Community Member Guest Post: The Writer’s Workshop

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 Writer’s 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.

How to Enter Finishing School

We lie about our writing. Most of us do, with the best intentions, to make up the stories about how much we’re working on our books. It becomes a story that a writer tells when they say “I’m working on my novel.” If you’re working on a book, and writing too little, it’s time to enter Finishing School.

The concept is at the heart of a new book by Danelle Morton and Cary Tennis. Finishing School shows us where we get in our own way about completing our works in progress. Six Emotional Pitfalls stretch out in front of us. Doubt. Shame. Yearning. Fear. Judgment. Arrogance. Not everyone feels all of them, but these are the reasons why we do not finish our work. Get a few writers together and their eyes brighten when they can be honest about pitfalls. “I’ll never be as good as Hemingway,” (Doubt) or “I never finish anything.” (Shame). Or “I get annoyed by writers’ groups, those losers.” That’s Arrogance, which is probably not your problem since you’re reading Scribe.

We struggle separately, alone with the pitfalls. There’s a way out and a way up, say Morton and Tennis. You learn to finish together, without judgment or even reading each other’s work. You make a schedule for one week, getting specific about what you’ll do. Details help. Then find a partner who does the same. You meet in person because it’s personal work. You promise to text or email them the moment you begin working. You meet seven days later and share how your plan worked. Or how it didn’t, but you’re honest now. You plan again, meet again. We become masters of finishing because, as Cary said over Skype from Italy, “Finishing School throws into relief the conditions of our actual lives.”

We start with overly ambitious plans. We begin with little awareness of our hurdles. It feels so good at first. Later, the writing plan haunts us when we fall short. Better to make room for your real life, forsee the hurdles, plan for them. Cary and I have one thing in common. It’s not that we’re both successful advice columnists (that was Cary at Salon). We both have training in the Amherst Writers & Artists practice. “I needed Finishing School for myself,” he says in his book, adding, “I had a panic attack while writing and ended up in the hospital.” He built Finishing School from his AWA training so “workshop participants would crystallize their time; schedule time to work toward it with mutual support; and work steadily to get that writing finished, polished, and published.” They also add accountability without judgment.

It’s a school you’d hope to see opened by a man who wrote advice from the heart for more than a decade. We can enter it with a group as small as two writers, artists of any kind, really. The book is powerful, the process transforming. Finishing School might not be the last school you attend. It’s a good bet it will be the most important one.

Thanks, Ron!

Find out about upcoming programming at the Writer’s Workshop here.

Ron Seybold is director at Austin’s Writer’s Workshop and a teaching volunteer with the Austin Bat Cave literacy program in schools. His debut novel Viral Times is available now in paperback.

Are you a business or organization interested in getting involved?

Community Membership is a great way to connect with the Writers’ League’s membership base and share news and information about writing-related services and events. For more information on Community Membership click here or call our office at (512) 499-8914.

Meet the A&E Conference Faculty: Laurie McLean

“Remember why you started writing in the first place and constantly reconnect with that joy as you move through the cut-throat, competitive business of publishing.”

-Laurie McLean

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 Laurie McLean

Laurie McLean spent 20 years as the CEO of a multi-million dollar marketing agency and 8 years as a literary agent/senior agent at Larsen Pomada Literary Agents before co-founding Fuse Literary in 2013. At Fuse Lit Laurie specializes in adult, middle grade, and young adult genre fiction. Laurie is also the co-director of the San Francisco Writers Conference, in its fifteenth year, and co-founded two ePublishing companies: JoyrideBooks.com for romance, and Ambush Books for tween and teen books (acquired by Short Fuse Publishing in 2015). Find out more at FuseLiterary.com and AgentSavant.com, and follow her on Twitter @FuseLiterary and @AgentSavant.

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

Laurie McClean: My approach with a client is to start building their career as soon as they sign the agency agreement to work with me. That begins with an author branding session on the phone, Skype or Slack where we determine how to describe that author to attract the kinds of readers (and editors) who love what they write. We also do a career planning session as well as a social media audit.

Armed with that kind of information, we progress to the work in progress. I do an edit, which might be light or heavy depending on the state of the manuscript, create a pitch list of editors/publishers and a pitch email, then I go to work. Each situation is different so I can’t give you a cookie cutter approach to pitching, but suffice to say that I try to give the author and the project the best chance of securing the best deal for their particular situation. Once a deal is achieved, I continue to work with that author and editor to shepherd the book through publication and into the world. Fuse does a lot of social media promotion between its 9 agents and 130+ clients. And we keep finding ways to market our clients and their work since publishers save the big marketing guns for their bestsellers.

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

LM: Passion. Talent. Understanding. Curiosity. Patience.

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

LM: I do believe social media is critical for an author’s success in today’s publishing revolution. Fuse is passionate about it and has created multiple bestselling authors through the use of social media promotion. We even created Fuse Club on Facebook for our authors as a place where they can share ideas, answer each other’s questions and promote the heck out of Fuse Club member writing. For the first time, social media allows authors to market their own work and talk directly with their fans outside a book signing. Previously authors would have to buy ads or pay a PR firm for drive time interviews. It was prohibitively expensive. And with social media, especially blogs, it plays to an author’s strength: WRITING!

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

LM: Never give up. Remember why you started writing in the first place and constantly reconnect with that joy as you move through the cut-throat, competitive business of publishing.

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.

LM: My proudest achievement as an agent was a million dollar deal I worked my butt off to get for my bestselling client YA author Julie Kagawa. It took me almost a year of researching and planning and two months of intense negotiation, but we ultimately not only got the publishing deal, but a 7-figure movie deal as well.

Scribe: You represent mostly adult genre fiction (romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thrillers, suspense, horror, etc.). Is there a genre among those you are currently seeking more than others at this conference? Is there any benefit to a writer whose manuscript could be classified as cross-genre?

LM: I’m pretty heavy with fantasy clients at the moment because it has been super popular over the past 3-4 years, but science fiction is something I’m looking for, especially space opera. I just picked up a weird western series that I love, so more weird westerns would be nice. Plus any kind of thriller and psychological horror is always welcome. I’ve pulled back on romance and mystery simply because we have three other Fuse Lit agents who are aggressively looking for new clients in those two genres, but I’m happy to hear pitches on romance and mystery at the conference, which I will definitely pass on to my colleagues.

As for cross-genre writers, hey, write what you’re passionate about. If it’s harder to sell, or impossible to get an agent interested, self-publish it and market the heck out of it. It’s all great practice for the traditional deal down the road. But seriously? I’ve got half a dozen indie authors who have no interest in traditional deals because they’re making mid-six figure income from their self-published genre fiction. And I love selling their subrights. Heck, I just negotiated a six-figure advance for books 7 and 8 in Brian D. Anderson’s epic fantasy series The Godling Chronicles with Audible. Six figures for audiobook rights? It’s a wild, wild time to be an agent!

Thanks, Laurie!

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 A&E Conference Faculty: Amy Gash

“Show your work and be open to hearing criticism. Incorporate the feedback that feels honest and true.”

-Amy Gash

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 Amy Gash

Amy Gash is a Senior Editor in the New York office of Algonquin Books, where she acquires literary fiction and narrative nonfiction on topics ranging from from science, education, humor, graphic memoir, history, and language. Books she has edited have won The National Book Critics Circle Award, The American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal, and The Sami Rohr Prize. They have been New York Times bestsellers, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times bestsellers, #1 Indie Picks, Top Ten Amazon Books of the Year, and New York Times Notable Books. They have been published in translation throughout the world.

Amy Gash photoScribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?

Amy Gash: My goal is to help an author write the best book possible—and that requires a personalized approach to each book. Often with nonfiction, the book I’ve acquired has not yet been written—there may only be a proposal and a chapter—so the first step might be conversations about what the author wants to achieve and how to get there. We might talk about structure, about themes, about endings and beginnings. I usually have strong opinions but I’m always cognizant of the fact that I’m there to facilitate the author’s vision. At the same time, I want to steer the author in a direction that I think readers will respond to—and I’m the stand-in for the reader. Once the manuscript is delivered, I always print out a hard copy and make copious notes all over the pages—I’ll write down whatever comes to my mind as I read. Then I’ll usually read the manuscript again while I’m transferring those notes to the digital manuscript and by then I’ve formed a cohesive view of the bigger issues (pacing, structure, does the book hold my interest, etc.) and smaller issues (sentence structure, repetition, did I “notice” the writing instead of enjoying the reading, etc.) that need to be addressed. Then I’ll do all this again when the revised manuscript is delivered, and again until the book feels ready to be published.

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

AG: In any book—fiction or nonfiction, debut or not—I’m looking for a story that no one but that particular writer can tell. A voice or a story that makes me sit up and say this is original, this is something I haven’t read before. And even if the story is familiar, I’m hoping it’s told in a way that is completely fresh—maybe the writer comes at it sideways or backwards—or just differently.

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

AG: No, but it certainly can help. That said, I think one’s social media presence has to be authentic to be effective. So an author who has published a book and has never been active on social media but then decides to tweet up a storm in order to sell that book is likely to be disappointed.  Algonquin has a strong social media presence and we really work with our authors to create campaigns that are creative and potent. It takes thought.

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

AG: Show your work and be open to hearing criticism. Incorporate the feedback that feels honest and true.

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.

AG: Algonquin recently published a book by filmmaker and pop culture icon John Waters. It’s the text of the commencement address he gave at the Rhode Island School of Design. I watched the speech on YouTube and loved it because it was not the usual, tired advice for graduates. I immediately thought it should be a book but the text was short and we needed to create a book around it. We found a slightly subversive illustrator whose art fit John’s worldview and we worked with John and now Make Trouble has just been published. It’s not a typical book for me, as I mostly edit fiction and narrative nonfiction, but still it fits well on Algonquin’s list because the book is moving and original.

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?

AG: Recently published books include Real Food/Fake Food, an expose about how many of the foods we eat—from olive oil to cheese to wine—are not what we think they are; The Muralist, a novel by the author of the bestselling The Art Forger, about abstract expressionists in pre-WWII New York; Cannibalism, written by a zoologist who looks at the practice across the animal world; Pumpkinflowers, a memoir by a former Israeli soldier about how wars are fought today; and The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, by the comedian Paula Poundstone. As you can see, my interests are broad!

Thanks, Amy!

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: R.S. Dabney

“I’d like to sit down with George R.R. Martin and ask him why he is taking so long to complete The Winds of Winter!”

-R.S. Dabney

A member of the Writers’ League since March, R.S. Dabney lives in Terlingua, Texas.

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

R.S. Dabney: I write speculative thrillers, but my work has been described by various critics as fantasy, dystopian, and even science fiction.

I’ve written two books to date, The Soul Mender and The Peace Keeper, both part of The Soul Mender Trilogy. I’m looking to have the final installment out in early 2018. I like to think that my novels have something for everyone—a sprinkle of suspense, a dash of adventure, and a whole lot of good versus evil.

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

RSD: If I had the opportunity to go back in time and have a drink with an author, I would choose Joseph Campbell. I don’t know what question I’d ask—I feel like I’d just begin with “Tell me everything that’s in your head,” and then sit back and listen. I’m fascinated with his writing and have learned so much about storytelling and characterization from his works. Just to spend an hour with the man would be any writer’s dream.

Also, I’d like to sit down with George R.R. Martin and ask him why he is taking so long to complete The Winds of Winter!

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

RSD: So many titles race through my brain for this question, but if I were stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book with me, I would want Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. The first books that came to mind were some of my favorites, but I think over time I’d need something inspirational, something that kept me believing in a hope of rescue.

Even now, as I’m beginning this crazy journey as an author, it feels at times like being stranded on an island. Writing is such a solitary journey, one that is mostly uphill and without tangible reward. Books like The Alchemist about perseverance, patience, and belief in oneself have kept me positive and have continued to push me to work toward this dream.

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

RSD: I haven’t been a member for very long, but from what I can tell this is a fantastic group of writers who are very supportive of each other. We all want to help make a name for talented Texas authors, poets, and scribes of all sorts. I’m so excited to be part of such a group and look forward to a rewarding year of fellowship and writing.

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

RSD: By the beginning of 2018 I will have completed my first trilogy, a journey that will have taken nine years to complete. I’ve grown a lot in that time, both personally and in my writing, and I’m looking forward to my next project when The Soul Mender Trilogy is completed. I’ve already started work on a new series and have a few stand-alones waiting in the wings as well. I absolutely love writing novels and hope to continue sharing my stories with the world for many years to come. I’m certain the completion of my third novel won’t be the last you see of me!

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?

RSD: The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott. I might be biased because the book is set in my neck of the woods (or desert), but I found it to be totally enthralling. This book was exciting from page one all the way until the end, and I had a hard time putting it down in between the two.

As someone who lives in “The Far Empty,” the Big Bend Region of Texas, I felt the descriptions and characterization of the area were spot on. Even though fictitious, I found it totally believable.

The story is told through multiple POV’s, which added to the tension and grittiness of the plot. Getting into the minds of each character, including the villain, where we sort of know what is going on the whole time but are still gripping the edge of our seats needing to know more, is a fascinating way to share a story. I’m truly looking forward to Scott’s next work.

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

RSD: Yay for blatant self-promotion!

Writing a book and fulfilling a dream has been such a wonderful experience, and this first year of being a published author has been good to me. Thus far, The Soul Mender has reached Amazon’s Bestsellers List, received a five-star review from the Pacific Book Review, was a quarter finalist for the Booklife Prize in Fiction, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, and was selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of their Best Indie Debut Novels of 2016. The Soul Mender also recently won first place in the “Genre Fiction” category in the Los Angeles Book Festival contest. The Peace Keeper was released on New Year’s Day of 2017 and recently won first place in the “Sequel” category in the Los Angeles Book Festival contest.

If anyone is interested in more information, I can be found all over social media @rsdabneyauthor and at my website, www.rsdabney.com.

Thanks, R.S.!

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!

Meet the A&E Conference Faculty: Caroline Casey

“A successful author/publisher collaboration is like parent/nanny—no one will ever love your book the way you do, but you need to find someone you feel comfortable with and then trust them to do the right thing by your progeny.”

-Caroline Casey

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 Caroline Casey

Caroline Casey is Managing Director at Coffee House Press. She has a background in marketing, publicity, and acquisitions, including stints at Sarabande Books and Stanford University Press, and holds an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

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

Caroline Casey: A successful author/publisher collaboration is like parent/nanny—no one will ever love your book the way you do, but you need to find someone you feel comfortable with and then trust them to do the right thing by your progeny.

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

CC: Talent. Full stop. We only care about the book.

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

CC: Definitely not. Social media can, when employed well and with years (years) of groundwork laying, sell books. But plenty of writers simply write, and they succeed or fail based on that.

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

CC: If only! Everyone requires something different. I guess I’d say to not judge the value of your work by its reception. You can’t control that.

Scribe: On your website, you give a wide-range of narrative nonfiction; can you highlight a few examples of recent narrative nonfiction publications to give readers get a better sense of what you’re looking for?

CC: We’re interested in work that conforms more to the demands of “essay” than of “nonfiction.” Recent-ish examples would be Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses or Katie Holten’s collage (that’s the best description I can think of) About Trees. I’m enjoying Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse. Garnette Cadogan is writer I’m always ready for new work from, as is Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. I’d say our taste is: any book that approaches its subject with curiosity, sentence-level interest, and a sense of context.

Thanks, Caroline!

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 A&E Conference Faculty: David Doerrer

“Sit down and write! Don’t wait for someone else’s permission or validation to create.”

-David Doerrer

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 David Doerrer

David Doerrer is a graduate of New York University and worked at Sterling Lord Literistic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt before joining Abrams Artists Agency in 2010. In addition to working with a growing list of writers, novelists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, he works with his colleagues at Abrams, “a full-service talent agency,” to create opportunities for his clients in other mediums and outlets. He’s on the look-out for big-hearted adult and YA fiction, and a wide range of narrative nonfiction, from science, sports, and pop-culture to memoir that atomizes large-scale change through a personal prism.

david-doerrerScribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?

David Doerrer: Before I made the transition to agenting, I was in subsidiary rights, which is strictly a sales position. I switched gears because I wanted to play a greater role in the editorial development of projects—and still have a chance to sell them. So I tend to be very hands-on. I work with authors over the course of weeks, months, and in some cases years to get a proposal or manuscript just right.

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

DD: I look for a compelling and confident voice. I find that a lot of debut authors get tripped up in trying to embroider every sentence and fitting all of their stored wisdom in one book. I love a well-crafted, flowery sentence, but it’s not everything. I look for first-time writers who unfurl their stories with assurance and patience.

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

DD: Social media is no silver bullet for the unpredictability of the marketplace. That said, I advise all of the authors I work with to cultivate some kind of social media footprint. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—these are unparalleled avenues for authors to find their fans and for their fans to find them.

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

DD: I realize this is not particularly profound, but I’d say: Sit down and write! Don’t wait for someone else’s permission or validation to create.

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.

DD: Playing a role in the sale of the memoir by the first male professional athlete to come out as gay. That book saves lives.

Scribe: On your website, you give a wide-range of narrative nonfiction; can you highlight a few examples of recent narrative nonfiction publications to give readers get a better sense of what you’re looking for?

DD: I recently sold a nonfiction account of the citizen science movement told through the prism of one crusading family. I love books that anatomize large-scale social, political, and cultural change.

Thanks, David!

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: 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.