The Practice of Creativity

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My 90 day fast draft novel challenge is done! I finished up last week. I ended up with a little under 55,000 words. Not bad for a first draft. I had a few setbacks though, including losing 6,000 words (!) due to a computer glitch in a recent Microsoft Word update for the Mac. Losing that much material really sucked, but overall, I feel inspired about the progress I’ve made on my nascent horror novel.

Why This Challenge Worked for Me:

-I love a good writing challenge! Doing a fast draft appeals to me for the same reason that doing NaNoWriMo appeals to me. Both challenges provide structure and encourages and rewards daily effort. I love stretching past what I think I can do. With NaNoWriMo, you also get community through numerous online support via their website. Since I was posting my word counts on my author Facebook page, many folks cheered me on there.

-I also love the first drafting process. The first draft, as Jane Smiley has said, “only needs to exist.” In first drafts, I can put all my crazy ideas, flights of fancy, strange characters, and meandering subplots in. Although I was thinking some about the reader experience while writing, I was mostly writing to discover what I thought about the setting, the characters, my themes, etc.

-It gives me something to revise later. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass he said that when revising, you should look at a first draft and figure out the themes and ideas you were interested in exploring and then in the next draft to consciously write toward them.

-Writing 800-1,000 words five days a week was demanding, but also doable. I took Mondays and Tuesdays off which gave me some time to mull over what I was writing. NaNoWriMo’s daily word count of 1,667 words is not for the faint-hearted. This lower word count was just enough of a challenge to keep me focused, but it wasn’t so demanding that I had to keep the breakneck pace that NaNoWriMo requires.

-This challenge requires writing all the way to the end of the story. It forces you to construct some type of ending, no matter how provisional.

The only thing that I didn’t like about this challenge was that the research, writing and reading in the field was so all-consuming I couldn’t work on much of anything else during the 90 days. My submission rate plummeted. So, if I do this again, I will be more intentional about using one of my off days to stay on top of my submissions.

What’s next?

This big messy draft exists somewhere between an extended outline and fully fleshed out scenes and chapters. I’ll sit down in the middle of October, read it, make a new outline and write the next draft.

Want to know more about 90 day fast drafting? Check out Racheal Herron’s inspiring video.

Two conversations, in the past few months, has me thinking a lot about readers and the lengths they will go to for the authors they love. And, as writers, how do we put our attention even more squarely on creating an amazing reader experience.

This author has created very loyal and responsive fans

One of my colleagues recently shared a story with me about how completely determined she was to obtain the latest release of a Louise Penny novel. At the time, she was traveling in Michigan and the bookstore that she usually visits while there had already run out of LP’s novel. She was scheduled to take a plane home later that day. She was so determined to get this novel that she called several bookstores in the area and then wound up driving over 45 minutes to a bookstore that still had the novel in stock. * She almost missed her plane in search of this book. That’s devotion.

One of my dearest friends and I were recently discussing what we were reading. Since I knew that my friend was also a fan of LP, I mentioned that my colleague was looking forward to diving into the latest LP novel. My friend paused and said with intensity, “Louise Penny is the only author that I make sure I do a pre-order for, so that the day of her release, the book arrives at my door. And, then I drop everything for a few hours to read it.”

I was struck by both conversations. Also, on a recent episode of the fantastic ‘The Writer’s Well’ podcast with Rachael Herron and J. Thorn, Rachael mentioned that a writer she knew had fans who would call in sick on the day of a new release. That’s commitment!

Having fans that make it a priority to read your work is every writer’s dream. It made me think about the question posed in the blog post title: What Lengths Are Readers Willing to Go to Read Your Work?

The deeper question is: How do we craft stories that readers can’t put down? Stories that keep them coming back for more.

This, as you already know, is a million-dollar question and there is no magic answer. I do think a piece of the answer is consistently thinking about one’s ideal reader. Over the years, I made an important realization—I am ultimately writing for reader experience and engagement, not just my own personal pleasure. Twenty years ago, I really didn’t think much about reader satisfaction or engagement—it was all about MY MESSAGE. Or, it was all about HOW CLEVERLY I USED LANGUAGE. This sounds so dumb and pretentious as I write it here, but it is the truth. Now, for me, managing and heightening reader experience is where the gold is and is always in the forefront of my mind. The first draft of anything is still just for me, my flights of fancy and risk-taking. Each subsequent draft though, I try to hone the kinds of emotions I want the reader to feel in each scene and across the whole manuscript. I also pay much more attention to where I might lose the reader in a story.

While teaching at the Table Rock Writers Workshop a few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a fantastic book talk by Emily Nunn, author of The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart and former writer and inventor of the “Table for Two” column in The New Yorker.

She shared the grueling writing process she went through her after book proposal for a memoir (based on her experiences being in a psychiatric facility) was sold with relative ease. Her book is about the circumstances that got her into the facility and after leaving, how she healed by traveling to see friends and cooking together. She shared with us that she really wanted to include a chapter about her time in the psychiatric facility and someone on her team (I can’t remember if it was her agent or editor), said no and told her to take the chapter out. She was very upset with this advice. She had labored over that chapter and to her it represented the heart of the book. They, however, felt that the tone of the chapter was completely out of sync with the rest of the overall upbeat feel and transformational tone of the book. This same person said something along the lines of, “You don’t want to eject the reader from the book.” And, that chapter, in their opinion, though well-written would have created such incongruities for the reader, there was a potential of ejecting them out of the book. Thinking about what ejects the reader out of our work struck me as a useful bit of advice. We never want to eject the reader from our work! Ejecting the reader can look many different ways, right?

For example: Sloppy dialogue, a wandering plot, undeveloped characters, shoehorning one of our darlings into a book that just doesn’t fit (Nunn made it clear that the chapter she was being asked to cut was one of her favorites and she considered it important). Nunn added though that in retrospect, the advice was solid—the chapter didn’t fit in the current version of the book and could work instead as an excellent essay. Her team was thinking about the reader’s experience.

Many writers don’t read their reviews for a variety of reasons. I have found it helpful to look at the reviews of my work and pay attention to emails I receive or in person responses. What they like (or don’t like) are hints to their reader experience.

Sometimes when soliciting feedback on a draft, I will ask someone to mark in the text, exactly where they were able to out the book down. I go to that spot(s) and ask hard questions about what is either not working, or what is working but in a very uninteresting way.

No one starts out writing something that they know readers will devour; if you’re lucky you grow into a gifted storyteller over time. The writers who consistently create work that makes people stay up late, almost miss planes, and tell others about it have cracked something valuable about reader experience. The answers are out there in others’ work and our own, if we are brave enough to dig for them.

How do you understand the role of the reader’s experience? Are there questions you ask yourself when rewriting that focus on reader experience? I’d love to know!

*You may be wondering why she didn’t order it on Amazon—she doesn’t use Amazon and prefers to support independent bookstores.

Photo Credit-Louise Penny

Photo Credit-Emily Nunn

Nicole Givens Kurtz is a Renaissance person. She is an author, educator and publisher. I met her, several years ago, at my first local speculative fiction convention. She was warm, encouraging and knowledgeable about the changing face of publishing. She’s been a hybrid author since 1998.  At the time I didn’t know the profound impact she has had through her mentoring of other writers and being an advocate for diversifying the field of speculative fiction.

Kurtz is the published author of the futuristic thriller series, Cybil Lewis. Her short stories have appeared in over 40 anthologies and magazines of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She is a member of The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). Her novels have been finalists for the EPPIEs, Dream Realm, and Fresh Voices in Science Fiction awards. Her work has appeared in Sycorax’s Daughters, and in such anthologies as Baen’s Straight Outta Tombstone and Onyx Path’s V20: Vampire the Masquerade Anthology.

She founded Mocha Memoirs Press to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She is an advocate for better and more diverse representation in speculative fiction and is a national speaker on these issues.

Nicole loves ‘weird westerns’ and has been publishing them for some time. She’s recently gathered them together in her dazzling new collection: Sisters of the Wild Sage: A Weird Western Collection.  I have not read widely in westerns or weird westerns, so I had no background in the genre when I read the collection. I immediately forgot this fact as I was pulled into the vividly described realities of Kurtz’s characters. These stories are mostly set in New Mexico around the 1900s, though some take place in the present or near future. Kurtz is a powerful storyteller, weaving in fascinating tidbits of history alongside powerful characters. These creative stories run the gamut of magical realism, horror and science fiction. I loved this collection and reviewed the work on Goodreads and Amazon.

Given that her new collection has just been published, I thought this would be a great time to catch up with Nicole. I’m so delighted to welcome Nicole Givens Kurtz to The Practice of Creativity.

Q: Tell us about your new book, Sisters of the Wild Sage? What’s in store for readers?

A: Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wild, untamed adventure into the American West that never was. It’s weird. It’s horrific. It will stick with the reader, long after they have completed the collection.

Q: This collection feels like it is reinventing the conventions and genre expectations of ‘weird westerns’ given its focus on the multifaceted lives of women of color characters, in particular. Is this accurate? What drew you to explore weird westerns?

A: The collection’s purpose is to share stories of those people who thrived and survived in the American West but didn’t get the same attention in traditional (and often inaccurate) westerns. Yes, it was intentional. I grew up watching westerns with my mother, so the genre is a part of my childhood, a part of me. My love of horror is why they’re weird. Additionally, so much of the Southwest for me, when I lived in New Mexico, felt otherworldly and foreign.  That comes through in the stories in collection.

Q: How did you come to writing? Did you always want to write or did you come to writing later in life?

A: I’ve been writing since I was a young child. Even when I couldn’t write out long stories, I would alternate endings to television shows in my mind. I remember being very young, no more than 6 or 7, playing with my dolls and crafting narratives based on what mom read to me that night or what I’d seen on cartoons.

Q: You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a writer, educator and also run a publishing press. How do these different activities fuel your creativity?

A: All three feed into my ability to communicate ideas, both fictional and non-fiction. They require me to continue to look for different solutions to issues, both in story, and in real life, that fuels my creativity. They’re really three sides of a pyramid.

Q: If you could invite three authors (living or dead) to your next dinner party, who would they be and why?

A: If I could invite three authors to my next dinner party, I would invite Zora Neale Hurston, Sue Grafton, and Octavia Butler. Each of these women were stellar icons in their respective genres, and the opportunity to sit and listen, to soak up their wisdom and advice about the writing life would be life-altering for me.

Q: What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

A: My best writing tip is to read as much as you can. It serves as a foundation for building your writing career.

Educator. Author. Mom. Nicole Givens Kurtz loves reading, writing, and anime. She enjoys reading works that promote women of color and futuristic settings. She also loves a good mystery. She started Mocha Memoirs to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She’s also a scribbler of tales. She lives in Winston-Salem with her family. Learn more about her at Other World Pulp

 

 

I did it. I couldn’t resist. I gave myself the gift of a MasterClass with the amazing Margaret Atwood! MasterClass brings online learning to you from experts in everything from cooking (e.g. Alice Waters) to tennis (e.g. Serena Williams). They have a number of writers to choose from including R.L. Stine, James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell and Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood’s a writer I absolutely adore! Truth be told, she’s the kind of writer that if I met a trickster spirit and they offered me a deal like, “You can write like Margaret Atwood, but you’d have to give up a limb.” I’d seriously consider it. Well, yes, I know…never trust a trickster spirit! I imagine though you, too, have writers whose work you adore and strive to emulate.

I thought how can I pass up an opportunity to study with her? I decided I couldn’t. I plunked down about $200 for an “all access pass” (which allows you to have year-long access to the videos and lifetime access to all the materials + access to other classes). She has 20+ pre-recorded videos that explore a variety of topics including writing through roadblocks, structuring a novel, revealing the world using sensory imagery, revision, etc.  Also included is a workbook crammed with exercises, additional thoughts, reading lists, etc. The first few videos I watched I could barely concentrate because I was TREMBLING while viewing Margaret Atwood right there in front of me talking about our shared passion—writing! I broke out in glee blisters (OK, so there’s probably no such a thing as a glee blister, but you do understand my level of enthusiasm).

The videos are infused with her wit, humor and wisdom. I think the MasterClass presents a unique opportunity to study with world class teachers. [BTW, I’m not getting paid to say this!]

I learned tons—so much so I am still digesting it all. These three tips below have stayed with me and they might be useful to you, too.

1) “Story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.” Master simple chronological storytelling before tackling complex narrative variations. In one of the lessons, Margaret Atwood riffs on the different ways one could structure the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

The story would be the same but you could tell it a variety of ways using a different structure:

–beginning to end; starting in the middle (e.g. “It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother who had been gobbled whole couldn’t say a word, because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake”); using time jumps (“Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks’ time she would be looking back at one of the most definitive events of her life.”); start with a flashback; tell it from a different perspective, etc.

I can see that while writing my first novel, my ambition exceeded my skill level. I didn’t know how to tell a multiple viewpoint story, some of which took place in the past and also involved a number of time jumps. I just wasn’t a skilled enough writer back then to pull that off. I finally did find a path forward by excerpting material in what became my novella, Reenu-You. It is still complex for a novella in that it has two first person narrators and uses journalistic devices (i.e. emails, commercials, etc.) to tell a layered story.

Can you apply Atwood’s insight to a piece that you are working on that feels too complex and isn’t working? Can you find a way to simplify the narrative structure so you can tell the story that you want?

2) Writers have to think about narrative order. Margaret Atwood says that writers have to figure out who knows what and when in a story. And, you have to consider what effect your decisions, about the order of what is revealed, will have on the reader.

“One question you can ask yourself, if you’re writing: Does the reader know more than the character, or does the character know more than the reader? Or do they both know the same amount? Because it’s going to be one of those three.”

-When the reader knows more than the character that can create suspense.
-When the character knows more than the reader that can create narrative irony.

Atwood said it took her three attempts to figure out who would tell the story in The Blind Assassin!

I’m the process of revising a mystery, so this insight has been highly relevant to figuring out when to reveal what detail to the reader.

What about you? Is there a story where you can play with the narrative order to create more tension and suspense in the story?

3)“Print out your work, read it aloud and while reading, use a ruler. Read slowly.”

This is how Margaret Atwood revises her work.

Now, I absolutely am a proponent of reading one’s work aloud, but I had never tried doing it slowly and with a ruler. Sounds simple, right? I had a story that I was prepping to send to a magazine and I decided to try her method —I used a bookmark as I didn’t have a ruler. Wow, was this a revelatory experience! I noticed everything, the rhythm of words, word choice, when sentences were too long or short. I loved this process and will use it for final revisions moving forward; it gave me such a bigger and richer perspective on editing.

Do you have a piece that you’re about to submit and think it’s ready to go? Try Margaret’s technique and see what you discover.

It’s the end of the first week of July. We’re in the third quarter of the year.

As I look back over the first two quarters, I can count some successes:

Two pieces of mine are out circulating in the world!

My novelette “Doll Seed” appears in the recent issue of FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. It is about dolls, magic and civil rights! You can read excerpts and even hear a playlist for the issue, as well as buy the issue here.

My essay, “The Poison Our Grandmothers and Mothers Drank” is reprinted in this gorgeous new book whose cover I love:

Available for purchase at all online booksellers.

My goal for the next 90 days include producing a fast draft of my horror novel. I’m aiming for around 60,000 words. I was inspired to do this by Rachael Herron’s YouTube video about why it is a good thing to fast draft a book. Rachael Herron is an author and podcaster. She said doing a fast draft ensures you are the same writer from roughly start to finish. As a writing instructor she said she witnessed many students struggle with projects that were undertaken over many many years. She said these kinds of projects can be beasts to revise because the writing was completed in very different stages of ability. That makes so much sense to me as someone who has had to mine a 400,000 word unfinished novel over the years!

She gives great suggestions on how to fast draft a novel (but could work for memoir, too), including how to outline and how to stay motivated with the writing. Herron backs up her ideas by describing the success stories of her students that she’s taken through this process. In some ways producing a fast draft over 90 days is like doing an extended NaNoWriMo, but without the exhaustion and frantic energy.

Beginning July 1, I committed to writing between 800-1,000 words a day, 5 days a week.

To give me a little more incentive and accountability, I decided to post my word counts on my Author Facebook page. Knowing I am sharing it with everyone there keeps me honest–public accountability = heightened private results.

It’s funny how quickly one can establish a new normal when you commit. I made my goal this week and have almost 5,000 words. Fast drafting is by far the hardest part of my day and so I try to get to it before the afternoon. This pace hopefully will be my new normal for the next 90 days to produce a draft.

I’m also doing Camp NaNoWriMo, a virtual writing retreat that takes place in July. If there’s a project you’d like to set a goal to move toward completing in July, this might be a fantastic way to get support.

Thinking about and writing a fast draft of the novel is going to take up most of this quarter. I’ll still actively submit work, but I won’t be producing a lot of new work. I’m also judging a literary award for the North Carolina Humanities Council and a writing fellowship for the North Carolina Writers’ Network, so I’ll be busy with those service commitments. It’ll be busy but really fun!

What are your third quarter goals?

This week, I’ve been deep in editing land for my novelette “Doll Seed” due to appear next month in FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.

It’s always a revelation to receive editorial comments on a story. Especially a story that you’ve lived with for years, have honed substantially and have vetted through numerous writing groups.  Such was the case for “Doll Seed”.

In the past few years, I’ve felt lucky to have worked with fantastic editors. Great editors reveal new perspectives in your work, encourage clarity and support your authorial voice. In the case of Reenu-You and Nussia with Book Smugglers Press, I spent time revising a few scenes where my characters were under reacting.  With “Doll Seed”, I worked some on this issue, but more on clarifying how the magic works in the story and fine tuning the ending. I enjoyed editing “Doll Seed”. In revising these stories, all of which were written years ago, I see how much I’ve grown as a writer and storyteller.

One of the tools that has helped me become more proficient at self-editing has been my ‘weasel words’ list. A few years ago, I took a class on revision and the instructor introduced us to a list of words and/or phrases that weaken one’s writing. We can usually either delete the word or find a more active and vivid word to substitute. I believe she adapted this list from the one in James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Writers. I keep this list close when I revise. Doing a search for these words once yielded dramatic results. Last year, I was frantically trying to pare a story down to submit to an anthology and using this list I reduced the word count by over 500 words! That’s a lot of weasel words to round up!

Weasel Words to Watch Out For

Very
Almost
Just
Really
Finally
Actually
Maybe
Definitely
Certainly
A little
A lot
A bit
Tried to
Started to
Began to
Wanted to
Meant to
Intended to
Had to
Had been

I also overuse the words lively, inviting and flat in describing the expression of a character’s eyes.

Do you have a weasel words list? What are your pet phrases that you strike when revising?

I’m taking a break from my weekly post to share this interview that rocked my world and is worth a listen. It is led by Brooke Warner, author and co-creator of SheWrites Press and Tayari Jones, NYT bestselling author. Brooke interviewed Tayari during the recent Bay Area Book Festival.

Jones gives an incredible interview that details what happens when the publishing world gives up on you and how she not only continued to believe in herself, as a writer, but also thrive. She talks about writing her recent novel, An American Marriage and how she created characters and a story line that challenge notions of what makes a marriage and relationship work. She also discusses why she used fiction to explore the inequities of the criminal justice system and class dynamics in the African American community. It’s a compelling interview because Brooke is a fantastic interviewer who poses substantive questions and Tayari brings warmth, honesty and humor in sharing her writing journey. I found out about this interview because it was posted through the Write-Minded podcast. If you don’t know about Write-Minded with Brooke (and co-host Grant Faulkner), check it out–they offer a great format (e.g. writing actions and “green light” moments), they interview a wide spectrum of authors and they also provide inspirational writing advice. Listen to the interview here.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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