Tuesday, March 31, 2015

April Offerings

April classes in Croton-on-Hudson, NY:

Getting Published in Literary Magazines, Tuesdays in April, 9:45 to 11:45 a.m.

Writing Workshop for Teens Saturday April 11, 18 and 25 12:00 to 1:30
(still need one or two more people to make this happen)

Class for Beginners and Those Returning to Writing After a Break  April 16, 7 to 8:30 p.m.

. . . and in Sleepy Hollow, right at the beginning of May:

Get Unblocked at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center, Saturday, May 2, 1 to 4 p.m.

Umberto Boccioni, April Evening, 1908

Sunday, March 29, 2015

April 9 Class Is On

The April 9 class is definitely happening! The plan for this evening is fun, low-pressure exercises to help you ease into writing, or come back to it after a break. We'll also discuss goals and overcoming the obstacles that stand in your way.

If you're interested, please let me know using the CONTACT ME form on the right.

Thursday, April 9
7 to 8:30 p.m.
at the Ajna Center
75 S Riverside Drive, Croton, NY

Carl Fredrik Hill (d. 1911), Interior with Tigers

Friday, March 27, 2015

Evening Class on April 9

How about an evening class on Thursday, April 9, 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Ajna Center in Croton-on-Hudson, NY? I just need one or two more people to make it happen. Use the CONTACT ME form on the right if you're interested.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Class for Teens in Croton: The Writing Workshop

High school students ages 15 to 18

3 Saturdays: April 11, 18 and 25, 12:00—1:30 p.m.
at the Ajna Center

In this class, students will take a piece of fiction from the idea stage through the workshop stage over the course of three weeks. In the first session we'll lay the groundwork for a rough draft. In the next, students will do exercises to help shape and strengthen the story, and in the third they'll share their pieces in a workshop for supportive, encouraging, and challenging feedback.

About me: I'm an award-winning author who studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I'm an editor at Origins literary journal; I teach with The Company of Writers where my current offering is Write to Print for teens; and I am a resident faculty member at the Yale Summer Writers' Conference.

Price: $150

Early Spring Sun, Abraham Manievich, 1913

April Course Offering in Croton: Think Small

This class is full and is underway. Stay tuned for a new class in May.

The Croton Workshop will follow a new model starting in April: Each month, I'll offer a different short course. Participants can sign up for a month at a time.

Here's what we'll be doing in April. Contact me by March 27 to sign up. (Use the CONTACT ME form on the right.)

Think Small: Getting Published in a Small (High-Quality) Literary Journal

Lately, as an editor at Origins Journal and the instructor of Write to Print, I've been thinking a lot about literary magazines. This month's classes will focus on shaping your work for publication and finding a home for it.

If you write short stories, knowledge of literary magazines is a must. It's tough to get a collection of stories published, but it's not hard to find a home for really good individual pieces. And if you do write enough for a collection, publication in literary magazines greatly increases your chances of getting an editor interested.

If you're writing a novel, honing an excerpt for magazine publication is an invaluable lesson in how to make it stand out for editors and readers. You can also use a related story—maybe a subplot that doesn't quite fit, but interests you. What you learn from prepping it to go out in the world can save you many wasted hours and pages when you're back at work on your novel.

Even if you're not writing anything at the moment, but you want to, this course can work for you. Come in with whatever ideas you have; this course will help you turn them into prose.

Click here for the full syllabus.

Brave and Bold Weekly, September 1908

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Exercise: Raise the Stakes

Total writing time: 22 minutes

A few days ago, I posted an exercise in stakes and goals. Today in our Tuesday class in Croton we followed up on those with a few more very short in-class exercises.

For these you'll need to have a story in mind, and to have some ideas about what the stakes and goals are in that story.

In the the first Stakes post, I talked about Cheever's "The Country Husband" and how the question of stakes in it is complex. This doesn't mean, though, that they are low or vague or that the story lacks drama. For example, the thing Francis Weed believes will make him happy is sex with an underage woman who most likely doesn't want him, and who is engaged to someone else. He wants it so badly that he may be willing to rape her, and to sacrifice his family's happiness, his marriage, and all the comfort he has worked for. We catch a couple of glimpses of what exists outside that sphere of comfort: in the airplane scene and in the war memory scene. As one of my students pointed out, there's something dreamlike about this story. And by its dreamlike logic, what exists underneath and outside of the Weeds' sunny suburbs is a stormy, frightening chaos. That's what he risks tumbling into. So even though this is literary fiction about a midlife crisis and not, say, a detective thriller, there are still high, clear, dramatic stakes.

With that in mind:

Set your timer for two minutes. You know what the stakes are in your own story. Now brainstorm about how you could raise them. How could you make the outcome better if your character "wins," and worse if she doesn't?

Set your timer for three minutes. Write a fragment of a scene in which your character has lost what was at stake. The worst has come to pass.

Three minutes. Write another scene fragment as above, but make it even worse.

Three minutes. Write a scene fragment in which your character has gained what was at stake. The best has come to pass. This could be a real scenario, or it could be the character's beautiful, unrealistic dream of gaining everything he desires.

Three minutes. Write another fragment as above, but make it even better.

Two minutes. Brainstorm on this question: Is there a point in the middle of your story when the stakes are raised? Can there be? What are the stakes at the beginning vs. at the end? Raising the stakes in the middle is an idea from screenwriting; see here, for example.

One minute: What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of your character achieving his goal?

Five minutes: Write a dialogue between your character and this obstacle, whether the obstacle is a person, an external force (in which case your character may be the only one talking), or something inside himself.

Felix Vallotton, The Trench, 1916

Monday, March 9, 2015

Yale Writers' Conference

I'll be teaching in Sessions I and II at the Yale Writers' Conference. There's still time to apply!

This year's lineup of teachers and lecturers includes Amy Bloom, Cheryl Strayed, Jeff VanderMeer, Phil Klay and Donald Margulies. Classes include feature writing, humor, memoir, science fiction and playwriting. Admission is competitive, the attendees are great, the atmosphere is supportive, and the dorms are just fine if you bring flip flops. Get a temporary membership to Mory's, explore the Beinecke Library and Yale Art Gallery, and most of all, meet fellow writers from all walks of life and all over the world.

Click the link above and/or feel free to send me a message (using the form on the right) for more information. I've been teaching at the conference since 2012 and would be glad to talk with you about it!

A view from the dorms

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Stakes and Goals: An Exercise

(Total writing time: 30 minutes)

Recently in my Tuesday class in Croton, we talked about John Cheever's "The Country Husband." If you haven't read this incredible story of midcentury middle-class midlife crisis, I highly recommend it.

In particular, we looked at the question of stakes in the story. In the very beginning, when the main character is on the plane, they're life or death. Later, what's at stake is not life itself but a way of life: His social standing, marriage and family stability on the one hand; and some kind of wild (likely imaginary) happiness with the babysitter on the other. Those things can't co-exist, he believes, so he must give up one of them.

(A side question: Are the satisfactions of his family life possibly as imaginary as the happiness he thinks he'd feel with the babysitter?)

As you can see, the issue of stakes here is complex. This story is not, e.g., a thriller about catching a serial murderer before he kills his next victim, who's going to be YOUR OWN KID. (That would be an example of simple, high, escalating stakes.) The main character here wants to be happy, but what will that mean for him? Has he got it right by the end of the story?

If you're a writer of literary fiction and not of straight-up suspense novels or action movies, that's how it's going to be: complex. There are many paths by which we find our way into a story, and not all of them include an obvious answer to those questions-- just as those things are not always clear to us in real life.

And yet they're important for us to address as writers. Frank Conroy, late head of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, used to call that the "So what?" question. It was one of the first things he'd ask about any story.

The answer to the "So what?" question is often something you have to write your way into. It's there, but you have to dig into your story and your character to find it. You do have to try to find it, because a story from which it's absent can feel weak, aimless, unfocused. You can lose the reader. Once you do find it, it often pulls the story together in a powerful way. And when the answer is one that's sprung organically from your story and characters, rather than one you imposed at the start, that's especially powerful.

The idea of stakes is closely related to the idea of goals, but it's not exactly the same. As in gambling, what's at stake is what your character stands to gain or lose. The goal is whatever will constitute winning the game. So what's at stake might be her kid's life and safety; her goal is to catch the killer. If she catches him, she wins and gains her kid's life. If she doesn't, she loses and forfeits her kid's life.

What about the Cheever story? One of Francis Weed's goals is, to put it bluntly, to have sex with Anne, the babysitter. (I could say something like "have an affair," but that wouldn't be accurate, since his idea of fulfillment doesn't seem to include her consent.) If he gains this goal, he thinks might gain some kind of happiness, "something like the sound of music." If he doesn't, he's left sobbing on the steering wheel. So one of the things at stake is his happiness.

The exercise:

1. Think of a story you're working on now. (It doesn't matter whether you've written a whole draft, or have only come up with a sketch of an idea so far-- I know you have something!)
     Set your timer for two minutes.
Brainstorm about what the stakes are in your story. Remember, that's not the same as the goal. It's what stands to be gained or lost, depending on whether the character achieves her goal.

2. Set your timer for two minutes. What is the goal that must be achieved? What would constitute achieving it, or "winning?" What would constitute losing?

3. Set your timer for two minutes. Usually, the main character doesn't travel a straight, unobstructed path to her goal. Often, in fact, she arrives somewhere else instead. Does this happen to your character? How?

4. Set your timer for two minutes. Choose a single scene in your story that feels mooshy, aimless, stagnant, or unfocused.

5. Set your timer for two minutes. In this particular scene, what's at stake, and what is the character's goal? How does it relate to the character's larger goal?

6. Rewrite your scene. If you need a time limit, give yourself twenty minutes.

Here's another exercise in stakes and goals. 

Cover of the issue of The New Yorker in which "The Country Husband" first appeared: November 20, 1954

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

New Date for Get Unblocked!

New date for one-day course Get Unblocked at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center: Saturday, May 2. And they've cut the price of all their master classes too. Check it out!

Using this picture again because I love it. The Little Red Hen gets things done.  Andy Warhol, 1958.

Monday, March 2, 2015

New Story at Origins!

New piece up on the Origins site:

"Blind Spot" by Tanaz Bhathena

It was a real pleasure to help edit this story, and I hope we'll be seeing more from this author.

Why don't you send us something, too? Now accepting submissions for the Fall 2015 issue.

Goals: Checking In

It's the beginning of a new month! How are you doing with the goals you set back in January?

What was your main goal for the year (#9), and what was your smaller stepping-stone goal (#10)?

If you don't remember, today would be a good day to set them again.

If you do have your answers from January, look them over. Are your goals the same? Are you ready for a new stepping-stone goal to move you towards the Big One? Set it now. A one-month goal. Write it on your calendar.  And get to work!

Peter Newell, from The Rocket Book, 1912