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Question of the Month: Spring

by Susan Henderson on April 7, 2014

Spring really took it’s time this year, but look what pushed through the ground after all that snow and ice melted. It’s a good reminder, I think, of those projects and relationships that can’t be rushed. The groundwork and the strong roots are hidden. The incubation period is necessary, as much as most of us don’t like to wait. So talk to me about something you did or experienced that was in motion long before you saw or felt the results.

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Those of you who know me best know how important walks are to me. I do my best thinking and writing as I walk. It balances my mood and my perspective. So being shut inside my office over the winter has not been easy.

Friends ask all the time, How’s the book going? If I measure it by whether it’s ready to share, it’s going too slow. I write or edit every day, and sometimes it feels like nothing’s happening, like staring at the ground in winter and trying to believe it’ll ever be spring again.

As winter dragged on through March and I passed the several-foot pile of gray ice every time I went in or out of the house, I found myself needing to look at bright pictures of flowers, needing to see color. It’s not so different for me with writing. I want to get to the end of a round of edits and say, That’s it! It looks like the idea I dreamed of creating! I can’t wait to share it!

Alas. It’s a process of patience and faith. Recently, I needed to look at pictures of early revisions of my book (I’ll post them in the next blog) to see if I’m really making headway. And I am. When I remember it all started with a blank piece of paper, when I remember the choices I made in earlier drafts before I really knew the characters, before I owned the setting, before I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea that made me say, Wow, I realize how silly it is to think of measuring things by whether there’s a finished product yet.

I planted the seeds, the roots are strong, I’ve tended to it almost daily. I’ve done this before. There’s no flower to show, not yet, but it will come, I trust that it will.

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Do I know exactly what I planted? No. And this is the fun part. Writing is sort of like planting a mystery seed. You know you’re growing something, but what? A tulip? A cactus? A peony that requires ants to chew the bud open and bends toward the ground with the weight of its flower? Dunno. But spring always comes, early or late, it comes, and I look forward to seeing those first shoots poke through the ground.

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In other news, I’m helping to judge a contest, so here is what you need to know…

In celebration of its 10th anniversary, DimeStories will publish a print anthology of 3-minute stories.  The stories can be deep or dark or funny or light. They can be true or made-up or somewhere in-between. All that matters is good storytelling. Stories will be selected by an editorial board, including these fine authors.

Stories must be submitted online (click right here) and may not exceed 500 words. There is a $5 fee to help defray costs of printing. Deadline:  May 31, 2014. If you have any questions, just post them in the comments section and I’ll find out the answers for you.

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Some thank you’s…

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… to Robbins Library in Arlington, Massachusetts for reviving this essay I wrote in 2010 for Powell’s Books, and to author Renée Thompson, for featuring my greyhound, Steve, in her blog, A Year in Compliments.

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Question of the Month: Untangling Necklaces

by Susan Henderson on March 3, 2014

Ever tie your story or novel into a knot trying to revise it?

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My parents took me and my brother to Disneyland when we were three and five. I have foggy memories of twirling inside a tea cup and floating past singing pirates, though maybe these are not memories but only associations I’ve made from photos I’ve seen and songs I’ve sung.

All I know is that on that trip, I got my favorite necklace ever. (The closest I could find to it was this photo on Etsy.)

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The necklace was a little Dutch girl made of painted wood. She even had little painted braids that fit into holes in the sides of her head, and long after one of the braids fell out, I continued to wear it.

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Have you ever thrown a bunch of your necklaces into a jewelry box, and then on the day you want to wear one, you open that box and find that they’re all in a knot? That’s what eventually happened to my little Dutch girl necklace. I tried to work the knot apart using fingers and toothpicks, trying not to break the chains. All the while, I considered which necklaces to sacrifice in order to save the ones I loved best.

I bring up this story because the revision on my latest book has felt like untangling necklaces. Staring at knots and wondering where to begin. Sacrificing one thing in order to save another.

How did these knots happen? During my revision, I changed the opening, reworked a key relationship, tightened this, cut that, pulled this plot thread over here, added a big new event and a character to go with it, gave the setting its own plot arc. And in most ways, the story dramatically improved. In fact, I’m very, very excited about this one because I’m trying to write the book I’ve always wanted to read.

But there was a giant knot.

I’m being kind to myself. There were many giant knots leftover from the revision, and I pinned the stuck places up on my bulletin board and stared at them for days with no idea of how to move forward.

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In a strange way, this is my favorite part of editing. It’s where the magic happens but only if you’re able to risk the whole thing collapsing. It’s that close-your-eyes-and-jump moment.

But like someone who stands on the high dive for too long, feeling the fear and anticipating all that can go wrong, what got me stuck was not so much the knot itself. True, to untangle it, I knew I would have to throw out ideas I liked and discover parts of the the book I had yet to conceive.

I stood there, frozen. Rather than thinking, This could be fun. I’ve done this before. I wonder what I’ll discover? I started wondering, What will so-and-so think if I take a step here, or here? And I could imagine the distrustful sighs, the lack of faith, the poorly hidden disappointment.

I began to be tepid. Fearful. I took baby steps. I made safe but uncreative choices. I didn’t trust the magic. Or me.

Do you have a voice like this perched on your shoulder?

This is a long post. Sorry. I’ve saved it up and that’s what happens… too much to say at one time. But here is what happened with my plot-knot. I finally reached out to a friend.

I don’t reach out very often. I come from a long line of cowboys. We are stubborn. Loners. Work horses. Never weak or needy, or if we are, we don’t admit it. But I reached out, thinking I needed editorial feedback. What I got instead was a giant pep talk and help kicking the gloomy and doubting voice off my shoulder.

The next day I was writing so fast I couldn’t keep up. I made daring changes and let the ripples begin. I wrote about things that I’m emotional and obsessed about. I scrapped parts of the book that were good in order to reach for something that made me giddy.

Am I done? No, but I’m on my way and feeling good about it.

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If I could go back to my little Dutch girl story for a moment… I was never able to rescue that necklace, but I did free up a ball chain and then hung a pocket knife to it, and that became my new look. It took being blocked from my original goal to discover something brand new. My new look was little more fierce, and probably more genuine, as well.

Amy Wallen, Rick Moody, Melora Wolff, Susan Henderson, and in back, Eber Lambert.

 Amy Wallen, Rick Moody, Melora Wolff, me, & Eber Lambert.

Speaking of revisions, I’ve been reminded recently that our stories and our processes for discovering and revising them are so personal and varied. Talk to the writers you know. Think about the writers you wish you could know—Marilynne Robinson who publishes a prize-winning book every twenty years, Jodi Picoult who publishes a big concept book every other year, Alice Munro who stays with short stories no matter who says they’re an unpopular genre. This process and this very personal time table, to me, is as  fascinating and valuable as the final product.

Over a long dinner a few weeks ago with the fine group of people you see above, we talked about revisions and finding a book’s opening and the glorious inaccuracies of memory. We talked about novels and non-fiction and movies and music and bridge closures and everything under the sun. Not the greatest picture but the only one of an exceptionally lovely night—a shot in the arm, a safety net appearing below, all the best parts of being with incredible and creative friends.

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If you haven’t taken advantage of this free contest, please consider it: Salt Cay Writers Retreat Merit Scholarship Contest.

And if you haven’t “liked” my FaceBook Author Page, just click here and then click LIKE.

Okay, let’s hear your revision stories! It’s good to have the company.

 

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Announcing the Salt Cay Writers Retreat Merit Scholarship Contest

Oct 20-25, 2014 | Salt Cay, Bahamas

Did you know that William Styron put the finishing touches on Sophie’s Choice while vacationing on Salt Cay, Bahamas? Or that Anne Morrow Lindbergh worked on Gift From The Sea on Salt Cay as well?

Now you too can practice your craft on this beautiful private Bahamian island. While the Salt Cay Writers Retreat curriculum is particularly suited for advanced fiction writers, memorists, and narrative non-fiction writers, any author who wishes to take their writing to the next level is welcome to join us for a memorable week of writing and instruction October 20-25.

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The winner of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat Merit Scholarship Contest will be invited to attend the Salt Cay Writers Retreat with all program and tuition fees covered (travel and retreat hotel accommodations are not included).

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The contest will be judged by a well-qualified anonymous panel of publishing professionals including retreat faculty. More information at: www.saltcaywritersretreat.com

Entry deadline: April 1, 2014

Winner announced: April 15, 2014

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To enter, send your writing sample as an attachment to submissions@saltcaywritersretreat.com.

Maximum 15 pages. Your writing sample may be from a work in progress or from a published work, including essays and short stories. All materials should be in 12pt Times New Roman. Pages should be double-spaced, with one-inch margins. Please use the following file name format: TITLE OF BOOK-Salt Cay Writers Retreat Scholarship Contest. .doc or .rtf formats only, please.

Be sure to include your name and contact information in the email with your submission.

There is no fee to enter this scholarship contest; however, please remember that the scholarship covers tuition fees only; travel and hotel costs are the responsibility of the scholarship winner.

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2014 Salt Cay Writers Retreat Faculty:

Lorenzo Carcaterra, #1 New York Times bestselling author

David Ebershoff, #1 international bestselling author; Executive Editor, Random House

Robert Goolrick, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Jacquelyn Mitchard, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Téa Obreht, National Book Award finalist and winner of the Orange Prize

Erin Harris, Folio Literary Management

Jeff Kleinman, Founder, Folio Literary Management

Jill Marr, Sandra Dijkstra Agency

Erin Niumata, Senior Vice President, Folio Literary Management

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“The SCWR was a life-changing experience I will never forget. The faculty was just superb across the board, especially the authors who were wise and gifted teachers. I appreciated how accessible, generous, and helpful everyone was. I was at a place in my writing career where I was ready for tools to take my work to the next level. I found this at the SCWR and so much more. Thank you all!” – 2013 Salt Cay Writers Retreat student

Questions? Email Salt Cay Writers Retreat administrators Karen Dionne or Christopher Graham at: admin@saltcaywritersretreat.com. You may also telephone Chris at 732-267-6449.

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Karen and Chris are co-founders of the online writers community Backspace, and have directed the highly respected Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City for the past 9 years.

 

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Question of the Month: Where You Write

by Susan Henderson on February 3, 2014

Tell me about where you like to do your writing.

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Many of you know that my favorite place to “write” is on long walks. I leave the house with a question or scene in mind, and I walk until I have an answer or have figured out a crucial incident or relationship in the book. Once this happens, I grab my phone and talk the scene into my voice memo. My best ideas happen when I’m outside, walking fast.

Alas, in this weather, I have to do my writing inside with my butt in a chair. I feel restless and caged sitting in one place, but  I do love my writing space, and that helps me stay put. My office is inside my garage and decorated completely differently from my home. It’s girlie and playful with vibrant colors to wake up my senses and remind me to enjoy the process. The quilt and painting and pillow are from my mom, the typewriter was my grandmother’s, and the little angel was given to me by a friend after I ran this blog post.

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The other walls are bulletin boards, where I tack up my work when I’m stuck or need a different perspective. Sometimes I pin the chapters I’m working on to the boards and look forward to seeing more and more cork as I finish them. I write at the big wooden table that Mr. H and I ate our meals at when we were first married, and there’s an elliptical machine by one of the windows, which isn’t pretty but is necessary for clearing my head.

So that’s my space, and now I’d love to hear about yours.

Next month, I’ll talk about how the revision’s going. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while—I have a lot to say—but didn’t want to slow my momentum by taking the time for it just yet.

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So that’s it for this month. A few thank you’s before I go… to The Never Dusty BookshelfSmashwords, and The Robbing Mind Podcast for kind thoughts about my book, to everyone who has “liked” my author page and participated in the discussions over there. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate my time with you! Also, if you have an extra two minutes in your day, my friend, Amy Wallen, started a fantastic new blog called Living the Better Half. I hope you’ll check it out!

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Question of the Month: The Journey

by Susan Henderson on November 4, 2013

Tell me about your journey as a writer, whether it’s your journey toward publication or you’ve set that goal aside so you can better enjoy the process of creating.

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Writers often approach me for help in getting published. The conversation goes something like this (I’m going to put it in music- rather than book-terms to give the conversation a little clarity): “Hi there! Thanks for accepting my FaceBook friend request two seconds ago! I’ve never actually read your blog or listened to your album, but I notice you belong to the record company I want to belong to, so here goes. I’ve been playing guitar in my bedroom for two years and have written several things I call songs which have never been workshopped. I would like to put out an album immediately and need your help. Thanks so much! And if you offer me any kind of help that isn’t about personally introducing me to your agent or publisher, I just want you to know I’m going to tell everyone you’re an asshole. Okay, get back to me right away!”

Do you get these, too? I’m sorry if you do.

Not all the requests come with this sense of ego and entitlement. Some ask for help in the loveliest, most humble ways, but the hope is the same: Can you tell me that my writing is ready, that it’s beautiful and engaging and important, that it can be published without any more hard work, that there’s a shortcut in this business, that I won’t feel the pain and humiliation of finding out I’ve written something that no one wants to read?

I wish I could answer, Yes. I wish this process could be easy and painless. But the truth is, it’s not. The above photo shows three decades of my work—a poem here, an essay there—and quite the ratio of rejection slips to publications.

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I once had the confidence shown in those letters I get. In third grade, I declared in an autobiography assignment that I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. I said the same, and more forcefully, in seventh grade. In high school, I was the poetry editor of our school’s literary magazine. In my senior year, I interviewed President Reagan’s Press Secretary, Jim Brady, at the White House. Later that same year, I was chosen along with one other student to study with the Poet Laureate of Virginia. When I was an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, I won an Academy of American Poets Prize and money from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for an essay I wrote. I was twenty years old and assumed the trajectory in this field went upward, but I still had so much to learn, and it would be almost two decades after that poetry award before I started feeling like I knew what I was doing.

For me, being a writer has looked something like this: writing poems, flash fiction, short stories, essays, novels, and throwing away the bulk of them; workshopping my own and other people’s stories; taking and teaching classes; entering and judging contests; going to readings as both a reader and a spectator; attending and speaking at conferences; blogging; editing at a literary magazine; editing book-length manuscripts; writing book reviews; interviewing authors and publishers; receiving and delivering rejections; writing for anthologies that never ended up being published; writing for magazines that no longer exist; writing blurbs and then getting bumped by bigger authors; and most importantly, reading; always reading.

In short, what I’ve learned is that…

  • a writer is forever a student.
  • shitty first drafts are what take you down the path to a great finish.
  • nips and tucks do not constitute a real edit.
  • rather than trying to pump life into an old story or an already-published book, it’s better to focus on writing something new.
  • it helps to take breaks on the weekend.
  • it’s possible to write and also live a full life in the present world.
  • grit and endurance matter.
  • the secret to that grit and endurance is being part of a creative community.

If we judge our journeys by rejection slips and publications, we’re likely to view ourselves as failures. But in all likelihood, our journeys have taught us about ourselves and the world, developed our empathy and our writing ability, sparked imagination and wonder. There is more to this life we’ve chosen than a book deal. Writers are my favorite people, not because of their publications, but because they are observing, recording, analyzing, and transforming all they see and experience.

I’m going to leave you with a few hopeful thoughts: Harper Lee only wrote one book (To Kill a Mockingbird). E. Annie Proulx published her first novel (Postcards) when she was 57, Frank McCourt published his first (Angela’s Ashes) at 66, and so did Karl Marlantes, who worked on his (Matterhorn) for 33 years.

You still have time to tell your stories.

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By the way,  if you should ever need some company or inspiration as you write and try to sell your manuscript, I wrote about my journey of publishing UP FROM THE BLUE at the links below. Sometimes the road to success looks suspiciously like constant failure:

We Want a Turn

When Patience is Required

How a Book Can Save a Kid

Places That Capture Us

A 30-Year-Old Letter Arrives

Temporary Ecstacy: The First Book Deal

Career Day

Unraveling the Sweater

Who Owns Our Truths?

Riding the Rollercoaster

Time for Waltzing

Rejected but Not Defeated

A Community of Misfits

LitPark’s Guide to Finding a Literary Agent

LitPark’s Guide to What Happens after You Sign with a Literary Agent

LitPark’s Guide to What Happens after Your Book Has Sold

The Truth about Blurbs

Writer Retreats: My Experience at Squaw Valley

The TNB Self-Interview

UP FROM THE BLUE is here!

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