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Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Scott Driscoll

An award-winning instructor (the University of Washington, Educational Outreach award for Excellence in Teaching in the Arts and Humanities 2006), Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years.

Driscoll makes his living as a writer and teacher. While finishing Better You Go Home—a novel that has been several years in the making and which grew out of the exploration of the Czech side of his family in the 1990s after Eastern Europe became liberated—Driscoll kept busy freelancing stories to a variety of magazines, both commercial and literary. He most often writes feature stories on subjects ranging from health to philanthropy to education to general reporting for Alaska and Horizon Airlines Magazines, but he also does profiles and book reviews, including an October 2010 profile for Ferrari Magazine 11, and a July/August '08 profile in Poets and Writers Magazine.


Click on the Photo to link with Scott's Blog

His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including Image Magazine, Far From Home (a Seal Press anthology), Ex-Files: New Stories About Old Flames (a Context Books fiction anthology featuring high-profile writers such as David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz), The Seattle Review, Crosscurrents, Cimarron Review, The South Dakota Review, Gulfstream, American Fiction '88 and others.

Driscoll has been awarded seven Society of Professional Journalists awards, most recently in 2009 for social issues reporting, and including best education reporting and general reporting 2004. His narrative essay about his daughter's coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington's Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).


Scroll Down to Read Part II and Part I at the bottom

The Interview - Part II

Scroll down to read Part I

What was your experience working with Coffeetown Press?
To be honest, I had an in. I knew one of the editors and she made sure that at least my manuscript would be read. Still, I had to wait nearly a month and a half for a reply. But I know another author who sent her manuscript to a smaller, more specialized press and she waited nearly a year before hearing a “yes,” so I won’t complain.

When it came time to edit, the editor in chief, Catherine Treadgold, understood my novel and appreciated the prose and was wary of changing much. At the same time she was a stickler for correctness in details borrowed from the real world and this gives the book a level of professionalism I couldn’t have attained on my own (I am just not careful enough with certain details).  Before she became involved, though, I had a great experience working with Jennifer McCord, another editor, on developmental drafts.

Jennifer would not go into it line for line, but she would let me know if the characters’ motives and actions lined up or she’d frown in response to last minute insertions. Their art editor, their proofreader, everybody worked together to produce a high quality book. This is a for-profit press that publishes four books per month and reads a high number of submissions, but despite being busy they give enough attention to individual authors to fool them into thinking their book and their career is the only one that matters.

What do you know now, you wish you'd known when you started working on your novel?
When I started off I had family stories to work with, and that came with a lot of effort (traveling, interviewing, tracking down a genealogy, looking up historical records) so naturally I wanted to use everything I’d learned, about the village, the farm, the neighbors, the infidelities, the out-of-wedlock children, the politics the history of the region, the literature, the pubs, every word from everyone I’d interviewed. The only thing I kept entirely intact, was a set of stats from an older relative’s little black notebook, all about what he was forced to give to the state-run co-op, proof of the struggle to save the farm (and his own dignity) while not starving to death (not to mention staving off accusations by neighbors who accused him of being a traitor to the cause).

I told a former student, who was struggling with finding the spine of her own novel, there is a feast here, a feast of life that is rich and complex and multi-layered and I don’t want to leave any of it out. And so I spent at least a couple of years putting everything in, until my writing group finally warned me that the story was not emerging and my chapters were reading like a David Attenborough-narrated travelogue and maybe I’d better re-think my strategy. But I had chewed into subject matter that I could not give up on so I got tough and wrote a bare bones story spine and re-did character cards and started over and this time went at it much more deliberately. Still I ended up with at least four chapters that I had to throw away altogether. All of this unfolds over time.

Meanwhile, I’m teaching and writing for magazines. Meanwhile I’m reading the history of torture in eastern bloc countries and my characters twist the story in an unintended direction—the protagonist’s goal became more to bring the bad guy to trial in the European Court of Human rights rather than to pursue his half-sister. It was at this point I began to get frowns from Jennifer (this was pre-contract; she had agreed to help me simply because she believed in the book and was generous with her time and really didn’t want her time to be wasted on a ruined project). This was a Jennifer comment: “If you plan to submit this to Coffeetown, you are going to have to fix it.” She knew I knew what she meant.  I got to work. In eight months I rewrote the entire manuscript. When I finally hit the “send” button (they asked for a Word file rather than a hard copy) I felt dark and desperate. Now what? How could I live without my characters? Their lives had become more urgent than my own over the past ten years.

What did I learn from this? One critical thing: early in the process do a bare bones story spine and then write into the form. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, you have to give up expecting that readers will be fascinated with your Steno notes. 

Tell us about your new novel, (why Latvia?!) 
Why Latvia. Surface answer, my wife’s family is from Latvia. But my interest is the same as it was for Better You Go Home. Roughly following the spine of the Carpathian Mountains, then farther north up the eastern side of the Baltic Sea, is the heart of what is usually thought of when we say “Eastern bloc” countries. Surrounded on both sides by the strongest and most war-hungry imperial powers the western world has ever known, these highly evolved civilizations have struggled in this pressure-cooker for centuries to preserve their language and their identity, their very existence as cultures.

The upper Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, small and without large populations but strategically important to both Germany and Russia, were for several decades subsumed into the Soviet Union. Latvians could be punished with exile or death (the two were synonymous anyway) if they so much as waved a Latvian flag. In Riga, in schools, they were forced to speak Russian. The Soviets, starting with Stalin, embarked on a campaign to ethnically cleanse Latvia of Latvians and replace them with ethnic Russians. How did they survive? Songs.  Music. The heart of their cultural heritage. They sang folksongs the Russian speakers couldn’t understand then mistranslated in order to avoid punishment. Folk songs kept them alive. Song Festivals became their only way of honoring their culture while waiting, futilely as it turned out, for the Western allies to push the Soviets out. How does this translate into a story? Why not just write history? I have a character in mind.

He is a composer. His parents are Latvian, but they escaped post-WWII and eventually found themselves in Philadelphia. My protagonist feels Latvian but was educated in America, but his music, a mix of Latvian folk and jazz riffs and modern minor chords, has no audience in America where the only way to make money is to write scores for musicals or scores for film soundtracks. He does not want this meaningless life, considering the struggle his parents fought just to survive. He wants to live and teach and compose and have the music that honors his parents’ struggle celebrated in Latvia, where it would mean something, a great deal, even. And he is very good at what he does. 

He has followers. His music is produced and performed in Latvia. My story kicks in when he goes to Riga for the Song Festival. His composition is being featured at the opening event. His goal is to leverage this notoriety to secure a teaching position at a prestigious music academy in Riga, so that he can buy an apartment and stay and raise his daughter there. He runs into trouble. The government figure he must please in order to pursue his goal is an ethnic Russian of his parents’ generation, a notorious man with “red hands.” To make matters more difficult still, he has a brother living in Riga who has an agenda of his own that does not include cooperating with “the Pig” as our antagonist is fondly known. Enough. Now I have to write the story.

The impetus for me is this enormous curiosity I have for understanding, attempting to anyway, the generation of adults whose parents were victimized by the mid 20th century’s horrific events. My wife did not grow up in the same world I grew up in.  She went to Saturday school. Music was more important than anything except education itself in her home. Saving Latvia was the unstated goal of every dream her parents held for her and her siblings. Was this merely an overlay to a mild suburban upbringing? I don’t think so. Her search for identity is much more complex than mine. I am convinced that her experience is more typical of our generation than my own (at least a generation removed from such horrors), yet that experience is seldom written about.

Final Words of Wisdom
In today’s publishing world it’s easy to grow cynical when you look at what succeeds, at what sells. I won’t name specific examples. I bear them no grudge. As the editor-in-chief at Coffeetown Press put it to me, those writers subsidize publication of literary fiction, which, as we all know, can be a hard sell. A brief anecdote. Soon after publication of my novel, Better You Go Home, I attended a library centennial event in a small town about an hour outside of Seattle. I was under the impression I was to be part of a panel of local authors speaking to the value of libraries, which I was happy to do.

What none of the six of us “local” authors had been told was that a touring celebrity had been booked as the keynote speaker, and that he was there signing his new children’s book and that we would be hidden upstairs in the book stacks where curious attendees would theoretically seek us for wisdom and book signings.  At least two of the other authors had NY Times bestsellers notched to their credit, but no matter. You can probably imagine how the evening went.

Driving home in the dark and rain up a lonely highway having sold no books and having signed no signatures, I began to wonder why all this fuss about writing well mattered, if the result was this. Home that night at my son’s bedtime, bemoaning my fate to my wife, I had to listen to my nine year old chastise me for being a wimp. “Dad, if you’re going to let that get you down then maybe you should think about not being a writer.”


Nothing like hearing a simulacrum of your own wisdom flung back at you. I knew he was right, but I brooded. Why do I work so hard for every line? Not two weeks later, a radio interviewer had not only read my book, but quoted back some of my favorite lines and totally got it, what effect I’d been striving for, and when we both got off the phone at the end of that live interview, I am ashamed to admit this, I cried. What I had written, and the way I had written it, had mattered to someone. That’s when I had my delayed insight moment. What you write about, and how you write about it, matters.  Your reward comes in doing the best job you know how and being willing to fail, but to fail well. If your integrity as a writer pours into your work, you will find an audience to whom it will matter. I believe this. Even if it is an audience of one. One who cares, who is moved, that’s a pretty good start.

Check back Jan 1 for the next Spotlight!

The Interview: Part I

Part I

You've been working professionally as a writer for a long time, but this is your first novel. Tell us about that transition.
When I was in my mid-twenties I wrote a strange novel imitating Alain Robbe-Grillet (using only surfaces as though the text were a combination of camera eye and detached flaneur) and sent it out to ten agents, nine in NY. I had a friend in NY at that time.  While visiting her, I called on nine agents after giving them time to peruse my manuscript. Each of them had read at least a chapter or so, enough to form the impression that I needed to search out the university or small press market and forget about trying to sell this experimental piece to a NY big house. 

I knew nothing of small presses and simply threw the manuscript into a box. But, later I received a call from an agent in LA (the least likely to respond, I had thought) who said, “You seem to know how to write and you seem to take this very seriously but I can tell you have no idea what the market will bear.” His advice: write short stories, get a few published in literary journals, and try a novel when you have a better idea of an audience and what will work. I took that advice. After publishing short stories and making no money, that coupled with being divorced and caring for my young daughter and quarreling with her mother, I had to take a break from fiction (stories are hard to write) and write nonfiction for magazines that pay.  I liked the pressure of deadlines, the byline, interviewing people invested in interesting passions, the assurance of a readership (honestly, no one reads lit journals except aspiring writers and maybe agents now and then), and the paycheck. And the stress was off. 

But writing a novel was the grain of sand in my oyster and sooner or later I knew I would have to turn it into a pearl (whether anyone else saw it that way or not). When I finally leapt past reading and researching and traveling to the Czech Republic and actually set out to write chapters, my wife (we’d just recently married) suggested I stop writing short stories (because they take so much work) and just put my time into the novel.  Of course, I was not about to give up writing for the magazine editors I’d formed relations with so there is still that. But, we joked about me having my novel finished by the time our son was born.  He is now nine. He was eight when I finally was given a contract for publication of Better You Go Home

My wife was ready to give up on me. She would never have said as much, but I suspect she believed I had no intention of ever finishing it.  There might be some truth to that.  Once “finished” you have to own it and sell it and that is a scary proposition. In the end, I think I have taken that friendly agent’s advice to heart. No more writing like Robbe-Grillet. But, writing a novel is a bit like embarking on a long journey that includes feast and famine and adventure and danger and doldrums and that keeps you up at night, but that adds an urgency to life that isn’t there with any other kind of writing, at least, this has been my experience.

You gave your protagonist a life threatening medical condition in addition to other challenging aspects of his life and family history, how did you come to choose that as part of your character's obstacles? And why did you choose that particular medical condition?
My protagonist is diabetic.  Type I: requires shots. I have two family members with this condition, including my sister, who currently has no usable kidney because of diabetes complications and who is being kept alive only by dialysis while waiting for a kidney. It’s not a life I’d wish on anyone and it comes as a burden not provoked by any volition on her part.  While researching the terrain for Better You Go Home, which as you know is set primarily in the Czech Republic shortly after the Velvet Revolution freed Czechs from the Eastern bloc Warsaw pact powers, it occurred to me that my protagonist needed some issue to grapple with aside from searching for his left-behind half-sister.  

My sister’s diabetes complications seemed to provide an analogous experience (though I hesitate to go too far down this analogy road): she suffered/suffers life changing pressures that carry with them enormous risk and she didn’t ask for any of it and her life is indelibly marked because of it but somehow her spirit must find a way to persist against this force of opposition that submits only to its own logic, and still to somehow find meaning and needfulness, like anyone else. Thinking about her situation helped me understand, a bit, the situation of Anezka (the half-sister behind the Iron Curtain) and offered a way for my protagonist to have a parallel in his own life that would naturally set him up to empathize with his sister’s situation.

How has teaching creative writing impacted your own writing?

Enormously. If I hope to be an effective creative writing teacher, I have to not only examine minutely every possible aspect of craft, I also have to apply it in my own writing, or, I have to know the reason why not. The best way to learn is to teach. Here’s an example. I learned about situation set-up by studying stories published in literary magazines. I read and read and read some more until I began to see patterns and based on these patterns I figured out approximately what a story should accomplish in the set-up phase. One aspect was missing for me, though.  The notion of planting an “inciting incident.” 

I well knew that an opening had to establish a problem to solve and had to have sufficient instability to force the protagonist to venture away from his or her familiar world, despite the inevitable opposition waiting to pounce, but what I lacked, aside from an intuitive sense that there needed to be a provocation sufficiently disturbing to cause the character to actually take an action, was the clearness of a term to describe this element: inciting incident.   I encountered this term by reading Story by Robert McKee.  It wasn’t anything new or that hadn’t been said before, but the term, “inciting incident,” which he uses, so aptly describes what is actually needed for any story that includes plot, I decided I would start applying this term, both in my own writing (no more vague trouble to solve) and in my classes.  And it has proven useful to say the least. 

Would I have made this connection if I weren’t teaching?  Maybe. Would I have given it as much attention as I have? Very probably not. I love teaching this stuff.  It keeps me honest and helps me not become sloppy with my own writing, and in the end, I thoroughly enjoy seeing others master elements of craft that, if they persevere, will place them in a distinctly advantaged position when they compete with others for publishing opportunities (not to mention that they will write stories that have a good shot at finding an audience, better anyway than imitating Robbe-Grillet).

Check back December 15th for Part II

Author Interviews...

...return December 1st. With exciting new voices in fiction for December and January.

Another Study in Voice

Scroll Down for Parts II, III, and IV
My apologies for the lateness of part IV, Blogger had technical issues, and I couldn't save anything new to the blog. Luckily, the problems appear to be resolved. 
Thank you for your patience.

This month we'll explore Voice. 
What it is - how to find it - what makes yours unique.

Every writer has a voice. We are told this at every writers conference, every workshop. Every agent is looking for it, every editor knows it when they see it. So how do you find yours?

A Study In Voice

This writer is Los Angeles. Perched precariously on uncertain ground, uneasy between mountains and sea. Hawks make lazy circles over fire-tindered hillsides, eyes sharp for prey. Darting, falling, striking, ripping and tearing into soft flesh, feeding a hunger, which never goes away.

The views from the highest peaks encompass valleys of concrete and steel. Ten thousand fires with ten thousand stories entwined between freeways and canyons. Which tale to tell? Which dynamic to explore? And what spark might burn the whole place to the ground?

Where do you find your voice?

What geography speaks to you? What geography do you write? The lush, humid fecundity of the South. The primeval, forrested mystery of the Pacific Northwest. The broad stroked, open space of the Midwest... The centuries old, worn smooth stones of European architecture? The blazing sun of the Masai Mara?

Writing is active. Take the time this month to play along at home.

Exercise One: Write one sentence. This can be a line of dialogue or a description, it doesn't matter, but write one sentence to describe a person coming home to their spouse. Gender and orientation are up to you.

Next week, I'll post my sentence and Exercise Two.

Part II

Content

Reminder, Exercise One: Write one sentence. This can be a line of dialogue or a description, it doesn't matter, but write one sentence to describe a person coming home to their spouse. Gender and orientation are up to you.


My sentence:



"I've missed you," he said, as he came through the door and walked over to touch the urn holding his wife's ashes.



Many things make up a writer's voice. I like to think of "voice" as similar to a visual artist's style. A painter controls three basic elements, composition, color, and brush stroke. These three elements make that artist's style unique. Writing is much the same. Think of composition as content, color as word choice, and brush stroke as style.


For example, in the above exercise my content includes a man who's wife has died. Other writers, thinking about a spouse coming home might have created a character that was angry or excited or bored by the thought of coming home. Each of these choices determine the kind of story that's going to be told, the composition if you will.

Word Choice

For word choice, I didn't use any fancy or  poetic language, it's pretty straightforward. I didn't describe the urn or even the man. I deliberately chose to keep it simple. I could have used ossuary or vessel instead of urn. I also chose "touch," instead of caress or tap or placed his hand upon. Or, for the word's he speaks to the urn, I could have chosen "Hello, love," or "I'm home" or "Miss me?" each of which would tell us something different about the character, I've chosen "I've missed you."

For style, writers can be poetic or concise, witty or suspenseful, make short staccato sentences, or long flowing passages. Writer's might mix things up, with short sentences for dialogue and longer, more complex sentences for description. Obviously their style might vary from work to work, but finding consistency in a single work is important, it helps the reader know what pace to expect and what kind of piece it is. No one wants to get halfway through a funny, sharp-witted, tongue-in-cheek novel, only to have it come to a crashing halt so the author can begin to write in flowery prose. By the same token, if a reader is enjoying a languid, slow-moving, luxurious exploration of language, they don't want to turn the page and suddenly find themselves in a rat-a-tat-tat barrage of short words and fast moving scenes. As readers, sometimes we take long baths and sometimes we take quick showers. Both are useful and enjoyable in their own way, but we make the decision about how we want to spend our time by the books we choose at any given time.

Exercise Two: Write the second sentence in your paragraph. Your first sentence helped determine the content, for this second sentence, think about word choice. You might rewrite this second sentence several times. Write it first, quickly, just to see what happens next, then think about each word. Is there another word that is more exact for what you want to say? Look up synonyms, look up definitions, do you have the exact words you want? Check back next week, I'll post my example, and then give you Exercise Three.

My two sentences: "I've missed you," he said, as he came through the door and walked over to touch the urn holding his wife's ashes. He'd become so accustomed to the ritual, he was no longer aware of doing it, and would often stop, later, over some mundane task, and ask himself, "did I greet her tonight when I came home? Or just remember doing it before?"

Part III

Style

The first two sentences determined content and you thought about word choice. With your next two sentences, you've got enough material to start thinking about style. If you think that's not enough material to demonstrate voice, take three books from three of your favorite authors down off the shelf. Read just the first paragraph of each book, I'll bet you find they have very distinctive voices. Ask yourself what makes each of the three opening paragraphs unique?

Let's look at three famous opening lines.

"Call me Ishmael."

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."

Each of these lines is distinct. Through content, word choice, and style, each of these opening lines demonstrates a clear and beautiful voice. 

Melville's famous opening for Moby Dick, tells us the story is about Ishmael, and that he will act as narrator. Charles Dicken's opening for the Tale of Two Cities sets the cultural times for the story. Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, starts out with a description of the universal longing we have for other places, people, and things on the far horizon, a metaphor for the characters' attempts to create better lives for themselves and the next generation.

That's a lot of work in just one sentence, think what you can do with a whole paragraph!

Exercise Three: Write two final sentences. These two sentences should make the paragraph feel "complete." Write them quickly, to see what you instinctively put down. Then, go back and hone the entire paragraph for style. What kind of "story" are you writing here? Is it literary fiction? so you find more poetic language for the whole paragraph? Are you writing a genre piece? Romance? Mystery? Western? If so, what do you need to do to set up your reader for what to expect from the total work? Keep in mind agents and editors often decide whether to keep reading your work because of the quality of your first paragraph, or even your first sentence. This is where you must start showing off your voice. This may seem like a very small, short exercise, but it might be the difference between an agent reading your first chapter or not. It won't matter how good your second chapter is, if no one reads the first.

Check back next week for a wrap up, final exercise, and my first paragraph.

Wrap Up
Now you have four sentences to make up an opening paragraph. You've had time to think about what kind of story you're writing. You probably have a sense of the genre, at least one character, setting, and era. You can learn an amazing amount in just that opening paragraph. You can see why it's so important and how an agent or editor can know whether they want to read more! This is the most important paragraph to get "right." 

Exercise Four: Take your paragraph and rewrite it. Do it more than once. Really think about the changes you make. Read it out loud. How does it sound? Do you stumble over something? if so, why? Is it awkward language? Bad word choice? How can you make it better? Rewrite it until you think it's perfect. Then, leave it for a day or two, come back and read it again. Is it still the best it can be? Where is it sending you? How does this story unfold? For your final exercise write what you think is the last paragraph. It doesn't matter if this is a short story, a novella or a novel. Write the last paragraph. Where is your story heading? It doesn't matter if you ever actually use the last paragraph you write now. Maybe it's actually the middle of your story, or maybe it doesn't fit at all, but it should start you thinking about where the story goes. One issue writer's often have when the story goes well for several pages, then stalls, is not knowing where the story ends. 

Even those of us who write organically, without an outline, have an idea how the story ends. I almost always write the first scene and the last scene before I write the middle. Don't worry about whether or not this story is something you want to actually write. It's okay if it's just an exercise. Exercises is how we get better. No matter where you are in your writing career, exercises, practice, rough drafts, material you later cut, all these things make you better at your craft. I think it can be helpful to keep in mind, not everything we do needs to be "perfect" a lot of what we do is play with words on the page, until we hone in on exactly the ones we want. Stay in the process, don't worry about the product. Take care of the first part and the later part will come.

My paragraph: "I've missed you," he said, as he came through the door and walked over to touch the urn holding his wife's ashes. He'd become so accustomed to the ritual, he was no longer aware of doing it, and would often stop, later, over some mundane task, and ask himself, "Did I greet her tonight when I came home? Or just remember doing it before?" He’d pause, the laundry slipping unfolded to the floor, as his mind returned to their last moment together, and he’d see again the knife blade quivering in her chest. He had to kill her, of that, he was certain, but that didn’t mean he didn’t feel bad about it.




My rewrite:
He arrived home at his usual hour and went through his daily routine. Walking through the house towards the kitchen, he paused to touched the urn on the coffee table, where his wife’s ashes resided, a constant reminder of her absence.
         “I’ve missed you,” he said.
         Later, as he sorted and folded the laundry, which he’d run earlier that morning and had lain, all day, tumbled together in the dryer, his shirts wrapped intimately around the pieces of his wife’s clothing he washed, over and over as if it might change her death, his mind returned to their final moment together, and he could see again the knife blade quivering in her chest.
         “I had to kill you,” he said, caressing her blouse, the bloodstains faded to a faint rust color, the tear in the garment ripping further with every wash cycle. “But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.”