Constructing effective interview scenes, part II: should the fine Italian hand of the creator be THAT apparent?


Since I went on such a tear last time, producing a post of epic length, I’m going to make a valiant effort to control myself today. Must…resist urge…to…embellish…

So let’s cut right to the chase. In my last post, I brought up how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if — wait for it — SOMEONE HAD PLANNED for her to happen onto precisely the clues she needed to solve the book’s central puzzle.

What a happy coincidence, eh? And just in time to wrap up the mystery by the end of the book, too.

Strange to say, even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in interesting ones.

Which is to say: interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. And let’s face it — almost every plot involves some element of detective work, however minor. As a result, it’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow and excitement.

Especially, if you’ll forgive my saying so, toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creators? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth. At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am — discover me, already!”

Oh, like none of you have ever read a book where that happens.

Besides presenting a pacing problem, clues that seem too anxious to fling themselves in a protagonist’s way, feigning casualness when they are discovered littering the path, can actually render said protagonist less likable to readers. Why? Well, just as it doesn’t make a character seem like a stellar interviewer if he just strolls into a room at the precise psychological moment that the taciturn miner who’s kept his peace for 57 years abruptly feels the need to unburden himself to the nearest total stranger, it doesn’t make a protagonist seem smart if he happens upon a necessary puzzle piece without working to find it.

As convenient as a suddenly-garrulous secret-hider is to the plot, too-easily discovered information runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary. If, on the other hand, the reader gets to watch the protagonist run down a false lead or two, struggle to remove that rock from in front of the cave to rescue the Brownie troop gasping for breath within, genuinely have to put two and two together in order to make four, etc., it’s not only usually more exciting, but your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined — and the information elicited will seem more valuable.

Besides, contrary to popular belief amongst that apparent sizable portion of the aspiring writing community that wants to kill conflict on the page practically the moment it draws its first breath, readers like to see protagonists struggle to achieve their goals. It’s interesting, as well as character-revealing.

Yes, yes, I know: you’re worried about your manuscript’s getting too long, or the pace dragging, should you include a few digressions in your hero’s pursuit of whatever MacGuffin he’s desperately seeking throughout the story. While it is quite reasonable to draw a line on the length of a manuscript you’re planning to submit to an agent — if you’re not aware of how long tends to elicit a knee-jerk rejection from Millicent the agency screener, please see the BOOK LENGTH category on the archive list at right — whether a particular scene SEEMS long to a reader is largely a matter of presentation, not actual number of lines on a page.

So here’s a modest proposal: try divesting your manuscript of any and all extraneous lines and scenes — like, say, any line where anyone’s pointing out something obvious (“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s been walking around town, asking all of those pesky questions?”), or any new development that’s not actually surprising (“Wait — you mean that your long-lost brother first described as a miner on pg. 4 might possess a map to the very mine we need to explore?”), or any scene where the interviewer doesn’t have to work to elicit information from the interviewee. In many manuscripts, making those two types of cuts alone would free up pages and pages of space for new plot twists, if not actual chapters of ‘em.

A grand chapter to start excising the unsurprising: the first, since that is the part that any Millicent, agent, or editor is most likely to read. Especially the first 5 pages or so — if you’re going to have your plot surprise or your protagonist impress the reader with her interview acumen anyplace in the book, make sure that she does it here.

Why? Chant it together now, long-term readers of this blog: because unless the opening pages grab Millicent, she’s not going to keep reading. (No, not even if her boss asked you personally to send the entire manuscript.)

It’s just common sense, really. An agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end — so it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind I just heard the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene?

I’m guessing so; an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a phone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà , an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis: bingo.

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of bad trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least a decade now, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open their books with overt conflict, to let the reader jump right into the action, without a lot of explanatory preamble. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know in order to provide the audience with needed data. As in:

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know, apparently for no other reason than to provide the audience with background information.

Openings of novels are NOTORIOUS for being jam-packed with Hollywood narration. As in:

“So, Molly, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Tad, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“Well, Molly, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Brian — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

Since I have lectured so often on this VERY common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. (And if it doesn’t, I refer you to the many, many posts under the HOLLYWOOD NARRATION category on the list at right.) Suffice it to say that about the NICEST comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the habitual cry of the Millicent, “Next!”

Did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example, by the way? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Molly for over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature.

And as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did.

Besides, revealing a character’s favorite book is not a very telling detail.

I hear writerly hackles rising out there all over the reading world, but hear me out on this one. Writers who include such references usually do so in the rather charmingly myopic belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

Out comes the broken record again: it’s never a good idea to assume that ANY conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes. Or worldview.

Okay, let’s get back to analyzing that opening. Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said immediately, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Molly know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call — this is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Link glanced over at his girlfriend. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Gloria snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous sexually.” Link reached over to pat her on the head. “As your hairdresser, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

Gloria jerked away. “Get your broad-wedding-ring-bearing fingers away from my delicate brow. What would your tall, blonde wife think if you came home with a long, red hair hanging from that charm bracelet you always wear on your left wrist, the one that sports dangling trinkets from all of the various religious pilgrimage sights you have visited with your three short brunette daughters, Faith, Hope, and Gertrude?”

Granted, few submissions are quite as clumsy as this sterling exemplar, but you’d be surprised at how obvious aspiring writers can be about it. Pop quiz, children: why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

Well, again, it’s common, but this time, at least, that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Link and Gloria are telling each other things they obviously already know, throw yourself a party. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would NOT know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length.

The only reason this information could POSSIBLY appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party. Like, for instance, the reader.

That’s a pretty good test for Hollywood narration, incidentally: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go — to free up page space for more intriguing material and good writing.

If you also said that Link and Gloria are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary. My SO has just walked into the room, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, your eyes are green,” despite the fact that his eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want a reader to know it.

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out that being possessed of a mirror — nay, several — he already knew.

Who could have seen that plot twist coming, eh?

There you have it — several more excellent reasons to read your manuscript OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you submit it, my friends, and an even better reason to have a third party read it before you send it off to an agent or editor: to see if the dialogue sounds like something a real person might actually say (as Hollywood narration doesn’t), and to check that it is interesting enough to keep a reader moving from line to line in those interview scenes.

More on dialogue spiciness next time — that is, if I can resist the burning desire not to take another run at Hollywood Narration. Must…remain…strong…

Somehow, I suspect that I’m going to lose this particular battle. Keep up the good work!

Constructing effective interview scenes, or, you’ll never get me to squeal, copper!


No, I’m not going to be writing about my trip to France again today — since we’re already into literary conference season, I’m going to give that a break for a while. Starting next week, I’m going to revisit those two perennial conference terror-inducers, formal pitch meetings and informal hallway pitching.

Stop groaning, those of you who lived through previous summers’ accounts of these difficult tasks: every writer could benefit from spending a little time brushing up on the old verbal self-promotional skills, because, frankly, the extremely common assumption that a good book is easier to pitch than a bad one is just not true. Pitching, like query writing, is a learned skill, and speaking as a writer whose agent had told at 4 am at a literary party, “Pitch your memoir to that editor standing over there,” I can assure you that authors are indeed expected to be able to pitch their own work for the rest of their professional lives.

But relax: so as not to spoil your Fourth of July holiday, I’m not going to start right away. Have a seat; drink something cool as you watch the fireworks. I’ll just keep running pretty pictures of France and Spain because, let’s face it, people who write and edit for a living don’t get out to take pictures all that often.

In the meantime, remember how I told you a few months back that I often glean my best ideas for series from readers’ questions? Well, for the next few days, I’m going to revisit a craft issue that several readers have asked me to clarify — and to make easier to find on this website. To both ends, I’m pleased to unveil a new category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page: INTERVIEW SCENES THAT WORK.

That’s right: for the next few days, I’m going to concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite species of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

I heard that tittering out there. Seriously, a protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know — and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know.

Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon. In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters.

What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

As so often happens when I have planned to attack a particular issue, craft or promotional, in this venue, the Fates trundled up with a wheelbarrow and dumped an excellent example right at my feet, the kind of real-life incident that novelists and memoirists alike love to incorporate into their narratives. See if you can catch the narrative problem with this tale:

Last Sunday was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday (many happy returns, Marge!), and thus the occasion of an eight-hour buffet-and-chatting marathon in her daughter’s back yard/poultry coop. As befits my Cool Auntie status, I devoted much of my party-going time — as much as was left after making the dining room table groan with yummy, easily-portable foodstuffs, that is — to the resident children and their ever-changing interests. On this particular day, my 8-year-old niece’s interests centered primarily upon gerbils and the bread loaf-sized cupcakes she had helped me pile up temptingly at 10 am, yet was not allowed to gobble down until after 2 pm.

A child’s life is so frequently cruel.

To distract Pansy (not her real name, but a cunning substitute) from all of that sugar, I asked for a guided tour of Gerbil Central. Not unnaturally, the gerbils were not altogether pleased to be picked up, placed upon a warm tabletop, and told to sit, stay, and roll over. Clearly, this was going to end in tears. “Are they allowed on the lawn?” I asked brightly, scanning the skies for hawks. “Or will they burrow and escape?”

Pansy thought this was a terrific idea. “Oh, no. They just like to wiggle through the grass.”

The gerbils had no comment, nor did they seem to find the grass much more engaging than the shredded cardboard in their terrarium. What did seem to interest them was scurrying under a discarded paper plate, peeping out fearfully to see if some raptor had shown up to cart them off for brunch.

After some minutes, Pansy decided that their furry lives could use a bit of cultural enrichment. She leapt to her feet, a petrified gerbil in each hand. “I’m going to introduce them to the poultry!”

Now, call me timid, but had I been gerbil-sized, I would have found the two-foot turkeys my brother-in-law sees fit to be raising as a combination educational experience for his young/Thanksgiving main course quite terrifying. “I don’t think you should do that, Pansy. Since birds are their natural predators, the turkeys will scare them.”

“I know.” Since I was holding her back, Pansy held the gerbils up over her head, so they could get a good eyeful of the pecking beasts. “I want them to learn that when they’re with me, they’re safe.”

“That’s rather complex logic for rodents. They’re not all that good at drawing conclusions.”

After I had finished explaining what a conclusion was and why she was better at drawing them than anything at all likely to inhabit a terrarium, Pansy agreed to lie down in the grass and let the gerbils play. Instantly, the gerbils fled under the paper plate again.

The girl watched them for a while, mildly amused by my distracting patter. Unable to stand the sight of all of that unmolested furriness, she scooped up the nearer gerbil and tried to convince it to cuddle up on her stomach. The gerbil attempted again and again to beat a hasty retreat, but was inexorably dragged atop Mt. Pansy again, told it was loved, and ordered to stay still. Eventually, it gave up on descent, contenting itself with burrowing under her T-shirt.

“Bow chicka wow chicka WOW-WOW,” Pansy sang.

“I beg your pardon?” I cried, unaccustomed to small children belting out the greatest hits of adult movie soundtracks.

Like any good performer, Pansy was glad to provide an even more spectacular encore, accompanied by an interpretive dance. “Wow chicka WOW chicka WOW-wow chicka wow chicka WOW-WOW.”

I glanced at her uncle, the gentleman who had brought me to this shindig and a craven soul who was valiantly pretending that he had never seen this child, the gerbil, or me before. “Um, honey, do you mind telling me where you learned that song?”

“I don’t know.” She hauled the gerbil out of her shirt so she could serenade it. “Bow chicka wow chicka WOW-WOW-WOW!”

I hoisted myself off the lawn with a speed virtually guaranteed to leave grass stains. “Who’s up for a cupcake”

Catch the problem? If you pointed out the extremely common one of an actual event’s being substantially funnier to live through than to read, give yourself a gold star for the day. If you mentioned that I told the story, as so many recorders of real life do, as if any reader’s reactions would have been identical to mine in the moment, award yourself another. If you blurted out something about my having told what happened, instead of showing it — an interpretive dance could cover a lot of different types of action, right? — be mighty pleased with yourself. If you said that I was attributing thoughts to Pansy that the first-person narrator of this piece could not possibly have heard without being clairaudient, pat yourself on the back yet again.

Good job. Now — what would be the single easiest way to revise this scene to render it more engaging to the reader? (Hint: the title of this post is a major clue.)

That’s right: by making the narrator a better interviewer. Had I asked more insightful questions of either myself (why did the song disturb me so much? Did it have something to do with the time I heard an entire van full of 11-year-olds sing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the top of their lungs on my first day as an after school program volunteer all those years ago?) or of Pansy (did she realize that adults associate that particular kind of music with something she’s not supposed to know about for years to come, or had she simply heard in on a commercial? Was she trying to provoke a specific reaction in me, her uncle, the gerbil?), I could have rendered the situation more dramatic while simultaneously doing more character development. I also could have avoided that hackneyed scene ender that we’ve all seen so often in TV shows and movies, the protagonist’s running out of the situation in order to avoid conflict that would have been interesting on the page.

Some of you are just dying to register an objection, aren’t you? “But wait — you were reproducing real-life dialogue,” all of you would-be objectors point out. “Wouldn’t it be less realistic if you changed it?”

In a word, no. In several words, not if I write the scene well.

As I’ve observed many times before and shall no doubt again, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it will automatically read realistically on the page. It’s the writer’s job to craft dialogue — or any scene, for that matter — so it’s plausible, not the reader’s to make allowances because the writer observed someone saying or doing what ended up on the page. Besides, real-life dialogue is often dull.

That’s especially true in interview scenes, incidentally: few narrative devices annoy professional readers (like agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener) who’ve been at it for a while than a narrator — or protagonist — who is a lousy interviewer.

Why? Well, for starters, lousy interviewers are so very common in submissions. On a manuscript’s page, a poor interview scene tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Reginald claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Janet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow, and this one well-protected, diamond-encrusted lady obviously held the key.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Fezziwig. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Reginald detached their clasped hands so quickly that Janet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Janet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Fezziwig bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why would an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader? For the same reasons that my story about Pansy might strike ‘em as underdeveloped: because the scene a lost opportunity for interesting conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Okay, so that’s not quite fair: writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a trifle impatient.

Why? Well, in essence, the protagonist becomes the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After awhile, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview could give the entire plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

However, before I do, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it for 200 pages tends to fall very, very flat with readers.

Why might a lay reader object? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by DELIBERATELY withholding information from the reader.

As in details that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. If you have ever constructed a narrative that involved dialogue, you’ve almost certainly written at least one interview scene.

What makes me so darned sure of that? It’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain a one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else. Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses.

In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are those of you who have survived previous craft series with me already warming up your highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes are often worth flagging for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

Yes, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not cross the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Reginald.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is — YOU, Father!”), or downright necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, George, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why might any of these present pacing problems? Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it NOT be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation from the reader’s point of view. Or Millicent’s.

Are you again asking why? To be blunt about it, the narrative should not make it EVIDENT that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: “Why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches? How could we have missed so self-evident a clue?”

I can answer that, perplexed villagers: because the author didn’t want you to solve the mystery before her protagonist arrived on the scene.

Surprisingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy so long that Hamlet himself would start looking at his watch four paragraphs into it.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers.

Which what makes secrets interesting, right, the fact that they’re hard to dig up? In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

How’s THAT for an intriguing narrative possibility?

When you are trying to increase the tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often hard to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are. Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict?

Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How does one pull that off? Actually, there’s a pretty simple narrative trick: try making the information-imparter more reluctant to cough up the goods — which both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult. Automatically, this small switch will render the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

Yes, this will probably make the scene longer, but remember, the role of a mystery in any narrative is not to be solved as quickly as possibly, but as enjoyably for the reader as possible. Not to mention — and this isn’t an insignificant consideration when trying to get a submission past Millicent to her boss, the agent of your dreams — being less like the kind of clichéd interview scenes we’ve all so often seen in TV cop dramas, where the most common interview techniques consists of:

(a) asking the suspected criminal/accomplice/victim-who-turns-out-to-be-in-on-it direct questions,

(b) instead of asking follow-up questions, threatening him/her/the accomplice if the interviewee doesn’t instantly blurt out what the interviewer wants to know (what used to be known in old pulp mysteries as “singing like a canary”),

(c) if no blurting occurs, the interviewer’s stomping off in a huff to pursue other clues, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

Yes, there are probably real-life police officers who interview this way, but I can’t believe that they’re very good at their jobs. And even if they are, would reproducing this kind of dialogue in every interview situation be interesting in a book? Probably not.

Think that advice applies only to mysteries? Au contraire, mon frère. (Hey, you can take the girl out of France, but you can’t take the French out of the girl.) Let’s take a look at the interviewing strategy my narrator took vis-à-vis young Pansy:

(a) Auntie asks Pansy where she learned that, um, charming little ditty.

(b) Upon not receiving an adequate explanation, Auntie does not ask follow-up questions, but instead

(c) scurries off, embarrassed, to score some cupcakes, thus prematurely ending a potentially interesting conflict.

In real life, of course, no one could blame me for side-stepping that particular conflict; I’m not, after all, one of the girl’s parents; I have no idea how they might or might not have explained the musical scoring choices of adult filmmakers to their offspring. (Or at any rate I didn’t know at the time; I’ve since mentioned the incident to Pansy’s mom, to minimize the possibility that the child’s next bravura performance of that musical number will take place in school, where she might get into some real trouble. Or in church.) In a novel or memoir, however, slinking away from conflict just because it might prove uncomfortable is about the most boring choice I could have made.

Oh, are you saying that you wouldn’t have liked that story to end with my telling you how and where Pansy learned the song? Or that you wouldn’t have liked me — in the story, at least — to have asked some follow-up questions? Or that as a reader, it doesn’t annoy you just a little bit to know that I did in fact learn the answer, but I’m just not telling you?

Starting to empathize more with Millicent’s impatience when she sees this sort of interview scene in fourteen consecutive submissions in any given week? It’s not just that she’s touchy: ineffectual interviewing and false suspense are both legitimately annoying narrative practices.

Take a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up, and don’t have your protagonist walk away from potentially interesting interview subjects at the first sign of resistance. The more difficult it is for your protagonist to ferret out the truth, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

So consider eschewing the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills — and give your interview subjects stronger backbones.

Your manuscripts will be more interesting for it, I promise — but that’s all I’m going to say for now, no matter how you twist my arm, copper.

I’ve already squealed enough for one day, don’t you think? Keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part V: alone time, communal festivities, and speaking the lingua franca


Today is the last installment of my multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. Kerry and John were kind enough — or foolish enough, depending upon how one chooses to regard the time commitment involved — to agree to sit down and answer all of the questions I thought my readers might have about the ins and outs of running an artists’ retreat.

As will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while, I did not suffer from an inability to come up with trenchant questions, or a whole lot of ‘em.

I did, however, forget to ask a rather important one until the interview was nearly over — an omission that I’m kind of surprised, frankly, none of you fine readers has left a comment pointing out. Let’s rejoin the conversation already in progress to see just how gracefully I covered for this little oversight.


Anne: There’s one question that I know will have been preying on the minds of literally every English-speaking reader of my blog since I first mentioned that I was going to travel to France for a writing retreat: How much French would someone actually have to speak to get by at La Muse?

To be blunt about it, all of the travel guides say that this is the part of France where the fewest people speak the least English. do you think that someone who didn’t speak any French at all could do well here?

Kerry: No French is necessary. We are bilingual, so we can provide assistance there. And we do arrange for the French lessons for those who’d like to have the basics or improve more advanced French.

John: Hand gestures work well, too. The locals are very friendly and helpful.

Anne: That’s true, but in my limited experience, very few of them have English as a second language, even in Carcassonne (the nearest city). Traveling in packs helps; since there were a couple of my fellow residents who spoke no French at all, mine certainly improved by leaps and bounds while I was in residence.

One thing that seemed to bring villagers and retreatants together was the daily walk to get water at La Source.

Kerry: It’s a great daily outing, a natural ritual that makes people connected to the land and to the rhythm of this place.

Anne: For those of you who have never been to the village of Labastide Esparbaïrenque, La Source is a famous local mountain spring. (Sorry, campers; I seem to have neglected to take a photograph of it.) Many La Muse residents choose to take the not inconsiderable walk every day to obtain their drinking water from it, something that 21rst-century Westerners don’t do all that often. What’s the attraction, do you think?

Kerry: Charm, exercise and free spring water. It’s healthier, more economical and more environmentally sound than either tap water or bottled spring water. People have been getting drinking water from that spot for centuries, and come from miles around to fill up on water for the week. They claim it’s why there are so many old, old people here!

John: We encourage people to go to the source so that they can get out of the house and refresh themselves. That way. they can get more work done instead of staying in their rooms burning themselves out.

Anne: Which is a genuine danger at a good artists’ retreat, I’ve noticed, especially for writers. A lot of us become so excited at the idea of having an entire 24 hours per day free to write that we actually try to spend every waking hour doing it. It’s important to establish reasonable expectations, so you don’t end up writing for three days straight, then collapsing for a week.

John: Everyone has a different process. Some writers are like Auden and get up at the crack of dawn and others are like Dostoyevsky, they write all night…

Anne: And some are like Graham Greene, and write 147 words per day until they get a book done.

John: We feel that whichever you are, you really need to get away from your laptop or canvass during the day, to have a ritual, that allows you to get out of your own head so that you can be even more lucid when you get back to your work.

Anne: Speaking of daily rituals, although e-mail and web surfing is now a constant part of most writers’ lives, artists’ retreats have been very slow to jump on the internet bandwagon. It’s still not all that uncommon to have to travel to the nearest town to get online. I can understand wanting to render too-easy access less of a temptation, since e-mail and the web can be so distracting and time-consuming, but I frequently meet writers — and other artists, for that matter — who say that being completely cut off is a deal-breaker on a long retreat. I hate to admit it, but as both a blogger and a freelance editor with ever-clamoring (charmingly, of course) clients, I wouldn’t have been able to stay as long at La Muse had the internet connection not been available.

You’ve recently expanded the internet connection, so it may be used all over the La Muse, rather than in a dedicated internet space. How has that been working out?

Kerry: We have WIFI. We used to not have any because we used dial-up — ADSL has only been possible in this village for two years.

John: People usually don’t use the Internet much at all. They just need to know it’s available to them. Bloggers use it a lot, obviously, but most of the time people use it after quiet hours because they are really into finishing or moving forward with their projects.

Anne: Since the walls are so thick (note: since it began life as a medieval structure, La Muse’s external walls are a meter deep; see next set of photos), I’m not sure there’s any way of knowing for sure who is doing what, or when, in the various rooms. The privacy level’s awfully high.

La Muse's kitchen window, as seen from without...

La Muse’s kitchen window, as seen from without…

...and from within.

…and from within.

Anne: What I was really asking was do you think that a retreat with easy internet access is different from one that doesn’t have it?

Kerry: It has changed the vibe. The monastic nature of a retreat is sort of interrupted by daily emails, the odd job offer, the business of swapping favorite music and movies, Skype… pop culture and the stress of life back home has more openings through which to seep into a person’s experience here and to interrupt their flow, which is too bad.

That said, many people use the Net for research, and we found it actually alleviated stress just to make it available for everyone. So, we remind people to try to stay focused on their projects, and I think they do.

Anne: Which leads me to a delicate subject, something that writers who have been on retreat talk about a lot amongst themselves, but retreat organizations tend to downplay as a possibility. Do you get writers or artists who come to La Muse and just don’t work?

Kerry: People who come here are just dying for the time to focus on their work. Sometimes we have people who read and research and unwind, and that’s fine. We just ask that they not interfere with other people’s work. If they do interfere, we have a talk. It has very rarely happened.

Anne: That’s encouraging to hear, since it’s such a common retreat phenomenon; it’s rare to meet a writer freshly back from any retreat, anywhere, who doesn’t complain about another resident’s loafing around, being a distraction. Not out of spite or anything, but just because the sole unoccupied person in the midst of a dozen with their noses to the grindstone is bound to stand out.

Maybe the fact that many of your attendees travel so far to get here minimizes the temptation to use the time for non-artistic pursuits. Or that so many of your residents are already professional artists of one sort or another, and thus already have good work habits.

John: Lots of established writers who come actually use the retreat to decompress from their writing life back home. They come here to read and eat good food. They come to be around other creative people but without the pressure of their home office. They are researching, but more importantly they are retreating from their lives back home so that they can think about their writing, so that they can be inspired about what they are working on.

As we say all the time, every one has their own process. Once that process is not getting in the way of other attendees. we are happy.


Anne: Okay, let’s flip the scenario around, then: do you get attendees who just disappear into their rooms and are never heard from again?

John: Like I just said, everyone has their own process. Everyone is at different stages of their projects, careers, and lives, so that affects what their process is. If someone needs to stay in their room all day, that’s their choice. We accept and respect a person’s process.

Kerry: If they want seclusion, that’s their call. We check on people when we haven’t seen them in awhile to make sure they’re okay, but that’s about it.

Anne: Retreats can be rather lonely experiences for a writer, especially the first time around. No matter how long one longs to be absolutely alone with one’s book, the actual fact of it can be a bit overwhelming.

John: The writing life is by its nature lonely. You sit in a room with four walls with the door closed. You do the same at La Muse, but without having to worry about the telephone ringing, changing nappies, answering the mail, going out.

Also, La Muse allows you to go through this with people on the same wavelength as you. How many times in your normal life can you be surrounded by other creative people all day for three weeks? Attendees really love this aspect of a retreat, being able to talk about what they’ve done at the end of a day over a glass of wine on the terrace.

Kerry: Basically, we gave the house a structure: a time to work and a time to eat. So most people eat together, which makes for structured social time.


Anne: I guess that brings us back to your earlier point: La Muse gives retreaters more options to personalize their retreat experiences than most artists’ colonies do. In my first cohort, for instance, most of the retreatants left after the originally-planned three-week session, but two of us were able to remain for another couple of weeks in order to complete our projects.

Kerry: We do accept shorter stays, but when possible we ask that people arrive on the first day of each retreat so everyone can settle in at the same time. There’s less upheaval in the house that way.

For 2010, we plan to have a different calendar that will offer two-week retreats, three week retreats – those who wish to stay for a month or more can come for two consecutive retreats.

Anne: That’s great. Much, much more flexible than the vast majority of retreats.

Kerry: We will also have two periods of the year (probably two months in the fall and two months in early spring) when people can come and go on whichever dates they please, to stay for however long. The calendar in 2011 will reflect how well that works.

Anne: So La Muse is still evolving.

John: We have been keeping notes on the genesis of La Muse and all the crazy things that have happened to us over the years in La France Profonde. An editor friend thinks it would make a great book and has told us we need to pitch a part of it to The New Yorker or somewhere like that, but we are pretty busy right now.

Anne: No kidding!

John: We have our attendees and kids and other writing to take care of first but would love to eventually get that book out there. There’d be a huge market for it.

Anne: I suspect it’s not an uncommon writerly fantasy: move someplace beautiful, peaceful, and exotic to write, with another space to be able to welcome other writers who want to do the same.

Not to mention doing it in the company of someone you love. How is collaborating on running a retreat different than working on any other kind of project together?

Kerry: It’s alive and 3-D. Much more multi-tasking involved.

John: It’s everything at the same time. To use the cliché, you wear many hats and a lot of them are funny ones.

Anne: But in the face of all that it takes to keep an artists’ retreat running — more than a full-time job, by anyone’s standards –how on earth do you have time to write yourselves?

Kerry: Late at night or in the wee hours… just like when we had full-time jobs in NYC.

John: I write a lot at the train station waiting for people to arrive or when I bring people down to Carcassonne for the weekly ride package. The collection of short stories I’ve been writing this year have been mostly written in cafes and in our old Chrysler Voyager. I usually type my stuff up in the dead of night.

Anne: I suppose this question should have topped the interview, but please tell us a bit about your backgrounds and what each of you writes. Kerry, why don’t you go first?

Kerry: I come from a military family, and lived in Europe for part of my childhood and it was probably back then that I fell in love with tiny old villages with their little stone houses with big gardens. I always wanted to be a writer, but these days I wish I were a painter. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and received a BA in Comparative Literature, and had a concentration in creative writing. My focus then was poetry.

During and after university, I lived in Paris for three years, where I did an internship at the French ELLE magazine, and the Paris office of 60 Minutes/CBS News. After that, I landed an editorial and news assistant job at the Paris bureau of The New York Times. When my visa ran out, I moved to NYC. There, I worked as the assistant to the Editorial Director of Conde Nast Publications, then went on to write and edit for various glossies and dailies, ghostwrite alternative health books, a coffee table book, and two screenplays. I am currently turning back to pitching article ideas, and have two novels in progress.

Anne: What about you, John?

John: I’m the eldest of seven kids. I was born in rural Ireland. My Dad worked in farming as an agricultural advisor for the Irish government. My jobs have included working on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse – my first paycheck – selling windows door to door, managing a bar in Camden Town in London, working in a coffee shop in New York’s East Village, writing marketing materials, travel guides and fact-checking. I most recently worked as a researcher/reporter for Vanity Fair in New York City.

I’m primarily a novelist, but I’ve written short stories, screenplays and plays. My master’s degree was in modern European Drama. My fourth novel, A Brave Man Dead, is currently being sent out by my agent, Angharad Kowal at Writers’ House in London, and my fifth, A Murder of Crows, is being read. I’m working on a collection of short stories right now based around the Stations of the Cross and I’m really enjoying the process.


Anne: Okay, one last question, then I’ll let the two of you get back to running the retreat. If you could wave a magic wand and the perfect La Muse attendee would appear before you, what would that writer be like.

You’ll notice that I’m assuming it would be a writer!

Kerry: Either someone who loves everything we do, or someone who can tell us what they don’t love about what we do so we can do it better for that person.

Anne: I’ll let my readers guess into which category I tended to fall on any given day.

Kerry: Also, someone who refers La Muse to their peers, and who returns to La Muse with their peers, someone who respects the guidelines we provide, and someone with the patience to understand that in the South of France it can take awhile to fix something that’s broken.

Anne: Which can come as a surprise to a big city person born and bred.

John: Plumbers and electricians, etc., down here are as laid back as everyone else. They could give a dam about making money. They want their two-hour lunch breaks and they will not do overtime. It’s a joke to them. People need to understand that. Everything down here is very relaxed and very slow.

That’s why people choose to come here. To get away from the frenzy of life back home. So, attendees that can understand this way of life and that not only accept but fall in love with that relaxed ethos tend to be the ones that get the most out of a retreat at La Muse. They tend to be the attendees that get the most work done.

Anne: I would imagine that would be true with small retreats in general, wouldn’t it? I mean, a retreater who wanted something closer to a big-city atmosphere could always seek out one of the massive artists’ colonies like the Vermont Studio Center, where there are 50 people at every meal. When I was in residence, there were so many New Yorkers that a good third of my fellow retreaters met for brunch a month later in Brooklyn. It’s not really my idea of retreating, but it’s a lot of people’s proverbial cup of tea.

Since places like VSC do tend to boast about what their former residents have gone on to do, let me ask: how does retreating at La Muse seem to affect attendees’ careers?

John: We have many writers and artists that have acknowledged La Muse in their books and shows.

Anne: I guess that speaks for itself. I also noticed that you seem to have a much higher returning resident rate than most artists’ retreats, which also says something.

Okay, I lied: I have one more question. If you could tell potential attendees only one thing about La Muse before they got here, what would it be?

Kerry: That La Muse is a retreat. They are retreating from their lives back home so that they can finally get done what they need to get done. It’s as simple as that.

Anne: That’s a great place to end the interview, I think. Thanks, Kerry and John, for being generous enough to answer all of my questions and give writers out there curious about formal writing retreats so much insight into what they’re like behind the scenes.

And, as I always say to my readers, keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part IV: the most practical of practicalities


Welcome back to my ongoing multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. For the last couple of posts, we’ve been talking about the financial aspects of getting to a writing retreat, so this time around, we’re going to get even more practical in our focus: what occurs at a formal retreat on a day-to-day basis?

We join the conversation already in progress.

Anne: Having been in residence at La Muse for two different three-week residency sessions, basically because I was being so productive that I refused to leave when the first one ended, I got to see first-hand the ENORMOUS amount of work involved in getting the retreat ready for new residents. Having arrived to find everything in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott liked to say, I was genuinely stunned at the flurry of activity.

Over and above intersession clean-up and prep, what’s actually involved in keeping a writing retreat going on a quotidian basis?

Kerry: Enough so that after all that dreaming, we work more hours here than we did in NYC and still have very little time to write!

Anne: What’s a day of running an artists’ retreat like?

Kerry: Processing applications takes about two hours a day. Once people are accepted and committed to coming, helping them get here can represent a lot of time. The barter residency has its application process and schedule; running barter projects underway takes three full days a week.

We are daily involved in marketing, advertising and outreach to get our name out there, including the blog, our website, our Facebook page, YouTube, MySpace, Shelfari, Good Reads, LinkedIn

Anne: Heavens.

Kerry: We host and enjoy current attendees at La Muse. We take care of people’s wishes and needs daily.

John: We offer a limited local transportation service, so there’s a lot of driving around.

Anne: That’s something that many first-time retreatants don’t consider, but artists’ retreat tend to be in the middle of nowhere. That’s part of their charm, of course, but if a writer doesn’t plan on bringing a car — which can drive up the cost of a retreat by quite a bit, if it’s a rental — getting around can be pretty problematic. I sprained my ankle fairly soon after I arrived, so I never made the hour-long trek down the mountain to the nearest village with a grocery store, but other residents did. So I, for one, was very grateful that you did offer a transportation service, so I could do my shopping while I wasn’t walking so well.

Kerry: Most months, we work on hosting an art show or some other cultural event for our attendees and our neighbors; in 2008, we hosted 8 events. We hope to host two this year, at least.

John: The house is 450 square meters on three levels with two gardens, the maintenance of which is a full-time job.


Because at times we don’t have enough room in the house, we coordinate rentals of neighboring cottages to attendees, sometimesl who want to come with their families. When families come with their children, we arrange for childcare during their stay.

Kerry: And then, there’s all that cleaning… and gathering wood once a week from the forest for our four wood burning stoves which burn around the clock from October through April. So, we are busy.

John: You can say that again.

Anne: Not to mention organizing book swaps amongst the residents, taking us on the occasional field trip, and organizing other bits of occasional communal jollity.

I’m very interested in the practicalities, since the day-to-day business of getting fed, obtaining good sleep, and dealing with all of the million other concrete details involved in being comfortable can make an immense difference in how productive a writer is on retreat. A beautiful environment and/or adequate physical facilities are helpful, of course, but not always enough, in my experience.

But we’re talking about your experience here, not mine. What else is involved to encourage writers and other artists to be productive on retreat?

Kerry: There’s general maintenance (replacing blown light bulbs or the odd repairs or computer help, and doing what we can to help people be more comfortable and productive—whether they want to move their desk closer to the window or have a different chair.

Anne: I have distinct recollections of having made both requests. In fact, I’m relatively certain that I asked John to rearrange a fair amount of furniture.

John: Usually, in the first week, attendees have a lot of needs but after a couple of days, after the jet lag, they really start to settle in and then talk comes around to their projects and how they’re doing as opposed to blown light bulbs or where to get eggs from the locals.

Anne: Yes, let’s talk eggs for a moment, since I have some very pleasurable recollections of scrambling some of your neighbor’s freshly-laid duck eggs. Some retreats provide food for attendees, but La Muse does not. How do attendees feed themselves? How well does the communal kitchen work out?

Kerry: People cook and eat for themselves. 98% of people love it like that as it makes their retreat more of a communal one. Some people like other people to make food for them and some people like to do that for them, but again, we are not an institution.

Anne: I notice that you have a clothesline — which attendees also use. How on earth do you do all of the laundry between retreat sessions when the weather’s not nice?

Kerry: We have been very lucky to have mostly dry weather between stays and when it’s not nice, we drape sheets and towels over every radiator in the house. Worst case scenario, we use our dryer.

Anne: I was there in both spring and summer weather, and everyone got their laundry done just fine. But while we’re on the subject of weather, what’s it like at La Muse in the fall and winter?

Kerry: Fall is sunny and warm but with colder nights. Winter is mild but manages to feel cold. It never really goes below 7 degrees Celsius. That said, the weather has seemed totally unpredictable, so I hate to put anything out there in terms of expectations. I’ll just say we have four seasons, and it’s beautiful here no matter what, and the house is comfortable no matter what.


Anne: I’m sensing that I may have diverted the conversation before you finished telling me about a retreat-running day.

Kerry: We also have conversations with most attendees about their projects at least once during a retreat. Sometimes people have personal issues they struggle with, so we do what we can to provide support. We also meet with everyone socially at least once a week.

This daily interaction is one of our greatest pleasures. It can be very time-intensive, depending on the group. We try to arrange introductions with local artists when there may be the potential for an exchange of some kind. We arrange for French lessons, or just conversation exchange. Everyone needs something, most days.

Anne: Even in the face of that frankly daunting list of tasks you’ve just mentioned, my impression is that, if anything, you’ve been expanding your efforts on behalf of La Muse and the larger artists’ community over time. Is that accurate? How has your vision evolved in the years since you first opened the retreat?

Kerry: We’ve stayed very true to the original concept but have developed a community-based angle as well. We started our non-profit for local cultural activities, and to be able to create more fellowships — another development since the beginning.

Anne: That ties into the dream you were telling us about last time: trying to bring La Muse to the point where writers and artists can attend for free. It’s such a beautiful idea; I hope to see you realize it.

Tell us more about La Muse’s nonprofit. People can deduct contributions to it, right?

John: Basically, any donations made to the non-profit — it’s called “L’Association ‘La Muse’ pour la creation et la culture en Montagne Noire et Cabardes” — are completely tax deductable. An association in France functions much like a 501(c)(3) in the States. It’s due to a convention that was passed on the first of July all the way back in 1901, where two or more people operating a non-profit-making organization call themselves an “Association Loi 1901”.

Anne: You’ve got to hand it to the French when it comes to naming things straightforwardly. I was forever asking the locals what that group of crumbling medieval towers was called, and the name would turn out to be something like Las Tours.

John: It took a lot of time to get it up and running due to all the paperwork, which is par for the course in La France, but we really foresee it having great benefits for La Muse, as ideally we would like every attendee that comes here to come for free. We haven’t employed a fundraiser yet but we are a member of the Alliance of Artists Communities in Rhode Island and are doing what we can to get our mission out there to potential donors so that we can make La Muse a free retreat, much like foundations like Yaddo.

Like I said earlier. ideally we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or residency attached to an institution or donor so they don’t feel weighed down by the financial weight of getting away. Our mission has always been to make a space for creative people and the best way to do that would to be to offer it for free. Also, it isn’t just now that we’re doing this. Students and graduates have been coming to us from Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States for years.

We want to grow that side of La Muse, but we need help to do so. We need the donations to get people here.

Kerry: We’re also reaching out more to our community not just because we love our neighbors and are grateful to have been welcomed by them, but also because many of them are artists and writers. Our attendees appreciate having a taste of local life, and we try to facilitate exchanges between our neighbors whenever possible, whether by inviting attendees to local events, or sending them to the neighbors for fresh eggs, or for a massage or a hiking guide—you name it.

Anne: We were talking about that earlier: although so many artists’ retreats are located in beautiful environments, they tend to be isolated enough from their neighbors that, other than the weather and the types of trees, spending a month at one might not be all that different than spending a month at another. Experienced retreaters compare amenities, of course, but as someone who has attended many retreats, a lot of them blur together in retrospect.

I find it rather hard to imagine that happening with La Muse, though. Where else, for instance, was I going to see the locals playing giant bagpipes made our of goats?


Kerry: On an internal level, we’ve streamlined things since the beginning too, when it was more informal. We added the art studios. We are working on a new retreat calendar; rather than focus solely on longer retreats we’re trying to accommodate people who can only get away for two weeks.

Anne: Really? Not a lot of retreats offer stays that short; that would be helpful for working writers. Not to mention ones with kids!

Kerry: The 2010 calendar will have two-week retreats during months when there are university breaks, as well as our current three-week retreats. That way, people can come for two weeks, three weeks, two two-week retreats, a three-week retreat, etc. Some people stay for up to six months. In other words, people can tailor the length of their stay but keep to an arrival and departure schedule that won’t create a lot of upheaval for other attendees.

Anne: But the normal retreat time is three weeks, right? At many retreats, it’s a month. Why did you settle on three weeks?

Kerry: Our focus is to provide a place in which people can really crank on their projects, make some real progress. We believe that with the time it takes to settle in and with the inevitable socializing and days to read and relax, a person really needs about three weeks in order to get any real work done.

Anne: That’s true, but I know that in my case, it takes me a few days to settle in at the beginning, as well as a few days to get back to real-world mode at the end. So I had always assumed that most retreats arrange month-long (or longer) residencies, assuming that the three weeks you mentioned will fall somewhere in the middle of it.

Kerry: We used to have four-week retreats, and the last week seemed to be a listless one. As well, people often just can’t get away for four weeks. So we changed it to three.

John: Previous attendees told us three weeks would be better than four as they found it hard to get four weeks off from their day jobs or away from the kids or other responsibilities.

Anne: Speaking of time away from other responsibilities, I don’t want to run over-long, so let’s break here for the day.

Happy weekend, everyone, and keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part III: did someone mention fellowships?


For the last week or so, I’ve been talking about the pros, cons, ins, outs, and finances of grabbing one’s manuscript, computer, and what Chaucer described for posterity as a bag of needments and trundling off to a formal writing retreat. You know, the impressive kind that they advertise in the back of Poets & Writers magazine: artists’ colonies where you have to write (or paint, or sculpt, or photograph) your way in; for the rest of your professional life, agents, editors, and other literati take a gander at your bio or query letter and exclaim, “Oh, you were at Retreat X?”

Oh, and one generally gets time to work on one’s manuscript, too.

Because both the decision to take time off work and the application process can be intimidating, confusing, or even downright scary, I have devoted the last couple of days to chatting about practicalities with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, owners, operators, and writers-in-residence at La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France. If you gaze carefully into the windows in the picture above, you’ll catch a glimpse of the magnificent view I enjoyed every time I cast my laptop from me last month and stared out the window, mulling over dialogue.

What — not enough detail in that image? Well, if you’re very nice, I’ll treat you to some clearer landscape photos throughout today’s post.

But wait, there’s more: as an additional treat, I’m also going to be continuing the extremely practical bent of yesterday’s post (an excellent behind-the-scenes glimpse into what a retreat application looks like from the other side of the submission desk) by sticking to the nitty-gritty. Specifically, to the financial nitty-gritty, to address the most pressing question on many would-be retreating writers’ minds:

How on earth do writers afford to stay at a retreat like this?

If a writer happens to be independently wealthy, obviously, the answer is simple: there are plenty of perfectly marvelous artists’ hideaways out there for thems as can pay for ‘em. Those of lesser means often save up for them, get a paper route, or blandish kith and kin into donating toward them as birthday presents, in much the same way as anyone else who wants something out of his price range.

However, the answer for most of us who do it on a semi-regular basis, as I mentioned on Monday, is to apply for fellowships, grants, and barter arrangements at the retreats whose facilities we covet.

Fair warning: very, very few formal retreats can afford to offer more than a small handful of fellowships; the vast majority of residents in even the top-flight retreats are paying their own way, at least in part. Not all artists’ colonies offer outright free stays — and remember when you’re budgeting, even those that do seldom offer assistance with travel to reach their often far-flung doorsteps — and those that do tend to see hundreds of applications for each available spot. Barter arrangements are sometimes possible, but rare.

The fact is, though, most retreats do offer a chance to win at least a break on the cost of residency, if not a free ride, to those willing to jump through a few extra hoops. Since you’re going to be submitting an application to a selective retreat, anyway, what are a few extra hoops? It never hurts to try.

Where might one start trying? Well, word of mouth is best; I’ve found some great grants, as well as some fabulous retreat spots, by the simple expedient of asking writers I admire where they go to get away from it all and who paid for it. You can also engage in a web search, but like anything else you shop for online, it’s prudent to double-check a granting foundation’s credibility before you put your John Hancock on a application fee check. Like literary contests, not all of the fellowship opportunities advertised are legit; like literary contests, sometimes the primary goal of a fellowship competition is apparently to collect all of those application fees, rather than to reward, say, compositional excellence. Many a retreat, like many a contest-running organization, depends heavily on funds raised from the fees of unsuccessful applicants.

Please tell me that none of that was news to you. Or that if it was, you haven’t been wildly sending off entries and application fees to every contest, fellowship, and grant program out there. Or that if you have, you will solemnly swear to set aside time to read through the CONTESTS THAT ARE WORTH YOUR TIME TO ENTER category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Hey, I’m only trying to save you some money. And chagrin.

As is the case with so very many other aspects of getting started as a writer, it pays to do your homework before you actually pay for anything. A good place to start looking for fellowships that actually are what they appear to be is Poets & Writers magazine, whose staff tend to keep a sharp eye out for those out to scam writers.

Yes, yes, I heard that massive collective sigh: tracking down a fellowship and applying for it can be quite a bit of work, yet another demand upon your precious writing time, along with querying, going to conferences to pitch, going to conferences not to pitch, submitting, entering contests, attending classes, keeping up with the new releases in your chosen book category, and, oh yeah, writing your manuscript. But listen: while all of these efforts can result in some pretty happy outcomes for a writer, from landing an agent to learning how to present your work professionally to making some pretty terrific fellow writers, applying for a retreat fellowship or writing grant is one of the very few standard writerly activities that can actually give you more time to write.

All right, that’s enough cautionary preamble for one day. Let’s take a gander at another nice, soothing picture of a lovely landscape in France — and get back to our ongoing conversation with some folks who are, in part, in the fellowship- and barter-granting business. And had I mentioned that La Muse is one of the relatively few fellowship-offering retreats out there that doesn’t charge an application fee?

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Anne: I hear that you offer fellowships to stay at La Muse, which must be awfully difficult to pull off in the current global economy. Since you could fill the retreat entirely with writers and other artists paying their own way, why offer fellowships?

Kerry: We want people to be able to come for free. We want everyone to be able to come. We need people’s help to make that happen though because we are only two people so far with amazing barter attendees nearly every second month but we need more.

Anne: I’ll want to get back to barter residencies in a bit, since that’s so unusual, but let’s stick with the fellowships for the moment. How many fellowships are you offering these days?

John: We have four fellowships a year with separate application procedures, and seek partnerships to extend that to at least twelve fellowships.

Anne: Meaning that you sponsor visiting writers and artists from a number of different institutions.

John: Ideally, we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or on a residency attached to a university, publishing house, organization, or patron so that writers and artists don’t feel burdened by the financial weight of getting time off from work without pay or worrying about the costs of flights, etc.

Anne: I would love to see more retreats run on that basis, but so few of them are. I’ve met literally thousands of writers just in the last five years to whom such a retreat opportunity would have made a phenomenal difference.

John: Our vision has always been to provide a space for creative people who need to get away from life back home to get a project going or finished so inevitably we would like to make that transition much easier and less costly, as even the bare minimum costs we charge to offset our operating costs, can stop people from coming.

Anne: So is that how you see La Muse operating ten years from now?

John: In ten years, although we would really love to see it happening a lot sooner, we foresee everyone that comes as being a fellow. We’ve already started this process with Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States, over and above the Wildcard residency every year.

Anne: And everyone’s eligible for the Wildcard residency. I know that you subsidize the Wildcard residency yourselves, out of the goodness of your collective heart. Do the universities pay to send their fellows?

John: The Iowa and Madison fellowships are not underwritten by the universities.

Anne: Wow. So more goodness-of-your-heart stuff.

John: We donate them to the graduates there because we believe in those courses. The University of Iowa brought a load of students here a few years ago under the guidance of Robin Hemley and David Hamilton. We were really impressed by the caliber and professionalism of Robin and David, but more importantly by the students and their potential. That’s why we offer them two fellowships a year.

Anne: Iowa has a great writing program. Was the high quality of the writing programs what prompted you to offer fellowships to students from the other two as well?

John: Madison is where Kerry went to university so she had first-hand experience of how good their creative writing department was, and I went to Maynooth University. which is a member of Foras Feasa. It all felt organic. However, we would love to have fellows from every country, but this takes time and energy and help.

Kerry: And in the future we will have it. We’re definitely going to need another really big house, too (there’s one we love right here in Labastide). Or two. And a support staff. And a recording studio for musicians, a piano, a movie room for screenings and cinema nights, an oven for ceramicists, a big room with a wooden floor for dancers, a full-time on-site yoga instructor, a coop-type organic vegetable garden for attendees, and a sizable gift from a lover-of-the-arts that will have made it all possible without any more debt, plus enough funding for every artist to come to La Muse on a full fellowship.

Anne: From your mouth to Whomever’s ear.

Kerry: I envision nirvana. And an office, so we don’t have to run all of this from our kitchen anymore and John’s small office upstairs.

Anne: But even now, not all of your fellowships are devoted to people affiliated with specific programs, right?

John: True to our non-affiliated roots, we also offer a Wildcard Residency to a visual artist and a writer every November.

Anne: I imagine that the Wildcard is the one that will interest most of my readers. How does one apply for a fellowship to La Muse?

Kerry: Whether for the University of Wisconsin Creative Writing Fellowship, the University of Iowa Creative Non-fiction Fellowship, or our own unaffiliated Wildcard Fellowship, the process is the same as for a regular retreat stay:

a CV
2 references (one personal and one professional)
a description of the project one hopes to work on at La Muse,
and a sample of work

Anne: That’s unusual, not to require extra paperwork for fellowship applicants.

Kerry: The deadlines are on our website. Foras Feasa in Ireland elects their Fellow every year, in March.

We have also barters almost every month of the year. We would love to have a barter attendee here every month of the year, but the operating costs of La Muse don’t allow for it yet.


Anne: Okay, let’s talk about the barters. If I may quote from your website:

We welcome writers and artists to apply to come to La Muse as barters on work exchange stays. Writers and artists receive a complimentary room in exchange for approximately 3 days of work per week, that is, two days of work and one hour a day of daily tasks.

The kind of work depends on the season and the number of other guests at the house, but would include anything from building stone walls and gardening to home improvement, grant research for the owners, or organizational/administrative assistance.

Barter rooms are not available during the summer. We review applications one to two months in advance. Application

Anne: Your barter arrangements are unusually generous, I’ve noticed. Usually, the work exchange results in a discount for the retreater, but this is the room for an entire three-week session.

Kerry: We try to have barters for most of the year. They apply more or less the same way as other attendees, though it’s a good idea to highlight in the application any specific skills that could help us, such as grant-writing knowledge, fundraising or marketing or PR, or house-painting or construction or gardening experience. All barter projects are for La Muse improvements only, i.e., they don’t do our laundry!

Anne: I get it: the barter attendees are helping you two build the La Muse of ten years hence both physically and financially. That’s a great idea. If any of you readers out there are financial wizards, I hope you’ll think about going on a bartered retreat to help move La Muse toward the dream of an entirely subsidized artists’ community!

Before I get too carried away with the idea, I should ask: do barterers get to stay the same length of time as paying retreatants? How is their work/retreat time differentiated so both they and you can get the most out of both?

Kerry: Once barters arrive, they work for three days a week in exchange for their room. They arrive on the last day of the outgoing retreat so that they can help us get the house ready. Either they work on one intensive project for the whole stay, or they essentially help us on whatever comes up. It depends on the time of the year they come and what we happen to be working on. We work with them on most projects.

John: Barters get a lot out of their stays here, too, because they are really aware of their creative time apart from their barter time. They always get a lot of their own work done because they are really aware of how precious their time here is.

It’s great, because they love to get out of the house to clear their creative desktops. That way, they start fresh after three days. We love having barters and from what they’ve wrote to us over the years they love the experience, too.

Anne: While we’re on the subject of unusual arrangements for a formal retreat, you mentioned last time that sometimes your writer and artist residents collaborate on projects; during my stay, a fellow resident and I happened to be writing books set in the 1980s — she nonfiction, I fiction — so we had amazing brainstorming sessions. Perhaps as a result, I kept thinking while I was in residence, if I ever was working on a collaborative project with another writer, I’d definitely drag him/her/it to La Muse for some intensive co-work.

Which leads me to ask about other types of groups. Do couples ever come together to La Muse, or groups of friends? A writing group, perhaps? Could you accommodate a writer with children and/or a significant other in tow?

Kerry: Yes, all of the above. Spouses who want to come and stay in the house with an artist have to apply with a project proposal etc; if they’re coming to be a tourist, we recommend renting a cottage. Families stay in cottages.

Anne: That makes sense. That way, the family can have its own space, distinct from the other residents.

Kerry: We’ve had creativity/yoga retreats, workshop retreats. It’s all possible. We envision and would welcome proposals for cooking/writing retreats, art/well-being retreats, etc.

Anne: And academics, too, right? A couple of my fellow attendees were graduate students, which I found interesting, as academic writers tend not to go on retreat as much as I think they should. Is La Muse a good place to, say, write up a dissertation? Or, to put it another way, what might be the benefits for an academic to live and work amongst artists for a while?

Kerry: A creative approach to structure and voice would be marvelous for dissertations, and that often comes from the conversations we and other attendees have with Ph.D. attendees. They see structure and approach in a whole new light when they see it from a more commercial or creative standpoint.

Anne: That definitely seemed to happen in my retreat group. I can tell you from experience that few dissertation-writers ever get asked on a college campus, “So, what story are you telling in your book?”

John: Yes, it makes them see beyond the footnotes and cross analysis to where the story of what it is they are writing about lies. Where is the story of my subject? A lot of academics that have been here have found that really refreshing and inspiring.

Anne: John, I hear that you’re planning to go on a writing retreat yourself. What are you looking for in a retreat experience?

John: I’m looking for La Muse!

Anne: On that note, I’m going to sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John, for filling us in about fellowships and barters!

If some of you found today’s talk of finances a bit prosaic for your daydreaming-about-retreating-in-France pleasure, never fear: more mouth-watering details follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part II: the application process


Yesterday, I began an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, the brave souls responsible for running the remote writing retreat from which I have recently returned, La Muse. Since I utterly forgot to run a basic description of the place yesterday, here are the basics:

La Muse Writers’ and Artists’ retreat in Southern France is located in an ancient village perche called Labastide Esparbairenque, in the historic Aude department of Languedoc. We provide a space where artists and writers can work in a peaceful, isolated and inspiring setting. We have hosted poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, screenwriters, painters, visual artists, photographers, chefs, composers, directors, healers and more. Rooms are available to barters, recipients of fellowships and grants, and to individuals who apply directly through La Muse.

The house overlooks its own intimate valley and river. Enjoy magnificent views from every room as well as from our terrace and gardens. On breaks from work, go wine tasting, visit local markets, swim in the nearby lake or just enjoy nature. We are located in the midst of the French national walks system, where well-marked trails scribble the countryside.

What we offer is quite specific: time and space to create among peers, and access to nature, culture and good food. The retreats create a rewarding environment for attendees as well as our ever-growing artistic community. So come create and participate in a growing creative community, one that encourages artistic diversity as well as an exchange between cultures from all over the world.

Something I also neglected to mention yesterday: you’ll find the application here. Even if you are not in the market for a retreat experience, you might want to take a quick gander at the application requirements, as they are relevant to what I’ve been talking about for a week now — and speak very directly to our topic du jour, which is all about how people write their way into someplace like La Muse.

Why veer away from the daydream-worthy retreat experience to talk about something as practical as what makes a winning application? While I could post for weeks on what day-to-day life is like at La Muse and similar artists’ retreats — I could, for instance, have blogged about it on a daily basis while I was there — my first priority in this interview series is to glean as much practical information as possible for those of you who might be considering investing in some serious retreat time.

So for this part of the interview, I ruthlessly turned the conversation toward a topic we pursued a few days ago: residency applications, fellowships, and just how writers’ retreats decide who should and should not come.

Did I just hear a gasp of disbelief from those of you who have never tried to gain acceptance to a formal writers’ retreat? Almost universally, it’s not enough to show up on with the requisite fee, a burning desire to write, and the time to do it: very few artists’ colonies are willing to take everyone who applies. As I mentioned on Monday, serious retreats require an application packet that demonstrates not only the potential applicant’s willingness to retreat, but talent and professional acumen.

Knowing how I love you people, was I going to allow a rare opportunity to grill folks who evaluate writers’ retreat applications on a regular basis?

Of course not. Let’s join the conversation already in progress — and to humanize the potentially fearsome souls on the other side of the application envelope, here’s a snapshot I took of Kerry and John at a moment of retreat conviviality. (Those two homemade vegetable pizzas were fresh out of the oven, incidentally.)


Anne: Something I’ve noticed that we have in common is our strong belief that writers should help one another. Since you are so supportive of writers at every stage of their careers, why did you decide to establish an application process, rather than just accepting anyone who wanted to come?

John: People need to know what it is they are coming here for. It helps them and us to know exactly what they are going to be working on. Otherwise they get frustrated and annoyed with themselves for wasting their own time.

Kerry: We wanted to make sure people didn’t expect Club Med.

Anne: Oh, I know that kind of retreater: ostensibly getting away from everything to write, but outraged to learn that there isn’t round-the-clock room service and a shopping mall with a movie theatre next door to the retreat.

Kerry: We really want people who are going to benefit from La Muse in the way we intended, people who are coming to work on a creative project. We charge significantly less than a B&B of comparable quality. If we wanted people on vacation, we’d run a hotel.

We also want to make sure that interested writers and artists know that the house isn’t by aim social (though conviviality is a nice boon), and that everyone else here at any given time is here to be absorbed in a solitary, creative activity.

The best way to convey all that is to make it official, ask them why they’re coming, and help them get organized before they come.

Anne: I’m going to toss tact to the four winds and come right and ask what every writer who applies for a residency most wants to know: what do you like to see in an application? In general, what separates a strong packet from a weak one?

Kerry: First and foremost, I respond well to someone who is both professional and personable. I like a polite, formal but warm address, something respectful but not rigid—good attributes in a small community setting.

Anne: That makes a lot of sense; it’s the same note an aspiring writer should strike in a query letter or pitch. Since capturing that tone puzzles many writers, do you have any pointers on how to achieve that balance in a first approach or application?

Kerry: Write the email like a good old-fashioned cover letter. Answer the points and include the documents we request on the how-to-apply page of our website. Show us you’ve done some research, and have at least read the website.

Anne: I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard agents say precisely the same thing about querying. Queries, pitches, and applications that seem unsuited to the recipient tend not to go over well.

Anne: Anything else?

Kerry: I love an application that doesn’t have any parts missing. That said, if something’s missing in an otherwise good application, I ask for it; I point out errors.

Anne: That’s incredibly nice of you, considering the volume of applications you must receive. I’m constantly regaling my readers with horror stories about how Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge just toss back queries, submissions, and entries that don’t follow the rules.

Kerry: I lost a great job due to an error on my resume; it was a good lesson that I can gently pass on by pointing their mistakes out to applicants. No matter how good the writing, I will not forward an application to John with typos.

John: Typos. That’s a good example! That gets me going. All right, with an artist I can understand this to an extent in an email, but a writer. That’s your job! As Stephen King would put it, it’s part of the toolbox you carry around with you everywhere.

Anne: They’re a pet peeve of mine, too, and most of us who read manuscripts for a living. Nothing says, “I didn’t bother to proofread this before I submitted it,” like a bouquet of typos.

John: Spell-check is not only important, I feel, but mandatory. If you can’t spell-check an application, then that’s a red flag.

Anne: Hear that, readers? Is this where I get to say I told you so?

John: An electrician doesn’t go to work without a screwdriver. Why would a writer go to work without a tool as simple as spell-check?

It’s the little things that tell you so much about an applicant. It’s just like with title pages for screenplays or books. You don’t do massive block capitals on a front page. It’s done a certain way and if you don’t do it that way then you get onto the slush pile with all the rest of the unprofessionally presented things. Like, you don’t say that a ms. is copy written, it’s just understood.

Anne: That’s a hard one to get writers brand-new to the biz to understand. They think that it looks more professional if a title page or footer contains © Neophyte McWriterly, but to the pros, it’s just the opposite.

John: You are a professional. You copy write everything before you even send it to a friend, never mind an agent or house. It works the same way with a retreat. Give what you’re asked for. Don’t give what you imagine someone wants and be professional about it.


Anne: What other kinds of things really turn you off in an application?

John: Actually, we don’t really get that many problematic applications and when we do, we see the red flags straight away. They are the type of application that draws attention to themselves very quickly.

Kerry: Honestly, unless it has something to do with the project (and in that instance it’s perfectly acceptable), I don’t want to know about someone’s political, religious, or sexual orientation in their introductory email or application—again, unless it’s related to their project.

Anne: That’s interesting — that’s another one I hear from agents and contest judges quite often. Aspiring writers often seem to assume that the person reading their applications, query letters, or entries will be exactly like them. The world’s just a whole lot more diverse than that.

Kerry: I like opinionated people, but in retreat settings it’s good to have people who are able to be discreet when in the company of other religions, political and sexual leanings, or in a professional exchange. It’s best for a person not to assume that everyone will jump aboard his or her bandwagon. I believe it’s best for that information to come out over dinner (where it always does, we can bash Bush till the sun rises) than in an application.

As well, I don’t want my opinion to get in the way of accepting a talented artist with a perfectly acceptable application. We’re fortunate to have very high quality applications most of the time.

Anne: Let me turn the question around: what would your dream applicant be like?

Kerry: Talented.

Anne: I like that. Is that orientation how you end up welcoming such a broad range of ages and levels of professional accomplishment? In the two groups of retreaters when I was in residence, I was struck by the diversity of personalities and ages: in my first cohort, there was 26-year-old and a 74-year-old. And both were indeed very talented writers.

John: The range of ages, cultures, the diversity, is what makes La Muse so great, I feel. The last retreat, we had an Irishman, an English couple, a South African who lives in Grenoble, a New Zealand couple, a Canadian who lives in California, and the previous retreat there were Americans and…it goes on. We love the diversity and so do the people that come here. It’s fun to find out about other cultures and ways of thinking and living and what they read and love. It informs and elaborates your experience here.

Anne: Was there something about our applications that told you that all of our personalities would mesh well?

Kerry: People usually get along. The odd time there is some kind of tension, people are grown-up about it. After all, they all came here for other reasons, anyway.

Anne: So applicants not good at dealing with others tend not to be looking for this kind of retreat? Or is it that the artists who are drawn to a place with a communal kitchen are expecting to make friends?

Kerry: People who come here have a lot in common, no matter their age or art form. They’re smart, interesting and creative. They like to travel. They like nature. They like France and its food, language, history and architecture. They’re serious about what they’re here for. They want to work alone in their room with the option to see a friendly face, ask for advice, to walk or cook with another person.

Anne: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I suspect that many gifted aspiring writers who might hugely enjoy a formal retreat are fearful of spending a great big chunk of time alone, staring at a computer screen. But I’ve met some of my best friends at retreats; if everyone is serious about working, it’s definitely possible to get a lot done and still have social contact. And that’s great, because retreaters tend to be such interesting people.

I also suspect that most aspiring writers don’t know that being admitted to a serious retreat is a respected professional credential, something to catch an editorial or agent’s eye in a bio or query letter.

John: It’s just another thing that says I take what I do seriously and am willing to commit time out of my life back home to that end.

Anne: Has it been your experience that Musers use having attended as a writing credential later on?

Kerry: Yes. They also use each other as references for jobs or other opportunities; they use each other as readers for manuscripts, and have collaborated with each other on all kinds of projects. We get a lot of writers who at La Muse find illustrators for their books!

John: Not only that, but we put new Musers in touch with previous ones. We’ll get people to send their work to other attendees that have been here before who are editors of reviews or heads of writing programs or to agents or editors at publishing houses. The most important thing that attendees get, though, is the reward of knowing that they’ve attended a retreat and because of that they will put it down on their CV/resume because to people like agents, editors, marketing departments, it shows a broader outreach of your potential readership or buyers.

Anne: I’ve noticed over the years that going on a formal retreat can do a great deal toward helping a writer think of herself as a professional — as in, “Hey, these people who screen residency applications all the time think I’m talented enough to take seriously; maybe I should be thinking of this as my life’s work.”

But since this is an interview, I suppose I should be asking questions, rather than making statements. So I’ll ask you: speaking as people who get to see many attendees grow and change over the course of their retreats, what seem to be the greatest benefits?

Kerry: It’s deep immersion, which makes room for inspiration. It’s genuinely exhilarating and puts people back in touch with why they became artists, why they do what they do. When in your real life do you really get a chance to have uninterrupted focus on your work?

John: Exactly, it’s a gift to yourself to go on a retreat. The vast majority of attendees leave La Muse revitalized and re-inspired.

Anne: That’s a good thought to leave my readers pondering, so I’m going to break here for today. Thanks, John and Kerry, for sharing your experience with all of us here at Author! Author!

I’d also like to throw the question to all of you out there: what is actually necessary for you to take your writing seriously as your art, rather than as just a hobby? Most of the successful authors of my acquaintance can point to a specific event, level of recognition, or decision on their part — what is it, or will it be, for you?

As always, keep up the good work!

An inside view of a formal writing retreat: an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse


Since I had been contemplating quite a few posts on the joys, trials, and logistics of formal writing retreats for, well, the entirety of my most recent writing retreat, I have been busily jotting down questions I wanted to address for a couple of months now. After I returned, it occurred to me: instead of attacking the resulting raft of issues entirely from the retreater’s perspective — which, let’s face it, has been my approach every time I have blogged about retreats in the past — why not hand this excellent list to some kind people who actually RUN an artists’ retreat, so my readers could have the benefit of a less-often-heard perspective?

So although I am not much in the habit of packing up my troubles in my old kit bag and handing it to other people, I instantly got busy blandishing my favorite retreat organizers, Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse in Labastide Esparbaïrenque, in the remote Montagne Noir of southwestern France.

If that sounds pretty far off the beaten path, that’s because it is. La Muse is concealed in a miniscule village nestled onto a mountainside far, far away from both the madding crowd and anyplace that it would even occur for a tourist to visit, despite the fact that you can’t drive for fifteen minutes in any direction without stumbling upon some ruined castle so picturesque that I kept walking up to touch the stonework to reassure myself that it wasn’t just a painted backdrop for a romantic film about the Knights Templar.

It is, in other words, the material embodiment of the concept of getting away from it all. When my phone is ringing off the hook while I’m trying to polish off that last chapter of a novel, I automatically start looking for a place like La Muse.

So Kerry and John don’t just operate a retreat; they operate a retreat.

Who better, then, to ask to enlighten us on the ins and outs of serious writers’ retreats, or to answer my questions pertinent and impertinent? Or, to continue yesterday’s discussion, to enlighten us on what differentiates a successful fellowship application from an unsuccessful one.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are now or ever intend to apply for a residency, you’re going to want to take some notes on this extended interview.

Welcome, John and Kerry, to Author! Author!, and thanks so much for agreeing to share your insights with us!


Anne: Let’s start with the basics. What made you want to open La Muse in the first place?

Kerry: The first reason we started La Muse was because WE needed a retreat to go to, as did other writers like us: young people with full-time jobs that didn’t allow much time for writing.

Anne: Oh, I know so many aspiring and established writers who fall into that category.

Kerry: We were not all that connected, not all that pedigreed, not established in the world of creative writing. We were “writers” working in stimulating and exciting jobs but without time or space for our own creative writing projects and ambitions. There was nothing out there in terms of retreats that was simple and affordable, that focused on the process of writing without lots of talks and readings and workshops, without the groupie-vibe of some conferences.

We just needed a place to go to be able to write: La Muse!

Anne: It’s astonishing how seldom time to write seems to be built into workshops. I often come away all excited about my writing, but too exhausted to do any of it for the foreseeable future.

But enough about me: why not pursue the standard great big institutional artist colony route?

Kerry: We also felt the Catch-22 of not being established writers, and so not being able to benefit from grant-funded institutions or retreats that are more accessible to established writers or writers in the MFA system or cottage industry. We weren’t on “the track” and, believe it or not, it is mighty difficult for two full-time staffers at relatively high-powered magazine jobs in NYC to get on it.

We were lucky to have great jobs, which we appreciated and took seriously, were working more than that great American standard of 60 hours a week. I got up at 4:30 AM to have two hours of my own writing, and time to jog every day. John did the opposite, staying up until about that time to get his writing done. We didn’t sleep, didn’t see each other and though we were happy, motivated and exhilarated, we knew we couldn’t keep it up forever.

We wanted to write. We wanted to have a family life with the kids we hoped to have some day, AND we wanted to own our home–not an option with our low publishing salaries in New York City.

Anne: I see; you wanted to write AND have a life.

Kerry: And so, two newly-weds, we were talking about how we could make it all work. We decided to leave NYC and in dreaming about where we might go from there, we went online and found La Muse, then a huge run-down old manor house for next-to-nothing. We started dreaming out loud, planning this hypothetical life and next thing we knew; it was ours!

Anne: Wait — you bought a retreat online?

John: Kerry pretty much summed it up there, except for the fact that we did it all on credit cards. We also stripped layers of wallpaper from the ceilings, threw out about ten truckloads of junk — I mean truck truckloads, not van loads. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff that was in here.

Anne: For the benefit of those who have not yet been there, I should point out that I’ve lived in towns with smaller courthouses than La Muse’s main building. Some of the rooms are immense. And didn’t you lay the stones of the patio yourselves?


John: Let’s just say the renovation process was an experience.

Anne: Given how beautiful both the building and the locale are, I’m sure that it wasn’t easy at first to establish La Muse as an artists’ retreat, rather than just a gorgeous vacation spot. Just to nip in the bud any possible misconceptions, how is a residency at La Muse different from a vacation?

Kerry: The focus of a stay at a writers’ retreat is on writing, not tourism.

John: Exactly. A writer’s retreat is just that, a retreat. You retreat from all the bustle of telephone calls, email, appointments, work etc. to connect with whatever it is you need to connect with to get your project finished, started, researched.

Anne: That last is why La Muse has wireless internet access, presumably. As much as I love a get-away-from-everything retreat, I actually couldn’t have done the necessary research on my novel without the occasional web crawl.

Since you’re both writers yourselves, I understand the impetus to create a writers’ retreat. So why does La Muse welcome many kinds of artist, instead of just writers?

Kerry: We saw no reason to limit our attendee to one kind of artist, and it happened organically. Visual artists asked if they could come. I love painting and drawing, and this place, with its rich light, is a heaven to visual artists. In fact, I’m more often inspired to draw here than write.

Anne: Having run a mixed retreat for a while now, what do you think different kinds of artists get from retreating together? Or, perhaps more to the point for my readership, what do writers gain from sharing retreat time and space with other types of artist?

Kerry: There is a nice exchange between the visual artists, composers and writers; a lot of artists are multidisciplinary-talented and they come away from conversations with artists in other mediums feeling inspired.

John: Artists generally regard the world around them more than writers. They have to concentrate on the colors, the shapes, on the lines all around them, not the ones inside their heads, so both groups really add to each other’s process.

Anne: Is that why you have been expanding the studio space?

Kerry: The same kind of informal, small-scale retreat seemed to be missing for visual artists. So, we made a studio, and then another studio.

Anne: I suspect that most people have a pretty easy time picturing the kind of studio space that might appeal to a painter or a sculptor, but I’ve noticed that there isn’t really a strong cultural conception of what kind of space might be conducive to writing, other than a desk and a chair in someplace quiet. How do the facilities for writers differ from those for other kinds of artist at La Muse?

Kerry: Writers work in their own rooms. Artists working on drawing projects do, too. But artists working in oil paints or mediums that smell, make noise, stain or need lots of space use the studios.

John: Writers also use the library and artists will go out into the woods to paint or photograph a lot.

Anne: I know from personal experience that the weather also plays a role in where the residents choose to work. The weather was gorgeous for the last few weeks I was there, and there were hours at a time when I seemed to be the only one writing inside.


Anne: But as tempting as it is to dwell on the physical environment, let’s talk about the less concrete part of the retreat — or at any rate, less of what is literally set in stone. What do you think writers retreating at La Muse find there that they couldn’t possibly discover anyplace else?

Kerry: It’s a serious yet familial setting. Attendees can’t help but to get to know each other and us, and that creates a great opportunity for exchange.

John: Yes. We’re not a huge institution like Yaddo or the Doris Duke Foundation. We are small and we like it that way. It’s what people always tell us they love about La Muse.

Kerry: We are accessible, affordable, multi-disciplinary and non-institutional but also professional about what we do.

Anne: Since most of my readership lives in North America, I suspect that some of them might be surprised to hear a retreat on a remote mountain in France described as accessible. What does that mean, precisely?

Kerry: The intimate, familial setting is unique. Normally, La Muse has between four to eight attendees of a wide range of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and artistic mediums, at different stages in their careers, and they have a lot to offer each other. The shared kitchen and meals allow for unique exchanges. People forge friendships and collaborations here. People help each other on their work, and support each other in other areas.

Former attendees have said that the fact La Muse is structured (due to the quiet hours) but not rigid (there’s no other structure in place) actually creates time, more time than at other retreats.

Anne: We should probably explain to everyone about the quiet hours. Technically, attendees are supposed to limit noise-making within the house — talking, playing music, Skyping — to a very limited number of hours per day, so that 9 am to noon, 1 to 5:30 pm, and 10 pm to 7 am are quiet times, designed for devotion to work or sleep.

I’ve never attended a retreat that didn’t maintain at least the pretense of quiet times or spaces, though; I don’t think they could attract writers otherwise. Because the claims are so similar — I mean, doesn’t every retreat’s website claim it’s the least distracting place on earth? — it’s really, really hard for writers honestly looking for uninterrupted writing time to tell them apart.

The difference to work time, it seems to me, usually lies less in whether such rules exist than in how they are enforced — and in how many other distractions there are. In a village like Labastide, where you might bump into perhaps three residents on a heavy traffic day, there’s not a whole lot of ambient noise or activity to interrupt one’s work. And I just loved that you didn’t clutter up residents’ weeks with a whole lot of structured events, as so many of the larger retreats do.

John: We leave people to do what it is they have come here to do as opposed to having workshops and classes, etc.

Anne: Personally, I found that very respectful of my decision to retreat in the first place. But you do occasionally host groups that come together for a workshop, right? (Note to readers: this was not an entirely fair question; I’ve been toying with the idea of teaching an intensive novel seminar there.)

John: Although we have hosted Study Abroad programs, such as Iowa University’s, we leave the teaching to the organization that comes to organize. We help set up guidelines and orientation, but most of the time we leave people to their own process.

Anne: Which can make for some pretty intriguing interactions, since every artists’ process is different. Is that why you accept writers at all stages of their careers, rather than just the established — as many of the ritzier artists’ colonies do — or only those starting out?

Kerry: We accept attendees based on the seriousness of their intent and the quality of their application. Period.

John: Yes, and it really works out well for both parties. One rubs off the other, just the way those of different disciplines help each other.

Anne: Not to mention making it more fun for everyone concerned. Although I spent the vast majority of my waking time at La Muse writing, I’ve noticed that when I talk about it now that I’m back home, I often dwell on the social aspects, the trips out into the countryside, the cherries that were in season while I was there, and the like. It’s definitely unusual for a writer’s retreat to offer as many cultural exchange opportunities for retreatants who want to take advantage of them.

Kerry: We arrange French lessons, art-hikes with a local watercolor artist. We introduce our attendees to local artists whose work may inform theirs. We bring attendees on a wine-tasting, and a visit to nearby towns. So maybe on a logistical level, too, the “extras” make us unique.

Anne: You took one of my groups (note: I was there for two retreat sessions) to a fabulous traditional book town called Montolieu, where practically every building housed a book shop, library, or museum devoted to some aspect of printing. I’ll have to do a post on that, so more traveling writers know about it; I never would have made it there as a tourist on my own.


Kerry: There’s also an emphasis on well-being for those who are interested; we supply yoga mats, blocks, straps, and books, and arrange sessions for our attendees with a variety of therapists in the area.

Anne: Including massage and chiropractic for writers prone to repetitive strain injuries. Because I’m on my keyboard so much of the time on retreat — it’s not at all unusual for me to write 50 hours per week at an artists’ colony, although I think I averaged closer to 60 at La Muse — I always budget for some sort of bodywork.

It’s also kind of a fun way to meet the locals. Most of the villagers I met were very into the La Muse concept; a lot of them seemed to be artists themselves.

John: La Muse has a work ethos and a relaxed, community based structure that people have found very beneficial.

Anne: Since I’m guessing that most of my readers probably won’t have spent much time in 12th-century villages, let’s talk a bit more about Labastide Esparbaïrenque. What about it is conducive to retreating?

John: Labastide lends itself perfectly to a retreat because of its location off the main road – most villages have a main road going through them – as well as the fact that it hasn’t been tarnished by over modernization. The fact that it’s in a beautiful part of Southern France has got a lot to do with it, too.

Kerry: It’s a quiet village in a special place. The village is snuggled into a very curvy little valley, and there are no bars or cafés or boutiques to tempt people away from their work tables. With only 72 full-time habitants, there’s no noise except the elated screeching of diving swallows and a helpful rooster or two during the day and, at night, the muffled flow of the river and the rustling of leaves in the trees.

Anne: That’s such an evocative image that I’m going to leave it hanging in my readers’ minds and sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John!

Next time, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of what is actually involved in running a writers’ retreat like La Muse — and just what kind of application package it takes to land a spot in a retreat like this. Happy daydreaming, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Some fellowships may be expensive to win, or, how many times per week could you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

writers' retreat sign
Yes, sharper-eyed readers, that is a gnome sitting on top of the retreat sign — the famous Norcroft gnome, in fact. The Norcroft retreat has gone the way of all flesh, alas, but its basic principle lives on: no matter how well-organized a writer is, from time to time, it’s helpful to the productivity to cut oneself off from the myriad demands of quotidian life, go someplace strange, and just write.

And before any of you get your hopes up: neither your boss, coworkers, friends, nor family will understand this time to be work, rather than a vacation. No, not even if you spend 18 hours a day writing on retreat. Sorry about that.

That remains true, incidentally, no matter how thoroughly you become established as an author. As my sister-in-law put it only this weekend upon seeing me still blear-eyed from 13-hour days of writing and lingering jet lag, “Oh, five weeks in France. Hard to have much sympathy for that.”

She’s one of my more sympathetic sisters-in-law, incidentally.

Because I’ve just been on a lengthy I’ve been chattering off and on for the last couple of months about the joys and drawbacks of formal writing retreats — the group kind, organized by other people — as opposed to the informal type where you find a peaceful place and lock yourself in for a week or two along with a crate of apples, gallons of coffee, and the makings of 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While the latter type tends to be significantly less expensive, particularly if you happen to know someone who is willing to let you house-sit for a while, the former have many inherent advantages.

Not the least of which: many of them award fellowships to writers. So, perversely, a month at a formal fellowship at an artists’ colony could actually end up being less costly than a week at the Bates Motel, munching Power Bars. Not to mention making for better ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy).

A whole bunch of eyebrows just shot skyward, didn’t they? “Okay, Anne,” eager beavers everywhere shout. “What is a fellowship, and how do I go about landing me one?”

Fellowships vary quite a bit, offering everything from work space at universities (like Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship, which pays fellows $26,000/year, plus tuition and health insurance, to attend one 3-hour writing seminar per week for two years) to actual apartments and a living stipend (like the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown) to financial aid so writers can attend well-respected workshops (like the Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshops reduced-cost or free week- or month-long residencies at artists’ colonies (too numerous to pick just one example).

A great place to look for reputable fellowship opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine. Before you start tearing through their listings, you should know that a few things are true of virtually all of them:

(1) All require fairly extensive applications, so plan to devote some serious time to filling them out prior to the deadline.

(2) Even for a residency for which you pay (or pay in part), you will almost certainly have to pass through a competitive process, known in the biz as writing your way in.

(3) Any merit-based fellowship (as most that accept previously unpublished writers are) will require a writing sample, so do burnish the first chapter of your book, a representative short story or two, or a collection of poems to a high gloss before you start applying.

(4) There will be heavy competition for any that offer serious money or substantial retreat time, so it’s generally not worth the sometimes-hefty application fee for a new writer to submit a first manuscript. Although of course some absolute beginners do win occasional fellowships, unpolished work tends to get knocked out of consideration early in the competition.

(5) Yes, I said application fee — most fellowships require them, and they’re not always cheap. (If you’re a US-based writer who files a Schedule C for your writing business, these fees may be tax-deductible, even in a year that you don’t actually make any money from your writing; consult a tax specialist familiar with writers’ — not just artists’ — returns to see if you are eligible.)

(6) Some ask for references, so if you happen to be a nodding acquaintance of a relatively well-known writer or writing teacher, you might want to be extra-nice to them right about now.

(7) Most residencies and the more prestigious fellowships look more kindly upon applicants who already have some publications (surprisingly, even if they say they are specifically looking for up-and-coming writers), previous contest wins, or have already done a residency. Think about applying for something small, then working your way up to the more prestigious and lucrative residencies.

(8) In comparing fellowships with residencies for which you would have to pay outright, be sure to factor in expenses that a fellowship would not cover. Virtually no fellowship will cover airfare or other travel expenses to get to a far-flung retreat, for instance; some feed residents and some don’t. This is why, in case any of you have been wondering, one of the first questions an experienced retreater will ask about a residency is, “Do they feed you?” (Don’t worry; more on that last part follows below.)

And remember, unless a fellowship provides a stipend, you still will be responsible for paying your bills while you’re taking time off work to go on retreat.

(9) Most mixed artists’ colonies — i.e., those that welcome both writers and other sorts of artists — will harbor at least a slight institutional bias toward a particular kind of art. Even if it is equally hard for every type of artist to win a fellowship or a residency charges every type of artist the same, the work spaces available may differ widely. So if the resources for sculptors are spectacular, triple-check that the writers aren’t just shoved in a windowless basement and told to get on with it. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen.)

I’ve been sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs as I’ve been running down that list. “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out timidly. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this doesn’t sound like any less work than submitting to an agent. Or to a literary contest, for that matter. Isn’t the whole point of this to gain more time for my writing, not to sap energy from it?”

Congratulations, timid question-askers: you’ve got a firm grasp of the dilemma of the fellowship-seeking writer. Well, my work here is done, so I’ll be signing off for the evening…

Just kidding. Just as when you are seeking out an agent or small press, it’s in your interest to do a bit of checking before you invest too in pursuing any individual fellowship opportunity. I’m not merely talking about entry fees here, either — it will behoove you to ask yourself while those dollar signs are dancing in your eyes, “Will applying for this fellowship take up too much of my writing time?

To assist you in making that assessment, let’s go over some of the potentially most time-devouring common requirements, shall we?

Unfortunately, there are few fellowship out there, especially lucrative ones, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece of writing, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the application fee, and slap a stamp upon it. Pretty much all require the entrant to fill out an entry form, which range from ultra-simple contact information to demands that you answer essay questions.

Do be aware that every time you fill out one of these, you are tacitly agreeing to be placed upon the sponsoring organization AND every piece of information you give is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so. (Did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?) As with any information you send out, be careful not to provide any information that is not already public knowledge.

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, while a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest, a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information. A fellowship that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front, unless the organization is so well-established that there’s no question of misuse.

As I mentioned above, it’s surprisingly common for fellowship applications (and even some contest entry forms) to ask writers to list character references — an odd request, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes. Would a fellowship committee throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…or disqualify Emily Dickinson’s application to spend a few months locked in a sunny room near a beach somewhere because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside when she was at home?

Actually, residencies often don’t actually check these references, even for fellowship winners; they usually merely ask for names and contact information, not actual letters of reference. My impression is that it’s usually a method of discouraging writers who have not yet taken many writing classes, gone to many conferences, or otherwise gotten involved in a larger writers’ community from applying, on the theory that they might not be as likely to respect other fellows’ working boundaries. I suppose it’s also possible, though, that they want to rule out people whose wins might embarrass the fellowship-granting organization, so they do not wake up one day and read that they gave their highest accolade and a $30,000/year stipend to Ted Bundy.

I guess that’s understandable, but frankly, I would MUCH rather see mass murderers, child molesters, and other violent felons turning their energies to the gentle craft of writing than engaging in their other, more bloody pursuits; some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells. I do not, however, run an organization justifiable fearful of negative publicity.

I sense that the more suspicious-minded among you have come up with yet another reason a fellowship or contest application might request references, haven’t you? “Yes, I can,” a few voices reply. “If an applicant lists someone who has already won that particular fellowship as a reference, or someone on the staff of the artists’ retreat, is the application handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better?”

Only the judging committee knows for sure. But if you can legitimately manage to wrangle permission from a former winner, staff member, or Nobel laureate to use ‘em as a reference, hey, I would be the last to try to stop you.

You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid fellowship applications that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission. Specific typefaces. Fancy paper. Odd margin requirements. Expensive binding. All of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work – all conforming with such requirements really shows is that an applicant can follow directions.

My general rule of thumb is that if a writer can pull together an application or contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of writing time, I consider it a reasonable investment. If an application requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special forms, or wacko binding, I just don’t bother anymore, because to my contest-experienced eyes, these requests are not for my benefit, but theirs.

How is that possible, you cry? Because — and this should sound familiar to those of you have perused my posts on preparing a contest entry — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify applications in a large applicant pool. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers have maximized the number of applications they can simply toss aside, largely unread: the more that they ask you to do to package your application, the more ways you can go wrong. (For a plethora of disturbingly common ways in which fellowship applications and contest entries DO go wrong, please see the CONTEST ENTRY BUGBEARS category on the archive list at right.)

I’m happy to report, though, that this weeding-out strategy is less common in fellowship applications than in literary contests. However, in a tight competition, a professionally-presented manuscript excerpt will almost always edge out one that isn’t. (If you don’t know the cosmetic differences between a professional manuscript and any other kind, please see the posts under HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED on the list at right before you even consider applying for a literary fellowship or residency in North America.)

And for the benefit of all of you who just rolled your eyes at that suggestion: I’m just trying to save you some money here. Including a writing sample that isn’t technically perfect — spell-checked, grammatically impeccable, and in standard format — is virtually always simply a waste of an application fee.

Speaking of saving some money, most fellowship- and residency-seeking writers automatically assume that a retreat that provides its residents with regular meals will automatically be less expensive to attend than one that doesn’t. However, that’s not always the case. Having been in residence at both artists’ retreats that fed their residents and those that left them to their own devices — as well as one that marched the middle ground of asking residents for a shopping list and buying us food for us to prepare ourselves — I can envision several reasons you might want to give the gift horse of three cafeteria meals per day a pretty thorough dental examination before you agree to pay extra for it.

“Wait a minute,” some of you just exclaimed. “What do you mean, pay extra for food? Aren’t we talking about retreats where meals are just included in the price — or as part of the fellowship?”

Well, it all depends upon how you choose to look at it. Retreats that provide meals usually do include them as part of a fat fee. They also tend to charge residents more per day than those that do not.

And not necessarily in cash; many artists’ colonies require residents (yes, even fellowship winners) to participate in meal preparation, serving, and clean-up in addition (or instead of) charging for food. So if you’re looking forward to a retreat as a break from cooking for your kith and kin, you will want to read the fine print in its entirety.

If you are seriously interested in a retreat with a pitching-in requirement, e-mail the retreat’s organizers and ask for an estimate of how many hours per week residents are typically expected to contribute. Since many kitchen tasks involve repetitive motion and hand strain, if you have any history whatsoever with repetitive strain injuries, you might want to ask if there are alternative tasks you could do instead, in order to reserve your hand use time for the writing you went on retreat to do.

Here’s the good news for those with aching hands: surprisingly often, residencies that require chores are open to residents buying their way out of them, provided that not everyone in residence has the same bright idea, and the price tag isn’t always particularly expensive. In fact, I’ve attended residencies where I was downright insulted at just how little the organizers evidently thought my time was worth.

How little, you ask? Well, they expected me to rearrange my writing schedule so I could be awake enough to wield a chef’s knife at 6 am four days per week for a month-long residency, regularly requesting my shift to stay on until lunch was served, so we’re talking about a half-time job. Even if they’d calculated it at minimum wage, it probably would have been worth my while to scrape the bottom of bank account to save myself the wrist strain. But in their excellent judgment, digging that deeply into my writing schedule was worth about a third of that.

I would just love to answer that question that half of you just howled at your computer screen, but it’s against my policy to use Author! Author! space for undeserved free advertising. Suffice it to say that if you ask writers who have won fellowships to this particular artists’ colony, most say that they would not consider returning, even though I understand that now the writers’ building does boast some windows, and not all of us had to buy air mattresses to render the mattresses on top of plywood bed frames possible to sleep upon. My bedroom was the only one that had an active hornet’s nest in it, but honestly, I only needed to worry about being dive-bombed when the heater was working.

But that hardly ever happened.

None of that is exaggeration; see my earlier comment about how much fellowship offerings vary. You’d have thought that the fact that it was an expensive artists’ retreat — one of the largest in the United States; it may now actually be the largest — would have dictated better conditions, but believe it or not, the competition to put up with these conditions was extremely stiff.

Incidentally, that particular retreat looked very, very good in its brochures, as well as on its website. As I recall, the food situation was described to potential fellowship applicants a little something like this: Our chef provides three meals per day. Meals feature fresh breads, homemade desserts, soups and a full salad bar. Fresh produce from local, organic farms is used whenever possible. Vegetarian main courses are offered several times a week, but not daily. Regrettably, we are not able to provide for special dietary needs.

Did those last couple of sentences startle some of you? You might want to keep an eye out for similar statements in we-feed-you residencies, but such sentiments provide a clue that been fed might prove more expensive for some attendees than others. Not only were vegetarians and vegans reduced to relying almost exclusively on a not especially exciting salad bar (the object of my early-morning chopping efforts, so I became intimately familiar with its never-changing options), but anyone with problems digesting wheat, dairy, sugar, gluten, peanuts, soy, MSG (present, as nearly as I could tell, in every soup served), or any of the other most common food allergens simply had to eat someplace else.

Why? Because when the chef assumes that anyone who can’t eat something in the entree he’s serving twice per week will simply make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk, anyone with any of the first five restrictions listed is left without an option that won’t make her ill. And although the fresh bread was tasty, the chopping board was immediately adjacent to the salad bar, so the greens were continually dusted with crumbs. (If that last sentence didn’t make you instinctively clutch at your entrails, you probably neither have nor know anyone with celiac disease.)

Would you have guessed all that from a quick glance at the blurb above? Or budgeted for the necessary additional meals?

Even if you don’t have any dietary restrictions, unless a retreat is well-known for yummy food, being fed doesn’t necessarily mean being fed well. Although retreat food is almost invariably cafeteria-quality food (washed down with, alas, cafeteria-quality coffee), it may not be priced accordingly; if you are not a three-meal-per-day person or not a great lover of dry lasagna, you might actually save money by opting out of the meal plan — or by choosing a residency that doesn’t insist upon feeding you.

Feeding yourself does have its drawbacks, of course: it can be time-consuming, especially if there isn’t a well-stocked grocery store or inexpensive restaurant close to the retreat. (Since retreats are often plopped down in remote places, not having a store or café within easy walking distance is not out of the question.) Even if residents have access to a kitchen, it may not be well-equipped, so you may end up needing to import basics like a good chopping knife — I’ve never known a retreat to be home to a decent one — or a whisk.

Interestingly, good cooks can find feed-yourself retreats a bit trying. Due to some divine oversight, cooking skills are not equally distributed across the human population, so the culinary gifted often find themselves and their plates on the receiving end of puppy-like stares from fellow residents incapable of boiling water successfully. After three or four straight days of watching a nice fellow resident dine on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, I usually can’t stand it anymore and start cooking vats of vegetables for communal consumption.

Time-consuming? Potentially, but at least it’s a matter of personal choice. If I don’t feel like helping the cooking-impaired stave off imminent malnutrition, I can always just walk away from the kitchen whenever the peanut butter jar is open.

Which brings me to one of the main reasons I’m not a huge fan of we-feed-you residencies: you have to eat at specific times. If you are feeding yourself, you don’t have to interrupt your work to rush to the dining hall.

To be fair, for writers who already habitually eat at the predetermined hours, this may not represent much of an interruption, but I usually find the mealtimes inconvenient. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. Although a hefty percentage of writers are at their most creative at night, for some reason beyond my ken, meals at retreats tend all to be during the daylight hours, say 8-9 am for breakfast, 12-1 for lunch, and 6-7 pm for dinner. Great if you happen to arise at the crack of dawn and hit the hay by 10 pm, but downright disruptive should you be a night owl.

The fact that I’m posting this at midnight should give you some hint into which category yours truly is likely to fall. Hoot, hoot — and what do you mean, my pitching-in shift starts at 6 am?

More on the day-to-day practicalities of life at a formal writing retreat follows in the days to come. Keep up the good work!

The Immortality of Writing Restrictions, by Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence Grand Prize Winner, Sophia Gorgens


Welcome back, campers –

I’m very excited to bring you today’s contest winner, 16-year-old Sophia Gorgens, grand prize winner of the Author! Author! Award for Junior Expressive Excellence. Congratulations, Sophia, and may this be the first of many literary honors in a long and illustrious writing career!

That immense ruminating noise you hear out there in the ether, Sophia, is the sound of literally millions of your elders grinding their teeth in regret that they didn’t (a) believe in their own talent when they were your age, (b) have the internet to showcase it if they had, and (c) possess the confidence to send their work out then. So huge kudos from all of us here at Author! Author! for having the incredible courage to write and submit this particular short story; would that every talented teenage writer were as brave as you.

Or spelled as well, bless your heart. Or had as firm a grasp of complex grammar that, frankly, eludes many a gifted adult author. Heck, it eludes many a published author.

Trust me on that one. There’s a reason that copyeditors make pretty good living.

As if that weren’t enough of a virtuoso (virtuosa?) performance, Sophia’s managed to tuck a darned good formal essay into the middle of her short story. The judges got a big kick out of her essentially submitting both a fiction and nonfiction entry. Admittedly, they got a bit more of a kick out of how much most of their own high school teachers would have objected to the basic premise of this story, as well as envisioning what might have happened had they turned in such a story to any of their high school English or civics teachers.

See the comment above about older authors wishing they had your guts, Sophia.

So please join me in welcoming a young writer I suspect will be continuing to surprise and delight us for years to come. We’re privileged to hear this promising voice here first, and I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled to witness her initiation into the community of writers. I think it’s going to be a more interesting place now that she’s in it.

Take it away, Sophia!


A single tear trickled down the sad and crumpled face, carving a path in the layer of grime and dust. Matt, a boy of thirteen, bit back his sob while wiping the tear angrily away. Men did not cry.

He panted heavily as he continued to shovel away furiously at the hard packed earth. The hole he was standing in was already three or four feet deep. He wouldn’t have to dig much longer.

At his side lay a cheap wooden box made crudely out of plywood. Wood was scarce now, but Matt felt that Leal deserved whatever luxury he could procure. Here, in his barren and dirty backyard, with darkness falling fast, Matt could hardly see the coffin anymore, but he couldn’t keep himself from picturing his beautiful Labrador retriever, old and worn, in that cold coffin.
It was not like his day could get much worse, Matt decided gruffly. His English paper had been returned to him with an F for “inappropriate content” although all it had really said was that the rights of the students were being utterly repressed at his school. That paper, averaged to the rest of his rebellious collection, averaged his grade out to a D. His father would not be happy when he heard about this.

Matt’s eyes were brimming with unshed tears of anger and grief. He thrust the shovel into the dirt aggressively, determined to forget his troubles. The shovel, driven into the ground with force, clunked against something.

Angrier still for this complication, Matt began to dig around what he knew must be a rock. His anger dissolved when he realized he could use the stone as a grave marker for Leal. If nobody knew, he might even be able to write something on it.
Excited, Matt eagerly dug the stone out and lifted it out of the hole. Only then did he notice, catching his first real glimpse of it in the dying light, that it was not a rock at all but a small metal box. Matt felt a sting of disappointment, but he was determined not to let it ruin his friend’s funeral.

After he had lowered the coffin into the deep hole, Matt filled the grave with a feeling of dread. Each shovelful of dirt flung onto that wooden box was shutting Leal out from the world of life and light with a finality that was hard to avoid. Not even the handful of daisies that Matt placed reverently on the fresh earth could ease the sense that he was abandoning his friend.

Dragging his feet, Matt returned to his one story house which he shared with his dad. With the shovel slung over his shoulder and the strange metal box tucked under his arm, Matt began to wonder for the first time what the box might contain. It would be easy enough to open, for it had only a simple latch to keep it closed. A curious box indeed.

After he had taken a shower, Matt lay under the sheets of his bed with the box, cleaned under the heavy jet of the shower, in front of him. It almost seemed to be looking back at him out of two flower-like eyes that blended in with the decorative carvings in the box. Turning it over, he saw a tiny set of letters in the far right corner.

Made in China ©2008

2008? Matt stared at the box in amazement. That was over two hundred years old! He wondered eagerly what it could contain, then bit his lip in hesitation, his hand already on the lid. He was supposed to be in mourning, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself, did it? Tentatively, he lifted open the lid.

An old pen (who used those things nowadays, anyway?), a marble figurine of a dog, a faded picture (it wasn’t digital!), and a small stack of papers met his eyes. Taped on the inside of the lid was a piece of paper that declared it to be “Lauren’s Time Capsule, 2008.”

Well, that wasn’t very exciting, Matt thought as he flipped gloomily through the paper stack. There was an article on the government, clearly cut out from a newspaper, and a paper written by Lauren apparently on… censorship? Matt was momentarily baffled, but then he saw the neatly scribbled note from the teacher, congratulating her on her improvement and giving her an A minus for the overall paper. She must have been proud of the work, Matt decided.

Carefully separating the paper from the article and tossing the paper clip aside, he began to read.

The Constitution of the United States of America [he read] includes the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and expression in the Bill of Rights. Throughout history, cases such as Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 and New York Times v. US in 1971 expanded these rights, but many of the privileges expressed in the first amendment do not apply to underage student. An attempt to expand the rights of students was made in 1969 in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines, but it has done little to curtail the power of schools and adults to restrict the freedom of speech for students. The cases of Bethel and Hazelwood, for instance, allowed administrators to censor student speeches containing sexual language and student newspapers that contained “sensitive” material. Children and young adults who are still in the developing stages of their life are, in the Court’s opinion, often in a separate category than adults when freedom of speech and press is concerned.

Underage students do not yet have the right to vote and can therefore not vote for a new law to be passed to help their cause. For young people to therefore change policy, they must rely on presenting a case to the court and having a particular law or restriction overturned. However, most students do not have the financial means or commitment (as some cases take years to go through the court system) to challenge every unreasonable restriction placed on them, resulting in censorship on essays, school magazines or newspapers, and general self-expression. Students must conform their essays in a way that dulls the sharp edge of individuality. They thus must fall into the conventional pattern the school establishes for them so that thoughts expressed in their works are not theirs at all but the school’s. How can the public, parents or otherwise, understand what these young people truly think if, upon picking up a school newspaper or listening to a student speech, they learn only what the administration, the “editors,” think?

Schools are not the only problem point in our society for young, underage adults. Contests and blogs also often have restrictions on what young people can and can’t write. The requirement of no vile language, for example, hampers the author who thinks a character must swear for effect. Even if the author were to swear incessantly and use the crudest language, it should be their choice to write this and those who are opposed to the style of writing should simply not read it. However, this brings up the point of necessary censorship, rules, and restrictions. How will a person know what contains excessive inappropriate language? It would not be unreasonable to have an author’s note of warning in these cases. Rules can again be helpful and even desirable in formatting unless, as is it may be in a poem, individual formatting is necessary to express the mood of the poem. Otherwise, unitary formatting makes it easy for judges, fellow writers and readers, as well as potential publishers to read.

The most gruesome and erroneous type of censorship [Matt noticed a smiley face from the teacher here because of the interesting word choice] is the subtle censorship that society imposes on young a blossoming writers. Society is an expectant tiger waiting to pounce on those who stray from the path of conformity. In Dead Poets Society, for example, a group of boys who show a spark of individualism are berated by not only the school administrators but also by fellow students and parents. The mob-like mentality of people infuses them with a desire to please society. For young authors, this means writing about what friends think are “cool” topics and perhaps even developing a style that is pleasing to peers. The mind becomes restricted by invisible barriers and the desire to live up to one’s own expectations as well as society’s.

Whether it’s in the rules established by schools and other institutions or the yearning to fit into society, young writers often show the world a different side of who they really are, a fabrication of sorts. Fused together by the ideas of others and restrictions in our society, this fabrication can never convey to the public what the young populace think, feel, or want.

Matt put the paper down with a sigh. He had always thought the future he lived in was a better place, more advanced with its hover cars and reusable fuel cells, but it appeared that when one really examined the facts, censorship and restrictions on the freedom of writing for teenagers had always existed in one form or another. And with a society as protective and majoritarian as America’s was, he suspected it always would.

sophia-gorgens-author-photo Sophia Gorgens was born in Washington D.C to German diplomats Lutz and Ulrike Gorgens. Along with her family, including two brothers and an older sister, she moved to Bonn, Germany; Boston, Massachusetts; Ankara, Turkey; and Atlanta, Georgia, where she currently resides. Sophia has acquired a love for traveling and has visited over twenty countries and most of the United States. She is currently attending Woodward Academy high school as a rising junior. She enjoys reading, writing, skiing, participating in marching band, and spending time with her Bernese Mountain dog and cat. She has started bee-keeping and quilts in her remaining free time. She is currently working on two novels, Dagger: A Horse’s Tale and Rebel Angels.

Tennis Balls and Broadsides, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence First Prize Winner, D. Andrew McChesney


Hello again, campers –

As part of the ongoing jollity surrounding Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post, let’s take a gander at what first place winner of an Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence D. Andrew McChesney has to say about self-censorship, shall we?

Did I just sense some of you out there doing a double-take? “Two first-place winners, Anne?” the masses cry. “How is that possible?”

Well, if you’ll consult the rules, I think you’ll find that I’d been a contest judge often enough to anticipate that the judges would keep saying, “But…but…” when it came right down to ranking the top few entries. (I’m not all that into linear hierarchies, anyway.)

I was tickled that Dave McChesney — as he’s known around these parts — had an entry that made it to the “But…but…” stage of competition, I must admit. There’s a certain symmetry to it: Dave was the first reader ever to post a comment on Author! Author!, so he’s presumably been here for the unveiling of pretty much all of the first 1000 posts.

When he’s not commenting here, Dave also blogs, as well as sharing his naval adventures on his Stone Island Stories website. As if that weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, he’s also president of Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. And I have it on good authority that he painted the naval scene behind him in the photo below.

What does he do with the rest of his time, you ask? Read on…


For the past five years I’ve spent three mornings a week cleaning tennis courts at a private athletic facility. Tennis balls are covered in pale green fuzzy stuff that flies into the nether at a glance. Striking one of these lime colored orbs with a racquet, or letting it to bounce off the sandpaper-like surface of the court causes wholesale shedding. The fuzz doesn’t drift away and disappear, but settles on the court’s surface. Depending upon air currents, it also collects in various corners and turns into phosphorescent green dust bunnies.

Pushing a heavy court sweeper for two or three miles before most people are awake requires a certain amount of physical stamina, but demands on my intellect are minimal. I use a battery-powered sweeper-vacuum machine to rid the playing surfaces of the accumulated fuzz. The chore is somewhat akin to mowing a lawn as it involves walking around in circles while ensuring I don’t miss a spot and clean another one seventeen times.

Because I work early, my lunch break occurs at a time when most “normal” people first leave home for the day. I’m not usually hungry but enjoy the relaxation a break affords me. I kick my shoes off, drink a cup of coffee and read. After finishing nearly all of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, for once following the order of Hornblower’s career, I felt compelled to re-work a story I had originally written in high school.

The hour and a half it takes to clean the tennis courts lets me turn loose a large portion of my imagination and come up with characters, plots, and scenes for the story. I’m not always satisfied with what I arrive at, but I’ll be back at the same task in a day or two and can revisit and revise to my heart’s delight. The biggest difficulty is remembering my thoughts until I have a chance write them down. Even if I don’t remember things word for word, I usually retain the basic idea. These times also allow me to mentally compose query letters, conceive face to face pitches, and consolidate all I am learning about being a writer.

Having a unique story I want told in a singular way, I must conform my personal creativity to several sets of rules. If I disregard the basic rules of writing, how easy will others find it to read my work? Do I spell as I see fit, or punctuate as I desire, it makes it more difficult for the reader to comprehend my intended thoughts. The basic rules of writing establish common ground between readers and writers, enabling them to “speak the same language.” The more difficult it is to read a particular work, the more likely a reader will become frustrated and set it aside. I do not want anyone to quit reading what I have penned, until, of course they have reached “the end.” If I want people to read my work, I must also adhere to the rules of publishing. I need to understand the conventions of the book-selling world.

Within these guidelines, I do have choices. In making my selections, I effectively establish a third rather fluid set of rules. These can apply to a single work or to everything I write. I might change them within a particular work if doing so better tells the story. All the while I must ensure my personal rules don’t run afoul of pre-established conventions, nor befuddle any readers.

Long fascinated with the sailing navies of two centuries ago and a devoted reader of C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and others, I write Naval Adventure. The story that has become or is becoming the Stone Island Sea Stories has bounced around in my cranium for decades. Over the years a fantasy angle has manifested itself, largely because of certain self-imposed conditions. In the original story the island was small; a mere pinprick on the map, so it was easy to pass off as being undiscovered. But as ideas for future stories grew, so did the island. It got big enough that I couldn’t justify or explain its existence in this world.

Realizing that Stone Island exists in an alternate and somewhat parallel world also allows me the freedom to tinker extensively with history than if my imagination had remained in this world alone. Other writers sometimes alter history to fit their stories or have characters perform historically significant acts attributed to real individuals, but I dislike doing so. I prefer that events and characters in my stories contribute an additional dimension to what really happened.

While the fantasy angle creates a unique story situation, it also causes problems with marketing. If I pitch the first book as “Fantasy, cleverly disguised as Naval Adventure,” the intrigued agent scans the first fifty pages and asks, “Where’s the Fantasy? I had to read the synopsis to find it.” If I promote it as Naval Adventure or Mainstream Fiction, I am told that the Fantasy aspect might be a turn-off for those who buy what they think is a traditional nautical novel. I have pitched and queried Beyond the Ocean’s Edge extensively over the past few years and admit a certain amount of frustration with the process. I get an ego boost when a professional reader praises my writing, but I feel equally depressed when in turn that reader indicates difficulties in placing my work in today’s marketplace.

I tell the Stone Island Sea Stories in a linear fashion, centering the tales on a single protagonist. I wrote the original in first person, not because I see it through his eyes, but because of a paradox I wanted to include in the original ending. Coming to know Edward Pierce better, I cannot picture him relating his adventures in detail, which he would theoretically be doing if I wrote in first person. Third person allows me a bit of flexibility with point-of-view; although I sometimes hear critical comments from those a dear friend calls “POV Nazis.” Rigidly maintaining a “close third person” point of view can be cumbersome when I want readers to see the situation from other perspectives.

While I write these stories for the adult market, I believe they will appeal to younger readers as well. I discovered Horatio Hornblower in my first year of high school. My daughter had read the entire series by the time she reached that same age. Yet I understand C. S. Forester meant these stories for adult readers. When Commodore Hornblower was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post it contained the first fictional account of adultery published in that magazine.

With the possibility of younger readers, I limit “adult” content and language in the Stone Island Sea Stories. I don’t feel it is needed and believe certain mature situations can successfully be implied, rather than described in throbbing detail. Having served for twenty-two years as a U. S. Navy Bluejacket, I personally have no problem with the use of “colorful” language, yet such words and phrases might not be appropriate for younger readers. (Would these readers object, or would it be those who monitor what younger people read?) Therefore, as I began the first book I determined that I would not use certain words and phrases.

However, about a third of the way into the second volume a situation arises where the protagonist’s most natural reaction would be to use one of those “forbidden” words. Feeling his use of this particular word would be appropriate, I altered my rules to let a very angry Pierce say, “At your earliest opportunity, do look as I have, at the very underside of the keel, amidships and aft. Then we both might know why this vessel did not so easily show her heels to those (expletive deleted) frigates!”

Having loosened my restrictions regarding this particular word, I might have peppered the remainder of Sailing Dangerous Waters with it. I may have gone back to earlier scenes or even the first book to include it or other “forbidden” words where they might seem essential to the story. I did not because I did not eliminate the rule. I merely gave myself a little leeway in enforcing it, and if truth be told, I use the particular word a time or two again near the end of the second book.

I’d like to believe that my choices in writing are mine, but I know many are based on what others expect. In setting forth the stories dwelling in my mind, I inadvertently combined two different genres. To be published by the traditional industry, do I need to pick one and confine myself to it? Do I maintain a level of artistic integrity and keep the stories as I envision them while seeking out alternative routes to publication? In like fashion, are my choices regarding person, tense, and viewpoint, the way I really see the stories, or are they an attempt to conform? Should there be sufficient objections to the decisions I have made, do I alter my style, or do I stand by it as it is written? Do I choose to avoid detailed descriptions of “adult” behavior and limit certain language because it is what I really want, or do I limit them to avoid possible controversy about my stories? Are my views as to what is acceptable really my own, or are they the result of what society as a whole has imposed upon me? These are questions that I do not have answers for. My lack of responses means I will always have something to think about as I clean pale green tennis ball droppings from the courts.

American writers do not face actual punishment for what they write, yet we are expected to follow certain guidelines. Those who step outside of these established boundaries find it more difficult to have their works published. In essence they are forced to write what the public supposedly demands the way the publishing industry wants.

dave-mcchesney-author-photoFollowing a twenty-two-year US Navy career, D. Andrew McChesney continues a passionate interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naval history. Long fascinated with USS Constitution, he was privileged to be aboard “Old Ironsides” for a turn-around cruise in Boston Harbor. A tour of HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England while serving aboard USS Forrestal provides further inspiration as he crafts a series of naval adventures having fantasy elements. Beyond the Ocean’s Edge and Sailing Dangerous Waters are complete. Work is underway on Darnahsian Pirates.

Dave inherited his parents’ love of reading and developed a strong imagination, spending his comparatively isolated early childhood on a homestead forty-one miles outside Fairbanks, Alaska. Creative and imaginative play kept him and his younger sister busy and entertained. Once in the “lower forty-eight” and exposed to television, series such as The Swamp Fox on Walt Disney Presents kindled an interest in history ranging from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Interest in the later conflict developed when his grandfather gave him a drawing of Constitution made by a friend during the frigate’s visit to Puget Sound in the 1930s. Discovery of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower in high school solidified Dave’s interest in that era’s naval history.

He writes, edits, prints, and distributes the Rear Engine Review, the monthly newsletter of the Inland Northwest Corvair Club. Dave is currently President of Spokane Authors and Self Publishers (SASP), and also belongs to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA).

He resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife Eva, daughter Jessica, a 1962 Corvair Rampside pickup known as “Tim,” and a 1965 Corvair Monza coupe identified as “Ralph.”

Death by Dust Bunny, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence First Prize Winner, Auburn McCanta

Auburn McCanta author photo

Hello, campers –

The festivities celebrating Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post continue! Today, I am delighted to introduce the first place winner in the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, Auburn McCanta. Congratulations, Auburn!

A blogger herself, as well as a Citizen Reporter at the Huffington Post, Auburn’s name is far from unknown here at Author! Author! She’s a regular, enthusiastic, and thoughtful commenter — behavior we like to encourage around here.

I’m especially tickled to bring you her first place entry, because she was one of the few entrants brave enough to take me at my word and submit a short story, rather than an essay. I think you’ll enjoy the results.

Take it away, Auburn!


Cecile Martine was fixed on two thoughts as she sucked in her final breath: Darn that person for walking on my clean floor and How could I have missed that huge dust bunny behind the toilet?

She’d always heard that one’s final moments are splendid with golden light and an instantaneous remembrance of every detail from the moment of one’s birth. Apparently, that was not so. Cecile was disappointed to be denied her life’s account. She’d always wanted to tick off those events and qualities that shaped her as a woman. A simple woman. One who could locate the tiny curl of pleasure that resides in the gleam of another woman’s silverware, one who noticed every errant speck of dust.

A cleaning woman.

She had once written an article that outlined how home had an influence which was stronger than death. It was a law to the heart, binding its occupants with a spell which neither time nor change could break; the darkest villainies which disgraced humanity could not neutralize it.

After one trembling attempt to publish that smartly-written article in the Monthly Home Manager’s Guide, Cecile disappointedly gave up writing. Holding up a rejection letter as proof of her ineptitude, she vowed from that moment on to concentrate on improving the only thing left — cleaning for others. She anointed herself a Home Management Professional, although the fancy title didn’t change the fact that someone didn’t love her writing, that someone didn’t think the title, “Home Doctoring for the Modern Age” would contain a compelling read.

Now, more than anything, Cecile wanted her final accounting. She wanted to know that, although she’d lived a hard life and that she’d failed to capture that one magazine editor’s imagination, she was nonetheless a glorious writer living a peasant’s life. It wasn’t fair that she turned out a simple cleaning woman, dying on a bathroom floor, with a dust bunny peering back at her from behind the toilet.

Somehow, though, a smile tilted the corners of her lips. She found the one glad and notable thing within that moment; a small, yet unnerving sound that wound into the dark whorls of her rapidly closing ears—the tiny squeak of rubber soles on a still-damp floor. With gleaming eyes, she saw a man’s dark silhouette retreating from the bathroom, leaving her to the beauty of knowing that, in the end, she’d not failed as a cleaning woman. Perhaps, yes, she’d failed as a writer. Certainly, she’d failed to perform the next thing on her list — polishing Mrs. Connor’s silverware to an everlasting glint.

Still, she’d not failed as a Home Doctor.

Alone now, Cecile crumpled to the floor. She lay on her right side, one hand under her cheek, the other across her thigh. Her fingers — splayed open like a fluttering opera fan — seemed the only indication of her physical agony. She felt as if she were falling, sinking, being crushed by a great weight. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Cecile thought. Any first rate housekeeper knows one never mixes bleach and ammonia in the same container. Even a beginner is aware of this obvious fact. My goodness, she’d even written that fact in her article — the one turned down by that editor. How ironic can this be? Killed by a warning that was never published.

Her breath was ragged now; not much left of it. She wanted to push herself high upon her elbows, to rise above that gaseous, noxious mixture that was draining the life from her. But the burning in her nose, her throat, her lungs, was more than she could bear. Her body reacted by flooding her lungs with moisture. She was drowning in her own fluids. Cecile opened and closed her eyes, wondering if the next time she opened them, they would find a different sight. A sight of loveliness. Something she could hold onto, something that would carry her through this concrete moment. But the blink of her eyes didn’t make the horror any different. There was no question that she was on a bathroom floor, chlorine gas rising from a plastic mop bucket, her life slowly and exquisitely leaving her body.

She hadn’t expected to die today, but she was ready. Lord knows life hadn’t been easy. What with her husband, Darrell, and all and his heavy-handed ways, her father’s recent passing, her mother so close to death as well. Certainly, Cecile knew the fragility of life more than anyone. She simply didn’t know that today was her day to be fragile.

Her elbows slid downward on the wet, sticky floor.

It was such a pity that today was the day to die, because with her mother’s impending death, Cecile would finally have been rewarded for all her years of hard work, endless days of sore knees and reddened hands; her lifetime of serving others. She would have enjoyed an inheritance that far surpassed anything she ever needed. She didn’t even mind sharing it with Darrell. Of course, that all meant nothing now as her last, wild inhalation was nothing more than a faint whisper.

All that was liquid within Cecile now issued forth. All on her clean floor. Except now she remembered, it wasn’t her clean floor. That stupid, stupid, stupid person who had mixed the bleach and ammonia together (because they didn’t read the warning in her unpublished work) was the same person who had carelessly mopped over the floor — over an unswept floor, no less. It was the same person who had carelessly missed that laughing dust bunny in the corner behind the toilet.

On the still-damp bathroom floor, Cecile seemed to alternate between pain and pleasure, pride and disenchantment. She felt as if she’d been tossed into a diminishing wintry night’s fire without enough fuel left to continue flying its red sparks skyward. Her body’s warmth was pulled into the cool of the room, beginning with her feet and hands, spreading slowly until the cold reached the core of her heart.

Oh, thank the heavenly stars, Cecile thought as her eyes turned blank and blood began to pool on the underside of her body. Yes, thank the heavenly stars she’d been a rejected writer. Who knows what would have happened had she sent out another query letter? Had she been published, she might never have turned to the womanly art of cleanliness. She never would have found honor as a Home Management Professional.

She never would have noticed that dust bunny floating in the breeze of her last breath.

Auburn McCanta author photoAuburn McCanta is a Pacific Northwest girl gone south. After growing up literally surrounded by her mother’s prized Portland roses, McCanta now lives in Phoenix with her husband, one Golden Retriever and one impossible Labradoodle. She’s become accustomed to the Sonoran Desert with its occasional neighborhood coyote and scorpion rout.

After the 1994 removal of a sizeable brain tumor, McCanta found writing as a source of therapy. Her early work appeared in Cruising World, Hobie Hotline, California Cat, as well as the Sacramento Bee and Arizona Republic newspapers. Much to her amusement, McCanta’s first work of full-length fiction received a fourth place award from the National Writers Association. In 2007, her second novel was a Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary finalist. She was honored in 2008 with a third place award for poetry by PNWA.

Prior to last year’s presidential election, McCanta was selected from thousands of hopefuls by Huffington Post to serve as a Citizen Journalist. She continues to regularly write for She also blogs at

When not writing or undergoing yet another surgery, McCanta enjoys the tradition of her distant Irish heritage by eating potatoes.

The Words Not Written, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence Grand Prize Winner, F. Gerard Jefferson

Hello, campers –

As part of the festivities celebrating Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post, I am thrilled to present the Grand Prize winner in the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, F. Gerard Jefferson. Congratulations, Gerard!

You might want to remember that name; I suspect that you’re going to be seeing it grace bookshelves in the not-too-distant future.

I could go on and on about why this entry captured the judges’ hearts in the face of some quite stiff competition, but since part of the purpose of the contest was to help bring new writers’ work to a larger audience, I’m going to get out of the way and let his words speak for themselves. So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to a very talented up-and-coming writer, F. Gerard Jefferson.

Take it away, Gerard!


I’m black but I don’t wear it on my sleeve. With a post-racial president in the White House it’s not the chic thing to do anyway but inevitably when I write, query, do all of those decidedly non-author tasks like considering audience and marketing, I find myself at an all too familiar fork in the path — a choice between what I think is acceptable for a writer of my genus-blind talents and what the publishing and literary magnates are slobbering (or, more often, not slobbering for) from a writer like me. I make a choice between the branches because I have to, going with my gut. Not surprisingly, I write to match.

In addition to my race, I’m also the gambling sort who often mistakes his recklessness for confidence, but I feel neither reckless nor over-confident by claiming a fraternity among authors. Authorship is a solitary path but far from peculiar. If you’re reading this then surely at some point in your journey you’ve come to a similar fork in the path — you’ve made a choice. We all have. Maybe you recognized when it happened and maybe you didn’t, but the capital A Author you dreamed of being as a child and the adjective author you’ve become as an adult are two separate authors altogether. Be it romance, sci-fi, black, [fill in the blank with whatever your group is, italics please], or, for the special major among us with many affiliations, MFAs (multiple flouncing adjectives) — whatever the case may be we are a family so lost in the winding forest of specialization and genre and the subtle censorship it employs that our readers need prescriptive directions on how to find us. Conversely, despite all that flouncing, the adjectives make us that much easier to ignore.

The reasons for this I will leave for an anthropologist to explain (perhaps from the fossilized remains of another unheard traveler who has died along the way) but I recall a famous adage about authors striving to remove themselves from story. This guides my decision at the fork but presents a dilemma when art meets market and the gatekeeper at the conference is saying, “The writing’s beautiful, but [your group]… they don’t necessarily constitute a book-buying majority, do they?”, and I’m saying, stifling my anger because what I’ve written has implications beyond the group(s) I nominally represent, “How do you know that?”, and they’re replying, definitively, “BookScan, of course. Seventy percent of all hard cover book sales.”

When you’re faced with that kind of irredactable evidence of what the market will support how do forget about the MFA author that you’ve become? And how do I, when the black, male, married without children, thirty-one year old cheese grits lover that I am says so much about what I should be writing, and what I shouldn’t?

I am, of course, being facetious about BookScan and any other self-corroborating market analysis that willfully ignores the chicken-or-the-egg paradoxes their numbers represent. That’s a mouthful so allow me to translate: self-doubt’s a predator in these here woods, and if I spent my energy viewing the future from an outpost constructed from the past I would’ve succumbed to the nighttime caterwauls and weariness a long time ago. Instead I prefer to believe in a different future, a different world where possibility, even in publishing, is not restricted to those things that can be plotted on a moving average trend chart. I prefer to be as delusional in my belief as the gatekeepers are willfully ignorant and trusting in their data. I prefer, in short, to believe in truth that is stranger than fiction.

Just the same, though, as any unpublished author is told to do, I pay attention to national and regional bestsellers lists, and stay abreast of deal making through Publishers Marketplace. I read the bets that are being made by independent and major bookies alike; I recognize the regurgitation of theme and plot and an infatuation among many for old stories newly told. I’ve become aware through observation of something I never expected when I was learning to read with Dick and Jane — storytelling as the original green industry.

And I have my moments of weakness. Gatekeepers want comparables so they can link historical data and establish precedence, but book and author are inseparable entities. My novel can be similar to another but I have yet to find an author whose passion for cheese grits matches my own, and that difference (among others) invalidates the comparison, and possibly the sell. Not so in post-racial America, you say, but I’ve been told fiction is a subjective category, and in matters of subjectivity I have to wonder when and where the data parsing stops.

Which makes me linger occasionally at the fork in the road when most of the time the choice is unconscious. There’s a way to end this interminable wandering, a novel I could write. I see pieces of it through the undergrowth down the other path, the byproduct of scientific prognostication and market-savvy adjective art run amuck: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man…with fangs.

This high concept novel may be self-explanatory but allow me to translate anyway: are you telling me in this perilous market climate that some literary honcho wouldn’t clear his or her schedule to read about a teenage, 1930s vampire in an inter-racial relationship (meticulously researched, of course) whose need for blood is just as conflicting as his need for social justice? Is that your stance?

Wait. Before you answer, someone in the peanut gallery just keeled over from The Wiz revulsion. For those who don’t know, The Wiz revulsion is a gag response brought on by an acute sense of entertainment embarrassment that makes your unprocessed food want to get on down get on down the road…

But I’ve lingered at the fork too long. In truth, the shunned path is neither commonplace nor unremarkable and it’s a lazy man’s game classifying it as such — it’s a personal choice. Like everything else in these woods the difference between something familiar and something merely cliché is subjective. I, like every other traveler, must make that distinction and I’ve made it, following a creative process the US Banking system could’ve benefited from, booking my value as an artist on my ability to be original rather than derivative, an A Author rather than a MFA author. Oh that I have chosen wisely and there is a sigh in this for me somewhere ages hence. I don’t know that there is — I don’t know if there can be. I have a feeling, though, that if there is, I’ll rejigger the facts in hindsight à la BookScan and say my choice made all the difference.

gerard-jefferson-author-photoAccording to family lore, F. Gerard Jefferson’s claim of “always wanting to be a writer” dates back to kindergarten when, after the first day, he came home upset because he still couldn’t read. He would follow a more traditional arc after this — writing for enjoyment in spiral notebooks, becoming yearbook editor his senior year in high school, fleeing the craft because of the sobering fiscal realities of becoming an artist — but the “I still can’t read!” episode is, by far, the most telling expression for the ambition that defines F. Gerard Jefferson’s life and, hopefully, his writing.

After a five-year hiatus in college mastering electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and other logical pursuits with guaranteed earning potential, F. Gerard Jefferson returned to language arts in 2002 to recover a missing part of his soul. In addition to winning an Author! Author! Expressive Excellence Award, he was also recently honorable mention in the Obama Millennium Awards competition in New Millennium Writings. He lives north of his native Georgia in Cleveland, Tennessee with his wife and is working on a soft science fiction novelization of “The Road Not Taken.”

My 1000th blog post!

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Well, it’s been a long, hard road, everybody, but we’ve finally made it: this is my 1000th post. That’s almost four years of nearly non-stop yammering on topics both dear to writerly hearts and frustrating to writerly brains, a veritable cornucopia of advice on how to write a book, format it as the pros expect, approach an agent in writing or in person, work with an agent once you’ve signed with her, work with an editor once you’ve signed with him, promote your published book, and generally lead a happy existence as an author at every stage of success.

Boy, are my fingers tired.

As some of you may recall, my blogging life did not start out with such lofty goals. When I first began blogging, as the Organization That Shall Remain Nameless’ Resident Writer, I had thought this would be a weekly gig that went on for a year, at most. In fact, I’d originally been solicited to fill the position for only a couple of months, as my volunteer contribution to North America’s largest writers’ association. I thought it would be a great place to reach some good writers just learning the ropes.

And how.

Before my year there was out (for those who are interested, you may find those posts in the archives here), I was fielding questions from writers all over the world. It turned out that a whole lot of writers were curious about practicalities.

I can’t really claim that as a blogging success, because, truth be told, the space on the OTSRN’s site is not now and has never been an actual blog: technically, it was (and is) an online column.

What’s the difference, you ask? Well, instead readers being able to post comments, questions, and outright challenges directly as they may here at Author! Author! — part of the fundamental definition of a blog, right? — they had to e-mail their comments to me. Although I, all three volunteer webmasters who maintained the site, and quite a few readers protested that this limited give-and-take was not a true blog, the OTSRN overruled us all. A column it was, and a column it remains to this day. (Although the last time I checked, there had not been a fresh post since May, 2007.)

Why did all of us object? If I so chose, I could post reader input on the site. Or I could not. Essentially, I held the power to create the illusion that nobody ever disagreed with so much as a syllable I’d ever written there.

Ah, the power! The pageantry! The insufficiency as a learning tool!

And how fundamentally undemocratic. I don’t ask that my readers take every syllable that falls off my fingertips as revealed Gospel — in fact, I discourage it. While there are certain undeniable rules about constructing a manuscript or approaching an agent (conveniently grouped by category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page, for your reading pleasure), I don’t want aspiring writers to do things my way just because I say so; I want to give all of you enough explanation about, for instance, why writing tends to be better received if presented a certain way. so each of you may consider all of the arguments out there and decide for yourselves.

When I first started blogging, I didn’t understand that this was a radical concept.

Oh, but it was, if the reactions of the higher-ups at the OTSRN were any indication. I was told quite firmly that my posts were too long — a critique also proffered by my mother, incidentally — that I over-explained, that there were already many, many books and websites on the planet explaining the fundamentals. Why didn’t I just plug the most recent books published by members of the organization?

Not my style — or my mission. When I suggested, for example, that agents’ and editors’ blurbs in conference guides do not always contain all of the information that someone brand-new to the biz might need in order to select which one to approach, and endeavored to remedy that by researching all of the sales the fine folks scheduled to attend the OTSRN’s annual conference (a bouquet of posts that may be read under the AGENTS/EDITORS WHO USED TO ATTEND THE CTSRN — Conference That Shall Remain Nameless — category at right), you should have heard the uproar. Although everything I posted was already a matter of public record, the OTSRN’s board told me that it was insulting to agents for writers thinking about querying them to do any advance research at all.

Of course, they didn’t tell me this until a year after they’d summarily tossed me off their website.

The official reason my tenure as Resident Writer ended was because I refused to allow them to charge full conference fees to five already-agented volunteers scheduled to staff the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the CTSRN, generous, stalwart souls willing to put in four 12-hour days helping those new to pitching refine what they were going to say to agents. Oh, the OSTRN allowed us to provide the service (on condition that we not use the restrooms or drink any of the coffee provided to conference attendees), but on the following Monday, I found my password to the OSTRN’s website blocked.

I wouldn’t have minded so much, except at least some of my readers who had attended the conference presumably had received requests to send materials to agents and editors. Call me zany, but I’m guessing that some of them might have been looking to their usual source of information at that stressful juncture.

All this is water under the proverbial bridge, of course, and I wouldn’t be bringing it up again except for one thing: in the summer of 2006, when I suddenly had to construct my own website (or, more accurately, throw myself on the mercy of two sympathetic computer geeks of my acquaintance, who had Author! Author! operational by the end of the week, bless their rapidly-typing fingers), I had not yet realized that there are two fundamental schools of thought amongst those who give advice to aspiring writers. Since so many of you have written in to ask why sources on the web — or in classes, or at conferences — don’t all give identical advice, familiarizing yourself with the underlying philosophies can help clarify the advice-taking process.

The first school, at which yours truly holds lifetime tenure, is devoted to the proposition that nobody, but nobody, is born knowing the ropes of the publishing industry, and that consequently, it is good and kind of those of us who’ve been swinging on them for a long while to show the talented newcomers where the toeholds are. Not only do we not believe that extending a helping hand to those lower on the ladder does not just add to our own competition — good authors breed more readers, right? — but we hold this truth to be self-evident: that the literary world, that literature itself, will always be better off welcoming new voices than turning its collective back on them.

So if any of you have been wondering why I’ve devoted so many of this spring’s posts to censorship, subtle and otherwise, you have your answer.

The second school of thought appears in many forms at all levels of the writers’ world, but may be summed up as this: the cream will inevitably rise to the top. That being the case, and since the vast majority of aspiring writers will never land an agent or see their work published, why bother to share the secret handshakes? Any TRULY talented writer will land an agent, right?

Although simple observation over the course of many annual writers’ conferences demonstrates this to be untrue — plenty of genuinely gifted writers spend years, even decades, searching for the agent who will get their work, or for the editor who will understand its market appeal — advocates of this school exhibit everything ranging from mild pity to outright hostility to those of us who try to help aspiring writers speed up the necessary learning curve by not making them guess, for instance, why Millicent the agency screener might react worse to an emdash than to two dashes with a space at either end in a submitted manuscript.

And you can’t really blame them, I suppose, since proponents of this school tend to believe that the best way to help writers in general is to promote the work of the already-established author. Because good authors breed more readers, right?

So if you’ve ever been at a writers’ conference and thought, “Gee, this session isn’t providing me with all that much concrete guidance in how to refine or market my manuscript — in fact, all that it’s really achieved is to allow the speaker to promote his own published books,” well, that’s probably not an accident.

It’s philosophy in action.

Why am I dredging all this up today, on the occasion of my 1000th blog post? Well, for several reasons — and I’ll cop to it: some of them are self-congratulatory.

First, in my humble opinion, the first 1000 posts of Author! Author! have proven magnificently that good writers everywhere are longing to learn the ropes — and that those ropes are genuinely hard to figure out, let alone climb, even for the most gifted of writers. A lot of the rules are counter-intuitive; there’s a ton of conflicting information out there. Hardly a week goes by without my hearing from a reader who says, “I had no idea what I was doing wrong.”

So to those who said that a nuts-and-bolts blog like this couldn’t possibly build and sustain a readership, I have only four words for you: nyah nyah nyah nyah.

Second — and brace yourself, because I’m going to be patting myself on the back in this one, too — aspiring writers who do put their shoulders to the proverbial wheel and take the time to learn the ropes do succeed. Author! Author!’s readers land agents; they get books published; they self-publish happily; they win and place in literary contests. Perhaps most importantly, they gain the knowledge they need to treat their talent with the respect it deserves, rather than guessing what Millicent wants to see.

Those are HUGE accomplishments for any writer — and as anyone who has played this game for a lifetime could tell you, surviving the writing life happily means celebrating not just the big achievements, the book launches and Pulitzer Prizes, but the smaller victories along the way. If this blog has played any small role in helping any good writer earn such a celebration, I think that’s cause for public rejoicing.

Or, to put it another way: nyah nyah nyah nyah, naysayers.

Third, I think that sharing not only knowledge and the fruits of experience, but our hopes and fears, helps build a writerly community beneficial to all. This is a hard road, especially now; the more we can cheer one another along the way, the better.

So my deep, heartfelt thanks to all of you who have contributed to making this little corner of the writers’ world such a warm and supportive place. And for asking all of those great questions.

Finally, when it comes right down to it, I don’t believe that book sales or even publication are the only — or the best — tests of a writer’s talent. Let’s face it, we’ve all read bestsellers and wondered, “How on earth did this make it into print?”; we’ve all been mystified by why this manuscript and not that one got picked up by an agent or publishing house. Even when the publishing industry was in relatively good shape — and it’s going to the gym like crazy now, trying to squeeze into a wedding dress four sizes too small — books by first-time authors never exceeded about 4% of the releases in North America in any given year.

Those are tough odds, irrespective of the talent involved. So as much respect as we all harbor for the printed word — and I’ve never met a writer worth her salt who didn’t practically worship it — those of us in the game for the long haul need to consider the possibility that courting the muse well means more than just getting a manuscript into print. Or perhaps something different.

Doesn’t it? I’m honestly asking.

I don’t have to ask whether there are marvelous writers out there whose work ought to be published; I’ve seen evidence with my very own eyes. You don’t have to take my word for it, either — I’m going to be devoting part of the week to come to sharing the winning entries in the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. (That’s what the explosive E above is for, by the way: excellence.)

But don’t worry — as much as I enjoy bringing you guest posts and award winners, Author! Author! is not going to mutate into merely a celebration of authors who are already, let’s face it, doing pretty well for themselves. Nor am I going to join the legions of vocal mourners for a publishing industry that’s regularly been pronounced dead at least once every fifteen years since the American Revolution.

That’s not my philosophy. I’m here to help talented newcomers learn the ropes.

Which means that this summer, you’re going to be seeing more of what I believe this blog does best. We’re going to be talking about craft — not just the basic truisms we’ve all had flung at us in writing classes, but discussions of the nuts and bolts that add up to style. We’re going to be talking about ways to squeeze more out of the scant writing hours you’ve fought so hard to carve out of your busy schedules — and yes, Virginia, that is going to include those tips on tracking down and winning fellowships to writing retreats that I’ve promised to share with you, but have been just too exhausted since I returned from my last (very productive) retreat to share. And we’re also going to be talking about, you guessed it, how to query and pitch your work to agents.

Yes, we’ve talked about it before in this forum; we’ve discussed these matters often. But as long as writers want to see their work in print, I’m not going to leave them guessing how to get past the gatekeepers of the printing press.

A zany, quixotic endeavor, as the board of the OTSRN sneered at me on my way out the door? Maybe. Will it make the world a better place for writers? I hope so.

You know what else will contribute toward that laudable goal? All of you continuing to pursue your dream of expressing yourself via the written word, engaging in what I feel is one of the highest pursuits of which the human mind is capable. Telling your story is what it’s ultimately all about, right, not just winning a game that we’re all aware is set up to place new players at a competitive disadvantage?

As Maya Angelou put it so well, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Keep striving to tell those stories well, everyone — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Where our fiction really lives, by guest blogger Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard author photo II
Hello, all —
Under any circumstances, today’s guest blogger, award-winning romance novelist Linda Gillard, would require little introduction: the good folks who decide which of each year’s new fiction to honor with prizes have already seen to that. However, I have even less temptation to be long-winded this time around, because Linda has a genuinely astonishing story to share about her road to publication.

Even if romance isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, you’re going to want to read this, I suspect. So I’m just going to get out of the way and let her tell her story herself.

Except to say: for the benefit of those of you not already familiar with Linda’s writings — and so those of you new to writing blurbs for your own books may see how the pros pull it off — here is the publisher’s blurb for Linda’s EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY:

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallRose Leonard is on the run from her life. Taking refuge in a remote island community, she cocoons herself in work, silence and solitude in a house by the sea. But she is haunted by her past, by memories and desires she’d hoped were long dead. Rose must decide whether she has in fact chosen a new life or just a different kind of death. Life and love are offered by new friends, her lonely daughter, and most of all Calum, a fragile younger man who has his own demons to exorcise. But does Rose, with her tenuous hold on life and sanity, have the courage to say yes to life and put her past behind her?

Quite the grabber, eh? Here’s the blurb for her second, A LIFETIME BURNING:

A lifetime burning cover gillard‘I think I was damned from birth,’ Flora said, staring vacantly into space. ‘Damned by my birth.’

Greedy for experience but determined to be good, Flora Dunbar spends a lifetime seeking love, trying to build a future out of the wreckage of her past – an eccentric childhood spent in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brings her Theo, the son she cannot love; middle-age, when she finds brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin.

‘If you asked my sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, then tossed him onto the sizeable scrap-heap marked “Flora’s ex-lovers”. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory…’

That one sounds like a real barn-burner, doesn’t it? Here’s the blurb for STAR GAZING:

star-gazing-cover gillardBlind since birth, widowed in her twenties, now lonely in her forties, Marianne Fraser lives in Edinburgh in elegant, angry anonymity with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist. Marianne’s passionate nature finds solace and expression in music, a love she finds she shares with Keir, a man she encounters on her doorstep one winter’s night. Keir makes no concession to her condition. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness, and yet oddly kind. But can Marianne trust her feelings for this reclusive stranger who wants to take a blind woman to his island home on Skye, to ‘show’ her the stars?

It just goes to show you: even a short paragraph is enough room to tell a good story, as well as to show off one’s skills as a storyteller. Remember that, please, the next time you’re groaning over the task of compressing your 350-page plot into a two-minute pitch.

Oh, and before I sign off, those of you reading on this side of the pond might want to know that Linda’s books are available through the Book Depository in the UK. Why should that interest US and Canadian romance-lovers? Because the Book Depository ships worldwide for free.

I just mention.

So please make yourself comfortable in order to hear an interesting, informative, and dare I say it, inspirational story of one author’s climb from the Slough of Despair to successful publication. Take it away, Linda!

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
When a disturbed pupil took a swing at me in the middle of a maths lesson, I saw the punch coming. I dodged and the blow landed on my shoulder. While the rest of the class waited, open-mouthed, to see what Miss would do — retaliate with a left hook? — I sent the boy out of the room, re-assembled the remnants of my shattered dignity and finished the lesson.

What I didn’t see coming was that the blow would signal the end of my teaching career and the beginning of a long mental illness. Nor could I ever have imagined that my illness would usher in a new career as a novelist.

I was teaching in a school that served a socially deprived area and I was already struggling to maintain my mental equilibrium. The kids were challenging, but lovable, despite the fact some of the boys (those who could write) would have listed their hobbies as martial arts and drug dealing. Gallows humour kept the teaching staff going, but we taught in a climate of fear — fear of verbal and physical abuse from pupils and their parents — and fear takes its toll.

My doctor signed me off sick, suffering from stress. Stress became profound depression. I was prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which seemed to help. My moods fluctuated wildly, from highs that took me on shopping sprees, to lows that had me planning the perfect suicide.

Teaching had been my vocation, but I was too ill to return to my old job or look for a new one. I was 47 and, as far as I was concerned, on the scrap heap. I sat at home, alternately doped and hyper, not getting any better. For some reason — the teacher in me, I suppose — I kept a chart of my mood swings, the black days and the better days. I became convinced there was a pattern and concluded that perhaps what I was suffering from was severe pre-menstrual syndrome, so I asked to be referred to a gynaecologist.

We were no more than ten minutes into the consultation when this wonderful man pronounced the words that would change my life (and possibly saved it.) He said, “You aren’t suffering from PMS. I think you’re suffering from bipolar affective disorder.”

Manic depression.

I knew nothing about this illness that wasn’t seriously bad news. I seemed to be the first person in my family to suffer from it (it runs in families) but as I learned more about the spectrum of behaviour, old tales of temperament and eccentricity took on a new perspective. And so did I. As I stood in a bookshop, poring over a medical textbook, I was appalled to see myself described in forensic detail. What I’d thought was my mercurial personality turned out to be a life-threatening illness. My world fell apart.

But I was a teacher. I’d also been a journalist, so I made it my business to educate myself on the subject of bipolar. I read psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, AN UNQUIET MIND. She’s bipolar herself and was the first person to alert me to the idea that there could actually be some positive aspects to the disease. (On my website. you’ll find a Mental Health section and a celebration of famous manic depressives: a long list of high-achieving people, dead and alive, many of them creative artists, some of them geniuses, all known or suspected to have been bipolar.)

My condition is mild and once on the correct medication, I stabilised. With the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. Unemployed, technically disabled, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot of books and sewed a lot of patchwork quilts.

I read all sorts of fiction but struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little that featured women of my age. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never had sex, unless for comic effect. (The publishing world appears to think that, although most books are bought and read by women over 40, they actually like to read about women much younger and thinner than themselves.)

Then one day, when I was reading Louise DeSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING, I came upon a paragraph that changed my life:

I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labour. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

That was how I felt. Erased.

I laid the book aside and — as if in a trance — walked over to my PC, sat down and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, Emotional Geology.

emotional-geology cover 2 Gillard

I didn’t plan to become a novelist and I didn’t plan my first book. I was a sick woman. On bad days, compiling a shopping list was a challenge, so I just wrote.

To begin with, I wrote lots of short, self-contained pieces that could be read in any order. If they told a story, it would be cumulatively, as a sort of collage. As I wrote, I noticed two things. The pain stopped. All kinds of pain. Writing, it seemed, was morphia for the soul. (And, incidentally, just as addictive.) I also noticed that time passed. I looked up and it was lunchtime. I looked up again and it was midnight. Hooray! I was exhausted and could sleep.

The word count grew, but still I avoided planning. Ducking the issue, I wondered if I could I write a “book-in-a-box,” a non-linear novel that didn’t need to be bound because the pages could be read in any order. (As a teacher I’d been a big fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

That idea worked for a while, but in the end I realised it did matter — from a dramatic point of view — what order you read the pages in. A final running order had to be established so I had fun carpeting the floor with printed sheets of A4, “designing” my book in much the same way I arranged blocks when assembling my quilts.


Emotional Geology wasn’t autobiography, nor was it fictionalised memoir. I managed to avoid some first novel pitfalls by wanting so very badly to escape. It was bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.

I didn’t know it then, but what I was did was reject veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. Later, I realised this is an essential digestive process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into palatable fiction. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, possibly publishable. This is not the case.

As writers we have to accept the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths. If a reader is to believe (or suspend her disbelief), truth must be edited for fictional purposes and presented in the best form to do the job. This is what good fiction is: true lies.

If you find this idea difficult, think about raising money for charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, not repel, so unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in our therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists for the author, not the reader. (To be sure, all writing is therapeutic to an extent and probably all writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our skills, especially if we seek publication.)

When I wrote my first novel, what I wrote — instinctively and therapeutically — was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I was married; my heroine was single. I quilted as a hobby; she was a professional textile artist. I lived in a Norwich suburb; she lived on the bleak and remote, Gaelic-speaking Hebridean island of North Uist, which I knew from family holidays on the west coast of Scotland.

I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a sensitive, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. I was able to write with passion and paint-stripper honesty because I knew my novel would never be published. (My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47, and so was I. A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.) Hooked on writing, in love with both my heroes, I was fascinated to the point of obsession by the technical challenges of my story.

Was it possible to make a bipolar heroine sympathetic?

How could I convey her bouts of “madness”?

Could I depict the dreadful toll manic depression took on carers?

Was it possible to explore the undisputed links between creativity and bipolar without glamorising a potentially lethal illness?

Could I make depression interesting?

Could I, in short, come up with some good news about living, loving and working with bipolar?

I hadn’t the faintest idea, but I needed to do these things if I was to make sense of my own life, so I set about my self-imposed tasks with a will. I was writing for my life. Gradually writing became my life.

Structure was a problem from the start. Emotional Geology is a book in which nothing much happens, but all sorts of tumultuous events have occurred in the past. What the characters are dealing with in the present is fall-out. My heroine, Rose, lives alone but is haunted by her past. At times she’s barely able to distinguish the new man in her life from the one who got away. And that was the point. There is no escape. (My teacher-hero quotes Milton to her: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”)

I tried to construct a book that was confused, but not confusing. (My working title was SCRAPBOOK.) I came up with a kaleidoscopic structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes third. As I wrote, I delved into the layers of Rose’s memory, all of which existed simultaneously, like an archaeological dig. Landscape and particularly geology became the book’s dominant metaphors and so I arrived at my final title: Emotional Geology.


I wanted to take the reader inside my heroine’s troubled mind, so I opted to write in the present tense throughout, to create an “as it happens” feel for all events, past and present, since for Rose, the past was just as vivid as the present. (I discovered the present tense also stops you over-writing. It’s very exposing, like those bright, unforgiving lights in changing rooms. Verbal flab is spotlit.)

But how was I to convey Rose’s manic states? The problem with conveying mania from the inside (i.e. from Rose’s point of view) was that I had to portray a state of mind unfamiliar and alarming to most people. Was there a way to draw a reluctant reader in?

I’d noticed that at moments of drama or emotional stress my prose was straining toward a different, heightened style. Eventually I acknowledged — with considerable surprise — that what I was repressing was an urge to write poetry. (If I’d had any aspiration to publication, the introduction of poems as part of the narrative surely sounded the death knell for my literary hopes.)

The poems seemed to write themselves, even though I’d never written one before. This might have been because I wasn’t trying to write good poetry. (It’s wonderfully liberating when you stop trying to be “a good writer.” I recommend it. Aspiration can be artistically crippling. I never ask myself now if what I’ve written is any good, the question is rather, “Have I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it?” If I have, then for me it’s good writing. How could it be better?)

Emotional Geology depicted an internal, dislocated world of shifting time and place. The present tense and the poems allowed the book to float in various limbos and the layout of the poems on the page drew useful boundaries: Rose occasionally went off the deep end. When she did, she broke out in poems.

Well, it all made perfect sense to me. That white room was both Rose’s island home and her “cell” in the mental hospital. It was also the deeply medicated blank space of her mind. There was a process going on and, in Zen-like fashion, I just needed to get out of its way.

Even now, working on my fifth novel, I find I don’t always understand what I’ve written, or rather why I’ve written it. I don’t actually think it’s necessary to understand. I do think you need to be able to trust what you’ve written, which means trusting in yourself as a writer. That’s hard.

It’s also hard to trust intelligent readers to complete the process; to bring, as co-creators, their own experience and understanding to your text. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from readers that I realised a book isn’t just the words we write, it also exists in the spaces in between the words. As authors we have no control over those spaces, but we can (and should) create them. They are where our fiction really lives.

I wrote my first novel just as a treat for myself, but I had a change of heart and decided to try and publish it after I read the results of a Depression Alliance survey in the UK which said 26% of those questioned did not believe mental illness was a genuine illness.

That’s one in four. Clearly, there was work to be done.

Encouraged by my writers’ e-group, I sent my weird but now completed typescript to agents. To my astonishment, one took me on. (I think she fell in love with my hero. Or maybe it was the Hebrides.) Then we struck lucky. A new imprint, Transita, was looking for books written by, for and about mature women. (This is no longer the case, so please don’t send them unsolicited manuscripts.)

Transita bought Emotional Geology and published a wide variety of novels which were a hit with readers of all ages, but were dismissed by the UK media as “HRT Lit” (Anne here: that’s Brit-speak for hormone replacement therapy, i.e., menopause treatments), “Hag Lit” and “Romance for Wrinklies.”

Aged 53, with my first novel published, I concluded that my biggest “disability” as an author was not that I suffered from bipolar affective disorder, but that I was middle-aged, female and had had the temerity to write about a sexually active middle-aged female. (The ageism and misogyny of British culture beggars belief. But hey, they used to burn us as witches! Things are definitely looking up.)

Emotional Geology fared better than some of Transita’s lighter books, perhaps because it defies categorisation. It comforts and confronts. It has appealed to people who have no knowledge of, or particular interest in mental illness and was short-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, given to the year’s best first British novel. Well received by the mental health press, Emotional Geology was also runner-up in Pure Passion a light-hearted library promotion of romantic reads.


At author events readers complain to me in a good-natured way that they’ve been up till 2.00 am, unable to put the book down. But very little actually happens, so how can it be un-put-downable?

My theory is, since I write my books not knowing what happens next, nor even the final outcome, suspense and “hooks” for the reader are built in. Nobody wants to know what happens more than I do, so I’m writing as fast as I can, to find out. And that’s how readers like to read.

For this reason I’m anti-synopses. Publishers need them, but many writers don’t. Your subconscious — if you let it — will write a better and braver book than your conscious mind. After that, it’s all in the editing.

Planning a novel and writing a synopsis might encourage you to opt for the obvious in character and plot. You won’t arrive at your artistic decisions in an organic way. (E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”) Would I have dared plan poems for Emotional Geology? The idea wouldn’t have occurred to me and, if it had, I would have dismissed it as pretentious. It was only in the writing of the book that poems presented themselves as the solution to a technical problem.

Faced unexpectedly with publication and the inevitable PR, I had to decide whether to be “out” about my own mental health history. Was I going to set myself up to be dismissed as a one-book wonder or an author of fictionalised memoir? (I didn’t realise then grounds for dismissal could just be middle age.)

I’d complicated matters by moving to Skye, another Scottish island, which made my novel look far more autobiographical than it was. (Be careful what you wish for… Writing my alternative life gave me the courage to go and live it.) A double bereavement and both our children leaving home had led to some domestic stock-taking. My husband and I decided to live our dream and move to a big house on a hillside, facing the spectacular Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye.


So I did what I thought was the only honest thing. I’d written a book in which manic depression was just one aspect of my heroine and secondary to her creativity. That’s how it had to be for me too. So from the start I was “out” about my mental health history. Readers have come forward, in emails and in person, to thank me for the book and for standing up in public to demonstrate that there’s life after breakdown, after diagnosis; that it is never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.

I no longer live on Skye but I live a quiet, creative and productive life. I write, teach workshops and speak to groups about writing and mental health. My third novel, Star Gazing, set on Skye, was short-listed earlier this year for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

star-gazing-cover gillard

This time, I created a romantic heroine whom most readers would regard as disabled. Marianne is middle-aged, widowed and congenitally blind. Much of Star Gazing is written in the first person, from Marianne’s blind point of view and this raised a number of technical problems. I learned a lot as I solved them — and not just about writing. I began the book thinking of blindness as a disability, but by the time I was halfway through, I was convinced the blind have other ways of “seeing”. (Or as the sighted hero, Keir says to Marianne, “You have perfectly good eyes, they’re just not in your sockets.”)

As writers we agonise about originality and commercial appeal. The more anxious among us fret about copyrighting our ideas. But Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots. (Did you know LORD OF THE RINGS incorporates all of them?)

But what is unique to each of us is our way of seeing the world. That is the commodity writers have to sell, the “story” we have to tell. When we discover our true voice, it’s as unique as our fingerprint. But it might take a long time — and a lot of writing — to find.

In the meantime, aim to say what you want to say, in the way you want to say it. That’s good writing.

How could it be better?
emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
Linda Gillard author photo IILinda Gillard studied Drama and German at Bristol University, then trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Whilst under-employed at London’s National Theatre, Linda developed a sideline as a freelance journalist. She ran two careers concurrently for a while, then gave up acting to raise a family and write from home.

Twelve years later, she re-trained as a teacher and taught in Norfolk for some years. She moved to the Isle of Skye where she lived for six years in a house on a hill overlooking the Cuillin mountain range, featured in her first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (short-listed for the 2006 Waverton Good Read Award.) Linda now lives near Glasgow.

Her second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING was published by Transita in 2006 and STAR GAZING, set partly on Skye, was published by Piatkus in 2008.

Hobnobbing with the famous, however briefly


No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid: you’d be amazed at how much the work can pile up while a writer’s on retreat. I’m fairly confident that my desk is in fact underneath all of the papers in front of me, but it’s going to take another week or two of digging to confirm that.

Since I’ve been back from my writing retreat, I’ve noticed that acquaintances’ inquiries have been falling into two basic categories. Non-artist inquirers, without exception, ask about the touristy aspects of getting to and from a medieval village in the mountains of southwestern France; they want to be regaled with photographs of ruined castles. Admittedly, they probably don’t actually want to hear as much about the 12th-century Albigensian heresy as I tend to tell them while showing them the requisite pictures — I was in the part of France where the Cathars ran to escape folks who wanted to burn them at the stake for their beliefs — but they’re very nice about it.

Mysteriously, artists seem less interested in who got massacred where and if I have a photograph of the church built upon the spot. They ask, “Did you get a lot of writing done?” and, if they’re savvy about artists’ colonies, “Were there any famous artists/writers at the retreat?”

Don’t laugh — the answers to neither are foregone conclusions.

As anyone who has ever been on a lengthy group retreat could tell you, it’s far from uncommon that writers and other artists show up on a long-anticipated retreat — and then don’t work much on their art. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course, ranging from having unrealistic expectations about how much one can get done in a week, two, or a month; being totally exhausted due to working double shifts in the weeks leading up to the retreat, in order to be able to afford to come (it’s really, really rare that even a top-flight, highly competitive residency will give you money to pay your bills while you’re taking time off your day job), wanting to hang out with all of the other fascinating people who tend to turn up at artists’ retreats, and/or just needing a vacation really, really badly.

And then there’s the most common reason of all, writer’s block.

Did that giant collective gasp I just heard indicate that some, most, or all of you weren’t aware that even well-established writers who win fellowships to luxurious artists’ colonies sometimes fall prey to writer’s block? Of course they do: all writers do, from time to time; it seldom has anything to do with talent.

So what does it have to do with, you ask? Usually, in a retreat situation, the kind of elevated expectations I mentioned above: the prospect of writing/starting/finishing a big chunk of a book (or a short story, or a proposal) within a short, intense period of time can be darned intimidating.

Whether a time-challenged writer is at a retreat or at home, the very notion of wasting so much of a second of time and space that was so hard to carve out can be paralyzing. And if the writer in question has, as so many first-time retreatants do, been putting off working on a particular piece of writing until he’s safely ensconced, the pressure to write quickly roughly triples.

If this happens to you, take a deep breath. Remember that part of what artists do on retreat is think — and that thinking is a legitimate part of the artistic process.

After you’ve taken a nice, long walk and thought about your project, come back to your writing space (which, I hate to break it to you, will probably be much, much smaller than the palatial digs I enjoyed at my most recent retreat; chandeliers are in fact optional), take out several sheets of scratch paper, and diagram your story or the argument you’re making in what you’d planned to write. (Everyone knows how to do that, right? If any of you don’t, drop me a line in the comments on this post, and I’ll do a short how-to.)

Once you have a visual representation of your project in front of you, circle or highlight the bits you have not yet written. Which parts would be the easiest or quickest to do? Which would be next easiest, quickest, least emotionally jarring, etc.?

Once you’ve decided which would be least challenging, sit down and start there. Don’t even think of tackling any other part of your writing project until it’s done. Once it’s completed, move on to the next on your list.

Repeat as often as necessary until you get into a writing groove.

Do I hear some sounds of scoffing out there? “But Anne,” some folks who have dreamed long about running away on retreat protest, “I could work incrementally at home. If I have a big, unbroken chunk of time free of distractions in front of me, shouldn’t I be using it for, you know, something more ambitious?”

Not if you’ve come down with a bad case of writer’s block, you shouldn’t. Demonstrating to the frozen creative part of your psyche that it’s also productive to chip away at smaller portions is a great way to loosen up the writing muscles.

That’s not the only strategy for overcoming writer’s block, of course, or the only one that would work in this situation. For more suggestions, check out the aptly-named WRITER’S BLOCK category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand corner of this page.

The second question, the one about running into anyone famous, arises from the fact that many artists’ colonies will offer residencies to well-established writers and other artists as an inducement to the less-established to cough up the change to come to the retreat as well. And that’s not just my cynical take on it, either: just as writing workshops and conferences use the famous names for marketing purposes, many retreats are perfectly up front about selling access to big-name artists-in-residence.

Don’t believe me? Check out the grants, fellowships, and residencies section of Poets & Writers magazine, one of the best sources for tracking down same.

A quick caveat emptor to those of you who find the prospect of hobnobbing with the illustrious tempting: check the fine print. Just as a famous author’s speaking at a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that any individual attendee is going to have one-on-one time with him, being in residence simultaneously with a literary bigwig doesn’t automatically translate into long literary lunches and impeccable feedback on your work. Unless the retreat’s promotional materials actually mention that God’s Gift to Literature will be offering classes or critique to co-residents, assume that the answer is no.

Remember, established authors occasionally like to go on retreat for precisely the same reason that any other writer does — to get some time alone with their manuscripts. Unless they’re specifically being paid to help out those struggling along the earlier steps of the path to publication — as many retreats do — they’re under no obligation to invest their retreat time in reading or critiquing your work.

Or in providing you with contacts, finding you an agent, writing you a blurb…

I always feel a little funny saying this point-blank, as this just seems like basic courtesy to someone who grew up around famous writers, but established authors are not required to help the aspiring. Yet writers trying to break into the biz rush up to the famous all the time, essentially demanding their attention and a leg up, as if it didn’t take a darned long time to read a total stranger’s manuscript. If you want their assistance in a situation where they’re not being paid to provide it, approach with the awareness that you are in fact asking a pretty darned big favor of someone you’ve just met.

As luck would have it, an extremely well-known Irish poet was in residence with me at La Muse, but thankfully, everyone was too polite to thrust poems-in-progress at him. (Although not everyone was similarly restrained when they learned that I edited professionally, unfortunately. It’s amazing how single-minded writers can be in pursuit of publication.)

The good news is that if the retreat is indeed paying the lauded one to help out the other residents, they’re not going to make a secret of it. Since it’s actually rather difficult for the average mid-list author to make a living out of book sales alone (again, hate to be the one to break it to you), plenty of very good writers supplement their income through teaching gigs, conference presentations — and, yes, hanging out at residencies.

Do be aware, though, that being a well-known — or even brilliant — author doesn’t necessarily render one a good teacher of the craft. Or a good reader and feedback-giver, especially outside of one’s own particular book category.

Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee being a nice person who won’t gratuitously hurt an aspiring writer’s feelings. As I believe I may have pointed out 1700 or 1800 times before in this venue, professional feedback is harsh, and standards do in fact vary a bit from genre to genre.

Again, this may be self-evident, but before you take the emotional risk and plunk down the cash for cohabitating with, taking a class from, or showing your manuscript to a famous writer, make sure that that the illustrious one has at least a passing familiarity with your type of book. Otherwise, you’re not likely to get as much usable feedback as you have a right to expect.

If it’s part of what you’re paying to receive at a retreat, that is.

The best way to assure a good fit, of course, is to select a residency (class, conference) that features a laurelled one with a consistent track record of publishing in your chosen book category. Preferably recently, as being treated to long, well-meant lectures on what agents and editors were looking for thirty years ago may not help you please them now.

Even then, you may need to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Many years ago, I spent a month at an artists’ colony that routinely imported both well-established sculptors and painters to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress and a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

The first of these authors, a well-established author not yet a household name and the one whose work I preferred of the two, spent a week on-site. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that not all of my fellow retreatants were as happy with her input as I was — but then, she wrote comedy, and so did I. She liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable.

Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well, I’m told.

This mixed result is far from unheard-of at retreats that offer brushes with the Great — or at conferences, workshops, or even literary contests judged by them. There’s no way to assure that you are absolutely exempt from falling victim to it, but doing your reading in advance can certainly help. If your writing style is radically different from the critiquing author, consider seeking feedback elsewhere.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Back to our story already in progress. A couple of weeks later, the Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle too late for the meetings the retreat organizers had insisted that we book a week in advance, but in the meantime she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously.

One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. Good-naturedly, all of the writers in residence rescheduled our appointments with her to the next day. And then to the day after that.

When she arrived late in the afternoon of day 3 of her week-long residency, again too late for any but the last of the scheduled meetings, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us.

She wanted, she said, to meet with each of us right away. As in could each of us drop what we’re writing in mid-sentence and genuflect at her feet now?

Because I was — believe it or not of a writer on retreat — deep in the midst of a chapter, I signed up for one of the latest of the possible appointments. The Great Lady didn’t like that much, but one-on-one meetings we had all paid for, so she couldn’t just give us feedback in one big group, could she?

Seriously, could she? She honestly wanted to know — and seemed annoyed when we all demurred.

Now, I have to be honest here: I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the much-delayed meeting, and not just because she had been, well, not delivering what we had been told to expect. I was prepared to be very diplomatic about it, but the fact is, I didn’t find her writing very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

None of which evinced the smallest modicum of humor. So I was quite prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with aplomb.

You can feel the impending doom, can’t you? Wait — it’s even worse than you’re imagining.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting — yes, it did eventually occur — She Whose Name Will Live Forever launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene in the submitted chapter. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; another writer in residence had.

Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me. ( As do literally millions of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add.)

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — she actually ARGUED with me about whether I’d written the chapter she’d been lambasting. By the end of our brief argument, both of us had realized that she had not yet read my piece at all.

Embarrassed for her — far more than she, apparently — I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time, period. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

Somehow, this was my fault; if the writing in the piece in question — i.e., the one by somebody other than me — had been better, she implied, she never would have been confused at all.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel, she finally managed to dig up my submitted pages, mangled and folded into an intriguing shape that resembled a failed attempt at an origami swan. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me.

I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to come to a satisfying conclusion on the subject — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had, because then she would have had an excuse to dismiss me, or at any rate to vent her evidently copious spleen.

About two pages in, she gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet.

Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done once or twice before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

Eventually, I talked her into reading the remaining 15 pages. After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laurelled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general, as I originally suggested.

Specifically, I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris (whose work she reported disliking, presumably because it is humorous) and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would strike her in a week or two.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage or screaming at her would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.” I doubt she divulges what made her draw that conclusion.

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was uniquely horrible, but the sad fact is that one frequently hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful.

But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

All of which is to say: retreats can be marvelous things for a writer; so can feedback from the famous. But if you walk into both expecting something less than perfection, you’re probably going to end up happier with the overall experience.

Okay, that’s enough terrifying you for one day, I think. Caveat emptor — and keep up the good work!

Hansel and Gretel go on an artists’ retreat, or, that’s me in the corner


Jet lag does in fact go away sometime, doesn’t it? I’ve been home for several days now, and I’m still a bit out of it. Of course, that may be the result of a small part of my brain’s continuing to operate in French — specifically, the part that governs what I say to people who bump into me in grocery stores — while the rest is merrily going about its business in English.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, I’ve been holding off on launching into my long-promised series on the ins and outs of formal writing retreats. The spirit is willing, but the connective logic is weak.

So brace yourself for a couple of segue posts, please, to move us from craft to artists’ colonies. In the great tradition of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’ll try to work in writing retreat examples into my discussions of craft, and craft tips into my treatment of retreats, to ease the transition.

In yesterday’s post, I covered a broad array of topics, ranging from voice to submission strategies to the desirability of learning something about one’s subject matter before writing about it. In the midst of a blizzard of advice on that last point, I mentioned in passing that when writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up with characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader?”

In other words, the result on the page is often a stereotype. And because, let’s face it, since television and movies are the happy hunting ground of stereotypes, writers may not necessarily even notice that they’ve imbibed the odd cliché.

A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission? For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability in those first few pages: because Millicent the agency screener tends not to like it.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s really looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

I’m bringing this up today in part because yesterday’s post talked so much about the perils of writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction tome. Many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the dumb jock, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the morals-deficient lawyer, the corrupt politician, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Don’t believe me? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

Interestingly, when Millicents, their boss agents, and the editors to whom they cater gather to share mutual complaints in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, it’s not just the common stereotypes that tend to rank high on their pet peeve lists. The annoying co-worker, however defined, crops up just as often.

Why, you ask? Well, for several reasons, chief among which is that every writer currently crawling the crust of the earth has in fact had to work with someone less than pleasant at one time or another. That such unsavory souls would end up populating the pages of submissions follows as night the day.

If these charming souls appeared in novel and memoir submissions in vividly-drawn glory, that actually might not be a problem. 99% of the time, however, the annoying co-worker is presented in exactly the same way as a stereotype: without detail, under the apparent writerly assumption that what rankles the author will necessarily irk the reader.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case — it can take a lot of page space for a character to start to irritate a reader. So instead of allowing the character to demonstrate annoying traits and allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions, many a narrative will convey that a particular character is grating by telling the reader directly (“Georgette was grating”), providing the conclusion indirectly (through the subtle use of such phrases as, “Georgette had a grating voice that cut through my concentration like nails on a chalkboard”), or through the protagonist’s thoughts (“God, Georgette is grating!”)

Pardon my asking, but as a reader, I need to know: what about Georgette was so darned irritating? For that matter, what about her voice made it grating? It’s the writer’s job to show me, not tell me, right?

I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why. Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, they turn out to be lifted directly from real life. (No surprise there: these scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.)

The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way he anticipated.

Did I just see some antennae springing up out there? “Hey, wait a minute,” alert readers of yesterday’s post are muttering just about now, “isn’t this sort of what Edith Wharton was talking about yesterday? Mightn’t an author’s maintaining objective distance from the material — in this case, the annoying co-worker — have helped nip this particular problem in the bud long before the manuscript landed on Millicent’s desk?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it would. What a remarkable coincidence that she and I should have been discussing this on consecutive days.

Let’s look at the benefits of some objective distance in action. Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is irritating in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned, from the reader’s perspective. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers would decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This character assassination has clearly not gone as planned. A little more objective distance might have made it go better. Who was it that said, revenge is a dish best served cold?

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction.

Call it a memoir excerpt.

More years ago than I care to recall, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. (See? I told you I was going to work in an example from a writers’ retreat!) Now, retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day (ah, dear departed Norcroft! I shall always think of you fondly, my dear – which is saying something, as I had a close personal encounter with an absolutely mammoth wolf there, and a poet-in-residence rode her bicycle straight into a sleepy brown bear. And both of us would still return in an instant) to my recent sojourn in a medieval village in southwestern France to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills.

Had I mentioned that it pays to do your homework before you apply?

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. The writers were a tiny minority; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the dark caves to which they had been assigned.

I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first couple of weeks, was most happy and productive there. Okay, so sharing meals in a dining hall was a bit high school-like, conducive to tensions about who would get to sit at the Living Legend in Residence’s table, squabbles between the writers and the painters about whether one should wait until after lunch to start drinking, or break out the bottles at breakfast (most of the writers were on the first-mentioned team, most of the painters on the latter), and the usual bickerings and flirtations, serious and otherwise, endemic to any group of people forced to spend time together whether or not they have a great deal in common.

An environment ripe, in other words, for people to start to find their co-residents annoying.

Now, one classic way to deal with the inevitable annoying co-resident problem is to bring a buddy or three along on a retreat; that way, if the writer in the next cubicle becomes too irritating, one has some back-up when one goes to demand that she stop snapping her gum every 27 seconds, for Pete’s sake. Personally, when I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the trappings of my quotidian life behind, but there’s no denying that at a retreat of any size, there can be real value in having someone to whom to vent about that darned gum-popper. (Who taught her to blow bubbles? A horse?)

Doubtless for this reason, several artists had brought their significant others to the New England village retreat — or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. (Generally speaking, one of the tell-tale differences between a serious artists’ retreat and a casual one is whether you have to write, paint, sculpt, or photograph your way in; at a retreat that takes just anyone, the application will not require you to submit any of your work.)

One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. Although every fiber of my being longs to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic or social. Actually, he was sort of the dining hall’s Lothario, flirting with…hmm, let’s see how best to represent how he directed his attentions…everything with skin. In fairness to him, none of the residents was all that surprised that he often brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d seen his sculpture studio packed with representations of breasts, legs, pudenda, buttocks, and breasts, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind liked to wander.

Being possessed of skin myself, I was naturally not exempt from his attentions, but generally speaking, I tend to reserve serious romantic intentions for…again, how to put this…people capable of talking about something other than themselves. Oh, and perhaps I’m shallow, but I harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of the attractive.

An artists’ retreat tends to be a small community, however; one usually ends up faking friendliness with an annoying co-resident or two. Since there was no getting away from the guy — believe me, I tried — I listened to him with some amusement whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I loaned him a book or two. We had coffee a couple of times when there was nobody else in the town’s only coffee shop. And then I went back to my room and wrote for 50 hours a week.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon over the salad bar. Apparently, she thought I was after her man.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they derived pleasure from manufacturing jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry wife, is there? So I started sitting at a different table in the dining hall.

A little junior high schoolish? Yes, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable — and frankly, who needed the drama? I was there to write.

Another phenomenon that often characterizes a mixed residency — i.e., one where different types of artists cohabitate — is a requirement to share one’s work-in-progress. At this particular retreat, the fellowship that each writer received included a rule that each of us had to do a public reading while we were in residence.

Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the retreat, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. (You have to do your own laundry at every artists’ retreat on earth; don’t harbor any fantasies about that.) My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fit of jealous pique, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for a hefty honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Four writers were scheduled to read that night. The first two shared beautifully varnished work, safe stuff, clearly written long before they’d arrived at the retreat. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me venomously, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

How much trouble, you ask with bated breath? Well, her first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, a first-person extravaganza describing Hansel and Gretel — both mentioned by name on page 1, incidentally — having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act which included – I kid you not – a literal countdown to the final climax: “Ten…nine…eight…”

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

I cringed for her — honestly, I did. I have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. I’d read some of Gretel’s other work: she was a better writer than this. So what point was she trying to make by reading this…how shall I put it?…literarily uninteresting junk?

Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece: the painters in the back row, the ones who had been drinking since breakfast, waved their bottles, hooting and hollering. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.”) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act is over, it’s not the best romantic coupling imaginable.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again, it was written in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue. However, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first few paragraphs. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich – and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

Need I even mention that her physical description of the object of these jabs would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away?

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. From a literary standpoint, though, the piece fell flat: the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. While that might have been interesting as a dramatic device, Gretel hadn’t done enough character development for either “Gretel” or “Jan”– cleverly disguised name, eh?– for the reader either to sympathize with the former or find the latter threatening in any way.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

The first comment from the audience was, “Why did the narrator hate Jan so much? What had she done to the narrator?”

I was very nice to Gretel afterward; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. (“Three…two…one.”) Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around.

True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly belly flopped, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I went out of my way to be courteous to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, I was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

If your answer was any flavor of yes, you might want to consider waiting until you’ve developed some objective distance from your annoying co-worker before committing her to print. Think at least twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses – or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you, or at any rate your narrator.

Believe me, revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves screamingly from the page, at least to a professional reader. If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — consider giving it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please, please join a writing group.

To be blunt about it, finding good first readers you can trust can save you from looking like an irate junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human. Which is precisely why I wasn’t writing blog posts on my most recent retreat while I was in residence. It can take some time — and in this case, distance, judging by my lingering jet lag — to gain perspective.

Keep up the good work!

Musings on an airplane: the return of Edith Wharton, or, the heavy, heavy responsibility of original selectivity

Sorry about the lapse in posting; I honestly meant to start blogging again a few days ago. I’ve been just exhausted.

To restate that more positively: I’m back from my fabulous writing retreat in the beautiful mountains of southwestern France — or to be precise, I wrote most of this post while I was on a plane from Zurich to Chicago. (Props to Swiss Air: the flight attendants had no problem with my co-opting three middle seats for a mid-air office. Much easier to use a laptop with your legs stretched out, I find, than folded underneath an unstable tray table. Oh, and they let you know that you’re about to land by offering you wee bars of chocolate.) Truth compels me to say, though, that I took this photo on the way to the retreat, not from it: those dark blobs are the Pyrenees.

If any of you map-huggers out there are thinking that I was neither retreating anywhere near Zurich nor do I generally reside in the vicinity of Chicago, you’re right: it took a van ride, two train trips, and three airplanes to get me from La Muse to Seattle.

Now that’s what I call retreated.

So if I still seem a bit jet-lagged, well, I’m entitled. Which is perhaps why I’ve elected to devote today’s post to yet another extensive discussion with a dead person.

Hey, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. A while back, I started a conversation with Edith Wharton — or, if you want to be pedantic about it, with a few choice excerpts from her THE WRITING OF FICTION, as good a discussion of the craft as you’re likely to find anytime soon.

Should anyone happen to be in the market for one, that is. Stephen King’s ON WRITING is pretty good, too, as is Annie Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD. I don’t think any female writer should even consider skipping Joanna Russ’ HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING. And I’ve never made a secret of my admiration for Carolyn See’s MAKING A LITERARY LIFE.

I could go on all day, but does anyone else have suggestions to share?

My point is, THE WRITING OF FICTION is a fascinating book for anyone interested in, well, the writing of fiction. Particularly, I suspect, for those acclimated to the episodic ramblings endemic to blogs. (Who, me? Episodic? Rambling? Perish the thought.) Although our Edith wrote the book back in the 1920s, her highly opinionated, self-referential argumentative style would be right at home in the blogosphere.

So I’m dragging her into it.

When last I crossed literary swords with Edith, we were talking about whether it’s possible for a writer to imagine a character from a different background sufficiently to render actual research into the conditions under which that character might have lived superfluous.

She seemed to think it was possible, if not necessarily desirable, for imagination to hold the reins of probability, provided that the author maintained an objective distance from the subject matter. Quoth she:

The chief difference between the merely sympathetic and the creative imagination is that the latter is two-sided, and combines with the power of penetrating into other minds that of standing far enough aloof from them to see beyond, and relate them to the whole stuff of life out of which they but partially emerge. Such an all-around view can be obtained only by mounting to a height; and that height, in art, is proportioned to the artists’ power of detaching one part of his imagination from the particular problem in which the rest is steeped.

Myself, I think objectivity is overrated in fiction. Perhaps because the intervening 80 years since she wrote this book have offered so many spectacular examples of authors who decided to ignore the old writing saw write what you know with disastrous results — and if you doubt that, check out some of the female characters that turned up in the works of male authors in the 1950s — I am of the opinion that just guessing how a character unlike oneself might respond to certain stimuli can lead to both unrealistic and stereotyped characters.

How off the mark, you ask? To haul out my favorite example again, the collected short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald contain SEVEN instances of a female character’s saying to another human being, “I’m so beautiful; why can’t I be happy?”

Need I say more? Except perhaps that what an author regards as his own objectivity might well strike a reader who has something in common with the character on the page as ignorance?

However, for about a century, objectivity was all the rage, so much so that if you bump into an author or editor trained in the 1940s or 1950s, you may well be treated to a lecture on how first-person narratives are inherently flawed. They’re so subjective.

Or good first-person narratives are, anyway.

I didn’t revive the debate on objectivity in order to blame Edith for the pseudo-objective failings of some of the writers who followed in her quite broad wake. (Okay, not merely for that purpose.) I wanted to draw your attention to this little gem of writerly wisdom:

One of the causes of the confusion of judgment on this point[i.e., the difference between mere human sympathy and writerly empathy] is no doubt the perilous affinity between the art of fiction and the material it works in. It has been so often said that all art is re-presentation — the giving back in conscious form of the shapeless raw material of experience — that one would willingly avoid insisting on such a truism. But while there is no art of which the saying is truer than fiction, there is none in respect of which there is more danger of the axiom’s being misinterpreted.

Or, to put it another way, just providing a transcript of what happens in real life isn’t art; it’s court reporting. Good realistic writing is by definition a selective recreation of reality.

Which tends to come as a surprise to advocates of slice-of-life fiction, who believe that the primary goal of writing is to reproduce quotidian reality as closely as possible. That can work very well in a short story or scene in a novel or memoir, but just listing everything that happened in even the most fascinating human interaction tends to overwhelm the reader with detail — and annoy Millicent the agency screener, incidentally.

So how can a writer decide what parts of reality are and are not essential to conveying the story at hand? Ah, there’s the rub. As, indeed, Edith herself points out:

The attempt to give back any fragment of life in painting or sculpture or music presupposes transposition, “stylization.” To re-present in words is far more difficult, because the relation is so close between model and artist. The novelist works in the very material out of which the object he is trying to render is made. He must use, to express soul, the signs which soul uses to express itself. It is relatively easy to separate the artistic vision of an object from its complex and tangled actuality if one has to re-see it in paint or marble or bronze; it is infinitely difficult to render a human mind when one is employing the very word-dust with which thought is formulated.

In case she’s being too polite here, let me make it a bit blunter: one of the difficulties of this art form as opposed to others is that your average Joe on the street doesn’t suddenly whip out a block of marble or embark upon an interpretive dance to react to, say, someone cutting in front of him in a long line — although you must admit that either would be an interesting tactic. No, he uses words, so it’s darned tempting for a fledgling writer to believe that just quoting what he says on that particular occasion will in fact convey the entire situation to the reader.

The usual result? Pages upon pages of dialogue uninterrupted by narrative text, like a radio play, as though the writer believes that no further elucidation could possibly be necessary — one of Millicent’s better-known pet peeves, by the way. Or writers who are flabbergasted to hear professional readers (agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, Millicents) castigate their stories as unbelievable or unrealistic.

“Unbelievable?” they gasp. “Unrealistic? But that’s impossible: the scene you’ve targeted really happened!”

I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who love to write the real, but this cri de coeur almost never carries any weight with professional readers. In fact, if I’m going to be honest about it, this incredibly common protest is much, much more likely to elicit a chuckle, or even an eye-roll, than a cry of, “Wow, touché, dear writer. Let’s leave that scene entirely untouched.”

Why can I predict that with such certainty? Well, I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean that it will strike the reader as realistic when it appears on the page.

As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing. (For a far more detailed analysis of this quandary, check out John Irving’s TRYING TO SAVE PIGGY SNEED, speaking of established authors’ books about the writing life.)

So if Edith hadn’t brought this up, I would have: this is a classic point upon which aspiring writers who have yet to see their words in print and those authors who have (and give advice to the former) so often don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s rare that an established author will argue that all a good writer needs to do to offer fresh insights to the reader is simply to reproduce exactly what she observes in real life. If all a good writer had to do was hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, there would be little difference between the documentary filmmaker and the novelist except medium.

Good art is a lot more complicated than that.

However, you can’t throw a piece of bread at your garden-variety writers’ conference without hitting a writer who will insist that his manuscript — or, in classes, his scene — must have the resonance of truth because IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY. And then these aspiring writers wonder why the pros just stop listening.

Edith, would you mind telling the class why, please?

Still the transposition does take place as surely, if not as obviously, in a novel as in a statue. If it did not, the writing of fiction could never be classed among works of art, products of conscious ordering and selecting, and there would consequently be nothing to say about it, since there seems to be no way of estimating aesthetically anything to which no standard of choice can be applied.

Did some of you get lost in the verbiage there? Basically, Edith is saying that just throwing your diary onto the printed page isn’t art, any more than simply setting up a camera to film every second of everyday life would be, because that would remove the artist from the process as anything but transcriptionist. A good writer, however, picks and chooses what parts of reality are important to the story and leaves out the rest.

Or, to use a glaring modern example, do you honestly think that reality TV would be bearable for even fifteen consecutive minutes’ viewing if no one were editing the footage?

Think about that the next time you hear someone say that the point of written dialogue is just to reproduce the speech of everyday life. (And yes, school-age readers, you have my permission to print out what I just said and wave it in your English composition teacher’s face.)

Before the young and the daring think Edith and I are taking their side too completely, let’s see what she has to say about the perennial bugbear of the young writer, the desire to do something that’s never been done before in print:

Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before; for though one of the instincts of youth is imitation, another, equally imperious, is that of fiercely guarding against it. In this respect, the novelist of the present day is in danger of being caught in a vicious circle, for the insatiable demand for quick production tends to keep him in a state of perpetual immaturity, and the ready acceptance of his wares encourages him to think that no time need be wasted in studying the past history of his art, or in speculating on its principles.

“Ha!” I just heard half of you exclaim. “Ready acceptance of his wares! You try landing an agent in the current literary market, Edith.”

Before you dismiss this portion of her argument accordingly, consider a moment: I think a case could be made, and a pretty good one, that the extreme difficulty of selling first fiction, combined with how much busier our lives are than writers who lived a hundred years ago, tends to have the same effect that she’s describing here.

Don’t believe me? Okay, line up ten unpublished novelists and ask them to name not only the bestsellers in their categories in which they write, but the back-list perennials. Don’t accept any answer that names a book that’s been out for more than two years. Ask them to give you thumbnail reviews of each, and explain how their own books are similar or different.

8 of them will not be able to it; at least 5 will not have read anything in their chosen category that has come out within the last two years, which means that they are unfamiliar with the market. And 2-3 will laugh and tell you that they don’t have time to read at all.

But if you ask them if their novels are original, all ten will promptly say yes. But if they’re not familiar with the market in their book categories, how on earth do they know?

This, I’m afraid, is one of the things that render professional writers fairly easy to spot at a conference. Ask ten recently published novelists the same question, and you’ll probably get some pretty detailed analysis of the current book market. (Not to mention a plethora of complaints about their agents and editors.)

“Ah,” some of those non-readers will say, “but I don’t want my vision sullied by contact with others’. Nothing tamps down originality more than listening to what other people say.”

Really? Interesting. Let’s hear Edith’s opinion on the subject.

True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal, vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.

This, my friends, is one of the best definitions I’ve ever seen of what the publishing industry means by fresh, an elusive quality that tends to catch Millicent’s eye and warm the cockles of her boss agent’s cold, cold heart. Many, many writers could write the same story, but the difference between a fresh take and something that Millicent has seen fifteen times in the last week lies largely in how the writer chooses to tell the story, right?

Think the various writers’ respective decisions about how to narrow down what parts of reality do and do not add to the story might have anything to do with that?

Uh-huh; Edith’s not just whistling Dixie here: this is serious writing advice.

Not to mention a killer self-editing philosophy: when in doubt, ask yourself: could anyone but me have written this particular sentence/scene/character? If so, how can I revise it to render my voice and worldview more apparent? Repeat with every sentence/scene/character in your manuscript.

A lot of work? You bet. But as Edith says:

At any rate {the myth of originality without study} is fostering in its young writers the conviction that art is neither long nor arduous, and perhaps blinding them to the fact that notoriety and mediocrity are often interchangeable terms. But though the trade-wind in fiction undoubtedly drives many beginners along the line of least resistance, and holds them there, it is far from being the sole cause of the present quest for short-cuts in art.

That’s her really, really nice way of saying that if a writer’s only goal is to get published, the art is likely to suffer. Ditto if the writer is too lazy to learn what being a writer in her chosen category entails before taking a crack at it herself.

But she’s not about to let off the hook those who assume that if

(a) their own writing is having a hard time getting published, then

(b) all good writing must be having a hard time getting published, therefore

(c) everything currently being published is rubbish.

You will literally never hear a published author arguing this, incidentally, for obvious reasons, which is why, in case those of you who hang around writers’ conferences have been wondering, agents and editors simply stop listening to anyone who makes this particular argument. Which may be why Edith is so unsympathetic to it:

There are writers indifferent to popular success, and even contemptuous of it, who sincerely believe that this line marks the path of the true vocation. Many people assume that the artist receives, at the outset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as “Inspiration,” and has only to let that sovereign impulse carry him where it will.

We all know writers who say that, right?

Inspiration does indeed come at the outset to every creator, but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided; and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.

Wow. I think every writer who has ever even been tempted to say, “Oh, I don’t need to learn about the marketing side of the business; that will be my agent’s job. I handle the creative part,” should think long and hard about what Edith just said. Especially those who subscribe to the astonishingly pervasive writerly belief that all good writing will inevitably get published, regardless of how poorly its author happens to market it.

So does that mean that an aspiring writer should invest all of her writing time in boning up on what’s already on the market? Or that only after a writer has read everything published in the last hundred years should he attempt to write his own book?

Of course not; total immersion in other people’s books and absolute ignorance of the market are not the only two possible courses here. A savvy aspiring writer is going to want to forge a middle path.

And that can be difficult, especially now that finding a mountain of writerly advice is as simple as typing a question into a search engine. As Edith admits,

Study and meditation contain their own perils. Counsellors intervene with contradictory advice and instances.

See? I told you she seems surprisingly up on the current state of blogging about writing.

In such cases these counselors are most often other people’s novels: the great novels of the past, which haunt the beginner like a passions, and the works of his contemporaries, which pull him this way and that with too-persuasive hands. His impulse, at first, will be either to shun them, to his own impoverishment, or to let his dawning individuality be lost in theirs.

Or, to put this as Millicent the agency screener might, the vast majority of the submissions she sees are either completely out of step with the current literary market or quite derivative of a recent bestseller.

…but gradually he will come to see that he must learn to listen to them, take all they can give, absorb it into himself, and then to turn his own task with the fixed resolve to see life only through his own eyes.

In other words, to develop his own voice — and to demonstrate his own unique worldview through the details he chooses from real life to incorporate into his writing.

You had thought I was just rambling on without an ultimate point in mind, hadn’t you? Jet-lagged as I am, I still try to be selective.

I’m looking forward to a less befogged brain on the morrow, however. Keep up the good work!

The Most Insidious Form of Censorship: The So-Called Market, by guest blogger Roland Tec

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

Hello, campers –

My writing retreat in France is drawing to a close, to coin a phrase — and yes, of course I’m going to tell you all about it, as well as giving you some tips on finding, applying for, and happily surviving a formal artists’ retreat. (None of which are the easiest things in the world, let me tell you.) So if you’ll kindly hold your proverbial horses for another few days, to permit me get back into my usual blogging rhythm, I’ll be overwhelming you with advice, insights, and low-level complaint about the writing life again soon.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to introduce today’s guest in Author! Author!’s ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise, film and stage director, writer, and all-around stupendous human being, Roland Tec. He’s also the founding editor of the performing arts blog Extra Criticum, as well as serving as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America.

He is a busy guy, in short.

Especially in the last six months, which saw the openings of both his most recent film as writer/director/actor, We Pedal Uphill, and his latest foray into producing, a film version of Nechama Tec’s, Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick. (While I’m at it, here’s a link to the book itself, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. And if you’re even vaguely interested in World War II, Nechama Tec’s Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust is quite literally the most interesting book I’ve ever read on the subject — and considering that I used to teach a university course on the subject, I believe that’s saying something.)

To say that I’ve been attempting to blandish Roland into sharing his thoughts on writing with the Author! Author! community since I first began the blog would not be entirely accurate. If memory serves, I have been trying to drag him in front of groups of aspiring writers for years before that.

Why? Well, for one thing, he’s a heck of a good playwright and screenwriter. You don’t have to take my word for that, either: his play BODILY FUNCTION won an Edward Albee Award in 2000 and was an O’Neill finalist in 2001. The Los Angeles Times called his first feature film, All the Rage, “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed.”

But none of that is why I’ve asked him to speak to us today.

Throughout this periodic series, our various guests have discussed many means by which good writing (and good writers) are discouraged, dissuaded, and in some cases flatly banned from presenting their artistic visions to the world. Yet as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have no doubt already noticed, we talk a lot here about writing for a market.

Hmm, think the ever-changing demands of the market — real or perceived — affect who writes about what? Or whom agents decide to represent, and what kinds of books are published? And, in film, what kinds of stories the public is allowed to see?

Who better to enlighten us on the last, I ask rhetorically, than someone who has spent the last twenty years trying to stretch that particular envelope? None, I say.

So please join me in extending a great big Author! Author! welcome to film boundary-stretcher Roland Tec. Take it away, Roland!

Roland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal Uphill

Something creepy and disturbing is afoot in the world of moviemaking and unless we face up to it, I’m afraid we may all be doomed to a lifetime diet of nothing more than pre-packaged market-tested promotional dross in our movie theatres.

There is a system in place now that includes major studios, their distributors and big theatre chains who are behaving more and more as though they were corporate divisions of studios and less and less like independent players. This model has more or less been in place since moviemaking took off in the early part of the last century, but what’s new is the degree to which the big guys have an airtight lock on the distribution channels out there.

It’s a dirty little secret of the film business that in the past couple years, ticket sales at the multiplex have soared, breaking records year after year, while attendance at the art houses has been dwindling. In fact art house attendance is down this year by 60% from last year’s numbers. Why?

One of the reasons, I think, is because one of the old reliable tools used by independent filmmakers and their distributors for grabbing the attention of their audience has all but disappeared.

I’m referring, of course, to printed newspapers. As their advertising revenue has evaporated, so have their column inches, particularly when it comes to Arts coverage. Not a week goes by when one doesn’t read about this or that favorite critic being shown the door.

This is purely anecdotal, of course, but my own experience reveals a marked shrinkage in actual space devoted to independent films in the past ten years. I’m in a unique position to observe this, having produced and directed two feature films which were released theatrically almost exactly ten years apart.

My film, All the Rage, was released in 1999 and We Pedal Uphill, my tapestry of post-911 American fear, just came out this March. Both films were made for less than one million dollars. Both were topical, smart and featured performers not unknown to theatre aficionados but without typical Hollywood Box Office cred.

What’s striking is that if you lay the reviews side by side, the amount of space allotted has shrunk by slightly more than 50%. A simple word count of both New York Times reviews illustrates the decline quite clearly. In 1999, the Times review of my little film which opened on one small screen at one theatre in the Village ran 454 words in length. Ten years later, my little film opening on another small screen in the same neighborhood garnered a review half the size, at 216 words.

Now, I know this is totally unscientific, but it is striking. Isn’t it? What is astonishing, of course, is that in the weeks leading up to the release of We Pedal Uphill, a Hollywood film called I Love You, Man (which opened on the same day as mine) received not only a half-page review but a huge feature story.

The reason for this discrepancy? I Love You, Man took out several full-page ads in the paper while our little film could only manage one two-incher.

What is perhaps most troubling about the scenario I describe is that many of you reading it will simply shake your head and say, “Well, duh!” The assumption that money talks (and should) is now so deeply ingrained out culture that no one questions it. And to do so invites ridicule and pity.

Do we want to live in a society where the culture available to us is decided by a bunch of suits in an air-conditioned conference room overlooking the 101 Freeway? I know it may be hard for some of you younger readers to fathom this, but there really was a time when an independent film with two people just sitting around talking for two hours could play to empty houses for weeks until, slowly but surely, word of mouth spread and the thing became a phenomenon.

(It was called My Dinner with Andre and it eventually grossed a respectable sum at the box office).

If we’re content to live in a world where that can’t happen, I say, we’re doomed. Doomed to live in the Dark Ages in which our likes and dislikes are determined for us by a bunch of guys in suits. In Medieval Europe the suits were the lavish drag of the Catholic Church. Today the suits may look different, but the cultural serfdom is much the same.

Roland Tec bio picRoland Tec is a writer, producer, composer and director. His film, All the Rage, released by Strand Releasing, was hailed as “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed” by the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times described his most recent picture, We Pedal Uphill, thusly: “Neither self-righteous nor bombastic, these wide-ranging mini-tales coast on a gently insistent tone of regret. Without pointing fingers or naming names, Mr. Tec reminds us that change does not happen overnight.”

Tec also served as a producer of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Edward Zwick’s Defiance. He has also had several plays produced Off-Broadway including: Bodily Function, Gratuitous Nudity and The Wreck Behind Us. Roland is the founding editor of the group performing arts blog, Extra Criticum, and he currently serves as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America. For more info on his current projects, visit the Pinkplot website.