Instructor Q&A: Carolyn Cohagan

“Writing a novel is like ‘juggling Jell-O.’ Using a framework like the three-act structure can keep your plot from stalling out or going astray and can aid in building more complex characters.”

-Carolyn Cohagan

Carolyn Cohagan is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Three-Act Structure for the Novel” on Saturday, April 8, at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. The class will familiarize participants with the three-act structure and give them tools to implement it in order to move forward with their novels.

Scribe: With contemporary fiction requiring authors to consistently bring original ideas to readers, why should writers look to arguably more traditional methods such as the three-act structure to assist in their writing process?

Carolyn Cohagan: Most writers already think in terms of the three-act structure, even if they don’t realize it. Our most dominant form of storytelling — movies — is told with the three-act structure, and we’ve been watching and absorbing the form since early childhood. It’s a structure that is satisfying to our brains and emotions. I don’t think every writer has to use it, but I think every writer should understand it.

Scribe: You mention in the class description that plays, screenplays, and novels can all make use of the three-act structure; what makes it effective for novels in particular?

CC: As a friend said, writing a novel is like “juggling Jell-O.” Using a framework like the three-act structure can keep your plot from stalling out or going astray and can aid in building more complex characters. It is particularly useful in diagnosing problems.

Scribe: Is there a particular formula for determining how long each act should be, or does it vary from piece to piece?

CC: Over the years, several writers have created strict formulas for how long each act should be. I will discuss those theories during my workshop, but I don’t adhere to them myself.

Scribe: Some people consider outlines to be limiting to the writing process; this class, however, will focus on creating an outline to help generate creativity. Why do you believe outlines to be important, or even essential, to the writing process?

CC: Some people are plotters and some people are “pantsers” (flying by the seat of their pants). I am a mix of both. I dive in with free abandon and when I hit a wall (and I always do) it is time for me to step back and use the three-act structure. I create an outline for where my plot and characters will go next. I go back to the beginning and create arcs for the characters to figure out what motivates each and every one.

There is no “correct” way to begin a book, but at some stage you will have to determine what the arc of the story is and how your characters have changed. If they haven’t grown or learned anything, your story is flat lining.

Thanks, Carolyn!

Click here to register for Carolyn’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

 

About the Instructor

Carolyn Cohagan has an extensive theater background. She has performed stand-up and one-woman shows at festivals around the world from Adelaide to Edinburgh. She has published two novels: The Lost Children (Simon & Schuster/2010) and Time Zero (She Writes Press/2016). She is the founder of the creative writing organization Girls With Pens, which is dedicated to fostering the individual voices and offbeat imaginations of girls 8-17.

Meet the A&E Conference Faculty: Dan Kirschen

“In general, my favorite thing is putting the right two people in a room together.”

-Dan Kirschen

Every year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings a faculty of close to thirty agents, editors, and other industry professionals to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 24th Annual A&E Conference, taking place June 30–July 2, 2017, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here.

An Interview with Dan Kirschen

Dan Kirschen began his career at ICM Partners in 2010 and has been there since, focusing on literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, current events, and pop culture (music and comedy in particular). He is a graduate of William & Mary, with a degree summa cum laude in philosphy. In his nocturnal life he plays the drums in a band.

Daniel Kirschen posed at the New York ICM Offices on October 29, 2014 in New York City.Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?

Dan Kirschen: With regards to the work, I’m as hands-on or hands-off as is required/preferred by the author. In general, my favorite thing is putting the right two people in a room together.

Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?

DK: Of course the work itself is the most important thing, so if the writing grabs me and won’t let go, that’s enough. But naturally I prefer to work with good and likable people. Likewise, with big personalities and extremely hardworking, driven writers.

Scribe: Do you think social media presence is critical for a successful writing career?

DK: Completely depends on the author and book, but generally speaking, no, I don’t think it’s critical.

Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?

DK: Many come to mind, but I think above all is: Be confident. Almost all instances of self-deprecation, particularly in a query letter, are a turn off.

Scribe: Tell us about a project you took on because there was something special or unique about it, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on; or tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an agent.

DK: Getting my first client a very high profile writing gig, and watching as his career changed overnight.

Scribe: Are there any recent publications you’d like to highlight as representative of the kinds of works you’re looking to take on?

DK: Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

Thanks, Dan!

Click here and here to read our 2017 A&E Conference agent & editor bios.

Click here for more information on the 2017 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 30-July 2) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.

Meet the Members: Stacey Berg

“It’s been wonderfully affirming to meet other writers in various stages of our journeys to publication.”

-Stacey Berg

A member of the Writers’ League of Texas for five years, Stacey Berg lives in Houston.

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Stacey Berg: I write speculative fiction — science fiction and fantasy for adults and teens. My first novel, Dissension, was published by Harper Voyager Impulse in 2016.

Scribe: What author would you most like to have a drink with, and what’s the first question you would ask them?

SB: William Gibson, the author of seminal speculative fiction like Neuromancer and The Peripheral (and inventor of the word “cyberspace”). I’d ask him how he comes up with his astounding metaphors; for example, the description in his essay “Since 1948” of punk as “the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society’s flank.”

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

SB: The complete Shakespeare would be my one indispensable book. There are dozens of worlds to explore in there, and hundreds of people to keep you company. The Riverside version is the one I grew up with, but maybe I’d pick the Norton so I’d have a new (to me) edition for the desert island.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

SB: It’s been wonderfully affirming to meet other writers in various stages of our journeys to publication. The Writers’ League’s Agents & Editors Conferences definitely helped me take the crucial step from writing secretly in my study to submitting my work to agents and ultimately publishers.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

SB: My first two novels have been set in the moderately distant future; I’m looking forward to stepping sideways into whole other worlds.

Scribe: Here are the Writers’ League, we love sharing book recommendations. What’s one Texas-related book that has come out within the past year that you couldn’t put down?

SB: I’m so far behind in my “to-be-read” pile that I’m not sure I read anything that technically qualifies. But I’m counting Maria Dahvana Headley’s Magonia, since she was at this year’s Texas Book Festival.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

SB: Regeneration, the sequel to Dissension, is out now from Harper Voyagers Impulse. You can buy it here.

Thanks, Stacey!

If you’re a Writers’ League member and you’d be interested in being interviewed for our Meet the Members feature, email us at member@writersleague.org for more information. It’s a great way for other members to get to know you and for you to share a bit about what you’re working on!

Instructor Q&A: Michael Hall

“You should be thinking of structure all the time — when you’re reporting, when you’re telling the story to a friend, when you wake up in the middle of the night — until you know how to tell the story.”

-Michael Hall

Michael Hall is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Structure in Narrative Nonfiction: How to Put the Pieces Together.” This class will give writers strategies for finding structure that fits their nonfiction narrative pieces and to create a cohesive final product that flows.

mike_hallScribe: Why is it important to think about and take the time to develop structure in narrative nonfiction?

Michael Hall: Unless you’re a mad genius who can keep a zillion ideas in your head at once and then spit them out in a highly entertaining and readable fashion, you’ve got to figure out some kind of structure in advance of writing your story. Good writing is good thinking. Before you even sit down to write a story, you should have an idea of how you’re going to structure it — if you do, all the work you put into figuring that out will pay off in a big way. It’s like you have a pot of molten iron, and now you can pour it into a bunch of different shapes — stars, railroad ties, lawn chairs, airplane tails. The hardest part is figuring out the shapes. The pouring comes easy.

Scribe: At what point in the writing process should writers really focus on structure? Is this something they need to think about while writing the first draft, or is structure something to consider more in depth on a later edit?

MH: Before you even write a word! You should be thinking of structure all the time — when you’re reporting, when you’re telling the story to a friend, when you wake up in the middle of the night – until you know how to tell the story. Then you need to make an outline. It doesn’t have to be the kind of outline you learned in 7th grade. Your outline can be as simple as knowing you’re going to start HERE, go HERE, then go HERE. It can be a simple arc between several points. It can be a squiggly line going back and forth between two characters. But you have to have some kind of pattern in mind before you begin.

Scribe: Is there one common decision writers tend to make in narrative nonfiction structure that you think detracts from the final piece?

MH: It’s really easy to fall into telling a story based solely on chronology, which can get boring for the reader. “And then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened.” Chronology is important, but you have to find a way to marry your chronology with the themes that are at the heart of your story, the things that will keep people reading — the main character’s fatal flaw, how a troubled childhood affected someone, how a movement grew out of a bunch of cowboys and hippies enjoying country music — to move the whole thing along.

Scribe: Structure can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned writers, making craft less fun and more of an uphill struggle at some moments. What advice or words of encouragement do you have for writers who find themselves at that point?

MH: Stop and go back and figure out how to lay your story out. Take long walks and run everything through your head. Tell the story to your wife or husband or friend. See what comes easiest, which structure creates the most tension and gets the most laughs, what sounds phony and what sounds real. If you don’t think it out in advance, you will become frustrated when you hit that wall of not-knowing-where-to-go-next, then you’ll feel paralyzed, and finally you’ll give up. But if you know where to go next, it’s easy. And that’s the point where writing is actually kind of . . . fun.

Thanks, Michael!

Click here to register for Michael’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

About the Instructor

Before joining Texas Monthly in 1997, Michael Hall was an associate editor of Third Coast magazine and the managing editor of the Austin Chronicle. He won a Texas Gavel Award in 2003 for his story about capital punishment, “Death Isn’t Fair,” which was also nominated for a National Magazine Award. Hall’s stories have appeared in the Best American Magazine Writing, the Best American Sportswriting, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Da Capo Best Music Writing. He has also written for Trouser PressThe New York TimesMen’s Journal, and Austin American-Statesman.

Meet the A&E Conference Faculty: Annie Hwang

“I don’t see myself as their agent for ‘this’ book or ‘that’ book, but for the entirety of their writing career.”

-Annie Hwang

Every year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings a faculty of close to thirty agents, editors, and other industry professionals to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 24th Annual A&E Conference, taking place June 30–July 2, 2017, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here.

An Interview with Annie Hwang

Annie Hwang is an agent at Folio Literary Management where she represents a range of fiction for adults and select nonfiction projects. She gravitates towards literary fiction with commercial appeal, and is particularly drawn to braided narratives and layered plots, especially when populated by complex characters with deep emotional resonance. Commercially, she’s looking for both sweeping historical fiction and visceral literary thrillers that depart from the norm of the genre. The most important thing to her, beyond concept or pitch, is breathtaking storytelling that stretches its genre to new heights. A California native, Annie worked in journalism before joining the publishing world, where she digs for stories that keep her reading late into the night and stay with her long after she puts them down.

Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?

Annie Hwang: I’m an editorially rigorous agent, so expect to work, and to be challenged to do your best work. When I decide to represent a client, it’s with a deep sense of responsibility and a passion for their voice, their work, and their career as an author. I don’t see myself as their agent for “this” book or “that” book, but for the entirety of their writing career. I want to know where they want to be in the next year, in five years, in ten years, and beyond; and, ultimately, help them lay out a path that will allow them to accomplish those goals. I’m also a proponent of regular, open communication and I expect the same of my clients to ensure that we’re on the same page every step of the way.

Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?

AH: Any great relationship starts with honesty and communication. Trying to bring a book into the world is hard enough already — if we’re not on the same page, we’re not going to get very far. Beyond that: I am on the hunt for authors who are able to roll with the punches and revise based off of feedback. I look for someone who can and wants to carry more than one book. Because, at the end of the day (to borrow a phrase from the tech world), I invest in people, not (just) products. I want to develop deep, meaningful relationships with authors that go far beyond their debut.

Scribe: Do you think social media presence is critical for a successful writing career?

AH: It really depends on the kind of book we’re talking about. For prescriptive nonfiction, most definitely. For literary fiction, less so. It’s probably more important to have meaningful connections to notable people in the literary world (but, of course, having a presence on social media never hurts). Ultimately, what’s critical is being present where your audience is.

Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?

AH: Just because it’s good doesn’t mean that other people will want it, so take ownership of your book, be confident in your abilities, but also be open to thinking critically about your book and the kind of guidance that comes your way.

Scribe: Tell us about a project you took on because there was something special or unique about it, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on; or tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an agent.

AH: One of the most exciting moments in my career was holding in my hands the very book I’d plucked out of the slush pile. I was an assistant at the time, so seeing my name in the acknowledgements meant the world to me — it still does.

Scribe: You emphasize “gifted storytelling” on your website; can you elaborate on this a little more for our readers?

AH: I’m really looking for the kind of writing that can make me forget the world around me and completely immerse me into the one that the author has created on the page, whether it be a subculture I’ve never experienced or a place I’ve never been or even turning that which I find familiar on its head.

Thanks, Annie!

Click here and here to read our 2017 A&E Conference agent & editor bios.

Click here for more information on the 2017 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 30-July 2) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.

 

Celebrating Texas Independents: Madeline Smoot

In conjunction with Texas Independence Day, we’re partnering with some of the state’s greatest Independents to host a series of free and open events across the state throughout the month of March.

These panel discussions will focus on the great opportunities for writers and readers that Texas has to offer, from independent presses, to journals, to bookstores, and beyond, while also answering writers’ burning questions about the publishing process, submitting to presses and journals, catching the eye of an editor, and more.

Our discussion in Dallas will be held at Deep Vellum Books tonight (March 23) at 7 pm (details and address here). We’ll be speaking with four distinguished panelists. We recently interviewed panelist Madeline Smoot, publisher of CBAY Books, about the literary landscape in Texas.

Scribe: Can you share a few thoughts with us about the Texas literary landscape — what makes it unique, and what opportunities can be found here for writers, readers, publishers, and booksellers?

Madeline Smoot: In Texas, especially in the children’s market, I find that everyone is so supportive of one another. We all celebrate one another in a myriad of ways, whether it’s Cynthia Leitch Smith offering to help support local Austin authors’ books, or statewide groups like the Writers’ League, or the various regional Texas SCBWIs reaching out to indie presses. It means that there are so many opportunities for everyone involved in the publishing industry. Independents like BookPeople in Austin, Brazos Bookstore in Houston, and Deep Vellum Books here in Dallas are always happy to carry and promote local authors’ books. Any author, whether aspiring or already established, will always find a welcome in the Texas literary world.

Scribe: What do you see as the role of independents in Texas’s literary community (publishers, journals, booksellers) and what do you find most rewarding about the work you do at CBAY Books?

MS: Independents play a large role in publishing in those niches that are too small for the Big 5. We can do regional books set here in Texas that appeal to a Texas audience. There’s nothing more rewarding than connecting an author’s book to the perfect reader. With Texans having so much state pride, it’s wonderful to be able to offer books that are geared toward this specific audience.

Scribe: Tell us a bit about a program or event that you have upcoming that exemplifies the spirit of being independent in Texas (or, if that’s not applicable, tell us about something you have upcoming that you’re especially excited about; a chance to promote something to our readers! Include a link if appropriate).

MS: One of the great things about being independent in Texas (as opposed to elsewhere in the country) is that you have such a large pool of authors and so many distinct Texas experiences to draw from. Our lead title for the fall, Uncertain Summer, is set at Caddo Lake in East Texas and follows a girl determined to get a picture of the elusive Bigfoot that can be found there. The book is by Austin author Jessica Lee Anderson, and there’s a distinct East Texas feel in the voice of the book. Everything about the book encompasses the pride and spirit we have here in Texas.

Thanks, Madeline! Also included in this Dallas panel discussion will be Karen DeVinney of University of North Texas Press, Will Evans of Cinestate, and Matthew Limpede of Carve Magazine (read interviews with them here and here). Visit our website for additional cities and dates where we’ll be Celebrating Texas Independents throughout the month of March.

Are you a Texas independent (publisher, journal, bookstore, etc.) interested in participating in a future event and/or learning about other opportunities for partnership and promotion? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at wlt@writersleague.org.

Community Member Guest Post: The Writers Workshop

“We all work toward a writing career, but first we need a life as a writer.”

-Ron Seybold

Community membership in the Writers’ League of Texas allows businesses and organizations to support our programming and services. It’s also a great way for our community of writers to learn about the many valuable and varied services, programs, and opportunities available to them.

The Writers Workshop is a resource that provides writing workshops for novels and memoirs, creativity groups, coaching, and editorial services. Read a guest post from Writers Workshop director and coach Ron Seybold below.

Patience, Presentation, and Practice: Three Assets for Success in the Book World

 

There are three assets everyone needs to move into a career in writing. We all work toward a writing career, but first we need a life as a writer. The three assets are patience, presentation, and practice. Whether you choose to work with a publisher, employ an editor to polish your book, or make your career by publishing yourself, these three “Ps” are essential. They lead you from inspiration to publication.

The first “P,” patience, is crucial to assisting creativity. As authors build skills and polish their own books, they find opportunities to reach out to one another. You might be doing beta reads for your friends’ full drafts, or even catching typos in a late-stage revision. Remember, you must be patient with your own work, too. You may find yourself saying things like, “Really, why can’t I have three first-person points of view for my cozy mystery?” Talk it through (patiently) with a fellow writer, a workshop group, or even a coach.

As you move into your career as a writer you’ll also want to practice the second “P”: presentation. To a writer, presentation means the ability to share, submit, and offer. You will rework and revise, polish and pare down, but showing your work to the world is what launches a writing life. Even reading aloud what you’ve just written is a start. Find other honest, hopeful ears and eyes of a trusted group or a partner and share again. All work should lead toward the moment of presenting your writing.

Of course practice, the third “P,” helps everything improve. We practice to become the hard-working authors who love to put our early efforts well behind us. Plenty of practice happens via traded emails and Track Changes notes in the margins. Practice makes doing the work easier, too.

In his memoir Father’s Day, Buzz Bissinger gives Eamon Dolan fulsome praise in the book’s acknowledgments. “With Eamon as fastidious editor and wordsmith—some chapters had more of his comments than they did my own words—what began as an earnest and rudderless first draft became a book.”

It’s Buzz’s book, yes. But it’s also a collaboration that benefited from patience, presentation and practice. The first feels like magic when we manage to conjure it. But it’s earned by applying the other two assets in order to create something worthy of notice. Buzz admits his fine memoir was rudderless at first, but he kept working toward the big presentation. Patience helped him steer the story, and practice was the wind that filled his sails.

Thanks, Ron!

Find out about upcoming programming at the Writers Workshop here.

Ron Seybold is director and coach at Austin’s Writers Workshop, a volunteer tutor for the Austin Batcave Literacy Program, and the author of a debut novel Viral Times.