5 Questions for Chaitali Sen

“There has to be someone or more than one person (but not too many) that readers can latch on to. Reading a book is like going to a new school. You don’t want to wander the halls alone.”

-Chaitali Sen

Chaitali Sen is the author of The Pathless Sky. Her short stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. Formerly an elementary school teacher, she has developed writing workshops for children, adolescents, and adults in Boston, New York, and Austin.

On September 23, Chaitali will teach “Creating Protagonists Your Readers Will Follow” at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. This class will introduce strategies for giving readers an emotional connection to characters by developing characters’ contradictions and creating situations that make life hard for the character. We asked Chaitali about the books she’s learned from, challenges she’s faced in her own work, and what people will take away from the class.

What is a book that you recommend to people over and over? What makes it so compelling?

In the last few years the books I recommend most often are Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, which I believe was written as one novel that was thousands of pages long. They were published as four novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend and ending with The Story of the Lost Child. Many people have written about these novels more articulately than I can. They are page-turners tracing the friendship of two women in post-WWII Italy, with some melodramatic and operatic twists and coincidences, but they also deeply explore big questions about patriarchy and the roles of women and men in society, the nature of genius, the subtle shifts in power between individuals, the various ways economic and sexual oppression affect people’s lives on an intimate level, and so much more. I’ve never been to Naples, but they also evoke a feeling of a very particular place.

The two main characters, Elena and Lila, are constantly straining against the norms of society and the limitations placed on them. Sometimes they break out of them and sometimes they accommodate to them in surprising ways. For me, reading these four books were as immersive and joyful as reading the Harry Potter series, which I read as an adult during summer breaks from teaching in New York. By the end of the summer I would be struggling to come out of what I came to call, “The Harry Potter daze.”

In your own work, what has been one challenge posed by the craft, structure, voice, etc., of a book that you’ve had to puzzle out?

I have those a lot but I’m not always right! The feeling that I now know what I’m doing never lasts long. About 24 hours if I’m lucky. But sure, sometimes you have a breakthrough that solves a major problem. Sometimes solving one problem creates three others that are not as major but have to be solved nonetheless. It’s a constant process of problem-solving.

Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

All my novels are a series of epiphanies strung between long stretches of clueless fumbling. Usually those epiphanies are in regards to a character’s motivation, a plot point, or an important piece of worldbuilding. The chemical rush of the “ah-ha!” moment tends to last a day or so, but the memory of it keeps me going for weeks or months, hunting for the next one.

What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

Keep it simple in terms of structure. I find there isn’t that much to be gained from playing around wildly with structure, especially in fiction. It’s been trendy to go back and forth in time or have five different characters tell a story, but it isn’t always clear why the author chose that structure. Sometimes it seems like they wrote a bunch of short stories and wanted to slap them together into a novel for marketing purposes. Sometimes people try to settle on an unconventional structure that becomes really paralyzing because you come to a point where you don’t know what you should write next. The reason you don’t know what you should write next is because you’re all over the place and you don’t know where the story is actually going.  I write chronologically. This happens, then this happens, and that causes this to happen, and so on. Now, in my novel I did have a prologue that was a kind of flash forward, but that came in later drafts after I had already written the whole chronology of what happens.

Traditional story structure is actually not that easy to pull off. Working towards a climax is challenging enough. Get through that challenge a few times and then maybe experiment with other structures.

What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

That there is no story without strong, compelling characters. There has to be someone or more than one person (but not too many) that readers can latch on to. Reading a book is like going to a new school. You don’t want to wander the halls alone.

Thanks, Chaitali!

 

Click here to learn more about and register for Chaitali’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

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5 Questions for Amanda Downum, Speculative Fiction Writer

“Put your best effort into a story, but don’t fixate on making it perfect or even saleable. If you find yourself revising over and over again, move on to a new project. Stretch new muscles.”

-Amanda Downum

Amanda Downum is the author of the Necromancer Chronicles—The Drowning City, The Bone Palace, and Kingdoms of Dust—published by Orbit Books, and Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, from Solaris. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange HorizonsRealms of FantasyWeird Tales, and elsewhere.

On September 16, Amanda, along with fellow author Marshall Ryan Maresca, will teach “Worldbuilding for Speculative Fiction” at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. This class will introduce strategies for building a fictional world that readers don’t know, either because you invented it or because they’ve never been there. We asked Amanda about the books she’s learned from, challenges she’s faced in her own work, and what people will take away from the class.

What is a book that you recommend to people over and over? What makes it so compelling?

Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts is one of my favorites. There are many plot elements that might be familiar to fantasy readers—a quest, a princess, a kidnapped love—but the world and characters are rich and nuanced and elegantly drawn, and the setting is refreshingly different.

In your own work, what has been one challenge posed by the craft, structure, voice, etc., of a book that you’ve had to puzzle out?

For me the challenge of every novel is the middle. I’ve introduced characters, given them goals and obstacles, complicated the situation, and then . . . I find myself confronted with a vast selection of choices: what happens next, whose is the best POV to tell it, what secrets are the characters keeping, how quickly do events occur? Answering these questions correctly gives the book the momentum that carries it to The End. Getting hung up on a wrong answer—or a wrong question—usually leaves me stuck for weeks. And this puzzle repeats itself for every novel or story I write.

Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

All my novels are a series of epiphanies strung between long stretches of clueless fumbling. Usually those epiphanies are in regards to a character’s motivation, a plot point, or an important piece of worldbuilding. The chemical rush of the “ah-ha!” moment tends to last a day or so, but the memory of it keeps me going for weeks or months, hunting for the next one.

What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

Finishing work and learning from it is one of the best ways to grow as a writer. Put your best effort into a story, but don’t fixate on making it perfect or even saleable. If you find yourself revising over and over again, move on to a new project. Stretch new muscles.

What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

Hopefully, different ways to think about worldbuilding and to let it gracefully find its way into a story.

Thanks, Amanda!

 

Click here to learn more about and register for Amanda’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

5 Questions for Marshall Ryan Maresca, Fantasy Writer

“Every book has a moment, where everything just clicks—you know all the beats that remain to get you to the end. And at that point it’s mostly a matter of getting it out of your fingers.”

-Marshall Ryan Maresca

Marshall Ryan Maresca is the author of the novels, The Thorn of Dentonhill and A Murder of Mages, each of which begins its own fantasy series set in the port city of Maradaine. His work has appeared in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction and Rick Klaw’s anthology Rayguns Over Texas. He has had several short plays produced and has worked as a stage actor, a theatrical director, and an amateur chef.

On September 16, Marshall, along with fellow author Amanda Downum, will teach “Worldbuilding for Speculative Fiction” at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. This class will introduce strategies for building a fictional world that readers don’t know, either because you invented it or because they’ve never been there. We asked Marshall about the books he’s learned from, challenges he’s faced in his own work, and what people will take away from the class.

What is a book that you recommend to people over and over? What makes it so compelling?

I don’t have to recommend it much, because it’s an enduring classic, but Watership Down is the book I constantly go back to. It stands out, not just for its gorgeous storytelling and impeccable craft, but for the rich world building that is woven throughout it. It’s the gold standard for creating a culture that is both utterly foreign yet immersive.

In your own work, what has been one challenge posed by the craft, structure, voice, etc., of a book that you’ve had to puzzle out?

The biggest thing I struggle with is the connective tissue, getting the characters from place A to place B in an organic way. For example, if I need two characters to independently reach the same place, I have to work out how each of them reach that conclusion, beyond the obvious Hand-Of-The-Author pushing them there.

Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

Every book has a moment, where everything just clicks — you know all the beats that remain to get you to the end. And at that point it’s mostly a matter of getting it out of your fingers. Usually that lasts until the end of the book. Not always, but usually.

What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

That I can’t teach you your process of writing— I can only show you my toolbox, and let that help you discover your process.

What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

That worldbuilding is not only a vital element of speculative fiction, but that the process of it can be an engaging activity, and the application of it in prose doesn’t need to be lifeless recitations of details.

Thanks, Marshall!

 

Click here to learn more about and register for Marshall’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

5 Questions for Publicist Marika Flatt

“There are many ways to promote a book, and they all don’t have to be about doing broadcast interviews or in-person signings.”

-Marika Flatt

Marika Flatt launched PR by the Book, LLC in 2002, combining her love of the media, public relations, and books. Marika received a Gold Bulldog Award for a publicity campaign that resulted in exposure in over 700 media outlets. She is the recipient of an Austin Public Relations Society of America Outstanding Mentor Award, the Anne D. Robinson Creative Initiative Award, and a nominee for “Profiles in Power,” and she serves on the selection committee for the Texas Book Festival.

On September 9, she is teaching a class, along with fellow publicist Elena Meredith, for the Writers’ League called “Rock Star Publicity: Book Promotion for the Bold and Bashful” at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. This class will introduce promotional strategies for the assertive author and promotional alternatives for those who don’t like being in the limelight. We asked Marika about the authors whose publicity she is following now and the past promotional projects that have worked well for her, as well as what people can expect from her class.

Who is an author that you’ve noticed doing interesting things in marketing their books?

Michelle Tam of NomNom Paleo fame released her new cookbook this month and has done amazing things through her own marketing for Ready or Not. She has mobilized her own fan base village through weekly newsletters, a nationwide tour that she’s promoted to her fans built from her previous book, made herself accessible to those fans through her social media and getting in front of them at events. She uses video (of her cooking her recipes), brings her family into the scene (so that fans feel they really know her family), and sends out discount codes (even for InstaPots).

What would you say to writers who are dreading the publicity part of publication? Can it be enjoyable for someone who isn’t a natural marketer?

Yes, there are many ways to promote a book and they all don’t have to be about doing broadcast interviews or in-person signings. We’ve been enjoying working with novelist Leah Harper Bowron from the Houston area, to promote her release Colorblind. We’ve been successful in placing pre-written Q&As like this one with Texas Lifestyle Magazine. Also, because the book is targeted to a YA audience, we orchestrated a successful blog tour so that she’s had a great groundswell of promotion, without her having to be out there doing radio/TV or book signings all over the place (although she has done a few).

What is one project that you’ve worked on in the past that has gotten publicity beyond your expectations? How did it happen?

We have worked with Patagonia Books for over 5 years (nonstop). In June 2016, they published The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands by Dale Hope, the complete book on the most enduring souvenir ever invented. Hope’s authoritative book recounts the colorful stories behind these marvelous shirts: as cultural icons, evocative of the mystery and the allure of the islands, capturing the vibe of the waterman culture and lifestyle—casual, relaxed, and fun. Originally published in 2000, the new edition features more photos and new material, including an introduction by surfing legend Gerry Lopez and contributions from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.

Some top hits:
  1. The New York Times Culture & Style section. Considering that The New York Times Book Review only reviews 30 of the 1000 books they receive each week, we always approach editors in other sections of the paper. This book had so many different angles we could pitch (fashion, travel, Hawaiian culture) – the Culture & Style editor responded to a pitch and interviewed the author about the history of the Hawaiian shirt.
  2. Conde Naste Traveler. Again, working those various angles, travel media was very enthusiastic about this book on Hawaiiana. A pitch via email also resulted in an interview with the author.
  3. Where Guestbooks in Hawai’i (Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawai’i Island). You know those hardcover books found in hotel rooms? This was a rare and unique opportunity to have a spread on the book for an entire year in hotel rooms across Hawai’i. This came about  about five months after the campaign had officially wrapped up, through the book getting a lot of local media coverage in Hawai’i, and the author working his connections. An editor in California approached the author directly about this opportunity and worked with us on getting images for a 8-page spread into their 2017-2018 editions.

What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

Use social media platforms to build your audience. Focus on two max. Start early; build it before you have something important to say. Use the 80/20 rule: be conversational and informative 80% of the time; be selling 20% of the time (through your social media posts).

What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

We’re designing this class to be very interactive. We believe in the power of a brilliant brainstorm. We’ll talk about what works for us publicizing books, then show you how to create those materials for yourself. We’ll talk about why it’s important to pitch the way we do, then show you how to implement some of the tools we use.

Thanks, Marika!

 

Click here to learn more about and register for Marika’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

5 Questions for Greg Garrett

“If you’re a writer, write. Don’t write for publication, let alone success. “

-Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett is the author of over twenty books of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, including the acclaimed novels Free Bird, Cycling, Shame, and The Prodigal. He teaches fiction writing and screenwriting at Baylor University.

On September 2, he is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Better Novel Beginnings Through Character Development” at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. This class will offer exercises for introducing plot and complications at the beginning of a novel. Here’s what Greg is reading now, some of the problems he’s overcome as a writer, and what people can expect from his class.

What is a book that you recommend to people over and over? What makes it so compelling?

I’m teaching Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying again this fall in a literature class at Baylor, and it’s an amazing little novel that ticks like a clock because of the way the problems and character yearnings are set up so powerfully at the outset. It does a great job of translating the Hero’s Journey for its two main characters, and I love that both main characters are complex. At first, we don’t actually like either of them that much, but we understand a little bit about how and why they’re broken, and I’ve found that goes a long way toward eventual reader sympathy.

In your own work, what has been one challenge posed by the craft, structure, voice, etc., of a book that you’ve had to puzzle out?

Plot and structure remain my biggest challenges. I learned to write fiction by writing short stories, which have many of the same elements as novels, but if you’re a literary short story writer, as I was, you don’t have to learn much about plotting. I spend so much time talking and teaching about story beats, character arcs, and the Hero’s Journey because I need to be reminded of it myself.

I wrote Shame, my third published novel, some years ago, and not only wrote it almost twice too long, but for many years didn’t know how to solve the problems in it because it was without a strong shape. When I wrote The Prodigal in 2013, not only was I operating on an unexpectedly tight deadline, but I didn’t have the usual time to let the story and characters gestate that I’d done in the past. But I did know enough now about successful story models for long narratives to bang out most of the things that needed to happen to Jack Chisholm, my main character, if he was going to go from Point A to Point Z.

Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

Actually, I first have a negative epiphany, which is that on everything I’ve written—20+ books now—there has been a moment about halfway through the writing when I’ve thought to myself, “Oh my God, what am I doing? This was a mistake. I’ve wasted a year of my LIFE. I don’t know how to solve this book. I’ll NEVER know how to solve it.” And then, with each of them, fiction and nonfiction, there came a moment when things did come together, when I could see the path. For me the strongest emotional moment is at the end of the book, when if everything has worked out, you have a powerful emotional reaction that you hope will be matched in the reader. And that lasts for a little while. I love those moments, because a lot of the time, even when the writing is going well, it is brutally hard. We do need those rewards.

What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

If you’re a writer, write. Don’t write for publication, let alone success. Don’t write because you want the crowd to carry you on their shoulders around the town square or to get invited to the best parties. All of those things are out of your control. What you can do is orient your life and the lives of the people who love you around this one act, and do this act over and over. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and the more likely someone will someday carry you around the town square. But the writing has to be your focus and your reward, because that’s all we’re ever guaranteed.

What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

I love teaching people about story beginnings because they’re so vital. I want people in this particular class to learn some strategies for complicating their characters, and to see how those will complicate—and enrich—their storylines. Stories are about people, and as Amy Tan says, the more broken they are, the more interesting they are to write about. Come and learn about human brokenness and human yearning—tough concepts in life, but essential in fiction!

Thanks, Greg!

 

Click here to learn more about and register for Greg’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

What We’re Reading Now: WAIT TILL YOU SEE ME DANCE

WAIT TILL YOU SEE ME DANCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Deb Olin Unferth

Published in March 2017 by Graywolf Press

Reviewed by Mary Pritchard

Do you have ten minutes to read a story?  Perhaps five? Or even two?  If you think you can carve out time to digest one paragraph, to 3 pages, to 23 pages, there is a short story in Deb Olin Unferth’s Wait Till You See Me Dance that will fit your time slot. These stories are worth whatever time you can give them.

Unferth’s stories are appealing because they engage the person who finds herself unlikeable; the mother who can’t deal with “[turtles], teenagers, basement apartments”; the wife who thinks “longingly” of the man she might have married when her own husband doesn’t want to take an adventurous walk.  Most of us — man or woman — have been there. Irony flickers throughout each story.

The title story, “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” covers a trip with an unappreciative acquaintance, as well as experiences that anyone who has been an adjunct professor will find relatable. Some stories are in first person, others in third person limited, while “Stay Where You Are” has an omniscient narrator.  Are you thinking of curing your obsession with screens: the computer, the phone, the TV, the movie house?  Read “Online” before taking the plunge.

While reading Unferth’s stories, you’ll more than likely have moments where you laugh and say, “Oh, yes, I’ve been there.”

 

What We’re Reading Now: THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN

THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Jeff Guin

Published in April 2017 by Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by Amanda Moore

In The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, Jeff Guin tells the story of the rise and fall of Jim Jones and the church he founded. In the 1970s, Jim Jones and members of the Peoples Temple left the U.S. to start a new community in Guyana, South America called Jonestown. On November 18, 1978, gunmen from the Jonestown community murdered several unarmed civilians who had come to investigate, interview and communicate with members of the community. A U.S. congressman, two CBS crew members, a photographer and a Jonestown defector were killed in the attack at a remote airstrip at Port Kaituma. Shortly after notice of the attack, the local authorities dispatched a small group of Guyana military soldiers to investigate. They assumed that they would find heavily armed civilians at Jonestown and prepared for an attack once they arrived. Instead they found the remains of over 900 dead men, women, and children lying in and around the Jonestown compound. This haunting description is how the story begins.

Guin describes the upbringing of Jim Jones in the small town of Lynn, Indiana, and his early interest in the Christian faith. Over time, Jones became less focused on religious doctrines and more fascinated with the persuasive style of religious leaders and their ability to captivate the congregation. His study of how religious leaders attracted members and secured their allegiance became an obsession. In his pastoral role, Jones would often call upon individuals during the church service to claim they were healed from various ailments as a way to attract and recruit new members to his church. His followers thought that he was a mind reader, but he would often use members to find out information about congregants before he spoke to them.

Throughout the book, Jones is portrayed as a complex and unpredictable individual. During a time of civil and political unrest in America, Jones led efforts toward encouraging integration among churches and businesses for African Americans. Jones’ church, The Peoples Temple, became influential in local politics both in Indianapolis and San Francisco through its multi-racial congregation. Local leaders praised the Peoples Temple for its commitment to social justice and community outreach. Although these efforts appeared to be genuine, Guin describes how Jones’ true motivations were self-serving and insincere.

The members of The Peoples Temple were expected to commit every facet of their lives to the church and its cause for social justice. Members were asked to cash in life insurance policies, to donate their wages and salaries, and to give personal belongings to the Peoples Temple. Jones’ persuasive rhetoric and the initial inclusiveness of the Peoples Temple convinced hundreds of people to leave their families and communities behind to live in South America. Many individuals followed Jones expecting to create a better life while helping others and embracing socialistic ideals. Some of his followers believed that Jones was a god and knew what was best for them.

After a short time, the dream of Jonestown began to unravel. Ex-members of the Peoples Temple spoke to the media about Jones’s mistreatment of his followers. Concerned relatives began raising serious concerns with elected officials in government because they believed their family members were kept in Jonestown against their will. Both U.S. and Guyanese courts ordered Jones to appear in court and respond to legal proceedings filed against him. Jonestown could no longer stay disconnected from the outside world. The end result was a community of people being led by a leader who lived in a constant state of extreme paranoia.

There are many unanswered questions regarding the events at Jonestown. With an impressive amount of research and personal interviews with former members, government officials and survivors of the Jonestown tragedy, Guin attempts to answer these questions. His narrative style allows the reader to feel as if he or she were actually there to witness the events at the beginning, the middle, and at the tragic and senseless end.