Monthly Archives: February 2015

Hello, Self…

Five Writers

By Darlene Cah

We maintain many relationships in our lives as wrPositive Affirmaitoniters. Professionally, we may interact with editors, publishers, book sellers, beta readers, writer colleagues, managers, publicity people, fans (Hey, I’m thinking big, here!).

Personally, we have spouses or significant others, friends, parents, siblings, extended family members, non-writing professional acquaintances, such as doctors, accountants, among others. All these people affect us. Their support or lack of support can shape how we view ourselves as writers. They influence our writing—from providing us with storylines or dialogue to unknowingly offering up character traits or physical attributes. On another level their opinions about our work matter to us, and depending on how close the relationship is, an opinion can determine whether or not we continue with a certain project. So building solid relationships, hopefully based on mutual trust and respect, is essential to our writing lives.

As all these important people fill…

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Four Weeks of Fiction, part two: Sentences and Setting

We opened the second session of the four-week fiction workshop with a discussion of Andrea IMG_4167Barrett’s  Theories of Rain,  from her collection, Servants of the Map. The story not only provides a variety of settings–large and small, from cottage to woods, to the William Bartram’s garden–but also offers excellent examples of how setting can be a character itself and can reveal elements of other characters that might otherwise remain hidden.

To move from this story to an exploration of sentences and setting, we read paragraphs from Annie Proulx (People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water, from the collection, Close Range), Murray Bail (Eucalyptus), and Michael Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion).

Working with the characters we created in the previous session, we listed several settings the character might inhabit or wish to inhabit–large (bigger than a house), small (smaller than a room), comfortable, out of his or her element, a bucket list place–and then began to pladark sun on water muddy mountainy with setting and sentence length.


Our characters snuck into one of these places, exploring them over the course of around 150 words, all in short (five- to seven-word sentences). We noted how these short sentences heighten the drama and anticipation in these moments.

Our characters then meandered into another place in a sentence that took up a half page or more. Here, participants noted how they were able to really drop down into the place and observe more fully.

Later in tR0012460he session, another character entered the setting–one who felt differently than our initial character.


What are some of your favorite settings from works you’ve read? Why do those appeal to you as a reader? Do you have favorite places you like to write about? What makes those appealing to you as a writer?

We’re taking a week off next week. When we return, each participant will bring a completed draft with which we’ll play, exploring a variety of ways in which writers can choose to allow a story to unfold.

Marathon Running for Would-be Novelists

I could also call this, “Everything I ever needed to know about writing a novel I learned from running a marathon.” Ok, so that’s a wee bit hyperbolic. But just a wee bit.

I’m reminded of this by a combination of taking my morning walk in the rain today and by a question a young writer recently asked me about how to complete the first draft of her novel-in-progress.

The simple answer: just write it. Set a time every day and write.  Anyone who has tried it (even all you NaNoWriMo folks) know that that can be easier said than done. I knew this, on an intellectual level, when I was working on my first novel. (This would not turn out to be my first published novel, The Thorn Tree (MP Publishing, June, 2014).

I began this novel before the births of my two younger children (I have three), and was still working at it, in my spare time when I started to train for the Marine Corps Marathon in January, 1997. In addition to the three children (two of them were still in diapers; one was then four months old), I was a freelance writer.

I already knew that, in order to finish the novel, I needed to write. Just that. I needed to cast aside the critic, the need to wander down rabbit holes of research, to read books about writing, to go back to the first sentence again and again and again and again.

I also thought I needed to be in better shape, to lose weight, to contribute something to the community (postnatal hormones, I guess), so I signed on for Team in Training, to run a marathon and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The nine months of training and then the running of the marathon in October let things settle in fully: step-by-step, I pounded the understanding in. I learned that there will be shitty, slow days. Many. I learned that sometimes when my feet felt as though they were flying, my stopwatch said I wasn’t any faster than any other day. I learned to enjoy the sensation anyway. I learned to listen to my own instincts in the face of conflicting advice from people who had run loads of marathons. In other words, I learned to trust myself. I learned that if I skipped a day (I skipped the 16-mile training run three weeks in a row), I was just making the next run harder. (When I finally made myself do that 16-miler, so that I could hang on to the last shred of a schedule, I wept for the first four miles. It was 90 degrees out. And August-in-South-Carolina-humid.) After that, 18, 20, 22 didn’t seem so bad. So I also learned that the middle distance (the center of the novel) is harder than the beginning or the end. Just keep going. Cry if you need to.

When the marathon day came–really it’s an epilogue after all that training–the rain started about 20 minutes before the starting gun fired. And it rained the whole time. I’ve written a good bit on this blog about connections between yoga and writing, and I believe in them, but no-one has ever asked me to hold a yoga pose for four hours (yes, I took me that long to run 26.2 miles). In the rain. I did it. I put one foot in front of the other. Lots of people fell off to the side with cramps, with hypothermia, with whatever else told them they just couldn’t. Lots of people finished before I did. None of those people mattered. And none of the writers who don’t finish should offer you an excuse to abandon your project; neither need the writers who are doing “better” than you cause you to berate yourselves. One step–one word–at a time. Just write. Trust yourself. Cry if you want. But keep going. Develop a mantra: You can do it.

Those of you who have run marathons know that there are other components to training for a successful marathon, just as there are other components to writing a complete novel. I’ll address those in other posts. None of them matters, though, if you skip the act of coming to the training ground when you said you would and doing the work.

What helps you come to the page day after day? What questions does this bring up for you?

Four Weeks of Fiction

My Four Weeks of Fiction class started last night with a diverse group of participants, each working on different projects in genres from fantasy to tales of immigrants. Thanks to Emrys, the organization that offers The Writing Room, the umbrella for lots of classes and workshops that help get writers started, keep them writing and find their best voices on the page.

Each week in this fiction workshop, we’ll play with language a little to get warmed up and then look at a craft element to help us develop our stories. Last night, we used one of the exercises from Ursula LeGuin’s book, Steering the Craft, to open up some language play with alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition and rhythm. We then jumped right in to character. The opening of Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist offered inspiration and an excellent example of a compelling physical description.

Dale Ray Phillips and M. L. Steadman helped us get our characters moving into work they know well. The protagonist in What Men Love For,  from My People’s Waltz gave us a boy setting to a favorite chore.

The Light Between Oceans offered a glimpse into the work of a lighthouse keeper.

Each of these is an excellent example of how much the details of daily tasks can reveal about character.

For homework, we’re reading Andrea Barrett’s Theories of Rain,  from her collection, Servants of the Map.

Next week, we’ll look at setting, and at the use of setting as character.