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.