Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction’


Please give a warm welcome to debut novelist Linda Lucretia Shuler. Linda wrote her first story when she was six, Koko the Monkey, which she still has tucked into a drawer. Since then her stories and poems have appeared in anthologies and literary journals, and a handful of her plays have been produced in schools and community theatres.

Linda received a BFA in theatre from the University of Texas, and an MA in theatre from Trinity University while in residence at the Dallas Theatre Center. She taught theatre arts in college and high school for three decades, loving every moment and directing nearly a hundred plays in the process. She also wrote theatre arts curriculum K-12 for Houston ISD, conducted numerous workshops, and performed in community theatres.

Hidden Shadows, Linda’s debut novel, takes place in Willow City, a ruggedly beautiful section of the Texas Hill Country less than three hours from her home in San Antonio. Several other manuscripts are in the works, reaching across the genres. These include a prequel to Hidden Shadows, plays, and a collection of poems and a half-dozen different story ideas demanding attention.

Linda enjoys participating in Toastmasters, writer organizations, critique groups, and book clubs. She continues her love of theatre, delights in watching the birds flocking outside her office window, and is an enthusiastic fan of San Antonio’s championship basketball team, the Spurs.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your first novel, Hidden Shadows. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?

A: The story revolves around Cassie Brighton, a woman overwhelmed by loss. Devastated by the accidental death of her husband, she flees to a remote homestead deep in the rugged Texas Hill Country. Alone in a ramshackle farmhouse steeped in family secrets, Cassie wages a battle of mind and heart as she struggles to overcome the sorrows of her past, begin anew, and confront the possibility of finding love again.

What people are saying:

Hidden Shadows is a wonderful novel of a women’s journey of self-discovery and search for purpose. The characters will win your heart (and sometimes break it) in this beautifully written and satisfying story of loss and renewal.”

Sandra Worth,

Award-winning author of The King’s Daughter: A Novel of the First Tudor Queen. 

My inspiration came, in part, from the remarkable women I’ve met who suffered incalculable loss, and yet somehow survived and lived each day with joy. I marveled at them, at their courage, their spirit. And I asked myself, “How?” What did they endure in private, what interior battles did they wage? What dwelled in their spirit that made them victorious over such sorrow? And I’ve met those who did not endure, those who forever walked in the shadows of grief. And I asked myself, “Why?” Why do some souls shatter under the weight of it, while others survive? Because I’ve experienced grief myself – who hasn’t as the years collect? It’s part and parcel of life – the need to write about it must have been there, lurking inside me, silent.

But the lure of landscape led me, too. I traveled through the thirteen-mile stretch of an isolated, rugged, glorious stretch of Texas Hill Country called Willow City Loop. And I fell in love with the place, with its craggy, impossible hills and winding country roads. And I fell in love with old houses, too – the sort that are scattered throughout the small towns of Texas, sporting wrap-around porches with swings or rocking chairs, and a weathered “come on in” look.

These elements were, in a small way, inspiration for Hidden Shadows. But there’s more, so much more. I could write pages. Some of it is unknown to me, odd as that may sound. That secret part of ourselves that reveals itself as we write.

HiddenShadows_medQ: What do you think makes a good literary novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: Literary genre is character-driven – which means that the truer your character, the truer the story itself. To write effectively about a character, you must know her (or him), know everything about her inside and out – especially things she doesn’t know about herself.  What motivates her? What are her dreams, her fears? What drives her nuts, or brings her joy? What life experiences has she had up to the moment the story begins, and how did they affect her? Know her physical self, too –  every element of her face, the way she moves, the sound of her voice, her unconscious gestures, and so on. Then you must listen to her, and allow her to guide you.

Literary genre is a style that’s dependent upon character. But all other elements that form a fascinating, well-structured story are necessary, too: plot, action, theme, language, etc. It’s all a grand mix. Sometimes trying to apply a single genre to a work is like trying to force a round shape into a square hole. How does one decide? For example, Hidden Shadows also includes romance, mystery, and a touch of magical realism.

Perhaps it’s the style in which a book is written that helps determine a genre. If that’s so, then one would assume language would be a huge factor. But I’ve read “literary” works written in styles far different from mine, so who knows?

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: Because I let the characters lead the way, like an over-permissive mother, they had a tendency to wander, to explore this pathway or that, or just sit in a corner and pout. I had to ask myself many a time, especially in the beginning, “Where the heck is this story going?” I veered into side paths and bumped into dead ends before finally, at long last, settling us all on the right path.

I didn’t pre-plan; the plot was a vague, misty map in my mind. I knew the destination, but wasn’t exactly sure how to get there. As a result, I ended up tossing a lot into the trashcan, words upon words, page after page, bye-bye. The map finally came into focus, the direction clear, the steps taken. But I swear, cross my heart, that the next book (a prequel to Hidden Shadows) will be more carefully mapped before I begin the journey.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A: I saw Cassie clearly in my mind, as if I had glimpsed her in passing, or in a dream, or a photograph somewhere. I began by writing reams about her, developing a character study, exploring her past, asking her questions, discovering her inner life. Then I talked aloud to her, as I did to others in Hidden Shadows:

I visualized her sitting in the chair opposite me  – green velvet, an armless antique I inherited  – and asked questions about her feelings or actions, her fears and dreams. Sometimes I railed at her for being obtuse, or making bad decisions, or keeping her thoughts hidden. Or I just looked at her, at how she was sitting, or what she was wearing, the expression on her face. Once I changed places. I sat in that green chair and became Cassie for a short time, speaking as she would, responding to the questions. I had to laugh at myself, thinking if anyone were to suddenly appear and witness what I was doing, they’d swear I was crazy.

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: Guy Wilkins, a wild mix of good and bad, is a wounded soul I ended up loving. Sometimes I hated him, too. I felt for him, cried for him, dreaded what he became. But aren’t we all a mix of good and bad and everything in between?

I found a photo of him in a magazine somewhere. I knew it was Guy the moment I saw it: the dark gaze, the creased face, the lean-muscled stance. I kept that photo in front of me while I wrote, a constant reminder, as if he were truly there.

Guy was real to me from the very beginning. He still lives in my thoughts. I can see him, hear his voice, feel compassion for his troubled soul. If a character is real in the heart of a writer, surely it must be so for the reader, too.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A: If I’m excited about what I’m writing, the narrative is usually exciting. If I’m bored, uncertain, stressed, or otherwise in a rut, the narrative reflects that, too.

Each one of us must find the approach that works best for our nature and genre. For me, I try to immerse myself in the moment, to put myself into the scene – to experience sight, sound, smell, touch as if I were truly there, right there, that very second. Sometimes I view scenes behind my eyes as if I were watching a film, with my characters the actors (including close-ups) speaking and moving within a particular setting. I want to meld with these characters, to see through their eyes, to think and feel through the filter of their minds and hearts.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A: I visited the surroundings, snapped photographs, studied dozens of other photographs and paintings of the Texas Hill Country landscape. I did the same with rambling, old country houses – the sort with wrap-around porches and a weathered, welcoming feel. I strolled through surrounding towns like Fredericksburg and Bourne, and meandered among the limestone walls of a century-old German homestead. Eventually everything became a part of me.

I try to sink myself into the setting as I write, really see it in my mind, hear the sounds all about, sense the air and sun and wind and so on, hoping to bring each moment to life for the reader.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A: I hadn’t consciously thought about themes, to be honest. It was more of an inner feeling, a silent voice that propelled me onward. I vaguely knew it would include dealing with a sense of loss, of loneliness and sorrow, and finding a way through it all, renewed. What I hadn’t realized was that almost every single character would end up experiencing grief, and facing it in different ways.

Nor had I planned the other themes resonating in Hidden Shadows, themes of healing and connection to the land, to our ancestors, to others, to ourselves – and to the redemptive power of love. These came unbidden, unfolding as I wrote. Sometimes I felt as though another hand, another heart, somehow spoke through mine. It all came as a surprise to me after the first draft, as if I had discovered hidden parts of myself.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: How are we to untangle the two? Craft and art are like conjoined twins, inseparable. Each may have a different function, but neither can exist without the other. For example, assume a writer is eloquent with words; they spill from his pen like pearls, shiny and beautiful. But unless he knows how to use them effectively, what good are they?  Or what about the writer who thinks of a fascinating character or an action-filled plot and so on – but doesn’t have the skill to form them into shape?

Art and craft work together as a team. There may be times when one is dominate, but the other is always there. For example, many writers (such as myself) like to begin a chapter by writing writing writing without pausing for breath. For me, that’s the fun “art” part. Then I must go back and edit like crazy – the necessary “craft” part – for the work to be whole. Art and craft, craft and art – different functions, perhaps, but forever holding hands.

Can editing destroy the initial creative thrust? Sometimes, yes, if we’re over-enthusiastic. I’ve deleted many a thing, only to realize I killed something essential, and so put it back in again. But the reverse is true as well: I’ve left “as is,” like a mother refusing to toss out her baby, but in the end realized I had to edit. It’s akin to pruning a tree, cutting off the odd branches to help it thrive.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A: *Persistence, patience, perseverance – and determination, too. Writing a novel is a long, often demanding process.

*The ability to visualize the work as a unified whole – not as a series of slung-together segments – from beginning to end.

*Belief in oneself. (This isn’t as simple as it sounds, but it’s essential.)

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?

A: In a way this is true. No matter how enjoyable writing may be, it requires discipline, sticking to a schedule, plunking yourself down in the chair and getting to work. An aching tummy, a headache, not enough sleep? Too bad, gotta sit down and write. Want to browse the internet, pull up Facebook, watch that TV show, yack on the phone? Nope, not `til later.

Yet when all is said and done, if writing isn’t a joy in spite of the homework ills, then why do it? Life is too short, the years pass in the blink of an eye. I write because I want to write, for whatever reason. It makes me happy. It also drives me nuts, but that’s part of parcel of creativity.

The yin and yang.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: There are several terrific magazines for writers –such as “Writer’s Digest,” “ Writer’s Market,” and “Poets and Writers” – that I’ve found to be helpful.  As for books on how to write, I’ve bought a bunch – but after a chapter or two usually put them down, never to return.

What has proven to be the most beneficial to me, and the most enjoyable, is reading the works of other writers. All genres, all styles. If I like a particular novel, I ask myself, What did the author do to make this story fascinating, or effective, or not-put-downable?  How did she/he rev up the suspense? Develop the plot and characters? Employ dialogue, setting, the senses? And so on. If, on the other hand, I don’t respond to the book and find it a chore to finish, I once again ask why. What is it that didn’t work for me?

As for workshops, I’ve enjoyed professional writer organizations and conferences. I’ve found kindred souls as well as inspiration and information about the writing life. Networking is half the battle, so I’m told. I’ve met agents, editors, publishers, gifted writers via conferences.

Writer critique groups can be wonderful. I’m fortune to have found a terrific critique group. I can’t imagine a writing life without having these gifted people by my side. They were with me at the genesis of Hidden Shadows; their insightful comments helped me develop the story into what it is today. I’m happy to know they will continue to be with me as I begin the next project, a prequel.

I’ve also enjoyed book clubs. Not only have I ended up reading delightful works I may not have otherwise considered, I’ve learned a great deal about what readers respond to well, and what they don’t.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: Shakespeare said it best: To thine own self be true. We should strive to write from our own unique mind and heart and muse, to find our own voice and trust it. If we write from an inner truth, it will be true to the reader, and so believable – no matter the genre, no matter the style.

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TheAccidentalArtThief_medTitleThe Accidental Art Thief

Genre: General fiction/Literary

Author: Joan Schweighardt


Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Find The Accidental Thief on Amazon 

Set in New Mexico, this is the story of 45-year old Kathryn (aka Zinc), a deeply sensitive yet socially awkward woman who’s lived all of her existence without making her own decisions, and whose life suddenly forces her to take charge, face her fears, and grow as a human being.

For the past 25 years Zinc has cared for an old art collector and lived in a casita under the protection of his estate. She writes poetry and her only possessions are her two dogs. Life is monotone and safe for Zinc, whose idyllic environment is perfect for hiding from the world. But things abruptly change when the old man suffers a tragic fall and dies. His nasty daughter Marge takes charge, and gives Zinc only two weeks to gather what little she has and find another place to live. Overnight, Zinc is forced to face her fears and the world she’s been hiding from for so many years—or tries to, anyway.

Her first decision—stealing one of the old man’s paintings—unravels a series of unusual events that forces Zinc to interact with other people—a clairvoyant, her auto-mechanic brother, and a poet whom she ends up meeting in Antigua and falling in love with, among others. She even gets a job at the Chamber of Commerce. But Zinc isn’t the only one struggling through life and facing her demons, and so do the other characters in the book. Eventually, Zinc must make things right and return the painting, but not before going through a series of unusual turns.

The Accidental Art Thief is a well-written literary novel with complex, skillfully developed characters—ordinary people moving through life like ghosts, it seems at times. Their emotions are what makes this novel compelling. Themes of love, friendship, self-growth, and emotional survival interlace in this sometimes darkly humorous story. Elements of magical realism further deepen the tale, adding a light touch of the paranormal to the plot. Fans of Alice Hoffman, Sue Monk Kid, and J.K. Rowling (The Casual Vacancy) will surely enjoy Schweighardt’s The Accidental Thief.

My review originally appeared in Blogcritics. 

I was given a review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

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joan Joan Schweighardt is a former indie publisher who now works as a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and editor. The Accidental Art Thief is her fifth novel.

Connect with Joan on the web:

Website / Twitter / Facebook

Find The Accidental Art Thief on Amazon.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Accidental Art Thief. What was your inspiration for it? 

A: A long time ago a friend and I were thinking of starting a literary magazine. Back in those days email programs were not sophisticated enough to figure out who you were addressing based on the first few letters you typed into the “to” box. You had to write the whole email address out each time. When I went to respond to my friend about her ideas for our magazine, I accidentally messed up her email address and my message went to a man in New Orleans. He wrote back to alert me to my mistake but admitted he’d read the email, and since he was a writer too, he thought he might be able to contribute to the magazine. We never did get the magazine off the ground, but the man and I became good friends. While the unintended recipient of the rogue email in my book is not nearly as forthcoming as my friend was, his response has life-changing consequences for my protagonist.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist. 

A: My protagonist’s name is Kathryn, but her family and friends have always called her Zinc. She suffered some major losses in her early twenties, and as a result she retreated from what most would call “the real world” and took a job as a caretaker for an old man on a ranch in New Mexico. The beginning of the first chapter of the book finds her very satisfied with the reclusive life she created for herself all those years ago. But by the end of the chapter, that will all come to an end.

Q: What was your creative process like during the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it? Did you face any bumps along the way? 

A:  The Accidental Art Thief is my fifth novel. With all the others I knew where I was headed when I started writing and always had some kind of a loose outline. This novel was different. At the same time I was writing it I was also writing a memoir. The memoir was kind of exhausting to work on, so I needed a relief project for those times when I had to put the memoir aside. Accordingly, I never bothered trying to figure out where I was going with Art Thief ahead a time, and I did not have an outline. It was an exercise in creativity, you might say. At the end of each chapter I tried to surprise myself. This does not mean The Accidental Art Thief is a frivolous novel without any depth. It’s a breezy read, but it has depth too. Think Alice Hoffman, or Sue Monk Kidd. The novel features moments of serendipity and maybe even magic, but it also asks a lot of questions about human nature and the way we treat one another.

Q: How do you keep your narrative exciting throughout the creation of a novel? 

A: Because I worked without a net on this one, I had the freedom to get very creative. At the end of each chapter I said to myself, What is the most surprising thing I can think of to happen next? And then I explored that possiblity.

TheAccidentalArtThief_medQ: Do you experience anxiety before sitting down to write? If yes, how do you handle it?

A: I don’t experience anxiety because I write (and edit) for a living as well as for my own pleasure. Every day I look at my schedule and write whatever I am being paid to write. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I put two kids through college doing that. So, when I have some time off and I can work on my own projects, my good habits fall into place—mostly.

Q: What is your writing schedule like and how do you balance it with your other work and family time?

A: I sit at my desk from eight to about two or three each day. When I finish my client work, I work on my own stuff. I don’t work on anything after three or on weekends.

Q: How do you define success? 

A: I’m going to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau and say success is being able to advance confidently in the direction of my dreams, endeavoring to live the life I always imagined.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author?

A: It’s a two-way street. We all aspire to do something. The writing partner might aspire to pen a best seller, but the other partner might aspire to be on stage with a microphone, or stand at a podium lecturing about quantum physics. We all have to give one another the space needed so we can all be our best selves.

Q: George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” 

A: A lot of the early 20th century writers were trying to say something important about society, about oppression and poor working conditions, etc., so yes, in that sense, writers had to tell two stories, one that would be entertaining and one that would be political and move people to action. That can be exhausting. In some sense that is what I tried to do in The Accidental Art Thief. I wanted my story to be a fun, funny story about a bunch of quirky people whose lives collide like steel balls in a pinball machine. But there are serious issues too. I hope I’ve been successful in raising certain issues and that the issues raised never get in the way of the story. Hard to do. Hats off to Orwell.

Q:  Anything else you’d like to tell my readers? 

A: Please consider buying my book and posting a review on Amazon. I can’t promise you will like it, but I think you will, and I know you will be surprised at times. I was!

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A Very Good Life is the first book in an exciting new series by successful business woman now author Lynn Steward.

In this story, which crosses over from the literary to women’s fiction to romance, Steward takes us to 1970s Manhattan, home of the sophisticated and the elite. There, we meet Dana McGarry.

Dana has everything — a successful job at a prestigious department store, a handsome lawyer husband, a beautiful home, and loving family and friends. But things aren’t always as perfect as they appear to be, aren’t they?

When Dana’s husband begins to drift away, and demands at her job require that she behaves unethically, her world begins to crumble. She finds herself at a crossroads. Will she make the right decisions and stay true to herself and her vision of what a ‘good life’ should be?

This was a wonderful read! It reminded me of novels I read years ago by Barbara Taylor Bradford. Female readers will no doubt empathize with Dana as she struggles to keep her career and marriage together. She is strong, but also caring and sensitive. Readers will also be swept away by the setting. With vivid detail, the author brings Christmas in 1970s New York City alive in all its splendor. I really felt transported in time and place, felt the snowflakes and smelled the holiday trees. The characters are sympathetic and interesting and, of course, the antagonist is just one of those persons the reader will love to hate.

Steward has created a wonderful world of drama in this new series. Book two is supposed to come later this year and I’m really looking forward to reading the new installment. If you love women’s fiction and are a fan of strong female protagonists, I recommend you pick this one up. It won’t disappoint.

Find out more on Amazon.

Visit Lynn Steward’s website.

My review was originally published in Blogcritics

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scottdriscoll author photo BW (1)Scott Driscoll is an instructor at the University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education programs where he has taught creative writing for 20 years. He has also taught fiction and creative nonfiction in the Writers in the Schools and Path With Art programs and online through the Seattle-based Writer’s Workshop, as well as at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House literary center. Scott was awarded the “UW Educational Outreach Excellence in Teaching Award” for 2006.

Driscoll has been awarded eight Society of Professional Journalists awards, most recently for social issues reporting. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998. While enrolled in the UW MFA program, he won the Milliman Award for Fiction.

Driscoll continues to write feature stories for Alaska and Horizon Airlines Magazines while starting work on his next novel, which will be set in Latvia at the time of the Song Festival.

“Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer.”

Learn more at www.scott-driscoll.com

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Better You Go Home. When did you start writing and what got you into literary fiction?

What got me into literary fiction. In high school I rarely felt anything like a personal connection to the authors thrown in my path by well meaning teachers (not even, especially not even elitist, whiny Catcher In the Rye). Then one day I read, at a subversive teacher’s suggestion, Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park and The American Dream and it hit me like a punch to the gut. I had never realized that words could have such blunt force. This was a revelation.  A few years later, college on hold while I traveled in Europe (I bought a bike in Amsterdam and rode to Munich for the Oktoberfest, got sidetracked by early snow in Augsburg just north of Munich, and couldn’t sleep outdoors anymore and so looked for a job), I planted myself for one hour each day during my lunch breaks from my American Express Bank job in the local American base library. There I read for the first time Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable. Reading Molloy, I had such a strong reaction (angered that words so detached from conventional story telling, springing so deeply from the inner psyche of a character, could get under my skin as much as they did) I threw the book down, earned a reproof from the librarian—I was her only customer—then picked it up and kept reading. It was through words in novels such as these that I discovered a world the existence of which I had only a vague suspicion, like some forbidden alternate world adults spent your education hiding from you. Being naturally curious, I had to explore that world. I can’t say I turned serious about writing, though, until my daughter was born.  Providence had thrown an opportunity my way: confined indoors holding my child, or sitting near while she napped, I learned to have my typewriter ready and I went to it at every chance. Determined to write stories that could be read, I read literary journals, any that were mailed to me free of charge (surprising how many lit mags were happy to get rid of back stock) and I learned about story structure by deconstructing stories that had succeeded.

Did you have a mentor who encouraged you?

I actually did not have much in the way of mentoring, but I had books, a few key teachers along the way, and a strong desire to figure this thing out. I want to answer this question in order to deter others from seeking the path of going it on your own. Mentors can provide an invaluable service. I would urge anyone who wants to be serious about writing to start by reading books such as James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, and What If, the 3rd edition, and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and after you’ve read those, read Robert McKee’s Story. Learn what you can about characters and structure and point of view. When you think you’ve mastered point of view, read Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction and start thinking about narrative distance. Now you are ready to take a writing class. Take several. Start a critique group with peers who know what they are talking about. None of this is a guarantee of publishing success, but I can guarantee that your writing will improve and you will learn to write like a writer who pulls from a deep well and then pours words into containers that allow readers to slake their thirst. Even if publication is not your goal, this will allow you to dig down into the material that you need to express and that is a milestone of success and should keep you going until you hit your next milestone. 

Did you have any struggles or difficulties when you started writing?

When I started this book I took a deliberate approach. I planned. I sketched the story spine and spent countless hours sketching my characters’ situations. I had once devoted four years to writing chapters for a novel without giving much thought to story structure.  After throwing away four years’ worth of work, I vowed to never make that mistake again. I wrote one last short story, got it published in an Better You Go Hom cover (1)anthology in company with some pretty big name authors, then turned to writing magazine articles and the occasional personal narrative essay. For a time, no more fiction.

When you first start, enthusiasm matters.  Write as many words as you can as often as you can. Take notes when you travel.  Think of yourself as a flaneur when you are away from home. Walk into the crowded sensory world that is at your disposal, look left and look right and observe and record. Later, come back to this material and strengthen nouns and verbs and get rid of unnecessary modifiers.  Be suspicious of figurative language. It is your enemy.  First learn to observe.  But when you are ready to get serious, write into the form you have learned. 

How do you keep your narrative exciting?

There are tricks. Keep your main character relentlessly in pursuit of a Goal. Every chapter, every scene in every chapter, should increase risk for your character and push your character incrementally closer to a point of no return. Second, find a way to keep tension on every page. There is a misconception that tension derives only from plot, from causing the reader to keep wondering what in the world will happen next. That is only one form of tension. Tension also should be situational. Boost the sense of urgency.  Shorten the time line. Make trouble imminent. Do more to destabilize the ground situation. Make it as uncomfortable as possible for your character to stand pat. Tension also derives from contrast.  Place cynical cruelty beside innocent virtue. Place age beside youth. One of the masterpieces of 20th century literature, Lolita, is full of this kind of tension. Humbert Humbert cynically seduces the nymphet, to borrow the narrator’s own expression. There is a long tradition of this in English literature, starting with Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Joyce Carol Oates’s story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in Harper’s November 2013 places a young pretty blond seemingly naïve poet beside an aging corpulent smug even cynical Robert Frost. A contemporary, Frost could dismiss. This honesty and sincerity coming from such youthful loveliness creates a disturbance Frost cannot ignore. Tension also derives from the presence of oppositional characters. Place characters together whose values are so diametrically opposed that even when they attempt to cooperate it doesn’t end well. I found this particularly useful in Better You Go Home, Chapter Twelve, when my narrator is taken by his translator, Milada, to see the town historian. The historian is a former security apparatchik, and Milada’s father was unjustly imprisoned and tortured in the same prison where this guy worked. When the historian dismisses her father and his ilk as running dogs of the decadent bourgeoisie, you can imagine how Milada erupts. I had no idea this was going to happen when I set out to write this chapter. But when it happened, the story changed. The oppositional nature of my characters became a defining force.

During the process of writing, your chapters will go flat for you.  When this happens, close the file.  Open it again late at night.  It will seem especially dull now. Go to sleep agitated.  Wake up determined to quit writing. You are a failure.  You are dull. You are not worth the cost of ink in your printer. Now you are in the right frame of mind. Open the flat spot. Rough it up.  Add lots of sensory detail. Lots. Linger. Dwell. Slow down. Later, maybe the next day, open this file. Find the excitement in all this new detail. Throw away the boring crap that led up to it. Now write forward from this rough patch.  Surprise yourself. It’s okay.  You don’t need to quit after all. After all, the best writing happens in the rewrite, when you are convinced you are worthless.

Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to right. Can you relate to this?

A blank screen or blank sheet of paper reminds me of my first failed attempt to write a story. Blankness is intimidating, at least for me. So, I write sketches and early drafts on paper on a clipboard, but I only use scratch paper, that is, already used paper. That way I trick myself into believing that it doesn’t matter.  It was throw-away anyway. Once you have a block of writing, the terror goes away.  Now you have something tangible to work with. Same with the screen. Pull up text that you already have in a file. Have that on your screen when you start. Also, I reread and edit and tinker with material from the day before, then I surge forward.  Maybe I push the story ahead by 800 words or so.  Then I go back, look for missing details, improve a few sentences, strengthen a few verbs, just enough so that it doesn’t sound too awful, then I go forward again. This leap-frog process allows me to overcome my fear of the blank page and to have a trail of sentences behind me that isn’t too embarrassing to look at when I reopen the file the nest day. 

How do you celebrate the completion of a book?

I told my wife that when I had a contract for my novel in hand I would shave my mustache.  She and my son reminded me of that promise. But this happened after I had “finished” my manuscript.  I had written furiously on heavy rewrites right up to the point when I hit send (Coffeetown Press wanted an electronic version of the manuscript).  When I hit send, it was early September.  I suddenly felt empty, despairing.  If I didn’t have this book to devote myself to, what else mattered? Sure, there were magazine assignments to keep me busy and UW classes to start preparing for, but it’s not the same.  For months and months I had glued myself to the chair in front of my PC and screen and obsessively dwelled in the world of my novel. Now what? I felt as if I’d been exiled. No, I did not feel like celebrating. I felt like hiding. When the phone call came (some time in the second week of October) saying Coffeetown Press wanted to offer me a contract to publish my novel, then I felt like celebrating. I waited until Thanksgiving then took a really good bottle of wine (and a cigar, but, shhh, don’t breathe a word of this to my son) to Orcas Island with my wife and son and my adult daughter who was visiting form LA where she is in grad school, and there at one of the most lovely spots on earth (if you like a damp, chilly atmosphere) we officially toasted my book, and there for the first time I allowed myself to think, hey, for five minutes I could admit to being happy (like survivors of Eastern bloc horrors, I am suspicious of “happy”). 

What do you love most about the writer’s life?

The writer’s life is something that required a long apprenticeship. In my twenties I worked odd jobs and managed apartment buildings so that I could free up evenings to write. I had the writing fever, and I had books for mentors, but I also knew that I was woefully ignorant about form and structure. I vividly recall looking out the window toward Puget Sound (for two years I managed a building in Seattle’s Pike Place market that afforded a millionaire’s views, so I’d watch long tankers glide in toward the industrial docks and watch ferries lumber out to the islands and watch violent windstorms kick up waves and lash the waterfront) after a session of typing (when everyone else was asleep, and fortunately my immediate neighbors were hard of hearing), and I even realized that it was just that, a session of typing, and I wondered, how does one bridge the gap from sitting here to the fulfillment of desire if I have no notion of the path to the goal?   But I kept at it. When I had my daughter then I got serious.  I had a few stories published in literary magazines and I discovered my first writer’s critique group, and then, and only then, did I begin to feel like I had the rudiments of a writer’s life, but even that paled to going through the MFA program at the UW and winning an award, and seeing a few more stories published.  By then I was divorced and the writer’s life was squeezed around lots of other stress.  I started writing for magazines because I needed to make some money and I started teaching occasionally and I was into that routine before it occurred to me, hey, wait a minute, is this what you imagined when you were staring out at the windy Puget Sound? (It wasn’t.  I had imagined acclaim, speaking engagements, travel, shaking hands with fawning admirers.) Now that my novel is out, I have had a couple young writers independently (they don’t know each other) say to me: hey, what you have, X number of years from now, that’s what I want. This took me aback.  I hadn’t realized that I could say I have a writer’s life. What I didn’t tell them was that even now I could not continue this writer’s life without the very generous support of my wife. (Or my family would be living much like I did when I was in my 20s, minus the Millionaire’s view). 

Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?

Go to: www.scott-driscoll.com or http://scottdriscollblogs.wordpress.com or look me up at www.coffeetownpress.com. 

Where is your book available?

www.coffeetownpress.com or:
Bookstores/Libraries: Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Partners West, Midwest Library Service, Follett Library Resources; eBooks: Overdrive, Kobo and other major retailers; for more information or to order direct, contact info@coffeetownpress.com 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author?

This support has been absolutely critical to me so I’d say negotiate. Often the one who is writing is not the one earning the most money for the household, and that often also means they have more childcare duties and less respect for their time. In order to make time for the writing, I feel it is critical to schedule blocks of time, as if it were a job, and to make sure that the spouse understands that this time is inviolable, no different than time at the office. Whether you produce quantities of pages or not is irrelevant.  Sitting at your desk, or wherever you go with your laptop, musing, tinkering, sketching, observing, daydreaming, this is all part of the process. But take time to learn form. Once you learn to write into form, you will have something eventually to show for your time. Also, remind your spouse that devoting this time to writing creates a flow of empathy that benefits all. 

George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

I would amend what Orwell said. It should read: “Thinking about writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” The writing is life itself. Anyone who’s written books will tell you they feel more intensely alive when writing than when not. Living in the world of the imagination can be powerfully addictive. Yes, it’s horrible when it doesn’t go well, and yes rejection is painful, but ah, the writing, the passion it arouses, the feelings it conjures, the insights it reveals. Aside from the love of loved ones, what could be better?





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The last time I’d cried because of a book was years ago and the culprit was Marley and MeCrazy Quilt is such a different book yet so alike in many ways. Both deal with death and loss, both are incredibly moving stories, and both remind us how short and precious life is. 

The story begins when our protagonist, Flora Adams, decides to visit her hometown of Lubbock, Texas, following her recent breast cancer treatment. In a way, she’s running away from a dull marriage and from her newly near encounter with death. However, unexpected events compel her to stay in Muleshoe, a little town in the New Mexican border. There, her life becomes entangled with a quirky, wise old man who’s dying of cancer and who’s being evicted from his home, as well as with his troubled teenaged granddaughter. By helping the old man through this difficult time and by becoming a mother figure to the girl, Flora is able, at least partly, to heal herself and deal with her own fears. Ultimately, she’s able to empower herself and find the courage to live her life to her full potential, based on what she really wants and needs and not on somebody else’s agenda. 

I absolutely loved Crazy Quilt. Not only is the prose beautiful and interlaced with vivid images and perceptive observations about life and death, but the characters are so incredibly real and compelling that I felt myself there with them, sharing their emotions and tribulations. There are also segments and lines of dialogue that are straight-out funny and made me laugh out loud–a nice relief from the usual heavyness of the subject. This is a novel that will make you ponder, will make you cry and will make you have those “A-ha” moments. Once in a while a novel comes along that has so much substance it makes you think about your own life. This is one of those novels, and one you won’t forget in a long time. Highly recommended. 

Visit the author’s website.

Purchase from Amazon or University of New Mexico Press

My review originally appeared in Blogcritics

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Magdalena Ball’s latest novel, Black Cow, is the engrossing, poignant story of a family trying to spiritually survive in a world ruled by materialism.

James and Freya Archer live in one of Sydney’s poshest suburbs. Together with their teenaged children, Cameron and Dylan, they live the good life surrounded by luxuries and everything money can buy. James has an executive position in a top firm, drives a Jaguar and wears Gucci silk ties. Freya works in real estate–not that she needs the sporadic commissions, as James’ corporate career allows her to enjoy weekly manicures and beauty salons, tanning sessions and $900 bags. Cameron and Dylan have the latest smartphones and laptops.

Yet, are they happy? Far from it.

The family is trapped in an endless cycle of “consumption without limits” where money and possessions have become dangerous obsessions rather than a means to happiness. The kids have no idea what money is, as if the coins and bills fall automatically from the sky. They waste food, throwing away platefuls and buying more:

“It was a consumption binge: an endless cycle of buy and chuck out.”

The kids, always hooked to their electronic gadgets, don’t even raise their eyes to greet their parents when they come from school, lost in their own virtual realities and always in a bad mood in spite of their ample allowances and all their latest goodies.

Freya is profoundly frustrated by her real estate job and by the fact that she must be a constant actress in order to pimp for houses. James, on the other hand, is constantly tortured by stress. He often complains of shoulder pain, headache, stomach upset. As if that isn’t enough, he drinks way too much alcohol on a daily basis. Freya knows that something is definitely wrong. She also knows she must do something before it’s too late.

The one day James suffers a nervous breakdown: depression, exhaustion, his hands and feet jerking spasmodically. He’s had a close call, but what will it be next time? A stroke? A heart attack?

What James and Freya crave is simplicity, going back to basics. What they crave is change. With this in mind, they decide to leave the city and all their luxuries and try their luck in a remote farmhouse in the peaceful island of Tasmania.

“Life was too short, and before you knew it, after a lifetime of putting off what matters, the family you love have grown and you’ve forgotten who you are…”

But will it work? What is real happiness? Is it a state of mind unrelated to location?

I really enjoyed reading this novel. I have been reading nothing but genre fiction lately, so this was definitely refreshing. Black Cow is the absorbing, moving story of a family trying to stay together in a world full of consumerism, a place devoid of spirituality and deep emotional connections. This is a tale that will make you pause and ponder about the quality of your own life. Ball writes with skilful perception and attention to human emotions and motivations. The characters, especially those of James and Freya, are deftly drawn, real people with fears and tribulations and especially, filled with contradictory feelings about what they think they want and what they need out of life. They’re devoid of idealism. Our society is a force that shapes us all, and Ball shows this through her characters, telling it as it is, with its own ugly realities. Most readers will identify with James and Freya and their predicament. I especially enjoyed Freya’s and James’ inner monologues and their takes on life. Ultimately, Black Cow gives us hope.

Get the book:


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As a book reviewer, I get anywhere from fifty to one hundred review requests a week. Of these, I might accept five or so. While I do occasionally take nonfiction books, most of what I accept will be in the genre known as literary fiction. But just what is literary fiction? What differentiates literary fiction from what most publishers class as commercial or genre oriented fiction, and why am I biased towards it? It’s a question I get asked regularly. Some, like author David Lubar (“A Guide to Literary Fiction,” 2002) equate the label with work that is pompous, dull, plotless, and overly academic: “If you’re ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there’s a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.” Publishers often use this label for work which defies other genre distinctions, eg it isn’t romance, isn’t “chick-lit,” isn’t science or speculative fiction, isn’t a thriller, action, or political drama. It is meant to denote a fiction which is of higher quality, richer, denser, or, as the literary fiction book club states, work which “can make us uncomfortable or can weave magic.” These distinctions aren’t always clear, and there are some superb exceptions to the genre rule, such as Margaret Atwood or China Mieville, whose high quality work fits the speculative fiction genre, or Umberto Eco and Iain Pears, whose work is full of mystery and suspense. All writers feel that their work is high quality, and most write fiction with the goal of producing great work. So how can we ensure that our work is literary fiction rather than some other form? Here are five tips to guide writers who are inclined to produce literary fiction:

1. Aim for transcendency. The one quality which seems to be present in abundance in literary fiction and much less so in other forms, is what agent and author Noah Lukeman calls “transcendency.” It isn’t easy to define, and in his exceptional book, The Plot Thickens (St Martin’s Press, 2002), Lukeman presents a number of points, such as multidimensional characters and circumstances, room for interpretation, timelessness, relatability, educational elements, self discovery, and lasting impression. I would say that transcendency equates to depth, to writing which does more than entertain its readers, and instead, changes something, however small, in the way they perceive themselves. How do you get transcendency in fiction? With a deep theme, deep and powerful characters, complex plots, and exceptional writing skills. Sound easy?

2. Read quality literature. This is a lot easier than transcendency, though not unrelated. Since achieving literary fiction is a subtle and difficult thing, you’ve got to develop your literary senses. The best way of doing that is to read books which fit this genre. If you want to create literary fiction, chances are, you probably are already reading it. These are books by the writers we call “great.” Your list of names may differ from mine, but these are the writers who win prizes like the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Commonwealth Prize, and the National Book Award to name just a few. The more great literature you read, the better able you will become at recognising the elements which make a fiction literary.

3. Don’t get defensive! Lubar’s article is lots of fun, but literary fiction isn’t meant to be snobbish, academic, plotless, or boring in any way; just well crafted. That may be daunting if you are a writer, but it won’t help your work to shrug off quality by calling it dull or unachievable.

4. Re-write. This may be the single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction. Work which is timeless takes time. There’s no other way to achieve literary fiction than re-writing, dozens, and maybe many more, times. It isn’t glamorous, nor is re-writing dependent on a muse or inspiration like the first draft is. It is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to the story. This process cannot occur solely in the fingers of the author. Every writer of literary fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can provide the kind of objective advice which will transform your inspiration into a stunning creation.

5. Don’t stress about it! Of course there is no point in worrying so much that you get writer’s block (and if you do, get hold of Jenna’s terrific book on the topic 🙂 . If you read great books, write fiction which is true to your own creative vision, and revise (with feedback from others) until the work is as perfect as you can make it, you will produce literary fiction. That’s all there is to it. Writing a novel is about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances, thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you can’t stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and your work will have transcendency. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing it!

Magdalena Ball
runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything and three other poetry chapbooks Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks.

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