Writers with Responsibilities: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Children_about_to_board_the_school_bus_(Thibodaux,_Louisiana)Perhaps, you’re one of those people who cry on the first day of school. For those of you putting your eldest on the kindergarten bus for the first time, I’ll give you a pass. For the rest of you, get real! The first day of school should bring the same wonder and joy you experienced traipsing down the stairs in your feety pajamas to see what Santa left under the tree. The endeavor warrants nothing less than a small jig.

A word to the wise: Your exuberance must be internal, lest you be accused of not truly loving your brood. (Been there, done that!) Those of you that home school, I admire your dedication and question your sanity, but this is a joy you’ll never know. And I am sorry for that.

Each school year marks the passing of time—small-kid problems get bigger, life gets more complicated. For me there is also another clock. It began ticking when my daughter, Claire, was in third grade and lamented the fact that her parents weren’t cooler. “Finn Haney’s mom is an artist and his dad makes movies,” she said. Claire felt more than gypped.Continue Reading

496 Words on Writing Flash Prose


1. Last year, I started writing a novel. Along the way, craving completion, I wrote and published seventeen pieces of flash prose. Instead of an epic, I accidentally created a flash chapbook.

2. Okay, maybe not accidentally. I took a break from the novel for a few months to focus exclusively on flash. Why am I telling you this? Why should you care?

3. See, my writing tends to be too careful. In flash prose, I took risks with sound, form, structure, setting, character. I experimented with collective voices, famous figures, buried secrets.

4. When my novel research revealed unneeded treasures, I built those shiny objects little nests and let their stories take wing. (Some never did take wing. Some were failures.)

5. Come to think of it, this whole blog post could be a failure. Even so, it’s 496 words of failure. A small commitment for us both, right?

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Your First Few Pages Mean Everything

Because I love transparency and being generally helpful to writers, or because I am a masochist, I let writers query me by Twitter. It says in my bio that if you can squeeze your pitch into three tweets I’ll respond. I’ll admit I have a few stock responses, but on probably every tenth pitch, I tell them to go ahead and send the manuscript.

8ebt6m9This sounds really generous, but of those that get through I also have a set of subsequent stock responses I give after reading the first three pages. Usually there’s too much exposition, a plot clearly heading nowhere, or a main character making utterly predictable choices.

I have taken on one client from Twitter, though, a fiction writer, and it was because by the end of the third page I knew this would be a great book. It sounds crazy when you think about it: agents and editors want you to write an entire novel before submitting it, but they’ll make their decision based on the first few hundred words.

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks spends a good amount of time on the importance of openings—it’s an interview with the Vice-President of Grove Atlantic, Elisabeth Schmitz. She covers a lot of really fascinating ground, but perhaps most usefully she talks about the difference between the novels she rushes to sign up and the ones that get tossed in the reject pile.

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One Year In—Writing the Novel: Rebecca Makkai

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 the One Year In: Writing the Novel series. 

Today’s novelist is fellow Ploughshares blogger Rebecca Makkai,  the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House (forthcoming in 2014), and Music for Wartime, a story collection (forthcoming in 2015).

ImageRumor has it The Borrower developed over the course of nine years. Not to sound like your mother, but what took you so long? 

It’s funny, I’m actually a very fast writer, so the “nine years” thing is kind of misleading.

It was really nine years start to finish, the first few years of which were just wimpy outlining. I refused even to refer to it as a novel for about five years—just “this longer thing I’m working on.” I was very young (21) when I started it, and I was fortunately smart enough to realize I had no real business writing a novel. It took nine years not because I was drafting, but because I was growing up and figuring out how to write.

Did writing your first novel prepare you in any way for writing your second?

I think that if your first novel fully prepared you for writing your second, that would be a very bad sign. If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing The Novel: Julia Fierro

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 the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Julia Fierro founder of The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop  in NYC. Her first novel, Cutting Teeth, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in May 2014.

 Julia Fierro bio photo 2How long did it take you to write Cutting Teeth?

Well, that depends on how you measure time in relationships. Some people say, “Oh, my girlfriend/boyfriend and I have been together thirteen years.” Others will add, “Though there was that six-month period in year four when we saw other people…”

I began working on Cutting Teeth in earnest, writing six to eight hours at least every other day, in 2011, shortly after my second child turned one, when the haze of parenting an infant had just begun to clear. I wrote the first chapter, which is still the opening, without thinking, “This will be a novel!” It was more like, “Oh, I hope I can write more than ten pages before the baby wakes.” I dabbled for a year or so—taking notes and sketching outlines for scenes.

Then I had the great fortune of reading my first chapter at a reading series, and the warm response (people liked it!) motivated me. I decided to invest in my writing and doubled my babysitter’s hours. I had to give myself the chance to see if I could finish a book. My husband was a great support, watching the kids all weekend, and I hunkered down—day and night—and finished a revised draft of Cutting Teeth in ten months.

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