Notes on Craft &
the Creative Process

Nothing is Ever Lost

December 9th, 2010 by bakerkline

In which the writer Mark Trainer explains how old ideas can spring to life when you least expect it:

One of my writing teachers way back when, George Garrett, used to say of being a writer, "Nothing is ever lost."  He meant it as comfort when every lit mag under the sun had rejected your story.  Just because you can't make use of it now doesn't mean you won't be able to years down the road.  It's true for the ideas we have for stories as well.  The first story I published originated with a single sentence I discovered in some notebooks (otherwise terrible) that I'd written when I was fourteen or fifteen.

The story that St. Martins Press has just published as an e-book, New Wife, had an even longer gestation.  I'm not proud of this, but during college some friends and I used to watch a soap opera during lunch—okay, it was All My Children.  When they change one of the actors on a soap -- just before her first appearance -- there's usually a voice-over that says, "The part of Alexis Stone [or whoever] is now being played by Jane Smith."  But if you miss the day when this announcement is made, you tune in next time to see a stranger being treated as though she is Alexis.  Alexis's children hug this unfamiliar person and call her Mommy.  All the family pictures used for set decoration now include this person, as though the former actor had never existed.  I remember thinking back then that it would be interesting to transpose that situation onto the real world. Maybe it would make a good skit for SNL or something.  It just took 25 years to find the context that would give this idea resonance.

Here's a strange and dangerous thing: The ideas that have worked the best in this way are the ones I never wrote down.  Maybe it's because they seemed more like gags than the seeds of Literary Fiction.  Sometimes even in the simple act of jotting down an idea, you limit it in some way, give it a point of view and a context that fix it in the place it was found rather than letting it find the place it wants to go.

Late last spring, I found myself thinking about a couple of much older friends suffering from memory loss and dementia.  It led me to think how delicate the mental threads are that connect us to the people closest to us, and how we forget some things exactly because we never imagined we could forget them.  The name of your best friend's husband or the lyric to a favorite song will temporarily slip away because they're so familiar you haven't taken any steps to fix in them in your memory.  I have elaborate systems in place to make sure I remember where my glasses are, but nothing to make sure I remember my daughter's face.

I was sitting in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill across from my wife, both of us staring into computers.  Could the misfiring of a couple of neurons, I thought to myself as I looked over the table, make me forget you?  And then I'd be like that viewer watching the soap opera, wondering why everyone was pretending that this stranger was my wife.  I wrote the first few paragraphs and then realized the meter on our parking space was about to run out.  (And a note about titles: I had to save the file as something as we rushed out; “New Wife” was the product of half a second's thought, but it never got changed.)

The rest of the writing was a process of following a small idea to its logical conclusion, placing an odd premise in a context that's as recognizable and ordinary as most of our daily lives.  If my character doesn't recognize his wife, what about his son?  Will he forget him too?  Wouldn't he have to manage his job, his household chores, and everything else while he wonders why no one else thinks this woman isn't who she's supposed to be? And is there a reason for all this forgetting?  Is there any way to turn it around?  I felt like I'd come a long way from the soap-opera-casting premise and found a way to express something about how we incorporate our past into our present.

It's a great feeling to find a good use for something that's been kicking around your writer's toolbox for years.  Better still when it's something you could so easily have forgotten.  And yet you didn't.

Mark Trainer (@marktrainer on Twitter) is a writer living on Capitol Hill.  His stories have appeared in The Mississippi Review, Shenandoah, Brain, Child, and elsewhere.  His nonfiction has appeared in The Washington Post.

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Beast of Burden

September 27th, 2010 by bakerkline

You may have noticed that I haven't posted much lately.  Keeping a blog is like having a pet -- it requires constant maintenance.  And when I wasn't deep into writing my novel, I derived a lot of pleasure from it (and still do, in sporadic bursts).  But working on a novel is like having a newborn baby.  It keeps you up at night, it needs constant feeding, it's unpredictable and exhausting.  And like new parents who find that the frisky puppy that brought them  so much pleasure before the baby came along has begun to feel like a burden, with its manic energy and constant need for attention, I find myself wishing that someone else would feed and walk this bloggy beast for me.

So I've decided -- as I work toward my early 2011 novel deadline -- to give myself a break.  I'll still post when I'm inspired, most likely once or twice a week, and when other writers send me fabulous pieces.  (I have a few in the hopper now.)  If you subscribe by email -- see the button at right -- you'll be alerted when there's a new post. And I'll point my readers toward other blogs by writers that I love.  Alice Elliott Dark, wise woman/fiction guru, has only posted twice so far, but her new blog, Walks with Dogs (appropriately enough), is already on my list of favorites.  Louise DeSalvo, memoirist and mentor, provides thoughtful meditations on writing at WritingaLife.  And I stumbled on novelist Janet Fitch's wonderful blog when someone sent me her "Ten Writing Tips that Can Help Almost Anyone" (yes, it's true, they can).

Meanwhile I'll continue to feed and walk my own blog-dog, just not so often or with such guilt when I don't.  And in the spring, when the baby is sleeping through the night, I'll have more energy for the beast.  For now, he can sleep at my feet while I'm writing, dreaming bloggy dreams.

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Write a Book Proposal that SELLS

September 21st, 2010 by bakerkline

Several months ago I did a webinar for SheWrites on how to write and sell a book proposal, and had a great time doing it.  (I even learned how to do a PowerPoint presentation -- yes, I have finally entered the 21st century.)  Over the past ten years I've written and edited dozens of book proposals, and almost all of them have sold to major publishers.  (I would say "all," but some are still circulating, knock on wood.)  Today -- Tuesday, Sept. 22nd, 1-2 pm -- I'm doing an updated version of this webinar, incorporating new information about the current book market and addressing questions that arose in the first session. I'll also talk about:

the essential elements of every successful book proposal
• how to craft an attention-getting query letter
• the most effective ways to differentiate yourself from similar projects
• the bells and whistles to
avoid
• how to write a persuasive three-to-five page pitch
• the 10 things you can do to make your proposal stand out

So if you have an idea for a book or a proposal underway, come on over and join the webinar.   Click the link above for more information.  Hope to *see* you there!

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A New Twist to a Familiar Story

September 9th, 2010 by bakerkline

Karen Essex talks about how she reclaimed -- and reframed -- the vampire myth by exploring its female origins in her new novel, Dracula in Love:

From the first time I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula in my teens, I just knew that Mina was not satisfied with her role as the quintessential Victorian virgin. Little did I dream that many years later, I would actually revise the story, retelling it from Mina’s perspective.

Though Stoker’s Dracula was a brilliant creation and a haunting story, when it came to the women, he wrote like a man of his time, constructing the typical paradigm of bad girl (Lucy Westenra, who succumbs to the vampire’s seduction) versus the good girl (Mina Harker, who does not).  The vampire’s kiss was a thinly veiled metaphor for—you guessed it—sex.   In the pre-feminist construct, the bad girl is punished; the good girl rewarded.

My ambition for Dracula in Love was to turn the original story inside out. I wanted to give Mina and Lucy rich, full lives, as well as plausible inner lives that made sense in the era in which they lived, but also reflected the breadth of women’s desires. I researched late Victorian art, culture, costume, design, sexual and social mores, religious beliefs, and laws concerning the rights, or lack thereof, of women.  I moved to London so that I could haunt its streets and its museums, breathing in the atmosphere as I wrote.  Walking in the footsteps of the characters is a crucial part of my process, so I also traveled to southern Austria and the west coast of Ireland, where I set Mina’s birthplace.

Those who have read Dracula know that a good portion of the book takes place in an insane asylum.  This is also true of Dracula in Love, but I wanted to recreate the asylum as it would have been in the late Victorian era—not inhabited by an insect-eating vampire slave like Stoker’s Renfield, but full of women, committed for having what we today would consider normal sexual attitudes and desires.  Because these asylum scenes are crucial to both the plot and the themes of my book, I scoured the archives of late 19th century insane asylums.  I also studied the Victorian fascination with the metaphysical.

In the process of my research, I unearthed a wealth of information that became a major theme: vampires have a long history dating back to pre-biblical times, and many of the blood drinkers of myth were female, symbolic of feminine magic and power.

Digging deeper into world mythologies, I became fascinated by these bloodsucking goddesses and monsters.  These are the bad girls of mythology—the fearsome Indian goddess Kali who punished and possessed her enemies by drinking their blood; the vengeful, child-eating, blood-drinking Lamia of Greece and North Africa; Lilith, Adam’s Mesopotamian wife who drank blood in vengeance; and the blood-lusting warrior fairy queens of Ireland.

So if the original blood-drinkers were females, then why was Stoker’s Dracula male?  For one thing, mythological stories rarely follow a straight line.  Myths are reinvented in every culture, adapted to the needs and beliefs of the people and the times.  Through the millennia, concepts of vampires shape-shifted.  They were thought to be spirits of women who had been witches; angry plague victims risen from the dead; victims of crime come back to suck the blood of the perpetrators; and succubi who visited men in the night, draining them of their life force (the male spirits who did similar harm to slumbering females are known as incubi).

But power, supernatural or otherwise, was the last thing the Victorians wanted women to possess.  In the Victorian mind, women were pure and innocent creatures who must remain protected, shielded from worldly life.  To accommodate this mentality, writers like Bram Stoker turned the predatory vampire into a male, giving him preternatural powers, while women became his victims.

Suddenly it was the male vampire roaming the foggy, narrow streets of London threatening lovely young ladies.  With Dracula in Love, it was my joy and privilege to give Mina deep hidden desires and a paranormal past of her own to discover and embrace.  The good girl has some very “bad” moments for which she is not punished.  The old paradigms turn upside down, returning the women to that place of power lost somewhere in the centuries since Lilith and the Lamia roamed the earth, taking their bloody revenge and causing men to quake with fear – and quiver with excitement.

Karen Essex is the author of Kleopatra, Pharaoh, Stealing Athena, and the international bestseller Leonardo’s Swans, which won Italy’s prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction.  She graduated from Tulane University, attended graduate school at Vanderbilt, and received an MFA from Goddard College.  An award-winning journalist and a screenwriter, she lives in London and Los Angeles.

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Moving Day

July 29th, 2010 by bakerkline

Welcome to the new home for my blog, next door to my website.  After today, I won't post to my old 'wordpress.com' site anymore.  I know this site looks a little different.  I'd love to hear what you think.

I have an exciting line-up of guest writers in the next month, including literary agent Molly Lyons on how to have the best relationship possible with your agent, Martin Kihn on writing "yet another non-fiction book proposal for a memoir about (yawn) a man and his dog," and Donald Maas on inspiring in the reader a sense of awe.  So subscribe asap (using the button at the right) -- or bookmark it, or add it to your favorite sites.  (Your subscription to the old site doesn't automatically transfer.)

I've always intended this site to be for writers, about writing.  And now that I'm starting fresh, I'm inspired to open it up even more.  Let me know what YOU want to read about.  More about the lit biz?  More about books that inspire?  More funny pieces?  Shorter pieces? Longer ones?  Send me your questions and ideas, and I'll use them as prompts for posts -- my own and others'. And if you want to contribute to the site -- with a quote about writing that you love, an observation, an anecdote -- just let me know.  Let's share our wealth of knowledge.

Thanks for sticking with me and growing my wordpress site so much.  In the past year I've had nearly 100,000 visitors -- pretty great, I think, for a little blog I started for fun ...

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Great Writing

July 16th, 2010 by bakerkline

Justin Kramon didn’t think he was qualified to call himself a writer. And then he thought about his favorite books, and had a change of heart:

For some reason, I used to have the perception that writers should be interesting, well-rounded, generally knowledgeable people. I got this idea before I’d met any writers, and certainly before I started trying to become one. In fact, my perception of writers was a big obstacle to writing, because – and I have to be completely honest here – I’m not that interesting, am poorly rounded, and most of what I have to offer in the way of knowledge concerns the time it takes to heat various foods in the microwave.

A few years ago, I’d started working on a novel, but it hadn’t come alive. The voice was wooden and the characters seemed predictable, too polite with each other. It was like watching my novel through a window. I wanted to get in there and tickle everyone.

The problem, I realized, was that I wanted to be a good writer. I wanted to sound like the writers everyone had been telling me were great writers, the best writers, the important writers. A lot of these writers happened to be men, and happened to write in wise, commanding, and slightly formal styles. Reading them made me feel like a slow runner in sixth-grade gym, sweating and hyperventalating while everyone else rushed by. They were doing something I could never do, that I wasn’t built to do.

But these great writers were not actually the writers I most enjoyed reading. Picking up their books was more of a responsibility than a pleasure. The writers I loved, the writers who had meant most to me, who had entertained me and stuck with me and let me lose myself in their books – this was a completely different list.

So one morning, when I couldn’t face my own fledgling novel, I decided to make a list of writers I loved. One of the writers that immediately jumped to mind was Alice Adams, who died in the late-1990’s and unfairly seems to have fallen off the map. She wrote some of the most entertaining and insightful books I’ve read, including the novel Superior Women and a story collection called To See You Again. I can’t think of many writers I’d rather sit down and read than Alice Adams. Her books are so absorbing that I feel like I’m reading gossip from a close friend, about people I actually know, except the writing is so much funnier and clearer and more beautiful than any gossip I’ve ever read. John Irving is another one. I love his intricate plots, the slightly larger-than-life characters, the comic set pieces, and the sense of bigness and adventure in all his novels. I think of Irving’s books, as I do of Charles Dickens’s, as treasure chests of ideas and characters and funny moments.

Making this list helped me let go a little bit of the desire to be important. I realized that these are the kinds of books I want to write – books filled with unforgettable characters, books that give me an almost childlike sense of wonder. I started a new novel, Finny, with a narrator whose voice is informal, quirky, a little devilish. Finny’s voice made me laugh, and I honestly cared about her and wanted to see what would happen to her, the people she’d meet, the man she would fall in love with.

Part of the process of becoming a writer has been acknowledging my own limitations, the things I don’t know about. And also being honest: about what I like, what I enjoy, what moves me. To be truthful, I don’t enjoy research. I’m not all that interested in history, and even though I try to stay informed, I’m not ardent about politics. I don’t get a huge kick from philosophical or intellectual discussions. I’m interested in psychology, food, loss, sex, death, awkward social situations, and I’m passionate about the subject of why people are as annoying as they are. I may not win a Nobel Prize for this, but it’s the only kind of novel I can write. Making my list, I saw that what I wanted to do was write books that people love reading, that make them laugh and cry, and that allow me to bring a little of myself into the world.

Justin Kramon is the author of the novel Finny (Random House), which was published on Tuesday. Now twenty-nine years old, he lives in Philadelphia. You can find out more about Justin and contact him through his website, www.justinkramon.com. You can watch a book trailer for Finny here, and you can access Justin's blog for writers here.


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How Do You Become Someone Else?

July 14th, 2010 by bakerkline

The writer Elizabeth Strout, explaining what it's like to write from the point of view of an irascible retired schoolteacher in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge:

"I actually see myself in all my characters.  In order to imagine what it feels like to be another person I have to use my own experiences and responses to the world.  I have to play attention to what I have felt and observed, then push those responses to an extreme while keeping the story within the realm of being psychologically and emotionally true.  Many times after writing a story or a novel, I will suddenly think, oh, I'm feeling what (for example), Olive would feel.  But in fact the process has worked the other way."

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Stop! Before You Try to Get an Agent …

July 7th, 2010 by bakerkline

Molly Lyons of the Joelle Delbourgo Literary Agency on the questions agents wish you’d ask yourself before you send a query or a manuscript:

As an agent, I see proposals and manuscripts at all stages.  Some of them are just a glimmer of an idea hidden inside a lot of text; some are polished to a gleam, ready to be sent out to publishers. Often it’s difficult to see the potential in the projects I’m sent because their authors haven’t asked themselves a few crucial questions.

So before you press the “send” button (or address that SASE), take a few minutes to answer the following. It may help your query shine – and get you an agent.  Or it may convince you that there’s a better way for you to go.

  1. What’s my end goal? Securing a publishing contract with a big publisher is only one way to get your story out into the world.  If your aim is to, say, record your family history for future generations, self-publishing may  make the most sense – and you don’t even need an agent for that. If you already know your core audience is a narrow interest group that congregates on a few websites, then it may make more sense to find a digital way to distribute your work.  Again, no agent needed.
  2. Who is my audience? Sometimes this is easy to answer — men with heart disease, for example. At other times, it’s trickier to know where your manuscript fits in. But if you can’t figure it out, it’s going to be that much harder to attract an agent. Spend some time researching those books and how to reach those readers before you send out your query.
  3. How can I reach my readers? Finishing a manuscript or a proposal is an accomplishment in itself, but unfortunately, it’s only part of your job as an author. You’ll also need to know how to effectively market and publicize the work once it’s on the shelves. This ability, known as your “platform,” is the first thing publishers measure after the book’s description. No one expects a first-time author to have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, for example (though it can’t hurt!). But make some efforts to reach out to potential readers before you send a query to an agent. A potential client who is at the very least aware of the need, and ready to take on the challenge, of building a platform will get a second look.
  4. Has my manuscript been read by sharp critics? Query letters that tell me the novel was written in three months, or that I’m the first to read it, make me wary from the start.   Sure, the proposal or manuscript may have been proofread by a friend or spouse, but has someone objective looked at it with a critical eye? Your work is personal, but it has to stand up to challenges at every stage. A trusted, critical reader can help point out weaknesses so you can submit the most polished manuscript possible.
  5. Have I done my homework? I get endless queries for horror, thriller and romance novels despite the fact that our website shows I don’t represent horror, thriller or romance novels. I know it’s tempting —especially in the age of email queries — to say, “Why not?  You never know, maybe this thriller will be the one for her,” but in the end, it just will mean one more rejection for me to write and for you to get — and no one likes rejection.  Each agency has different guidelines, and most agents have websites or carefully fill out their profiles in agency listings.  You should always check them out to see how they like to receive queries.  When I find a query that is well written, thoughtful and thorough, it’s like finding a piece of buried treasure in my inbox.

Molly Lyons began her career as a magazine editor and writer, which informs her approach to agenting — from developing manuscripts and proposals to positioning clients in the marketplace and helping shape their careers. Molly is interested in strong voices, stories that tell universal truths in highly personal ways, and entertaining books that offer solid information.

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Oh Happy Day!

July 1st, 2010 by bakerkline

This is the official release date for the paperback of my new novel, Bird in Hand. To celebrate, I wrote about writing, life, and the pursuit of happiness for Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful blog, The Happiness Project. One of my favorite questions she asked was, “What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?” (Long-time readers of this blog can probably guess my answer!)

I’m also launching a redesign of my website today, and even of this blog, ditching my old WordPress URL and finally getting a grown-up domain name of my own. You can still find me at this address, but it’s a little swankier over there.

I’m really happy that my paperback is out in the world. (I always feel a little twinge about asking people to cough up money for a hardcover.) I’m delighted with my website, which was designed by the extraordinarily patient and good-humored Steffen Rasile of sra design studios. And I’m so pleased that my blog finally has a permanent home.

One of the best things I’ve learned from Gretchen is to “grab those moments of happiness as they wing by.” So here I am, grabbing the moment. And doing a little happy dance.

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What We Don’t Know We Know

June 28th, 2010 by admin

The novelist Gayle Brandeis wrote about a traumatic and terrible event.  And then it happened to her in real life.

Several months ago, as I was proofreading my new novel, Delta Girls, a sentence I wrote last year kicked me in the gut:

“My mother killed herself, you know.”

It took me a moment to remember how to breathe again. I had not recalled writing that sentence, had not recalled that this was part of a character’s history, part of that character’s motivation. I wanted to slap myself for writing that sentence so off-handedly, for forgetting it so easily.

My own mother had killed herself about a month before I received the page proofs, one week after I had given birth, and I was still reeling. “My mother killed herself, you know” was way too casual a sentence for someone to utter. I could barely say “My mother killed herself,” and couldn’t imagine tacking on “you know” as if it was common knowledge, something easy to understand. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand her suicide. But my character had already had years to process and learn how to talk about the loss, so those words had a different context in the story.

Sometimes we don’t know what we know until we write it. I don’t believe I foresaw my mom’s death as I wrote that scene—her suicide was unexpected although she had been suffering from paranoid delusions off and on (mostly off—most of the time she appeared to be fine) for several years and was especially fearful the last two weeks of her life. Even though my initial reaction to the sentence during proofing was shock, some part of me must have wondered what it was like to lose a parent that way when I first wrote it. Some part of me must have known my mom was capable of such an action, even though she had the strongest sense of self preservation of anyone I knew. As writers, we often have to go to dark, painful places in our work; perhaps this can serve as a kind of rehearsal for the more difficult moments in life we haven’t experienced yet.

Sometimes, of course, life teaches us that we got it all wrong on the page, that we were naïve or misguided when we wrote about something we hadn’t lived, that what we wrote pales in comparison to real experience. That is certainly my experience with Delta Girls; there are depths to the aftermath of a mother’s suicide that I couldn’t have foreseen when I wrote that simple sentence.  But sometimes, somehow, we are lucky enough to tap into some collective human database of emotion, some authentic vein. I love this quote from Terence, 190-158 BC: “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” Writers have to come from that place of openness, of readiness to explore humanity in all its surprising contradictions, shallow and deep and strange. I know that I have a different relationship with my Delta Girls character now, and feel more compassion as a result of going through a similar loss. And I understand that character’s actions in a way I couldn’t have before (so maybe part of me did kind of know what I was writing, after all).

“My mother killed herself, you know” is still not a sentence I can say easily. I can say “My mother killed herself” now, perhaps almost too readily—I can’t seem to stop talking or writing about her death – but the “you know” still feels too pat. Perhaps it was glib in my character’s mouth, as well. It’s true that often we don’t know what we know until we write it, but sometimes even then, that knowledge is just a glimmer, just the beginning hint of insight. We write towards what we need to understand.

In addition to Delta Girls, Gayle Brandeis is the author of the novels Self Storage and The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction. She recently published her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns, and is also the author of the creativity guide Fruitflesh. She lives in Riverside, CA and is mom to one college student, one high school student, and one seven month old.

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