My local library has a Writer in Residence program, which means that they periodically invite published authors to hold office hours to help aspiring authors. Right now, it's Bill Kongisberg. Last week, on my way to find poetry on the second floor, I saw him sitting in a large conference room alone. I remembered reading that he was the Writer in Residence on the library website, so I popped my head in and said hi!
Just saying "hi!"
Sweaty from riding my bike to the library, I didn't want to stay long. I literally planned on poking my head in and saying hi, but Bill was super nice and invited me to sit and chat with him. I told him that I attended his reading back in November. He asked me what I do, and I told him that I'm a creative writing student and ESL teacher, and that I have written "some stuff." He asked me what kind of stuff, so I admitted that I mostly had poems (due to the fact that recently finished a poetry class), but I wanted to write more fiction. That's when he invited me to come back. We made an appointment for the following Wednesday.
The day of the appointment, I prepared a short list of questions and decided on 3 poems I wanted him to read, and then headed to the library. My loud flip-flops and I entered the conference room at approximately 2:00pm. It's a good thing I was right on time because he said he had someone else coming in at 2:30pm, so we got right to work...
Q and A
I started with my list of questions. Right now, I'm super interested in the writing process, so most of my questions revolved around that. Steven King writes about how it's a lonely journey, "like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bath tub," but my creative writing teacher says it's mostly collaborative, so I asked Bill what he thought. He said he agreed with both perspectives and said that at times it can feel lonely, but other times there's a lot of in-put from other people, mostly from an agent and close friends.
How long did it take you to write/publish your first book?
Bill says he finished his first draft of Out of Pocket in 2003, and it took him about 6 months to write the first draft; it sold in 2006 and was published in 2009. "So, yeah, it took a while!"
Do you outline your story? Tell me more about that process.
Bill says that there's "plotting" and "pants-ing" (aka "writing on the seat of your pants.") The first is quite structured, where you outline the major events of the story, and the other is open and a sort of discover-as-you-go kind of thing. He says it's good to do a bit of both, but advises letting the characters lead you through the story whenever possible. "Be excited about what you're doing!"
What revision strategies do you use to write your books?
"It's always different," he said, but he usually does it like this:
Day 1- Write Chapter 1
Day 2- Revise Chapter 1; Write Chapter 2
Day 3- Revise Chapter 2; Write Chapter 3.... etc.
Even though there's a bit of revision happening all along, he doesn't consider the first draft done until the book is done.
Who do you ask 1st to read your book?
Bill says he shares the book with his agent first. Before he had an agent, however, he shared with his critique group. "Be very careful who is in your group," Bill cautions. "... if you're sensitive like me, I take criticism seriously and what they say could stop me from finishing the book..." He says he looks for friends who are openminded. Even if they don't like what he's writing, he appreciates it when his test-readers can respect his ideas and ask good questions about the book. For example, "where they get confused," etc.
I asked a follow up question: Do you share one chapter at a time or the whole thing? He says it's usually just the whole book. Bill confides, "I just want to share things my characters say!" But admits that most people just don't really care about that. They want the whole thing.
Discussing my poem
Even though I prepared 3 poems for Bill to look at, we only had time for one. I think, however, many of his suggestions for the one poem will spill over into the other three. Right now I'm working on a packet of poems to submit for publication, and I showed him one that I workshopped in my Intro to Poetry class and am hoping to include in my submissions.
The power of specificity
We talked extensively about the power of being specific. He pointed out some moments in my poem where I was specific. These were the moments where he became interested in my ideas. He referred me to his recent blog post about using specificity in our writing. I agree that there is power in using the good, descriptive nouns.
Show verses Tell
On a related topic, we talked a bit about the struggle we face as writers when deciding on the best words. As writers, we both know that it's better to show, than tell. I wouldn't say, for example, "my dad is humble." Rather, I'd show him being humble, right? We get that. Humility is the feeling Bill got with one of my specific images in my poem, and that's what I was intending. So success, right? Sure! But it gets complicated unpacking feelings in images.
For example, Bill asked me what I meant when I wrote that the dad in the poem "drinks a 44 oz coke." It's a good specific moment, but he wondered what that image is supposed to tell readers about the character in my poem. I didn't have an answer right away, mostly because it was so long ago when I wrote that specific image. I couldn't remember what abstract feeling (love, humility, hate, jealousy...) I was attempting to show.
This led us into a discussion about whether or not every image in a piece of work should have an abstract feeling associated with it and whether or not as a writer I'm responsible for the feelings readers interpret from the images I write. Bill says that we can't control the emotions of our readers (and we wouldn't want to anyway!). It's better to "allow the imagination" to do it's thing, and not force-feed abstracts to our readers (aka: telling).
I ended up asking him, in general, what his reaction was to reading particular images in my poem, and that proved to be helpful. His reaction was mostly in-sync with my purpose in writing. We pin-pointed a couple spots where I could improve the writing further, and wrapped up our session together.
I had an excellent meeting with Bill Kongisberg, and I want to publicly thank him for taking the time to inspire me and discuss the craft of writing on a hot Wednesday afternoon.
Post originally published 6/4/15
Actually, I hate horror. I hate gore. But Stephen King is my best friend. He really is. At least, it feels like it now that I finally read his book, On Writing. The first half is a memoir. He basically says (and I'm paraphrasing), "Look, I don't know how people become famous authors. I just know my story." He goes through and talks about his life, where and how he first started writing, etc.
The second half is solid advice on writing. He knows what he's talking about! And he makes it interesting!
Here are 5 things I've learned about writing from my new best friend, Stephen King:
1. To be a successful writer, you HAVE TO read a lot!
Here's a quote: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer's life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows..."
2. Every story starts with a "what-if" question.
"What if vampires invaded a small England village? ('Salem's Lot)
What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)
What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Cliborne)
What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cajon)
These were all situations which occurred to me while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk-- and which I eventually turned into books."
3. Avoid adverbs. (These are the words that modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs and usually end in _ly.)
"I believe," Stephen King says, "the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day... fifty the day after... and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions..."
4. For the first draft, write with the "door shut."
"With the door shut, downloading what's in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub...The great thing about writing with the door shut is that you find yourself forced to concentrate on story to the exclusion of practically everything else. No one can ask you 'What were you trying to express with Garfield's dying words?' or 'What's the significance of the green dress?' You may not have been trying to express anything with Garfield's dying words, and Maura could be wearing green only because that's what you saw when she came into sight in your mind's eye... you are less apt to slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing... being wonderful, for instance, instead of telling the goddam story."
5. Write for the "Ideal Reader."
"Do all opinions weigh the same? Not for me. In the end I listen most closely to Tabby (Stephen King's wife) because she's the one I writer for, the one I want to wow. If you're writing primary for one person besides yourself, I'd advise you to pay very close attention to that person's opinion... And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can't let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter most. And you should...."
Yep. Stephen King is my newest best friend.
I'm only sorry that On Writing is the first and only book I've read of his. But, it's exactly what I needed right now to get my butt in gear. Publishing fiction has been my life long dream. I have the tools. I have the advice. Now it's time to get to work. My door is shut for now, but I'll let you know when I've got something, and you can bet that my best friend will be proud of me, for I won't be using adverbs, and I'll be thinking and focusing on story not theme and writing for that Ideal Reader.
I don't want to sound like Reading Rainbow or anything, but if you're a writer (or hope to be), On Writing by Stephen King is the book for you, and you can make the master of horror your best friend, too.
Post first published November 2013
Blogging can be a chore. I forgot that. Deciding on a domain, finding the right layout, thinking of the right themes, deciding on audience, and actually making the time to sit down and write something. Yeah, a chore. So why do we do it? I can't speak for other bloggers. But I'll tell you why I want to blog again.
1. I'm a writer, and writers need readers
I started scribbling words on paper as soon as I could hold a crayon or pen. I'd write stories. Funny, sad, charming, or sometimes serious.
After I'd written something, I'd bully my friends in the neighborhood into listening to what I wrote. My parents and sisters were good audience members, too. I always found joy in having someone read what I wrote. Sometimes I got unwanted criticism, but I still enjoyed sharing. When I got to college, I kept writing. This time, not only fiction, but also academic essays. I got good at it. In fact, I became a writing tutor. I still tutor. I teach writing as a profession, too. I teach my students the importance of audience. I tell them, "writers need readers. Period. We grow and learn as we share our work."
For me, blogging is a spiffy way to find readers outside the circle of 5 friends I usually share my writing with. The more readers a writer has, the happier the writer is, I think.
2. Practice makes perfect.
It feels good to know you're good at something, yeah? Well, I'm a good writer. But I could be better. And the way to get better at something is to practice. Blogging gives me that chance to write. I used to blog consistently, every week in fact. It was amazing to see how much I improved.
3. It's my dream to publish.
Like many writers, I've read books that have impacted me powerfully. I read Anne of Green Gables, the Narnia Chronicles, The Lord of the Rings, all of Roald Dahl books and much more growing up. I was blessed to have parents who read to me, and then I started reading everything I could get my hands on at the library.
These books made me think differently about topics or sometimes even changed the way I wanted to live my life. Such power. Who wouldn't want that? An example of this was when I read The Outsiders in Junior High. I learned that dangers of cliques and the power of true friendship.
I want to publish because it's permanent. Even after I die, those words will be there, and it can impact people even after I'm gone, make them think differently or want to live their lives differently. It's like leaving a piece of me for generations to come, my little contribution to society. It's a way to be remembered. A way to claim, "yes! I was here! I had ideas! I had stories to tell! I was awesome!"
It's been a while since I've blogged. Probably about a year or more. I've shifted blog domains so many times, it's ridiculous. I'm reading up on ways to improve my blog. I'm setting goals to blog more regularly. Good steps in the right direction, yeah?