One Year In—Writing the Novel: Allison Lynn

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in One Year In: Writing the Novel.

Today’s novelist is Allison Lynn, author of Now You See It and The Exiles. 

Allison Lynn

Allison Lynn

Allison, how long did it take you to write your newest novel, The Exiles?  

The Exiles came out nine years after my first novel—and I’d say I worked on it seriously for about six of those nine years. I also held various money-making jobs during this time—one full-time position, and a lot of freelance and part-time gigs piled on top of each other. To boot, I got married during these years and had a kid.

For lack of a better way to phrase this, and not to sound like your mother but: why did it take you so long?

I’d like to say that my excuse is the huge amount of making-a-living work I was doing at the same time. And yet, plenty of writers have worked long hours as bankers, insurance agents, doctors, and still put creative stuff out at a decent clip, so I know that’s not the whole story.

Continue Reading

Episodia 1.14: An Antidote to Scripted Female Friendship

My So Called LifeA few months ago, I wrote a post on the best bromances on television. Since then, I’ve wanted to write a similar post on female friendship, but I came up empty when I hunted for good examples. There are so many storytelling techniques that current scripted television gets right on the money—fascinating plot twists, complex characters, and unique settings, just to name a few. So why are female friendships still relegated to the rare and typically shallow duo riddled with jealousy and competition?

Never fear—this isn’t going to be a post investigating gender inequality in the arts. I’ll leave that to the experts. Instead I’d like to take a more personal approach. You see, I wasn’t that surprised to find a lack of authentic female friendship represented onscreen—but I was surprised to find that lack in my own work. When I revisited my draft-in-progress, I found the same hackneyed formulas television writers so readily rely on. So I decided to give my writing a four-part antidote, and here it is.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Portia Elan

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Portia Elan, a graduate of the University of Victoria’s MFA Program. You can follow her on Twitter @portiaelan—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

readingPay attention, the cat has been telling me all along: I’m not a thing that is necessary to her. It flatters my vanity that she sleeps near me and that she sits at my feet while I’m writing. But I am not necessary to her, the same way I am not necessary to poetry. My room is full of the detritus of moving. Two silk prom dresses, now almost ten years old, are piled on the bed and the cat curls her dark body across them.

Somewhere in rural Illinois, it is morning and two poets are letting their blonde dogs out to run. The woman is wearing a turtleneck and the man has brought her a cup of coffee. For a year they were my teachers under the table—officially I wasn’t there, in their classes—and when I was accepted to a small handful of writing programs, they counseled me to choose the school where my writing would improve the most, not the place offering the most money, or with the friendliest cohort, or with the biggest names. I saw what they had—a house that made poetry religion—and chose the school where my writing would grow best.

Continue Reading

AWP Award Series: Julian Hoffman’s The Small Heart of Things and Andrew Ladd’s What Ends

Recently, I put cream cheese, Nutella, and orange zest between two pieces of bread and cooked it up like a grilled cheese. A little butter, a hot pan. Grilled cheese is tried and true. It doesn’t need improvement. But I saw the recipe (though for grilled cheese, I’d call “recipe” a stretch) in this book and had to try it.

I was skeptical. But, you guys. That sandwich was so good. It was warm (duh) and melty (duh) and bittersweet. Perfect for chilly weather, which we are getting plenty of here in Iowa.

Julian Hoffman’s essay collection, the small heart of things, and our blog editor Andrew Ladd’s novel, What Ends—both 2012 AWP Award winners—are a lot like that toasty sandwich. The two seemingly different narratives—also warm and bittersweet—cross the 3,664 kilometers of land and sea between their settings to tackle the complex, emotionally hefty topic of “home.”

(I’ll be discussing the other two winners of the 2012 AWP Award, Joan Naviyuk Kane’s poetry collection Hyperboreal, and Lucas Southworth’s story collection Everyone Here Has A Gun, in a later column.)

Continue Reading

Roundup: They’re Creepy & They’re Kooky

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

The month of October is heralded by an onslaught of horror movie marathons and ends with bags of discounted candy, both equally frightful in their own right. Whether you enjoy romping around in a costume on Halloween or scaring the bejesus out of your friends, we’ve got you covered with some spooky stories and thrilling reads.

Here, we’ve compiled some blog posts and things found across the Internet that’ll be sure to send a shiver up your spine!

5109415488_d494ab7994From Ploughshares

  • Whether you’ve been preparing for the zombie apocalypse since you were five or you were into werewolves before they were cool, Brenna Dixon has got a Ploughshares Playlist for all your monster needs.
  • Still searching for completely awesome, yet horribly last minute costume idea? The Ploughshares staff has you covered with these literary costumes.

Getting Back to Books: An Interview With David Mikics

slow_readingLet’s face it: there is a big, flashing world of distractions vying for your attention, trying desperately to keep you from that book  looking increasingly dusty and dejected on your bedside table. People scoff at the very idea of reading. In this crazy world, the argument goes, who’s got the time?

David Mikics does.

Mikics, a professor of English at the University of Houston who divides his life between Houston and Brooklyn, is the author of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Harvard University Press), a step-by-step guide to reading books amid the rushing world of an information-obsessed era. The book guides the reader through what amounts to a sort of extended independent study with a very approachable and patient professor.

Mikics spoke to me on the phone in the hours leading up to his departure from New York to begin the fall term at Houston.

Continue Reading

Revising Like Alice(s)

Alice MunroeThere has been a flurry of praise for Alices lately—Munro for her much-deserved Nobel, McDermott for her highly-praised new novel Someone—and it has me thinking about why these two authors are having a cultural moment.

They write about women, often small domestic lives, the kind of characters and plots deemed deeply unsexy by literary tastemakers. They’re not churning out Big Important Books or doorstop-style great American you-know-whats. (Though if Charming Billy isn’t a great American you-know-whats, I don’t know what is.)

They’re going small, peering over shoulders, into hearts and minds, showing us what it means to be alive. Munro claimed her prize for short stories, hoping that readers would no longer see them as mere weigh stations on the road to a novel. McDermott writes longer, but her novels are still lithe and compact, an act of condensation and concentration. Both women intensify the ordinary, finding the meaning we all see in our lives.

The Alices perform this magic through precision of word, sentence, and story, and they achieve this breathtaking correctness, this fictional poetry, because they are brave enough to write shorter, to compress until every image resonates. In short, they are brave enough to revise. How else could they achieve such power? Cutting out, paring down, making essential: these daring acts are what make stories sing. But they’re often the hardest ones to perform.

Continue Reading

The Winged Seed

wingedseedThe Winged Seed
Li-Young Lee
BOA Editions, April 2013
200 pages

Reading Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed reminded me of an argument by economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen cautions against our propensity to impose narrative on everything. He claims that life is not a story but a mess, and that in insisting on making sense by giving it a storyline, we actually exclude and erase much of it. This may sound like a damning statement, especially for writers of nonfiction—and yet it seems that (over a decade before Cowen) Lee followed the same philosophy when writing this book.

The Winged Seed was first published in 1995 and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. It is sometimes marketed as a memoir and sometimes as an autobiography, but if we have to put a genre label on it, I propose to call it by its subtitle: a remembrance. Lee presents the reader with a series of memories—his own as well as those that his parents shared with him about their own lives.

Continue Reading

Writers and Their Pets: Nathaniel Frank

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets.

We also ask contributors to the series to tell us about their favorite pets from literature. Here’s what Nathaniel told us: “The summer I graduated college I took a road trip across the country in my parents’ minivan, to discover in person what I’d been writing about as a student of “American Culture.” Reportedly this was also the impulse behind John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a touching account of driving cross-country with his 10-year-old poodle as he rediscovered America. I read it on my trip as I discovered America for the first time. Who wouldn’t want a sounding board like Charley, trusted tour guide and guarder against bears?”

We hope you enjoy Nathaniel’s essay.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief


Romeo was a rescue dog from a city shelter in East New York. He was all Brooklyn from the get-go. So it wasn’t hard to figure out where to scatter his ashes when he finally left us.

Every morning for years, we had started the day trotting through Fort Greene Park, which Walt Whitman helped create and Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison used as a writing perch. That seemed the obvious choice. Still, I had to spend some real time deciding. After all, Romeo was one of the most widely traveled dogs I know, choosing only the poshest destinations: he romped the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, East Hampton and Fire Island; hiked the rustic roads and grassy hills of Sullivan County, enjoying nothing more than a wild back roll on the 15-acre farm he inspired us to buy; he lived with me in London, taking a weekend home in Notting Hill; he even spent a month in Aix-en-Provence, visiting cobbled plazas, daytriping to vineyards and fording the moats of medieval castles.

So where was his favorite place? For someone who’s not always great at making decisions, this was an easy one: because I came back to beginnings, to roots.

Continue Reading

Snack Time with Sherrie Flick


Sherrie and the beloved Bubs the dog

When writer Sherrie Flick coordinated events at the immensely popular Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh, one thing was certain, beyond the high caliber of the visiting writers and the fact the space would be packed: there would be fabulous food. Crusty bread, gooey cheese, in-season vegetables, jugs of wine and—Sherrie’s specialty—plenty of pie.

Sherrie’s flash fiction often incorporates food as a driving metaphor too, and her novel, Reconsidering Happiness, primarily takes place in a bakery. But in recent years, Sherrie’s culinary ventures have moved out of the kitchen and off the page—she teaches food writing at Chatham University, and she is a food columnist, an urban gardener, and the series editor for At Table, an evolving book list at University of Nebraska Press that seeks to “expand and enrich the ever-changing discussion of food politics, nutrition, the cultural and sociological significance of eating, sustainability, agriculture, and the business of food.”

As Sherrie Flick’s blend of food and writing continues to expand, I wanted to discover how this focus on food has evolved in her writing and her life.

KF: You just published a wonderful essay on bread baking and the creative process in Necessary Fiction, where you explain that for you the two skills evolved almost hand-in-hand. Have you also discovered a creative connection with urban gardening?


Sherrie’s garden in the heart of Pittsburgh

SF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m writing another essay for the Necessary Fiction series that links my gardening to learning how to play the ukulele. That’s a more complicated connection than my garden’s connection to my creative process though.

For me, some days—most days, really—the garden is a physical manifestation of my creative process. I look at it all crazed and wandering and beautiful and weird in my yard and I think: yes, my friend, that is what the inside of your head looks like.
As fiction writers we rarely get to SEE a physical manifestation of our work. Words on the page become images in a reader’s mind. Gardening helps me see the way I organize—or more correctly—disorganize structure.

Continue Reading