms of fall? Is the sky a different shade of blue than it is at the height of summer? Does the wind feel different? Does the air smell different? How has the light changed? If nothing looks different to you today, write a description of what you see and make a date to repeat this exercise in a month's time. You are training yourself to sharpen your observational skills; you are learning to see like a writer.

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a short story. It can be the first line, the last line or any line in between.

"I can't believe she dreamed up such a scheme, let alone did it!"

Upcoming Workshop

I will be giving a free writing workshop October 1st. If you can, drop by and say hello!


Fast Fiction Workshop

In this sixty-minute workshop each participant will create a rough draft for a short story using writing prompts and timed writing exercises. Students will learn how to overcome creative blocks and generate ideas quickly. Through several short exercises participants will produce a theme, setting, characters, conflict and write key scenes. By the end of the workshop everyone will have a rough draft of a short story to take home and continue to work on. All this in just sixty fun, creative minutes!

Date: Saturday October 1st
Where: Deer Park Public Library, 40 St. Clair East (At Yonge and St. Clair)
When: 12:30-1:30

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

ring, dragon, lemonade.

Author Interview: Peter Carver


Peter Carver is the author of, "So You Want to Write a Children's Book" (Red Deer Press). He is a veteran children's book editor and recipient of the International Board on Books for Young people (IBBY) Claude Aubry Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Children's Literature. Through his renowned workshops and retreats he has mentored hundreds of new and veteran authors, including dozens of national and international award winners whose books have been published in dozens of languages.

First Line (FL): What is your favourite children’s book?

Peter Carver (PC): Winnie the Pooh. It’s witty, subtle, beautifully written – and a wonderful read-aloud book to a range of ages. In an unaffected way, the stories create prototypes that children and adults can easily recognize in their own world – and then there’s the fun of the nonsensical poetic musings of Pooh.

FL: You are a long-time editor and creative writing teacher. What do you look for in a manuscript?

PC: I look for that element of surprise, that moment of realizing that I’m in the hands of a confident storyteller who is going to let me in on a world that is fascinating, three-dimensional, emotionally illuminating. I long to find a voice that is compelling and distinctive.

FL: What are some common mistakes people who are trying to write for children make?

PC: I think sometimes aspiring writers think they have to be teachers – convey a lesson or a moral to their audiences – rather than understanding that they must first of all be caught up in the web of a strong and convincing story. Children can spot a lesson a mile away, and they do not go to books to be taught lessons, but to immerse themselves in stories (and that goes for non-fiction as well).

Writers of picture books do not have to tell their stories in rhyming verse – strong, vivid prose is the best route. Also they do not have to supply illustrations with their text – better not to attempt this at all, and concentrate on making the words sing.

There are a lot of talking animal stories for young readers already available, some of them – like Winnie the Pooh – magnificent in their impact. We don’t need a lot of second and third-rate talking animal stories. Better to write about human children and do it well.

Above all, my message to aspiring writers is to write the story that means most to you, not one that you think would suit the market. The market is constantly shifting and changing, but the honesty and conviction you bring to the story that has been sitting in your heart all your life will always trump any attempt to produce the next Harry Potter or Franklin the Turtle.

FL: What inspires you?

PC: Inspires me in what direction? Not sure what you mean here, but right now I have been inspired by a holiday I’ve spent with my own family as well as extended family at our 100-year-plus-old summer cottage in northern Ontario. To be with your children and their children, as well as a fleet of cousins, on a beautiful island in the middle of a lake, is a stimulating and healing experience. Not quite sure if that’s inspiration, but it was certainly invigorating. I think a lot of what inspires me is my awareness of the legacy of family in its broadest sense – including that of my maternal grandfather who first built the cottage, and who, not incidentally, was Canada’s best-selling author at the turn of the 19th-20th century. His name was Ralph Connor, and few Canadians have heard of him now; but around 1900, he had sold five million copies of his first three novels. There’s inspiration for you.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

PC: A tough one – impossible to answer. I’d love to have dinner with Chimamanda Adichie, a young Nigerian author whose work I’ve learned about in the past couple of years – a brightening star in the firmament. And if somehow she could be returned to this world, I’d love to sit down with the late Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s great novelists, bar none. Maybe my grandfather would join us.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

PC: Preposterous – there’s no one book. I think every writer should read widely. Certainly in the genre they’re aspiring to, but also far beyond that. The more one understands, through one’s reading, what can be done with words and sentences and paragraphs, the better. Sometimes, writers are so awed by what others have done that they give up on their own work. But more often, I think one can be galvanized by hearing the voices of fine writers spinning their magic – which can lead to one’s coming to hear one’s own voice as it struggles to break out.

FL: Your book, "So You Want to Write a Children’s Book" is a fabulous resource for people wanting to break into the children’s book market. Do you have any final advice for someone attempting to write a children’s book?

PC: Writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. For one thing, to do it effectively, you need to re-discover the child’s sensibility, the child’s way of looking at the world we all once possessed. It is said that writing for children is a way of resolving those issues from childhood that have been unresolved. I think it’s important to respect the child’s eye view of the world, not to trivialize it, as some writers do. The most powerful experiences one has in life are the ones that occur in one’s childhood – drawing from that well of experience and making some kind of sense of it is the job of the children’s writer.

Thanks Peter!

Week #147

Davis knew this was going so spectacularly wrong, in such a wealth of ways, that he was redefining failure.

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a short story. It can be the first line, the last line or any line in between. Have fun!

"I had the best grilled cheese sandwich today."

Random Exercise

Grab a dictionary. A big, proper one. Look up pages: 156, 336 and 718. Grab a word from each page. Use these three words in a short story.

Musings from the Desk

I've been thinking lately how people often assume if you are good at something (like writing fiction, or windsurfing, or skipping stones) it must come easily to you. (In my experience, this is rarely the case, however.)

I think what troubles me most about this assumption, is that there might be people searching for something they find 'easy' with the belief they will excel at it. And then life will magically be happy, and easy, and good; they will be successful and money will be thrust upon them.

It is a nice fantasy. Even I admit that.

But here is the thing: if you only pursue the things you find easy you'll never know the thrill of accomplishment. (And it is a big thrill.) And you will never discover your own potential. (Which is greater than you know.) You will go through life and never test yourself - you will in short, never know what you are capable of. You will be a stranger to yourself.

Don't devote yourself to the things that come easy. Devote yourself to whatever it is you are passionate about. You'll be surprised where it takes you. I guarantee it.

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a short story. It can be the first line, the last line or any line in between!

"You're kidding! You don't have a single tattoo?"

Quote

"To imagine yourself inside another person...is what a story writer does in every piece of work; it is his first step, and his last too, I suppose."

~Eudora Welty

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

prosper, closet, whisper.

Week # 144

When Tanya told George she wanted a pet, a starfish was not what she'd had in mind.

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a short story:

"I don't know why Sarah wore that hat. Honestly, she looked like she had a pancake on her head."

Author Interview: Joe Denham


Joe Denham is the author of two poetry collections, Flux (2003) and Windstorm (2009), and one novel, The Year of Broken Glass (2011). He lives with his wife and two children in Halfmoon Bay, BC, and works as a commercial fisherman throughout coastal British Columbia, Canada.

First Line (FL): Joe, in addition to writing fiction, I know that you are also a poet. Do you have a favourite word?

Joe Denham (JD): My favourite colour is blue. My favourite key is E flat Major. Individual words I don't find terribly inspiring.

FL: “The Year of Broken Glass” is your first novel. What was the journey like from writing it, to getting it published?

JD: Writing and editing it was a four year process. For two years the story and characters just kind of floated about in my imagination, slowly evolving. Then I spent the fall and winter of '09/'10 writing the first drafts. I'd tried writing a novel a couple of times before, each time taking the less disciplined approach I take to writing poetry (which is to say, getting to it if and when the desire and inspiration stirs me to do so, and otherwise busying myself with the rest of life), but unsurprisingly I kept getting lost after the initial burst of inspiration. So with this one I decided I needed to make it an 8 to 10 hours a day, everyday kind of project. Which is what I did over the six months of that fall and winter, and by the time spring rolled around Amy (my wife) and I had finished working over the fifth draft.

Before I left for fishing that spring I decided to give it to Silas White, both an old friend and the publisher of my two previous books, Flux and Windstorm, to see what he thought of the manuscript as it existed at that time. To keep a long story short, Silas thought it was
great, even possibly a big and important book, and encouraged me (despite his own enthusiasm for the book and desire to publish it with Nightwood Editions) to pursue an agent and a corporate publishing house that could really put some major money behind. Which is what I did. And after about 20 doors politely clicked shut in my face with less than a glance thrown my way beforehand, I came back to Si and he agreed to publish it. To be honest, I think we both hoped, for the sake of the book and for my career and for readers too, that I would have been able to get further with that process than I did, but what I gleaned is that there's a very conservative aesthetic holding sway in the Can Lit industry, and The Year of Broken Glass is in so many ways un-conservative, genre-melding, boisterous, etc, so it just doesn't fit. That said, publishing the book with Silas and Nightwood was a great process. Everyone poured a lot of energy into the editing and proofing and designing, and I think what we all came up with in the end is a really fantastic book that we're all proud of.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

JD: I studied at a community college for my first two years of post-secondary. When I finished, I asked my creative writing prof, a very fine and respected poet, where she thought I should go to continue my studies in creative writing: Concordia? UVic? UBC? She very respectfully suggested that if I wanted to learn to write inside that conservative aesthetic I just mentioned, that I should by all means go to any of the above. But if I wanted to find my own voice, to really find it, she suggested I should drop out, read, go to readings, work, and learn to write on my own, in the world.

Okay. So I took the latter advice. Sometimes I think to myself: who in their right mind (and who's to say she was in her right mind!?) would tell an earnest 20 year old straight A student with some talent and ambition to jump off the train? Usually I think this to myself when I've had a bad fishing season or have nearly cut my hand off at work or have had 20 agents flat out reject me without really considering my work because they have no idea who I am or who anyone close to me in my life is. But on the days when I'm writing and the writing feels good and true and at least somewhat un-affected, I think, sure, good for her, and for me, that she chose to be so honest in that moment. Spending too much time in classrooms always makes me itchy and dopey anyhow, and given the amount I recall nodding off in her workshops, she must have seen that in me! Also, looking at it all from a distance now, I think she was right in asserting that the whole apparatus of post-secondary creative writing workshops unfortunately works to reinforce a sort of lowest common denominator approach to writing and art and seems to kind of press out some of the more individual character and sensibility in many developing writer's work.

I was reading this little non-fiction piece on dissonance recently, and I found this interesting: back in the 16th century in Germany it became fashionable to carefully breed and train canaries for the purpose of birdsong performance and competition. Today, if you compare the sonograms of domesticated canaries with those of wild canaries, apparently you can see a distinct difference in the third and fourth seconds of their song. I'll quote the essayist (Barbara Hurd) here: "On the domesticated bird's sonogram, the markings on the graph (indicating frequency and duration of notes) are consistent, as if drawn by an accomplished graphic artist who'd learned to replicate the same graceful squiggle over and over. That bird is repeating clear notes and was cheered at competitions. But at the same moment on the wild canary's graph, the markings go haywire, as if drawn by a kindergartner using the wrong hand. Their thicknesses vary wildly; splotches hover over skewed jabs. Birders studying the sonogram call this the canary's "dissonant phrase." Though it's been completely bred out of domesticated canaries, it remains in wild ones."

I'm certainly not asserting that I'm the literary equivalent to a wild canary, or anything "wild" for that matter. I did eventually, for one year in my later twenties, return to Creative Writing workshops (at the University of Victoria), and I've read my share of literature. So I'm affected, just as we all are. But I think there are degrees of affectation, and I think that prof was trying to steer me, in the very formative years of my artistic apprenticeship, away from an arena which applauds the replication "of one graceful squiggle over and over", and instead towards a lifestyle and approach to art in which I might retain a small semblance of the more individual and at times dissonant song we're all naturally born with. Which hasn't and doesn't let me off the hook insofar as knowing and mastering craft goes, but how that is accomplished and even what that means can be defined in greater terms than many of the academic bureaucracies allow for. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that there are no exceptions to this as far as university writing programs go, nor am I saying that no good writers or work emerge from those programs. I think it's fair to say that some great writers have come up through the academic system, just as some have come up outside of it, and I know for myself that it's been a good thing for my artistic development, for my particular temperament, that I more or less count myself amongst the latter, and that this has occurred greatly because of one writer's timely advice given over 15 years ago.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

JD: In fiction, I think John Berger's Into Their Labours Trilogy is an important work. I've been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace recently, though I'm still gathering the gumption to start in on Infinite Jest. But really, I can't answer that question. I don't think there's any one seminal author or book everyone should read and appreciate. Everyone comes to literature with their own particular needs, expectations, interests, and sensibilities, and what is an infinitely important work to one is next to useless to another.

FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?

JD: That's an interesting question because I'm not sure I think of myself as "being" a writer, as opposed to "being" something else. And here's why: I don't make my living from writing. At best I get the odd grant and token royalty cheque. But as it is I'm a commercial fish boat captain and a residential house builder. That's the work which pays for the home I live in with my family and for the food my children eat, etc, and it also pays for the time I take to write. Writing is my heart's first vocation, and if I could I'd spend more time at it and have a greater volume of work published as a result, but I've yet to achieve the success necessary to call myself "a writer" in that context wherein it is exclusively what I do to make my way in the world. So, it's almost like, if I weren't a fisherman and a builder, I'd want to be a writer. Maybe someday things will turn that way, but it's a precious few of us who get to live in that grace, isn't it?

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

JD: There's a small studio building on our property where both my wife, Amy and I do our writing. There's Amy's piano and my guitars and a small PA system and some computers in there. That's where I wrote The Year of Broken Glass, and I've already described a bit of how I approached the writing of that book. More generally, I tend to write sporadically. I'm not into exercises or projects or scheduled effort. I'm interested in writing born of intense inspiration, and I think too much time at the craft can dilute that. I don't think writers need to or even should write all the time. I don't believe in writer's block. I believe that when we've got something really worth saying, we've got little choice but to sit down and thrash it out, and when we don't, c'est la vie. There are a million other things to do and explore with what little time we've each got.

FL: What inspires you?

JD: The sea. Music. My wife and children. Books. Movies. Wind. Anger. Love.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

JD: I suppose that would be the poet Jorie Graham. I think her writing is absolutely phenomenal--so brilliantly intelligent and so visceral all at once--and, though I'm not sure what it is I'd like to ask her in regards to that, I'm certain the conversation would have the potential of being
illuminating, and if it weren't so it would most likely only be as a result of my own shortcomings.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

JD: I'm a guitar player. I write songs. I sing those songs.

FL: What are you working on now?

JD: I've been writing songs again for the first time in over a decade. Recently I formed a band with a few folks in the neighbourhood. I suppose it's an alt-country-rock kind of project. We're working towards an album, but I don't think we're in any hurry. I'm working (slowly) on two volumes of poetry which will form a trilogy in conjunction with 2009's Windstorm. I'm busy raising children, building a new home for my family, and kicking around ideas in my head for a second novel. I've just recently arrived home from a 100 day fishing shift, so as it is today I'm just happy to lollygag a bit with the kids, play some guitar, and hope for a little sun before summer's end.

Thanks Joe!

To learn more about Joe Denham click here.

Week #143

The coffee was terrible, the waitresses were mean, but I still kept coming back to this crappy diner.

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

swordfish, gymnasium, cool.

Book Review: Ron Carlson Writes a Story


“Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson (Graywolf Press) is a unique and compelling essay that allows the reader to watch over the shoulder of Ron Carlson as he writes the first draft of his short story, “The Governor’s Ball.” In addition to having written eight books of fiction, Ron Carlson has also published short stories in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire and GQ. He also directs the graduate program in fiction at the University of California, Irvine.

This slim book opens with an explanation of how this essay came to be and continues in a friendly tone about the art and craft of writing fiction. Carlson discusses topics such as the source and validity of ideas, and whether or not outlines are necessary, before settling at his desk to write the first sentence of his short story, “The Governor’s Ball.”

Interspersed throughout the writing of the short story are brief chapters on the importance of not leaving the room while writing (no matter how badly you want that cup of coffee), reference books, naming characters and writing dialogue. There are even writing exercises for the reader to try. I think Carlson does a wonderful job of capturing how the mind moves during the creative process: the decisions, the indecision.

As the book progresses, so, too, does the writing of, “The Governor’s Ball.” Characters are introduced, descriptions are artfully crafted and the plot develops until Carlson eventually finds his ending. He closes the book with a marvellous, short meditation on what he believes the job of a writer to be.

“Ron Carlson Writes a Story” is a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on a writer’s thought process as he creates and, frankly, I found it fascinating. I have never read a book quite like this one: probably because it is so difficult to capture the elusive writing process. But Carlson does it admirably well.

(Note: The completed version of, “The Governor’s Ball” is included at the back of the book.)

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a short story. It can be the first line, the last line or any line in between!

"That wasn't here before."

Week #142

I forced myself to keep walking towards the light, blinking in the distance.

Quote

"Anyone who keeps working is not a failure. They may not be a great writer, but if they apply the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, they will eventually make some kind of career as a writer."

~ Ray Bradbury

if you feel like surfing...

You can spend a lot of time browsing around here, reading writerly stuff. I'm just warning you...

Long Story Short

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

tattoo, hysterical, fly.

Week #141

It was me who found Grandpa, dead on the porch, a lit cigar still burning in his hand.

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a piece of short fiction. You decide who said it and why.

"You are going to give the rest of us a bad name."

Writing Adventure

Take a notebook outside and write after dark. Consider your five senses. How is your sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste different in the dark? Is your writing different in the dark? Is it more daring? More free? Explore the summer night this way.

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:
owl, reflection, backpack.

Week #140

The team had been on a losing streak since Coach Hinley's bloodhound, Blue, ran away.

Quote

"Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

~ Helen Keller

Author Interview: Donna Miscolta



Donna Miscolta's debut novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced has just been released. Her short fiction has appeared in Calyx,Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, New
Millennium Writings, Connecticut Review
and
other journals. Her short story collection,
Natalie Wood's Fake Puerto Rican Accent was a
finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short
Fiction. She has received literary awards from
4Culture, Artist Trust, the Bread Loaf/Rona
Jaffe Foundation and Seattle Office of Arts and
Cultural Affairs. She's been an
artist-in-residence at Anderson Center,
Atlantic Center for the Arts and Hedgebrook,
and was recently awarded an NEA-sponsored
residency at the Virginia Center for the
Creative Arts. She grew up in National City,
California and lives in Seattle, Washington.


Welcome to the First Line blog, Donna!

First Line (FL): Donna, I read that you did not start writing until you were almost forty. Were you always an avid reader, though?

Donna Miscolta (DM): Yes, I’ve always been a reader except for a phase in high school when I sort of zoned out in the lost days of my awkward adolescence. Even the comfort of a good book couldn’t rescue me from a sense of displacement and disorientation – of not fitting in and not knowing who I was and where I belonged. But even then, I considered books things of wonder and thought that the creation of one was reserved for the divinely ordained – which is the reason, I think, it took me so long to give writing a try.

FL: You have a great story about how your novel, “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” was discovered and eventually published. Would you mind retelling it for us?

DM: The discovery happened after my novel had been turned down by over thirty editors. In late summer 2007, I had obtained an agent, one very enthusiastic about my book. Even though she continued to reassure me of her belief in it, after two years of rejection, it was hard for me to consider the possibility of a response other than the ones we had collected: they didn’t see it as a fit for their list, it was an issue of marketing, they didn’t fall in love. And yet almost all of them said they admired the writing. So that gave me hope. I’d heard many accounts of how a published story or novel excerpt led to publication of a novel. Not quite believing it would happen to me, I sent off the first chapter of my novel as a stand-alone story to seven journals. Within a month, I received an acceptance from one and a few days later I received an acceptance from another. The story was published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in May 2010. Several months later, I received an email from Marshall Moore of Signal 8 Press, a new Hong Kong-based publisher whose focus is literature for Asia and the Pacific Rim. He asked to read the entire novel manuscript. I think the alacrity with which I sent the thing off made him anxious about my expectations and he let me know right off that it could take him a while −a month or more− to get back to me. I assured him I understood, that I expected to wait. I was used to waiting. A week later he sent me an email offering to publish the book.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

DM: I can’t pinpoint the source because it’s something I’ve heard and read on a number of occasions. It’s something I try to live by and that is to be happy for the success of other writers, those you know and those you don’t know. We each have our particular path to writing and, if we’re lucky, to publication.
I know of or am acquainted with several writers whose books have been recently or soon will be released by major publishing houses. They’re getting book tours, newspaper reviews, radio and TV interviews, and second printings. Exciting stuff. I don’t begrudge them any of it. I do feel wistful and a little envious at times. I remind myself that I’m grateful to my small, independent publisher for putting my book and others out into the world. My book is making a relatively quiet entrance without the bells and whistles of a professional publicity campaign. So are many others. Each of us in our way is doing the same thing – saying to people: Look, I made this. Here it is. And you hope they take it into their hands. You hope they love it.
The other advice I like to remember comes from Cynthia Ozick via a workshop I took from Tom Jenks some years ago. It goes: Play what feeble notes you can and keep practicing. It’s a reminder of what the writer’s job really is.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

DM: Since I don’t feel qualified to be prescriptive about such a thing, I’ll tell you what I need to and do read every so often.
As a fiction writer, at times I feel the need to read some poetry, though I’m woefully uneducated about and often confounded by it. Still, I like to see how so much feeling can be packed in a line and how what is unsaid can be so powerful. The most recent book of poetry I read was Elizabeth Austen’s Every Dress a Decision, which I loved. Jane Hirshfield calls Austen’s poems “pellucid.” What a great word!
Another thing I do every so often is read books on craft. My writing education has been a patchwork of workshops, classes and conferences over the years. I wish I’d had the opportunity to do an MFA. I think it would’ve helped me be more deliberate in how I approach a problem or at least be more aware of the choices I make, which might make me a more efficient writer. As it is, I think much of what I practice in my own writing comes from my experience as a reader. My hope is that at a certain subconscious level, I absorb some of the techniques I come across in stories and novels. They go unarticulated and unanalyzed because rather than take the time to really study what a writer has done on the page to accomplish a particular effect, I’m just anxious to read another work of fiction. So I’m a little lazy or maybe I’m just feeling encumbered by so many books, so little time. At any rate, reading a book on craft, particularly when I’m in the revision stage, will make me stop and think and hopefully understand better what I’m trying to achieve in a work.

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

DM: I have a full-time job so I write at the end of the day. When I started writing, my daughters were seven and three years old so my habit was to write after they were in bed. Also, over the years I spent a lot of time with a writing notebook on my knees while sitting on bleachers at basketball or soccer practices, swim lessons, and gymnastics classes. Between ball drills, laps or tumbling passes, I would jot down a few lines. I think as a result my brain has been trained to write in short spasms. In stutters. Amid both material and mental clutter.
Our house is small so I’ve never had a separate space for writing. My laptop sits on a small table in the bedroom. It’s a tight space and clutter accumulates quickly. The table is one of those lightweight folding ones, and when I type, the vibrations send the table moving in almost imperceptible increments away from me, perhaps in protest of the clutter. Eventually, I have to pull the table back. I do this over and over. Sort of a calisthenic.

FL: What inspires you?

DM: As far as what inspires a story, I get my ideas from other people’s lives. It might be something I observe, read about or hear from another source. A coworker told me about an incident with a wicked teacher she had in elementary school and now it has a place in my next novel.
I’m also inspired by other people’s art. Seeing a good movie or even a bad one can be fuel for my own desire and need to create. A play, a painting, a performance – all of it inspires.
Mostly it’s just a matter of being open to the world around me.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

DM: I’m going to take the liberty of choosing one dead writer and one living writer.
Dead writer: Virginia Woolf. Who wouldn’t want to sit across from those mournful eyes, the exquisite, almost abnormally, long face, and the pointy-tipped nose that Nicole Kidman’s prosthesis in The Hours failed so miserably to reproduce. The question is would I go back in time as a 21st century Filipina-Mexican-American woman to sit in Woolf’s early 20th century drawing room at her heavy oak table, its claw feet gouging the Persian runner? Or would she meet me in my kitchen where I could offer her store-bought lumpia rather than tea and scones on my flimsy pine table? Would my 58-year-old self meet her at 58 years old, a year before she walked into the river? Or would I catch her ten or so years earlier, just after the publication of A Room of One’s Own? Regardless, the fantasy would have to include a personality enhancement for me – smarter, less shy, and not so easily intimidated by the famous and the scarily intelligent.
Living writer: Sherman Alexie. I’ve seen him perform several times. He’s rock-star cool and completely charismatic. He’s committed to social justice. He speaks to youth groups and participates in community fund-raisers, which is how I happened to take a two-hour poetry workshop from him one evening a few years back. My friend had given me her ticket she had won in an auction. I enjoyed the workshop, but I’m not a poet and my dislike for sharing raw work aloud was reflected in the peevishness of my language. A year or so later, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Books introduced me to Alexie when we were both in the store. We chatted briefly, made small talk and I lamely reminded him that upon hearing my “poems” in that workshop he exclaimed, “Wow, that’s some depressing shit you’re writing.” Given the number of people he meets, I’m sure Alexie remembers neither of these encounters. Now, if I were to have dinner with him, I would be, if not enchanting, decidedly unlame. Maybe I would have dinner with him and his family at his home, or maybe we would eat at a bistro in his neighborhood. We would split the tab.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

DM: I’m afraid not. When I was young I used to draw a lot and I was pretty good except that my renderings lacked imagination and everything was so tentative. Plus, I don’t have a good sense of color as someone might guess by my wardrobe. I’m all neutrals, drab greens and hushed blues. Regarding music, my sister and I took piano lessons when we were kids because my mother wanted us to be musical. After about a year, she sold the piano and bought a stereo. I’m really a one-trick pony, spectacularly lacking in other talents.

FL: What are you working on now?

DM: I’m doing some revisions on the last story in my collection called Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent which was a finalist last year for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. I was never quite happy with the ending of that story and I’ve been trying to give it more punch. I also have a few unfinished essays that need attention and I’m two-thirds of the way done with the first draft of another novel. Oh, yeah, and I try to update my blog twice a month. Stop by if you get a chance − http://donnamiscolta.com/notes/.

Thanks Donna! Learn more about Donna Miscolta and her novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced here.

Week #139

As chief groundkeeper of Pleasant Hills Cemetery, I am often witness to peculiar things.

Quote

"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cool site

If you are looking for even more inspiration here is a cool site that has not only random words to get the ideas flowing but pictures and videos too! Check it out here.

Week #138

Barnett Grimswell came into my life the day I found him asleep in a tuxedo, clutching a bouquet of crushed carnations, on the front lawn of the petting zoo I owned with my brother.

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

lemon, hairspray, rock.

Quote

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

~Barbara Kingsolver

Do You Have a Favourite?

I am having a great time doing the author interviews I've introduced on the blog this year. (There's a new interview coming soon!) One of the things I like best is being able to feature first-time authors from small presses. But, alas, I am just one woman (and a busy one, at that)and I fear my list of small publishers has a lot of holes in it. So, if you have a favourite small press please leave me a comment so I can keep an eye on what they are publishing in my quest to find interesting people to interview on First Line!

Or, if you have a favourite author you would love to see interviewed here, whisper (or shout) their name to me in the comment section and I'll see what I can do.

Have a Gander

I stumbled on a blog I thought some of you might enjoy. It's called, "A Book Inside - How to Write and Publish a Book."

Click here to have a look.

Week #137

The first thing Edwina did after the divorce was buy herself a pair of red cowboy boots.

Random Exercise

Make a list your ten favourite scents. They could be a winter morning, freshly cut grass, your grandmother's Chanel No 5, etc. Then choose three of the scents from your list and write for ten minutes on each describing the smell, what emotions they evoke in you and what they remind you of.

Author Interview: Priscilla Long



I am happy to welcome Priscilla Long to the First Line blog! Priscilla Long is the author of, “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” which was reviewed on the First Line blog yesterday and, “Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry.” She is also a writing teacher and a widely published author of essays, fiction, science and poetry. She has been awarded a National Magazine Award and a Seattle Arts Commission award. Welcome Priscilla!

First Line (FL): You have a fascinating section in "The Writer's Portable Mentor" about collecting words. Do you have a favourite word?

Priscilla Long (PL): I keep finding new favourite words! I like odd words like crook and croodle. I love the work lickspittle. I like words of Old English origin like crock, cricket, work. Peduncle is one of the great words. Tick and croak. Then there's hornswoggle.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

PL: The most important advice I ever received was from a book by Dorothea Brande called "Becoming a Writer". She advised to write for 15 minutes every day (more if the day allowed but 15 minutes in any case). I read that lovely book before I knew there was such a thing as a writing teacher and I have been writing for at least 15 minutes every day ever since. That was thirty years ago.

FL: While reading, "The Writer's Portable Mentor" I flipped to the back hoping to find a "Recommended Reading" list. But there wasn't one! So, here's my chance: What book(s) do you think every writer should read?

PL: "The Writer's Portable Mentor" uses many virtuoso sentences and passages to show the effect of this or that technique. The bibliography in the back comes to thirteen pages, about different 150 works. I read the whole of anything I quote from and I recommend these works passionately! Writers need to read, read, and read. A short list is difficult! Susan Sontag's essays. Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient". I currently adore the novels of Ann Patchett. I am reading the essays of Katha Pollitt and Orhan Pamuk. Anne Carson is indispensable. I am rereading Emily Dickinson. A fabulous essayist is Brian Doyle. Joan Silber's short stories are breath-taking. Oh, you have set off a long answer. For philosophy I will take Gaston Bachelard. For science, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Lynn Margulis. For weirdness, P. K. Dick. You have asked what books every writer should read and I am answering with what I have read. As for books about writing, besides "The Writer's Portable Mentor" of course, I recommend "Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Even though it was meant for visual artists, every word is true for writers. I recommend "The Weekend Novelist" by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris and "The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery" by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick. I am just now reading a lovely book by Bruce Black, "Writing Yoga". Charles Baxter's "The Art of Subtext" is excellent. I highly recommend Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit". Ok, now I'll stop!

FL: If you weren't a writer, what would you want to be?

PL: If I wasn't a writer I would be a painter. Someone once said that poets and painters have a relationship of love and envy. It is true that I love and envy the painters. I try to one-up paintings with vivid words but I never succeed. The way they get to work with paint is not fair.

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

PL: I get up every morning and write in my journal for about an hour. This can be about anything but through it I frame my day. There are days when that is all I get. (I have a heavy schedule teaching writing and editing the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, www.historylink.org.) I often write in one of several Seattle coffeehouses. I write virtually all first drafts in a notebook, then transfer to the computer. I don't carry a computer to a café but use the notebooks in the cafés. This is partly because I love to write in notebooks and partly because I spend so much time at the computer (editing the encyclopedia and also revising my own writing) that I am maxed out on the computer. I work on several pieces at once, always. Some of the pieces require considerable research and take time. So it's valuable to be able to switch from one to another and then back again. I am very concerned with issues of productivity (but believe that anxiety is counter-productive), and I am concerned with finishing works and sending them out. I teach mostly advanced writers and I do all the assigned exercises myself and hand my homework to the writers in the class. I do the word lists, the Before/After exercises, and all the rest, very consistently, and it helps me become a better writer all the time. These are not digressions but lead to published works.

FL: What inspires you?

PL: Art inspires me. That would be Beethoven. That would be Jim Morrison belting out "Light my Fire" or Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." I get a lot from looking at paintings, from the visual arts. Miles Davis. Great writing always inspires me.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

PL: I would like to have dinner with Kafka. At this dinner I will inform him that although he thinks of himself as "an incapable, ignorant person" (as recorded in his diary), I think of him, on the contrary, as a great writer. And, I will tell him, so do lots of other people. And, no, they don't all have terrible taste … And, yes, they do know what they are talking about. So, no, he is not "an incapable, ignorant person".

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

PL: I used to play banjo and one day will again. Last week I made a great soup.

FL: What are you working on now?

PL: An exciting new project. It is a weekly blog column, to be called Segue to Science, to be published by the journal The American Scholar. Each weekly column will have a core of science and will then range from the personal to poetry to whatever and then back to science. I am having a great time with these. (The Scholar will start posting them soon.) I am also composing 36 sestinas. I am also composing an abecedarium called "Autobiography: An A-Z". A stands for Arrests and details one of the times I was arrested in the Civil Rights movement—back when. B stands for Bottle-fed Baby. Etcetera.

To learn more about Priscilla Long visit: www.PriscillaLong.com

Book Review: The Writer's Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long


The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long is a treasure trove of information and inspiration for all writers, at whatever stage they may be at in their writing lives. Priscilla Long focuses on six areas she feels are important in every writer’s development. They are: basic productivity, language work, training in observation, grasping and employing story structures, developing sentencing skills and the regular practice of completing works and publishing them.

In the first section Long states: “Writing every day is the key to becoming a writer.” I completely agree. She then provides plenty of ideas on how to incorporate writing in your already busy life. In the exercise, “Hands On: Jump Starting an Essay or Story” she teaches how to generate a first draft in just sixty minutes. This exercise alone is worth the price of the book, in my opinion. She also has a brilliant chapter on training ourselves to observe.

The middle chapters of the book are taken up by a fascinating and useful look at structure. Long points out highly productive writers often share two habits: they write a set number of words a day and they write into a structure. In this section four different types of structure are discussed: theme structure, collage structure, two-or three-strand (braid) structure and dramatic story structure. Wonderful examples of each are given.

After learning how to put words on the page and how to structure them, Long gets down to the nitty-gritty. Topics such as sentence structure, paragraph structure and punctuation are examined next. Part Five concludes with a wonderful chapter on revision and Long’s own take on “Work vs. Talent.”

The final section of the book deals with publication. Why else are you doing all this hard work, right? For writers already accustomed to sending out their work much of this can be safely skimmed, but writers just beginning to submit their stories will be grateful for Long’s clear instructions. Everyone, though, can benefit from the chapter on productivity. And Long’s method of organizing her own writing has improved and revolutionized my own. The final chapter is on success and reminds every writer of why they are writing.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor is exactly what it claims to be: a mentor. It has earned a place on my bookshelf alongside the few, precious books I reach for again and again. The Writer’s Portable Mentor is in turns educational, inspiring, encouraging and entertaining. Priscilla Long has generously shared all that she has learned in her years as a writer and writing teacher. I think every writer should own a copy of this book.

Be sure to stop by tomorrow for my interview with Priscilla!

To learn more about Priscilla Long visit: www.PriscillaLong.com
“The Writer’s Portable Mentor” is published by Wallingford Press.

Week #136

As Dwayne nosed the rental car down the dirt road that led to his childhood home he began to have second thoughts.

Quote

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

~ Mark Twain

Author Interview: Gayle Brandeis


I am so pleased to be welcoming Gayle Brandeis to the First Line blog! Gayle grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt).

First Line (FL): What is your favorite word?

Gayle Brandeis (GB): I have two favorite words that I love with an equal passion: luscious and luminous. I love how they feel in my mouth, I love how they sound, I love what they evoke. Come to think of it, I have a third favorite word now, too—my one and a half year old coined it: bookagee (sometimes bookajay), which he says repeatedly and gleefully as he runs back and forth across the couch or the bed.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

GB: Write about what scares you. It’s where the juice is. Also, give yourself permission to write a really awful, messy first draft; revision is when you can give it shape, make it more--shall we say--luscious and luminous.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

GB: My go-to books about writing are Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Writing Begins with the Breath and The Writing Warrior by my amazing friend and first reader, Laraine Herring. All of these books inspire and fortify me—they make me brave, make me dig deeper into my writing self than I would have on my own.

FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?

GB: Someone who makes a tangible difference in the world, whether through relief work or research or education (or maybe through having a restaurant that offers the most mind-meltingly good food you can imagine, and is also conscious about feeding the hungry in the community.)

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

GB: That’s what I’m trying to figure out! I have not written nearly as much as I would have liked since the baby was born. I just recently started to have a babysitter over three mornings a week, and I tiptoe up to the guest bedroom to work while they play downstairs; much of that time is filled with online teaching and other obligations, but I’m trying to squeeze in my own writing, too. Traditionally late nights have been my most creative time, but I’m so exhausted by the end of the day now (something that wasn’t an issue when my 20 and 17 year old kids were little) and have to retool my idea of who and how I am as a writer. I haven’t quite figured it out yet!

FL: You write both fiction and nonfiction. How does the process differ for the two?

GB: It’s hard to say because I kind of disappear when I write and what happens in the process is quite mysterious to me. Of course I can’t disappear quite as much when I write non-fiction since I have to be attentive to facts and memory; that’s really the biggest difference between the genres—with non-fiction, I generally know what really happened, but I have to find a form to contain and shape that reality, whereas with fiction, I have no idea what is going to happen at all, so the main process for the first draft is figuring out the people and their world. With both genres, though, I try to keep my process as fluid as possible; I like to not know where I’m going, even if I am writing about subjects I know well—I want to invite discovery, surprise, transformation.

FL: What inspires you?

GB: Everything holds the potential for inspiration—I feel as if my job as a writer is to stay as open as possible, so I’ll be ready to breathe in inspiration any time, any place—whether it’s a snippet of overheard conversation or the taste of the first ripe garden tomato of the season. I’m also inspired by kindness, by generosity, by creative risk-taking, by anyone who raises their voice to speak truth to power.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

GB: Meridel LeSueur. I just discovered her as I was researching my recent talk on mothers who write socially engaged fiction, and now she’s my new role model. She was born in 1900, and wrote with a freedom and passion and desire to make a difference that was rare among women of her time. I wish I had known about her while she was alive—she lived until she was 96, and continued to be a rabble rouser until the very end. I’d love to talk to her about motherhood and writing and being an agent for change.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

GB: Aside from writing, dance has been my other lifelong passion. My background is mostly in modern, improvisational dance, but I’ve been belly dancing in my friend’s troupe for a few years now, and find it a wonderful, cathartic outlet, full of fun and sisterhood.

FL: What are you working on now?

GB: I have three projects all screaming for attention—a new novel, a new YA novel, and a memoir about my mom, who took her own life when the baby was a week old. I’m not giving any of these projects as much time as I’d like, and am hoping that one of them will push the others out of the way for a while so I’ll have a clearer focus when I sit down to write. We shall see which, if any, of them rise to the top of the heap!

Thanks Gayle! To learn more about Gayle Brandeis and her work visit: www.gaylebrandeis.com

Writing Adventure Exercise

For this exercise go to your favourite people watching spot: a coffee shop, park, the mall. Wait until someone interesting comes along and then study them (discreetly!) for a moment. Then write a description of their bedroom. Are they messy or neat? Is the room sparse or crowded? What object would they not want you to see?

Repeat this exercise with a few different people.

Week #134

I was only scared the first time it happened.

(I'm posting the first line a wee bit early this week because I am on vacation. I'll have a Writing Adventure at the end of the week for you so be sure to check back then.)

Quote

"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 it can ever be to his reader."

~ Flannery O'Connor

Random Exercise

If you're searching for some inspiration trying using these three words in a short story:

tulip, hot, ghost.

Self-Publishing Part 2

If you found the idea of self-publishing intriguing, you might want to check out Joe Konrath's blog: jakonrath.blogspot.com

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish?

That is the question these days, isn't it? If you had asked me a few years ago if I would ever consider self-publishing I would have blown you off your feet with the force of my "NO!"

But nowadays I am saying, "Never say never." Because the industry is changing lightning fast and every day new opportunities are opening up for writers.

I recently read about Amanda Hocking who self-publishes her paranormal fiction on Kindle. She has sold over 900,000 copies and apparently made over $2 million dollars. And her "Trylle" trilogy has just been optioned by Terri Tachell. I say, "Go Amanda!!" To learn more about her writing visit her blog at: www.amandahocking.blogspot.com

The times they certainly are a changing for writers. It is exciting for sure. But I think to be a successful writer today you need to wear a few hats, and you need to wear them well. You need to be a good writer, a good self-promoter, a good business person and have decent computer skills. Sure it is a bit daunting, but I also think there has never been a better time to be a writer.

Week #133

For over twenty years Walter Sorley had been sitting on his porch every evening, eagle-eyed and dog-breathed, silently daring the world to do something interesting.

Graywolf Press

If you aren't already aware of "The Art of" Series published by Graywolf Press you might want to check it out. Here is how Graywolf describes their stellar series:

"The Art of Series is a line of books reinvigorating the practice of craft and criticism. Each book is a brief, witty and useful exploration of fiction, nonfiction or poetry by a writer impassioned by a singular craft issue."

Some of the titles are:
The Art of Description by Mark Doty
The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber
The Art of Attention by Donald Revell

And there are plenty more. Honestly, I am in love with this series. Click here to learn more.

Writing Adventure Exercise

Go outside with your notebook. If you can, find a bench or picnic table with a view of a tree. Get comfy, open your notebook and take a stab at describing the tree. (Hint: it's not as easy as it sounds.) Once you've described how the tree looks, try using some of your other senses. Is it a windy day? Is the tree making a sound, for instance? Is it a flowering tree? Does it have a scent?

When you've finished that consider different ways of creating moods in your writing using description. Let's say you were writing a spooky scene. How could you describe the tree in a way that would make the scene more sinister? There are endless ways to create atmosphere with something as simple as describing a tree. Can you think of three different moods you could create by describing your tree differently?

Week #132

Angie finished putting up the party decoration then sat down and waited.

More Grant Writing Info

For those of you seeking more information on grant writing I discovered a fabulous website, Mira's List. Check it out!

Theme Exercise

Use this theme as a launch pad to write a short story:

Anticipation

Grant Writing Info

For those looking to improve their grant writing skills, or maybe thinking of applying for their first grant I recommend, "The Artist's Guide to Grant Writing" by Gigi Rosenberg. I picked this book up recently and it is filled with useful information. Though much of it is geared to writers and artists in the USA, this writer still found lots of helpful advice that applied to the grant writing process in Canada. I will be keeping this book close at hand when I apply for my next grant.

Author Interview: Jill Sooley

Today we are welcoming Jill Sooley to First Line blog. Jill’s first novel, The Widows of Paradise Bay, is published by Breakwater Books. Click here to read a description.

Random Exercise

Okay, I made it through Easter. The long weekend was lovely, but it whizzed by too fast. But I trust your brains are rested up and are ready to create something new. So...

If you were going to invent a holiday what would it be? What would it be called? How would it be celebrated? Feel free to go crazy here. I mean really, we just had a holiday where a rabbit delivers eggs?!?

Have fun!

Musing from the Desk

*Warning*

This is more like, "Whining from the Desk". But I have received three rejection letters in the last three days. Sorry, I had to tell someone. That's rough, is it not?

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue to inspire a short story. Use it as the first line, last line or any line in between!

Line:
"There were too many to count."

Week #129

I admit, I have always had difficulties telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Quote

"You do not even have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet."

~ Franz Kafka

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story: sandal, asteroid, fortune.

Description Exercise

In this exercise you are going to describe a person. You can pick someone you know, someone you don't know but see around your neighbourhood or at your workplace, or you can choose a character from a piece of fiction that you are writing. Fix this person in your mind and then begin to describe them. Once you've got down their physical description, tell us how they move. Tell us what their voice sounds like. What are some of their favourite expressions? What do they say when they are angry? Can you describe this person in such a way that if I walked into a crowded room, I would recognize them right away?

Musings from the Desk

Time is the most democratic of things. We are all given twenty-four hours a day. Time is not like money where some people have lots and other people have none. Each day we all have the same amount of time.

As I rush through my days this is what I try to remind myself, if I have the time, that is.

I meet many people who want to write, but who tell me they don't have time. I understand this, but only to a point. (I'm also a yoga teacher and hear the same thing about exercise.) I have discovered that with writing (and with exercise) much can be accomplished in short periods of time, as long as you commit (and here is the trick) to it every day. For example, over the course of a month you will get more writing done if you write for 15 minutes a day than if you write for one hour once a week. Trust me, you will. Pick a time and show up at your desk or in your notebook and write for 15 minutes. Even if you are working on a piece of fiction treat it like a timed writing exercise: show up and keep those words flowing for your allotted 15 minutes. Then do it again the next day and the day after that. You'll be amazed by how much you manage to write in a month. You will be. I promise.

Week #128

For six years Sylvia had been saving money so she could go to Paris, France and eat one meal at the famous restaurant, Les Trois Souhaits.

Writing Adventure and a maybe a story idea....

For this exercise I suggest you walk around your own neighbourhood and try to see it the way a tourist or someone visiting it for the first time would. Look at it closely with fresh eyes. What new beauty do you see? Or what do you notice that is ugly? How many red things can you count? Do you ever wonder why the streets are named what they are? What do you think the neighbourhood looked like fifty years ago? A hundred years ago? (If you are really curious about this you can visit your city archives and look it up.) What do you imagine it will look like fifty years from now? Write about your neighbourhood.

I have to admit that the "Writing Adventures" are my favourite exercises. I love getting away from the desk to go exploring and let the world inspire me. Today I wandered around my own neighbourhood to "test drive" this exercise and I found something great. On the sidewalk someone has spray painted:
Jess 416-781-2053 Please.

Isn't that wonderful? A story just waiting to be told.

Quote

"If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would astonish ourselves."

~ Thomas Edison

Description Exercise

Choose an object that you see every day. Like your alarm clock, or keys, for example. With the object in front of you, write a description of it. Try to use all five of your senses.

Still searching for a name...

Remember when I was involved with the River of Stones project back in January? And I said I was going to keep posting 'stones' occasionally and then didn't? Well, I have kept writing them (they're fun). But I wanted to come up with a new name for them and so far haven't. I'm terrible at naming things. Good thing I don't have kids, huh?

Here's what I wrote yesterday:

Amongst the still brown grass
glows the purple crocus
- spring's shy face.

(*There is nothing wrong with the name 'River of Stones' by the way. It's a great name, in fact. It is simply that that project is ongoing and run by cool and stellar people and I didn't want to look like I was stealing the name.)