On Crossing Borders

I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan.

I’m in the U.S. — Massachusetts, to be exact — watching images and reading stories about adults detained, children taken from parents at the southern U.S. border. Their only crime, if they can be said to have committed one, is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A place so unpredictable and violent that undertaking a many-hundred-mile journey north with a two- or five- or ten-year-old in tow seemed the better bet.

I lucked out. I was born into a safe place and a safe time. The only real dangers I’ve faced in my life have been dangers I courted, by speaking out when I could have been silent or walking into possible difficulty with my eyes wide open. Yet I can imagine the desperate conditions that prompted these people to make this terrible journey, hoping — knowing — that whatever place they arrived at would have to be better than the home they had left.

I’m not even a mother, but still — I can imagine.

Not easily, mind you. The mind flinches from imagining, the way a finger recoils from a hot burner. But I can imagine.

This is why I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. You were born in a fine place at a fine time, but when you were ten years old things went horribly wrong. The place was Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. You turned ten in 1975, the year civil war broke out in Lebanon. Your life was changed forever. By the time you reached twenty, you wrote — much, much later — you “had seen more body bags than most people in the civilized world have seen garbage bags.”

I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I thought I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I started college as an Arabic major. If I hadn’t changed course, I probably would have spent my junior year in Beirut, around 1971–72, several years before everything blew up.

What was it, three and a half years ago? You contacted me out of the blue. As an editor I’ve been contacted out of the blue quite a few times by hopeful writers, and in most cases I’ve had to say: Not so fast. This isn’t ready for prime time.

But your sample chapters were ready. They took me somewhere I’d never been, into the world and mind of a young man not yet twenty whose life had been turned upside down and who had risen to the challenge.

Travvy and I read the very first copy of Allen Sawan’s Terrorist University.

We took each other on, editor and writer, writer and editor, and on an accelerated deadline you produced Terrorist University. It’s one of the books I’m proudest of having worked on. But you kept going. You found a mainstream publisher, and out came Al Shabah, The Ghost, closely based on Terrorist University but tighter. I was thrilled to find that the work we’d done together was pretty much intact.

In the years since, we’ve become friends — friends who’ve never met in person but still friends. You live in Ontario now. You and your wife have raised your three children in peace. Each of them was born in the right place at the right time, and their world didn’t turn upside down when they were ten.

I joke that Canada should build a wall on its southern border, to keep out the USians who despair of their country and want to emigrate to someplace better. You joke that you will build a tunnel that my dog and I could escape through. I know for absolute certain that if we needed that tunnel, you of all people would be willing and able to build it.

Your kids, like me, have been lucky. They were born at the right place and time, in a Canada that let you in and let you stay. They’ll learn about your life the same way I did: from the stories you tell so well.

So I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. Of you and your children — I’ve never met them either, but one of these days I think I will. Of all you went through to make it possible for them to grow up more like I did and less like you did.

And I’m thinking of the children taken from their parents at the U.S. border. What stories will they have to tell, ten and twenty years from now? What lessons will they pass on to their children?

What stories will the parents tell? Of struggling against such odds to get this far, and then being treated like criminals by the richest country on earth?

I think of your story, Allen Sawan. It never goes away.

Advertisements

Should You Quit Writing?

Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on the end of draft 3 of the novel in progress and my mind is already working on draft 4, or because I never stop wondering if writing is worth all the time I spend on it, but this blog post from Brevity has an awful lot of wisdom and encouragement packed into not very many words. Like this: “It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

I feel GOOD about my work!

A writer asked me:

Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.

I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.

I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.

All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?

Nobody I know wants to…

View original post 692 more words

On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

Says the author: “I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.” Exactly.

At the moment I’m doing the kind of research that almost anyone would call “research”: finding out what happens at the local hospital when an 11-year-old survivor of sexual abuse shows up with two adult friends and (eventually) her mother. The next step is to go sit in the ER waiting room for a while and just take it in. It’s always easier for me to write a scene when I can visualize the setting. Sometimes the setting becomes clearer as I write.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do…

View original post 914 more words

Slender Trends In Modern American Horror: How Original Are We Really?

I don’t write or read horror (so I tell myself), but horror or dark fantasy elements are working their way to the surface of my mainstream novel, and this blog post (essay, really) has given me valuable insight into what I’m dealing with and how to develop it further. If you deal with myth and archetypes in your work (don’t we all??), do yourself a big favor and follow the Zombie Salmon.

Zombie Salmon (the Horror Continues)

For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.

Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.

It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we…

View original post 3,640 more words

Flash Fiction

The  A to Z Challenge has been keeping me very  busy in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but directly or indirectly I’m blogging about writing, so I hope some of y’all are dropping by from time to time.

For the challenge I’ve been rereading some of the poetry I wrote in the 1980s, especially in the years after I moved to the Vineyard. Gradually my lines got longer and longer and turned into one-act plays, short stories, and eventually a novel. Still, I have to admit that some of that poetry is pretty good, and also that writing short and concise, often in meter and rhyme, had lasting and beneficial effects on my prose.

So lately a guy joined my writers’ group who’s writing flash fiction. Although, or more likely because, I tend to write long, I’m very tempted to give it a try.

And just now I discovered that Spry magazine’s blog is doing an “ABCs of Flash Fiction” series. Clearly the muses are trying to give me a message! They’re only up to D so far. If you’re interested, here’s where it starts.

A to Z Challenge 2018

Last April I did the A to Z Challenge right here in Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going. You’ll find links to all my A–Z posts under the 2017 A to A Challenge tab at the top of this page.

What’s the challenge? Blog on your chosen theme every day for a month, with the post titles beginning with A, B, C, etc., in sequence. Since there are 30 days in April but only 26 letters in the alphabet, you get Sundays off — except when April 1 falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.

I’m here to tell you that blogging A to Z in one blog was a serious challenge, and one I’m pretty proud to have met, but when I briefly, very briefly, contemplated doing it in two blogs at once, I knew this was nuts.

Instead, I’m going to do the challenge in my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but to combine the theme of that blog (Martha’s Vineyard) with the theme of this one (writing and editing): How living on Martha’s Vineyard has affected my writing. Both my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and the novel in progress, Wolfie, are set on the Vineyard, so I expect to be blogging about them, and maybe about my other big writing project: developing a script for 1854: A Folk Opera, conceived but not completed by the late Jack Schimmelman.

I also plan to blog occasionally about more general stuff, like how the Vineyard both encourages creative work and makes it difficult. Place is a powerful influence on me, and I’m drawn to the work of writers who are strongly influenced by the places they live in and/or write about. So even if you aren’t all that interested in Martha’s Vineyard, you might want to follow From the Seasonally Occupied Territories for the month of April.

Come on over!

Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

View original post 660 more words

How Many Characters?

In a recent post to an online editors’ group, one editor noted that she was only halfway through a mystery novel she was critiquing, there were already 30 named characters, and the author had just added 4 more. How many is too many? she asked.

Another editor recalled working on a novel that introduced 30 named characters in the first chapter.

dog coming down hill

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based

Hmm, I thought, and went off to count the number of named characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Maybe I had too many?

Since midway through the first draft I’ve been keeping a list of characters, mainly so I can keep track of names, siblings, ages, birthdays, anniversary dates, and what they drive. So it wasn’t hard to  come up with a tally of 56 humans and 3 dogs. (One of the latter is currently the title character. He’s safe.)

Is 56 (or 59) too many characters for a novel that in this almost-complete third draft is about 101K words long? Probably 10 or 12 of those named characters are the relatives or friends of more important characters. They’re mentioned in passing or show up in one scene. I would not expect readers to remember their names on a pop quiz.

So how many significant named characters were there? I counted again: 14 or 15. These characters all play important roles in moving the plot and subplots forward. Their choices make a difference. They’re the ones I’ve been getting to know better and better with each draft. When the plot comes to a fork in the road, they’re the ones I turn to to find out what happens next.

Ask me what Wolfie is about and I’ll respond with something like “the rescue of a dog, the rescue of a girl, and how they rescue each other.” From the very beginning I’ve had three characters: the dog (Wolfie), the girl (Glory, who’s in sixth grade), and, since both of them need another rescuer, Shannon (a 50-something woman who lives up the road from Glory).

Shannon is a protagonist in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, so she came with a supporting cast, four of whom play significant roles in Wolfie. My next question was “What do Wolfie and Glory need to be rescued from?”

For Wolfie, this was easy. He’s a malamute. Malamutes generally have a strong prey drive. In this area quite a few people keep livestock and/or free-range fowl. Wolfie needed to be rescued from a home he could escape from with impunity. The scenario I came up with involves nine or ten named characters who disappear off the radar once Shannon reluctantly adopts Wolfie.

Glory’s situation is much more challenging. Shannon senses that something’s not right at Glory’s house, but she doesn’t know what, and Glory (who, along with Shannon, is a point-of-view character) doesn’t have access to some of her own memories. Glory started out with a family: mother, stepfather, and younger half-brother. Who and where was her birth father? I wondered. The answer to this turned out to be very interesting. It also added four named characters to the cast, only one of whom plays a major role.

How to convey Glory’s dilemma when she can’t articulate it and Shannon and others outside the family can’t see it? This has wound up driving the plot and introducing another major character: Amira, the therapist who counsels Glory when she starts seriously acting out in second grade.

It also prompts Shannon to revisit her own past, which was hinted at but never elaborated on in Mud of the Place. As a teenager she fled her alcoholic, often violent family and has had little to do with any of her blood relatives in the decades since. Enter her younger sister, Jackie, now sober and wanting to re-establish contact. Their relatives have names, as do Jackie’s two adult children and ex-husband, but Jackie’s the important one.

Amira and Jackie, both added to serve the plot, have become fully developed characters in their own right. So has Hayden, Glory’s best friend and classmate, with whom she talks frequently at recess, both sitting on the playground swings. Other named characters — town officials, neighborhood farmers, partiers at a retirement celebration — do their bit and then exit into their own (as far as I know) yet unwritten stories.

The big surprise has been Glory’s mother, Felicia. As the story unfolds, Shannon can’t get over how badly she underestimated Felicia. I did too. A bit of advice: Some of your minor or walk-on characters may have more to say than you realize at first. Listen.

P.S. Here’s a good post on managing the character count by editor Marta Tanrikulu, a participant in the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It specifically addresses fantasy and science fiction, but much of it applies to any kind of fiction, and maybe memoir and other creative nonfiction as well.

It’s An Illusion

Having a story to tell is a great first step. Getting it across to readers who aren’t privy to your intentions? That’s where the craft comes in. Here’s some excellent guidance on how to keep readers engaged without giving everything away or withholding too much till the very end.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Entertainment at the annual Brevity office party

A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.

They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?

I said, “But there’s this countdown…”

“Countdown to what?”

And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.

I’d spent seven years with…

View original post 592 more words

Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.