“Writing on the Edge” with Jillian Lauren

For five days at the AROHO Retreat, a successful author, poet, or playwright mentored small groups of students. My mentor was Jillian Lauren, author of the memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem and the novel Pretty. She’s also a talented spoken word storyteller for The Moth, and an overall rockin’ lady.

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Our small group sessions focused on “Writing on the Edge.” How do you make all the atrocities you see in the news everyday still seem fresh and engaging? How do you write about sex, drugs, and rock & roll without sounding like a cliché?

Jillian shared some insightful tips. Forget about shocking topics. It’s all about the ride the narrator takes you on. And how the narrator takes you on that ride.

Your narrator should:

  • Have an authentic and powerful voice. Easy, right?
  • Inspire empathy in the reader.
  • Share experiences that are relatable. Or somehow make them relatable.
  • Convey an organizing insight. What revelation will the reader walk away with when the pages are done?
  • Have a specific way of observing/interpreting life and show that in every scene and detail.

We read excerpts from Permanent Midnight, The Kiss, and You Got to Burn to Shine, and examined how the author accomplished this. She gave us a fantastic arsenal of writing book recommendations like Writing from the Body, The Tools, and Writing Down the Bones.

Jillian also led us through yoga, meditation, and writing freewrites so that we could dive into our own bodies and the hidden parts of our minds. A couple of her prompts kept me up writing late into the night with only moths for company.

"Writing on the Edge" Group with Jillian Lauren at Abiquiu Lake (Photo Credit: Rachel Schwerin)
“Writing on the Edge” Group with Jillian Lauren at Abiquiu Lake (Photo Credit: Rachel Schwerin)

In one particularly difficult session, we explored our “Shadow” selves—a Carl Jung archetype that is the worst part of ourselves. It’s everything that we don’t want the world to see. As you can imagine, it was agonizing to conjure up this image and translate it to the page. But, in order to write on the edge, we have to connect to this part of ourselves.

During our farewell sessions, we burned notes to our Shadows, massaged them into red clay shapes, and spent a day at Abiquiu Lake jumping in, Shadows and all. In the cool waves and on the scorching rock slabs, the wind pestered us for secrets waiting for release. We told them true.

The World is My Bedroom: Insights from the 2013 AROHO Writing Retreat

Rustic adobe casitas tucked into the stunning Ghost Ranch landscape
A Room of Her Own: adobe casitas tucked into the stunning Ghost Ranch landscape

Even though we shared rustic adobe cells with roommates at the 2013 A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Writing Retreat, the week-long oasis in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico gave us new insight into the idea of a room of one’s own.

Let’s face facts, there are things you would do in your own bedroom that you wouldn’t dare do anywhere else. Practice a tutorial on the latest twerking dance move. Examine the birthmark inconveniently placed under your right butt cheek. Perfect the special blend of awe, excitement, and humbleness when they announce your Noble Prize in Literature. “Talk” to the ever persistent characters in your novel.

You know, the usual.

But at the AROHO writing retreat, over one hundred women were able to dive into the deep dark of writing as well as the bright blinding inspiration. We were able to take our art seriously and hilariously while supporting an entire community of talented writers. With full days of “dessert delights,” “mind stretches,” author readings, midday siestas, and wine buzzed receptions, we connected with every sort of writer. Throw purple feathers out of your bra; talk to the muses in your haunted house mind; meditate to the place where That Which Cannot Be Written hides; or just gaze at the 360 degree landscape that takes your breath away at every angle. As a teenager, I pinned art and photographs all over my walls as portals into the surreal landscape of my mind. Ghost Ranch’s red rock canyons, dusty trails, and natural grandeur were a surreal Georgia O’Keeffe painting made real.

View from the top of Chimney Rock, overlooking the area surrounding Ghost Ranch
View from the top of Chimney Rock, overlooking the area surrounding Ghost Ranch

The world became my bedroom. And my bedroom became the world.

Now, stay on track; keep your head out of sexy time and pajamas. When I say “bedroom,” I’m talking space, openness, and inspiration. I’m talking freedom to be exposed only as you would in your own room. Instead of the isolation and imagination that writers tend to work in, we shared a space to explore new ideas and connections.

Over the next few blog posts, I will share my revelations from every day of the retreat as Janet Fitch, Jillian Lauren, Evie Shockley, Ellen McLaughlin, Diane Gilliam, Mary Johnson, Bhanu Kapil and many many other talented writers guided me. Join me for pillow talk sessions in a room that’s all our own.

AROHO's Inspiration: Virginia Woolf and the Generations of Women Writers to Come After Her
AROHO’s Inspiration: Virginia Woolf and the generations of writers to come after her

Interview with YA Author Susan Dennard

It was a pleasure to interview YA author Susan Dennard about her experience with NaNoWriMo and plotting trilogies! Check out the interview below reblogged from the Office of Letters and Light Blog.

I Published My NaNo-Novel! Susan Dennard on Plotting Trilogies, Word Wars, and Publishing

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Camp NaNoWriMo is gearing up for July, and many of you are already hard at work storming up ideas. Are you ambitiously planning on writing a trilogy, perhaps? Well, Susan Dennard published her debut young adult novel Something Strange and Deadly, the first in an intriguing trilogy blending historical fiction, horror, romance, and mystery, and on July 23, the sequel, A Darkness Strange and Lovely, will hit shelves. Read on to learn how Susan used three years of NaNoWriMo to master her trilogy:

How did NaNoWriMo help you draft your novels?

It’s so easy to put writing off—even for books on deadline—but there’s something about knowing that I’ll start on x-date, work like a madwoman until x-date, and then finish with 50K that really helps me hunker down. I also think the sheer insanity and support that other writers bring to the whole NaNo-experience really helps keep me motivated, even after that first week when my productivity always wants to flag.

How has your NaNo experience been different each year you wrote a book in your trilogy?

I’ve definitely become a better writer as each year passes—meaning less of the words I hammer out get trashed. The first year I did NaNo in 2009 with Something Strange and Deadly, I wrote a truly dreadful novel. But it was also one of my very first complete novels. Throughout the year I spent revising the book, I learned a lot about writing.

The next year, I again wrote a dreadful first draft, but in year three, I wrote a halfway-decent first draft. In fact, much of what readers will find in A Darkness Strange and Lovely is simply a polished-up NaNo novel. Each book I write is stronger because I’ve grown so much as an author!

Did you make many writer or industry connections through NaNoWriMo?

Oh yes—especially in 2012! Author Beth Revis invited me and several other YA authors to participate in a NaNo forum thread that allowed Wrimos to ask published authors any and all questions. It was a great way to meet other writers!

Then, fellow author Sarah J. Maas and I started hosting something we called #NaNoWriMoBattle. These were 30-minute writing sprints that we held every day on Twitter. Many authors, published and aspiring alike, started following along with us. It was so much fun and so productive that we continued doing it after NaNo. We call it the #BAMFWordBattle now, and we try to host them pretty regularly.

Tell us more about your post-NaNo revisions.

I always revise enormously after every first draft. That’s just part of writing. Fortunately, I really love revising (I have an entire guide to it on my blog!), so it’s always exciting for me to finish a draft and then hunker down to turn a draft into a “real book.” Usually I’ll finish NaNo with my 50,000, but since that’s not a full novel, I’ll write around 40,000 more. Then, I inevitably start revising early in the next year.

But all that said, I think it’s easy for new writers to think revising is scary or not any fun. This is so not true! And, no matter what you might feel about revising, it’s absolutely not a step you can skip. No published author would ever hand in an unrevised manuscript to their editor, and no unpublished author can expect to get published without a truly polished book.

The key is to make revisions manageable and fun, and you do that by breaking it down into “bite-size” chunks and working toward a clear end goal. For example, if you know your characters aren’t as dark as you want them to be (darker characters = your goal), then as you work through each scene (bite-size chunks), you layer in more darkness.

What was it like plotting an entire series?

Hard! So many threads would appear with each new book, and then I was left writing the last book and wrapping up all those threads. I’m not much of an outliner—I prefer to write by the seat of my pants—and while that worked well for the first two books in my series, when I hit book three, I realized I would need to be more structured. Otherwise, I’d forget to tie up some important plot points.

Any tips on publishing your novel?

Publishing is a rapidly changing industry, and there are so many new and exciting ways for writers to get their work out there. That said, the rules for traditional publishing tend to stay the same. So many people just “set out to get published” with no idea what that really entails. Do your research! There are so many amazing online resources to help the aspiring author navigate the various steps, from dealing with revisions to writing a query letter to getting an agent.

There is no easy way to get a book deal, but if you dream big, work really hard, and never give up, then you can definitely reach your goals! Trust me: if naive ol’ me from NaNo 2009 could get published, then I have no doubt all of you can too!

Susan Dennard is a 28-year-old reader, writer, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She used to be a marine biologist, but now writes novels about kick-butt heroines and swoon-worthy rogues. She lives in the Midwestern US with her French husband and Irish setter.

Keep up with Susan:

— Andrea

Are 100 Words Enough to Tell a Story?

tiny notebooks

Recently, I took my first stab at flash fiction in the form of one hundred words. The challenge came from 100 Word Story, an online literary magazine that showcases fiction stories of, you guessed it, exactly one hundred words. Imagine one paragraph to tell an entire story. A few weeks ago, my MUG Writing Group decided to take on the challenge. Each writer pursued the possibilities of one hundred words: a flash mob in the Ferry Building; a lovers’ misunderstanding; a joke about a giant squid; a man trapped in his own prison. Their stories pulled me in immediately. Their endings felt like endings. In one hundred words, there was no space for dilly-dallying. How did one hundred words accomplish an entire story?

By acting as a photograph.

We’ve all heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Some emotion, gesture, scene, expression is captured in a photograph, which tells a larger story. With the right written image, one hundred words can mean one thousand words.

With my own one hundred word story, a single image inspired it—a boy could not read a biohazard sign written in English, but he knew that red meant prosperity in his home country. As I carved the story during a single lunch break, the image became more powerful with each detail. His dive into the deadly water. The unlucky red envelope, a symbol of his sealed fate. It was enough to evoke emotion. It was enough to let the reader’s imagination engage from beginning to end. It was enough to publish my story with the literary magazine 100 Word Story. If you’re interested in reading more, check out “The Red Envelope” published at: http://www.100wordstory.org/2808/the-red-envelope/

Photo by Flickr User: Jenna-Carver

The MUG Spring Retreat 2013

Thanks for the fantastic summary, Taylor!

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This past weekend we held the second annual MUG Writing Retreat in Santa Barbara. Between hours of writing furiously (a certain member *cough* Anthony *cough* wrote 8,000 words!), we held a brief Aikido workshop, played Resistance, and grabbed a taste of SB with dinner at Zaytoon and a walk along the pier.

On Saturday afternoon, we wrote to three prompts. The first was Cynthia’s, built from her experience at the Wondercon. See her post here. At Ari’s suggestion, we each wrote a profession on a scrap of paper and passed it to the person on our right. We began with “I have the hands of a…” and had to switch to “But I’m not a…” halfway through! The five professions were physicist, diving instructor, veterinarian, dental hygienist, and bartender. Andrea gave us the recent two sentences for The First Line: “I started collecting secrets when I was…

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Photo Story: The Young Writers Program, Authors-to-be, and You

Another one of my photo stories written for the Office of Letters and Light and reblogged here to highlight the amazing young authors of the San Francisco Bay Area:

Photo Story: The Young Writers Program, Authors-to-be, and You

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Eight daring YWP Wrimos picked up the microphone and shared their novels during the “Thank Goodness It’s Over” NaNoWriMo reading on February 10, 2013 at the Booksmith in San Francisco. The pictures below capture the faces of the bright young authors supported by NaNoWriMo, the Young Writers Program, and you. One day, maybe you’ll find their photos on the back jacket of their published novels. Until then, keep on writing, Junior Wrimos!

Here’s a shout out to our all-stars featured below:

North Oakland Community Charter School, Oakland, CA
Luca Campbell, Francesca Miller-Heller, Justice Petersen, Julian Rosenthal

Creative Arts Charter School, Oakland, CA
Marlowe Heier, Ronin Lanning

Clifford Elementary School, Redwood City, CA
Millen Quinn Alley, Leigh Danielle Alley

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Photos by Ian Stevenson Photography.

Young writers, have you read your novels aloud to friends and family? Tell us about it!

— Andrea

Untold Stories from Elsewhere :: Middle East

My article reblogged from the Office of Letters and Light site:

Untold Stories from Elsewhere :: Middle East

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During the month of November, we’ve discovered new friends and neighbors at write-ins in local coffee shops and libraries. We’ve memorized every valley, dive bar, and street sign in our fictional worlds. We’ve even sketched a map of the Tupazel World from Bearded Troll Mountain to Red Dragon Lair. But, we may have forgotten that there are Wrimos writing all over the world.

In the region of “Elsewhere :: Middle East,” 934 Wrimos join together from the 24 countries in the Middle East. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Lone Bendixen Goulani, an academic writing teacher at the University of Kurdistan-Hewler in Erbil, Iraq, who teaches 125 students. Eight have signed up with NaNoWriMo to tell their untold stories.

If Erbil, Iraq was the setting of a novel, how would you describe the area?

Kurdistan is a beautiful mountainous area in the Middle East that covers regions both in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. Kurdistan is a safe haven in Iraq. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the region has developed a lot. Erbil is the capital in Kurdistan region in Iraq, and the majority of people in Erbil are Kurds, but our pluralistic society also contains Arabs, Assyrians, Jezidis, Turkomans etc. The history of the Kurds is very bloody and sad, but there are so many untold stories waiting to be told.

One of my students is using a lot of his mother’s stories in his novel. One of my characters has a father that was killed during Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing of the Kurds. Another character is watching a DVD where Baathists are executing people in different ways because this is what my taxi driver was doing on November 4th, and I put it in my story. There are green parks and modern shopping malls, and the killings have stopped, but people still watch the killings. They still cry over their lost ones.

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How did your students react to the idea of writing a novel in one month?

To be honest, most of them looked blankly at me when I announced the event in the classroom, and since they quite often whine about the amount of words they have to write for my assignments (max 800 words this semester), most of them think they would never have the time to write this much. A few asked for more information and got hooked. We are only 8 Wrimos in Erbil as far as I know, and 6 of us are from the University of Kurdistan, but it’s a start. Pictured at the top is Kameran, a UKH student and one of the new Erbil WriMos in front of our NaNoWriMo bulletin board.

Have there been any cultural barriers for fiction writing?

Not really, not so far at least, but I suppose I’m taking the risk of getting into trouble if they write and upload something which is considered inappropriate around here (which is just about everything if you include the stories after they have been retold a few times).

What is the reading culture like in Erbil?

Poetry is quite popular, but there is not really a reading culture. I hardly ever see anybody reading a novel for pleasure, and it’s difficult to find any kind of literature. I go to a book fair once a year, exchange books with my expat colleagues and buy books whenever I’m abroad.

Had anyone heard of NaNoWriMo in your area? How did you first hear about NaNoWriMo?  

No, I had never heard about it until my American colleague told me about it a few months ago. She is taking a course in creative writing as part of her master’s program. She finished her first novel recently (she spent 60 days on it which is clearly cheating, but I’ve bullied her into writing a new one in November).

I’ve always written a lot, but never fiction, so I’m looking forward to taking writing less seriously and share a creative writing experience with my students, friends and colleagues.

How have you kept motivated throughout November?

I enjoyed bragging a lot about what I’m doing in November, so there wasn’t any turning back. How can I call myself a writing instructor if I haven’t written a novel in 30 days?

Also, there’s barely anything to do around here apart from breathing fresh mountain air, so writing a novel is really a perfect activity apart from the power short cuts (and my laptop battery is broken, so it is a serious matter really).

Lone, thanks for sharing your world with us. Wrimos, on this last day of November, let’s do a roll call! Where did you write from this month? How would you describe your home in one sentence?

— Andrea

Student Photo by Lone Bendixen Goulani

Landscape Photo by Flickr user Mustafa Khayat

The Office of Letters and Light Blog – Dare to Wear Pink

Check out my recent blog post at the OLL Blog by clicking this link: http://blog.lettersandlight.org/post/32460625515/dare-to-wear-pink

It’s an awesome pep talk for writers… and anyone who needs a few words of encouragement! It’s also re-posted below:

Did you know that Molly Ringwald, the iconic ’80s star of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, is also a literary fiction writer?

Seriously.

Recently, I attended a reading of her new short story collection When It Happens to You. I’ll admit it—I mainly showed up because she was an icon of my teenage years. Because of her, I almost resorted to sewing my own prom dress. My mom had the good sense to convince me otherwise; I had neither a sewing machine nor fashion sense and the dress was starting to look like a belly dancer’s costume.

Flash forward to this year, when I found out that Molly Ringwald had recently published a collection of fiction stories, and my adolescent idol gained about another million degrees of coolness.

She read from “My Olivia,” her haunting story about a mother struggling with a transgender child. The audience was almost brought to tears by her words; not a screenwriter’s words, or a director’s words—her own words.

San Francisco Litquake’s Jane Ganahl grilled her with questions on topics ranging from her Brat Pack days to her book reviews to her gorgeous Greek husband sitting in the audience. But one answer really stuck with me:

“I’ve been writing for decades. It was singing, writing, and acting in that order, and once acting took over, I kept writing and never thought that it would be possible to ever be taken seriously as a fiction writer. That’s what kept me from [fiction writing & publishing] for so long. But in the end I feel like the writing speaks for itself.”

Molly Ringwald worries that people will not take her seriously as a writer.

It’s a worry that crosses my mind every time I tell someone that I am a fiction writer. I always expect the next question to be: well, what have you published? Or what kind of person spends their days transcribing the thoughts of imaginary people? Or did you know that a writing career doesn’t come with stock options?

I, uh, you know, it’s just…

Everyone faces the doubt of announcing themselves as “real” writers. Sometimes we hide our “writer” status for fear of ridicule or dismissal. Do you love to write? Yes. Do you put pen to paper in a magic string of ink straight from your heart? Yes. Then, stash the self-doubt, apply a little pink lipstick (this step is optional), and dazzle the world with your talent.

Whether your day job is as a doctor, actress, lawyer, or waitress, tell the world, “Yes, I am a fiction writer.” And then take that one step further, “Yes, I am writing a novel in one month. Seriously.”

Have you ever been afraid that the world might not take you seriously as a writer? Have you ever let it stop you from writing? I’d love to hear your stories!

— Andrea

Photo by Flickr user Chris Mc Robert

via The Office of Letters and Light Blog – Dare to Wear Pink.

Holy Smokes, I’ve Arrived in NaNoLand!

This was my first week working with the Office of Letters and Light (OLL), an awesome nonprofit that puts on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s not like any office I’ve ever worked in. It must be all of those letters and light. The staff approaches every project with innovation, dedication, and most importantly humor. I feel completely at home. I’ve already had the pleasure of a wine and cheese happy hour, a gourmet cup of Blue Bottle Coffee, and numerous snack breaks at  Sweet Adeline Bakeshop (I think they might be collaborating to plump up my life). But most important of all, I wrote my first blog post to broadcast to NaNoLand!

Check it out on this link! What a warm welcome into the NaNoWriMo community! There will be many more OLL blog posts to come as we near the 50K monster of November’s National Novel Writing Month challenge. My goal as a new intern is to provide battle gear and inspiration for this upcoming adventure. Stay tuned for more posts.

Here’s a little more about NaNoWriMo in their own words:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenges you to write a 50,000-word novel, from scratch, in the month of November. It’s a global, uproariously fun endeavor, where participants exchange advice and writing tips on the NaNoWriMo website and in real life, with group write-ins held in coffeeshops, living rooms, and libraries all around the world. In 2011, more than 250,000 people took part in National Novel Writing Month.

7 Sizzling Sundays of Summer Flash Fiction Contest

The flash of paparazzi cameras blind my eyes. The crowd is in silence, the silence of parachute doors and church pews. As I walk toward the podium, the plush red carpet makes my heels wobble. The award, gold and glowing, the award is mine. It’s… it’s a Writer Unboxed t-shirt and mug!

Sorry, was I day-dreaming? Not completely….

Writer Unboxed recently announced the winners of the “7 Sizzling Sundays of Summer Flash Fiction Contest” and my story won 2nd place! Writer Unboxed spotlights a plethora of published authors, agents, and editors who share their wisdom on the craft and business of writing. It’s a website that has been listed in Writer’s Digest as one of the “101 Best Websites for Writers” for the past six years in a row. It does a fantastic job of “unboxing” the writer’s life.

The contest went a little something like this: Each week for a total of seven weeks, contestants had 48 hours to write a 250 word piece of flash fiction that was inspired by a particular drawing by Debbie Ohi. A combination of judges’ discretion and weekly votes distilled winners from hundreds of fantastic stories. A total of 21 finalists made it to the last round. Mine was one of them, along with two other members of my MUG Writer’s Group – Taylor Ross and Anthony Lanni. It was an amazing experience to share this contest with my Mugsters. Cheering each other on and sharing in the praise, we realized how much our writing has grown over the years since our first meeting years ago. It made us realize how strong our group has become to be able to encourage each other even in a competition. Truly, that’s the best prize for me.

Here’s the winning story below (as well as linked here):

A monster lives in my bedroom and his name is Gary. My parents don’t believe me. Tonight, if I sit in the hallway, cold and shivering, then maybe they will believe me. Maybe they will believe that Gary has two dog heads and a scaly tail. Maybe they’ll believe that Gary reads me fairy tales like Beauty & the Beast and Snow White. He even has a different voice for each of the dwarves.

But, my dad doesn’t usually come upstairs until long after midnight. Sometimes he tumbles against the walls like a lumbering giant, and Gary perks his head up, ready to leap at the monster in the hall. My mother, she doesn’t ever leave her bedroom except to eat bowls of cold chicken soup. Every night, she slips two red pills into her mouth and disappears into silence. I bet she never dreams of fairy godmothers or flying on the back of a winged beast.

The hallway feels like an icy tunnel. Goosebumps rise on my arms and my eyes droop from the darkness. I just want my parents to believe that a monster lives in my room.

“Come back to bed,” Gary says, waving me over with his soft white paw.

I follow him back to my bedroom where he can protect me from empty hallways.