Instructor Q&A: Nan Cuba

“The beginning of a story functions as a microcosm of the whole.”

-Nan Cuba

Nan Cuba is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Crafting Openings that Hook the Reader” on June 3 at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. This class will focus on analyzing opening pages of texts to give writers strategies to better hook readers within the first few lines and pages of their own projects. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Scribe: Are there any common patterns within opening pages that you find most effective and would like to bring to writers’ attention?

NC: The two most important parts of a story are the opening and closing. The opening places the reader in the fictional world, whether realistic or fantastic, current or historical or futuristic, establishing guidelines for understanding what will follow. The protagonist, setting, situation, tone, atmosphere, theme, structure, and narrative voices are introduced. For example, Janet Burroway says the first paragraphs should reveal the character’s gender, age, race or nationality, class, period, region, profession, and marital status, but none of this should be given as information. Instead, it must be implied by appearance, tone, action, or detail.

According to Robbie Macauley, the design of the opening should suggest the story’s design. For example, if the first paragraphs are exchanges of dialogue as people discuss something about their lives, the implication is that the story will be about their attitudes and opinions, that the way they express them will be important. If the opening brings one character forward for the readers to observe, then the story will be about the traits, ideas, experiences, and emotions of that person. If a group opens the story by participating in an event, then the characters’ actions will become the focus. Opening with a generalization signals a story’s emphasis on theme. A reminiscent narrative voice signals a story about an incidents that was life changing. In this way, the beginning of a story functions as a microcosm of the whole.

Scribe: If you had to choose one novel as having your favorite opening pages, which would it be and why?

NC: I’m going to change your question a bit. Instead of focusing on “opening pages,” I’ll share opening lines to three classic novels.

Opening lines should operate much like opening paragraphs but in compressed form. One of the most famous first sentences is found in Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina. The omniscient narrator begins with a generalization: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Readers immediately recognize the truth in this observation then realize the story will be about one of these unhappy families, with details about how it got that way. The sentence establishes point of view, introduces the main characters, hints at the conflict, and suggests the theme.
Another famous first sentence is from George Orwell’s 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Since the novel was published in 1949, the title announces this as a futuristic setting, while the opening announces that bad luck is everywhere. Point of view, setting, and conflict are established.
A third example is from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man.” The reader knows that the story will be told by a first-person narrator, who thinks no one sees him. We don’t know why, but we know his invisibility is the conflict. We find out later that his color makes him socially invisible, so the first sentence also introduces theme.

Scribe: Implicit in this class and these examples is that writers need to learn to continually teach themselves how to write–by reading other great writers. Why is it important to practice reading like a writer?

Nan Cuba: Learning the craft of fiction writing is a lifetime pursuit. Like anyone being trained in a skill, we hope for instructions to practice and then confidently use to launch a professional career. But mastering craft is not like learning to drive a car, memorizing which pedals and handles to push, and then breezily moving along. A serious writer doesn’t rely on formulas or trends, but instead learns fundamentals of language usage, grammar, and storytelling, and then applies knowledge, curiosity, and intuition in order to experiment and challenge oneself, resulting in the development of an individual style, one that, like the writer herself, is ever-changing. Proficiency introduces new craft challenges, while the writer constantly strives for originality and innovation. Understanding plot basics leads to de-familiarization; recognizing melodrama’s exaggerations entices one to effectively include it; an expanded vocabulary and facility with language and diction challenge one to experiment with syntax and voice. A person could continuously take classes, but the best teacher shows her students how to teach themselves. Chekhov didn’t have a writing degree; neither does Jonathan Franzen. So, how did they learn craft? By reading like a writer. That means analyzing words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, characterizations, settings, plot devices, points of view, etc., noting what works and how it’s accomplished. Francine Prose meticulously describes the process in her excellent book, Reading Like a Writer.

Scribe: Reading definitely helps develop writing skills, but not all reading is good or appropriate writing; is there anything to be gained from reading works in which the writing style is not well crafted?

NC: Not really. If you read literary fiction — that is, fiction that emphasizes language and character, as opposed to commercial fiction that focuses on plot — and you analyze its operations, much like a medial student observes a surgeon in the operating room or a doctoral student assists a chemist in the laboratory, over time and with practice, you will come to recognize literary craft workings. That way, when you knowingly read popular fiction for entertainment, which we all occasionally do, much like watching a blockbuster Star Wars movie, you recognize shortcuts and manipulations, the story becoming predictable and flashy, a fun diversion that ultimately confirms your dedication to innovate and challenge yourself, to write stories that reveal nuanced aspects of our common human experience, in other words, to create art.

Thanks, Nan!

Click here to register for Nan’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

 

About the Instructor

Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction, co-editor of Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists. Her work has appeared in Antioch ReviewHarvard ReviewColumbiaChicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row, LIFEThird Coast, and D Magazine. She has received a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, an artist residency at Fundación Valparaiso in Spain, and was a finalist for the Humanities Texas Award for Individual Achievement. She is the founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit literary center, and teaches in the MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where is writer-in-residence. Her website is nancuba.com.

An Interview with Erika Jo Brown of the Boldface Conference

Here at the Writers’ League of Texas, we love highlighting Texas literary organizations doing great work to support our community. Now in its 9th year, the Boldface Conference takes place May 22-May 26 in Houston and is dedicated to emerging writers. The conference is hosted by Glass Mountain, the University of Houston’s undergraduate literary magazine. This gives the conference’s organizers unique insights into the needs and issues facing emerging writers in today’s challenging literary environment.

To learn more about this conference, we spoke with Erika Jo Brown, Graduate Advisor at Glass Mountain. Registration is still available! Click here for more info.

Scribe: What makes the Boldface conference unique?

Erika Jo Brown: Boldface is truly a unique experience. First of all, we are devoted to emerging writers, which we define as those who have not yet published a book or enrolled in an MFA or PhD program in Creative Writing. We’re also entirely student-run; the conference is an initiative and a labor of love for the editors of Glass MountainUH’s undergraduate magazine.

From May 22-26, the conference itinerary is filled with writing workshops, craft talks, professional panels, readings, evening events around the city, and private manuscript consultations. Some participants are local and some are flying in from Oregon, Indiana, and more! We’re thrilled to host three visiting writing luminaries in each genre, Bill Broun (Night of The Animals) in fiction, Leah Lax (Uncovered) in nonfiction, and Hayan Charara in (Something Sinister, The Sadness of Others, The Alchemist’s Diary) in poetry. Plus, for breakfast and lunch, we scour the city for local, delectable meals.

Scribe: Why is it so important to support emerging writers?

EJB: The writing world is tough, and we’re delighted to provide guidance and, most importantly, community for our fellow scribblers. On Friday, we’re pleased to expand on a “community” day founded last year. We’re assembled terrific panels with local literary figures on topics such as  applying to grad school, submission bombing, pointers on performing work in public, literary citizenship, self publishing, and literary translation. Plus, we’ll have tables of publishers, book artists, magazines, and more. Together, we all rise!

Feel free to email boldfaceconference@gmail.com if you’re inspired to register for our Houston conference.

Thanks, Erika!

To find out more about Boldface and Glass Mountain Mag, visit the Boldface Conference website.

Meet the Members: Chip Dameron

“If I were stranded on a deserted island, I’d want to have The Norton Anthology of American Literature. I’d have such a variety of creative voices to keep me company.”

-Chip Dameron

A member of the Writers’ League for 3 years and a current Writers’ League Board Member, Chip Dameron lives in Brownsville, TX.

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

Chip Dameron: Primarily poetry, though I’m in the middle of drafting a novel.

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

CD: I’d enjoy clinking glasses of raki with novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak and asking them about the challenges of depicting life in modern Turkey without triggering censorship and possible imprisonment.

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

CD: If I were stranded on a deserted island, I’d want to have The Norton Anthology of American Literature. I’d have such a variety of creative voices to keep me company.

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

CD: That there is a great thirst across the state for interacting with other aspiring and practicing writers, for learning more about the craft through short courses from accomplished writers, and for pursuing avenues to publication. The Writers’ League serves as catalyst in creating opportunities for all these activities to happen. I’m extremely impressed with the dedication of the staff of the Writers’ League and the board members I have the privilege to serve with.

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

CD: While I continue to write poems, I’m currently immersed in, and (mostly) enjoying, the process of spinning out a novel. I still have a long way to go.

Scribe: Here at 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?

CD: I’ve just finished Amy Gentry’s Good as Gone, a fast-paced novel with memorable characters and a plot full of twists.

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

CD: I invite everyone to check out my recent book of travel poems, China Sketchbook, published by Purple Flag and available online from Powell’s Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Thanks, Chip!

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! Please also email us, at the same address, if you’d like to learn more about WLT board service.

Meet the A&E Conference Faculty: Tatiana Ryckman

“Often, we can learn more about ourselves through reading about the experiences of someone else. We can learn empathy through gaining an understanding of the world as we have not experienced it. It lets us know we’re connected, that we’re in this whole ‘life’ thing together.”

-Tatiana Ryckman

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 Tatiana Ryckman

Tatiana Ryckman is the Editor-in-Chief of Awst Press, an Assistant Editor with sunnyoutside, and former Managing Editor at The Austin Review. She has worked with award-winning authors including James Tate, Sheila Heti, and Micheline Aharonian Marcom. Tatiana is a hands-on editor who works closely with authors to create the best possible version of their manuscript. Tatiana has been a writer in residence at Yaddo and her novella, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), is forthcoming from Future Tense Press.

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

Tatiana Ryckman: The act of writing can be magical. People come to understand themselves and their world in new and important ways by articulating how they see things. It’s a gift to share that new understanding with a reader. Unfortunately, first (and sometimes third and tenth) drafts don’t communicate to a reader the full wonder of our initial ideas. So I see my role as being a kind of translator. I work with authors to make their work the thing they want it to be. But how I work with an author depends on the author and the manuscript. I’ve talked on the phone for hours about theory or plot or audience with some authors, and I’ve made light line edits for others. Consistently, though, my feedback includes a combination of line edits and an end note where I bring up more general issues or thoughts on the work that should send the author down the path of making meaningful revisions.

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

TR: Write for yourself; revise for others.

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 editor.

TR: The last book we published, Vida Cross’s collection of poems, Bronzeville at Night, represented a new frontier for us. Our first two books had been essay collections and we were on the lookout for a third book when I happened to hear Vida read from her manuscript at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. I was blown away — the poems were so engaging, relevant timely, and skillful. After the reading, I approached her and casually asked if the book was out and if I could get a copy. When she told me she was still looking for a home for it, I immediately texted Wendy Walker, the publisher at Awst, and by the end of the night I sent an email to Vida requesting to see the full manuscript. I had this urgent feeling that the chance might pass us by if a single moment went to waste.

I wouldn’t describe the book as something that was outside our wheelhouse, in part because I think we’d publish just about any genre if the book was excellent, but it was a delightful experience to be confronted with something I didn’t previously know I had to have.

Scribe: Are there any recent publications you’d like to highlight as representative of the kinds of works you’re interested in taking on, or can you give an example of the ideal book you’d like to publish?

TR: I have a short list of books that I often mention to our staff as examples of my ideal future Awst book. I want to learn when I read; I want my perspective to shift or widen. I’d like for our next book to take me on a well-executed journey through unfamiliar information. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being is a perfect example of this, as is just about anything by Maggie Nelson. They are masters of making the unfamiliar feel very real and close and human. I am also interested in finding a novel, which I don’t expect to be Don DeLillo’s White Noise, but I’d like it to make me feel the same way. Ivan Klima’s Love and Garbage is also an excellent example of the sort of work I’d love to see come through our gates. Sometimes I encounter a line and feel so exposed, so understood, that it seems the author has more successfully expressed my thoughts than I could. There is a depth to this experience that goes way down. I want that. I would ordinarily add Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Mirror in the Well to that list, but since she is our next author, I’m looking for another kind of new.

Scribe: Awst Press endeavors to promote diversity and support emerging authors. Why do you think it’s important to bring a greater range of voices into the industry?

TR: There are a host of excellent reasons, but I’ll stick to the two that are most at the front of my mind as I consider work for the press. One is purely selfish. I want to read something I’ve never read before, I want to think things I’ve never thought before, and I want to see words fitted together as I never imagined they could be. And that newness is just easier to come by if I don’t limit myself to one profile of what a writers looks like, or where a writer comes from.

Slightly more altruistic is that I want to have an understanding of humanity that is both broad and deep. Often, we can learn more about ourselves through reading about the experiences of someone else. We learn empathy through gaining an understanding of the world as we have not experienced it. It lets us know we’re connected, that we’re in this whole “life” thing together. It can be a hard thing to remember.

Thanks, Tatiana!

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.

Instructor Q&A: Brian Yansky

“We read fiction to see characters struggle and overcome or fail to overcome the conflict in their stories.”

-Brian Yanksy

Brian Yansky is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Developing Conflict in Fiction” on May 27 at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. The class will identify and discuss different kinds of conflict and how to use them in novels and stories. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Brian Yansky

Scribe: First off, why is it important to develop conflict?

Brian Yansky: Conflict is at the heart of all fiction. It develops characters, propels plot, and makes setting relevant. We read fiction to see characters struggle and overcome or fail to overcome the conflict in their stories. From a writer’s POV, creating conflict within your characters and between your main character, other characters, or perhaps society or nature or any number of other possibilities builds narrative. You’ve got to have conflict.

Scribe: Do you find that characters are developed with a specific conflict in mind, or do conflicts form based on the characters?

BY: Both. For me, usually, I start with a character and a situation. The situation has to have the potential for conflict in it. The character wants/needs something, and something gets in the way of her want/need.  This is one way to build a central conflict for the character. However, as the character develops, other conflicts will occur to the writer. It’s a process. The character creates conflicts by her actions in trying to deal with problems and conflicts.

Scribe: Are there any specific tips you rely on to generate conflict within stories?

BY: The big tip is to start with a character in a situation that will create conflict from the inception of the story. But beyond that it depends on the story. A character in conflict with society—  for example, Hunger Games, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird – will find conflict everywhere because they’re struggling against something large and powerful.  Just generally, I look for friction inside a character, between characters, or between a character and setting or a character and plot. Developing this friction will develop conflict, which will develop character and plot. That’s why conflict is so essential. It helps the writer build her story.

Scribe: Have you noticed any trends of less-common conflicts emerging in contemporary fiction?

BY: It should be pretty clear that I think conflict is in just about every story. Whatever the new trend is, it will have conflict and writers will find creative ways to make the conflict different and unique.

A trend that’s been done many different ways is “end of the world” stories. The setting creates immediate conflict in these stories. There’s conflict between survivors and other survivors, or those pesky walking dead or a world consumed by nuclear winter, or aliens, or gods.  One of my favorites in this kind of story in recent years is Station Eleven. If you’re looking for a good “end of the world” story, check that one out.

Thanks, Bryan!

Click here to register for Bryan’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

 

About the Instructor

Brian Yansky is the author of five published YA novels and over a dozen short stories for adults. His last three novels were published by Candlewick Press  (Utopia, Iowa, 2015; Homicidal Aliens and Other Disappointments, 2013; Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences, 2010.) His stories have been published in Literal Latte, The Crescent Review and other literary magazines. He teaches writing at Austin Community College.

Meet the A&E Conference Faculty: Will Evans

“Write with a sense of urgency palpable enough to hook a reader from the first page, and never let them go.”

-Will Evans

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 in June, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here. 

An Interview with Will Evans

Will Evans is president and co-founder of Cinestate, an entertainment studio established in 2016 with the film producer Dallas Sonnier, combining book publishing, film production, and audio experiences. In 2013, Evans founded Deep Vellum Publishing, a nonprofit literary publisher dedicated to translating the world’s best novels into English. Evans also co-founded Deep Vellum Books in early 2016, a brick-and-mortar bookstore and cultural community center in Dallas’s historic Deep Ellum neighborhood. Prior to his career in publishing, Evans worked for five years in the music industry on tour and in Los Angeles before becoming a talent buyer for Austin’s iconic music venue, Emo’s. Evans graduated from Emory University with degrees in History and Russian Literature and received a Master’s degree in Russian Culture from Duke University. His translation of Oleg Kashin’s political satire novel Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin was published by Restless Books in 2016.


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

Will Evans: Trust in the author as Artist, and maintain open dialogue on all aspects of the publishing process—editing, design, marketing, etc.—as steps on the path to achieving the fullest potential for each story, to implant each story into the brains of its intended and deserved audience.

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

WE: Originality of vision and unique execution.

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

WE: Not critical, though it is an added benefit for those authors with the types of personalities and styles that thrive on continuous engagement with their audience and their peers.

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

WE: Write with a sense of urgency palpable enough to hook a reader from the first page, and never let them go.

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.

WE: The ability to work with S. Craig Zahler is a highlight in my career as an editor. He’s a true renaissance man who’s already had several amazing novels published by indie and major presses. He also wrote, directed, and composed the score for the film Bone Tomahawk, and he has several more films in the works that he’s written and directed that we’re working on at Cinestate, too. His artistic vision is so unique, so precise, so exacting—he is one of the few writers who wields the command to write such cinematic literature and such literary film scripts, in addition to being a damn good filmmaker and accomplished musician. Our company works with Zahler closely across all mediums: he’s written books for us, directed films for us, written scripts for us, produced audio dramas for us—this type of close relationship is what we’re looking for out of the authors we work with. If we believe in you and your vision, there are no limits to the possibilities of ways we will work to share your story with the world.

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

WE: I’m especially proud of our inaugural publishing list launching this fall, including S. Craig Zahler’s marvelous coming-of-age tale, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, Michael J. Seidlinger’s provocative thriller, My Pet Serial Killer, and Robert Ashcroft’s incredible debut, a gripping, philosophical sci-fi/horror novel, The Megarothke. These novels are all representative of what we’re looking for in a book we publish: genre-based literature of the highest quality written with a cinematic approach to storytelling.

Thanks, Will!

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: Martha Miller

 

“While writing may seem a solo activity, there is a huge, generous community of knowledgeable writers in the WLT that are happy to help.”

-Martha Miller

A member of the Writers’ League since 2004, Martha Miller lives in San Antonio, TX.

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

MM: Solely non-fiction including essays and a travel memoir about the 21-months my husband and I lived in Rome.

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

MM: Nora Ephron. Shall we just go ahead and order a bottle?

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

MM: A huge blank journal so I could write about what I was feeling, discovering and doing. I’ve kept a grateful journal for nearly 20 years; it is one of the keys to my happiness. No matter how tired I am, every night I note five things (different things) that I’m happy or grateful for from the day. It keeps me focused on the positive. Flipping through these books brings back a ton of details, special memories that would have been forgotten forever.

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

MM: While writing may seem a solo activity, there is a huge, generous community of knowledgeable writers in the WLT that are happy to help.

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

MM: I just published my first book, Times New Roman: How We Quit Our Jobs, Gave Away Our Stuff & Moved to Italy, and am thinking about a sequel. I’ve always wanted to live in New York, so how does Times New York sound?

Scribe: Here at 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?

MM: Running on Empty: The Irreverent Guru’s Guide to Filling up with Mindfulness by Shelley Pernot (Austin). Pernot mentions Austin and Houston throughout with her hilarious writing style. Not too “woo woo,” she makes mindfulness accessible and actually fun.

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

MM: I’ll be doing a short talk and signing copies of Times New Roman at Barnes & Noble (San Antonio, San Pedro, across from Northstar Mall) on Saturday, May 27 from 2 to 4. Please come and bring friends! TNR is also available from Amazon and it’s on the shelf at Book People, travel section, first floor, near the cafe. Last time I looked it was between Under a Tuscan Sun and Wild. Pretty sweet place to be.

Thanks, Martha!

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!