Author: Nina Romano (page 2 of 21)

Margie Klein, guest blog: “You Can’t Write if You Don’t Read”

You Can’t Write if You Don’t Read

To me, writers were just names on covers. Until I fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe.  This wasn’t my crush on Tommy, who wore his jeans low and spit-curled his hair in a slow curve over his Clearasil’ed forehead.  This was true passion–for a writer.
A very dead writer, which made Poe all the more romantic.  No more would he pen (and I was sure it was a plumed pen, taken in hand by candlelight in the dark recesses of night) the lush verses that I committed to memory, the horrific tales that captured my darkest imagination.  Alas, alas!
I was nuts for the guy.  Even now I get retroactive palpitations.  I know.  He looks pretty hokey today, and I don’t think I would voluntarily wade through “The Fall of the House of Usher” again.  But, as convoluted and archaic as the language now seems to be, that’s what sucked me in, in the first place: his language.
Language.  Compelling plots.  Complex characters.  Evocation of time and place.  Flashes of insight.  Poe did that for me, spoiled me, made me seek those things in everything I’ve read since.  Sometimes I find one or two of those qualities in a book.  That’s good; I’ll read on.  Three, four or more and I’m in love. In high school I found all of the above in John Steinbeck, whom I adored until he made me Travel With Charley.  Then he lost me.  The old magic was gone. 

My reading eye began to wander.  In college I became promiscuous, flitting from one to another: D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Wolfe, Hermann Hess, Dorothy Parker, Tolstoy, Katherine Anne Porter, Dostoevsky, and even–God help me–Ayn Rand.  I loved them all, even though I’m sure I missed a lot of what they were saying.  Without much depth of life experience, it was difficult for me to relate.  Poor, poor Anna Karenina, I’d sigh—but I really couldn’t tell you why. As much as I loved to read, that’s how much I loved to write.  It seemed so preposterous, so presumptuous, to even dream of being one of Them.  It never really crossed my mind to call myself…a writer.
Marjorie Klein’s first novel, Test Pattern (Wm. Morrow Publishers, 2000; HarperCollins/
Perenniel 2001, now an e-book) was a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers”
selection.  Her creative nonfiction has appeared in various publications, including 20
years of free-lance work for Tropic, the Miami Herald’s former Sunday magazine. She
received her MFA from Florida International University.  Recipient of a Florida
Individual Artist Fellowship, she has taught at the University of Miami, Florida
International University, Warren Wilson College, University of North Carolina at
Asheville’s Great Smokies Writers Program, and served as a preliminary judge for the
National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.  She has completed another novel,
Shifting Gears, and has begun a new one.  (

On the Art of Writing by Chris Hill

On the Art of Writing
            by Chris Hill
I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite quotes about writing and what I think of them – one is quite well known, the other less so, but I think they both have something useful to teach us writers.
The first is from the Russian master story writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov who said famously: 
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
What’s that all about then? Well basically what he’s summing up in powerful and poetic fashion is what has come to be known as ‘show don’t tell.’ That’s a technique much beloved of creative writing courses where would be writers are encouraged, for example, to focus not on telling the reader directly what a character is feeling, but instead on showing the reader things which allow him to make his own mind up.
For what it’s worth, my view on this is that a better phrase would be ‘show and tell’. The trouble with being prescriptive in writing is that it excludes—and while excluding some terrible writing it might also exclude some great, experimental work. So it never does to be too closed minded. Still, it’s a useful point to bear in mind I think, show don’t tell.
Whether you are describing moonlight or a character’s state of mind the route one – blunt description is likely to be less involving, less evocative for the reader than showing them something which draws them into the text and allows them to decide for themselves what is going on. Do it that way and you have given them a stake in the action— you have made the reader part of the story.
Now here’s some advice on writing from a more unusual source. The great movie director Alfred Hitchock was once asked how long a couple could reasonably be seen on a movie screen, kissing on a bed. He replied: 
“As long as you want—as long as there’s a bomb under the bed.”
Portly, upper-crust curmudgeon he may have been – but he knew about story telling didn’t he? Whatever kind of fiction you are writing it’s a very important thing I think, that bomb under the bed.
When I think of the better writing I’ve done, the stories which work well, it’s not usually the style of the writing, the quality of the jokes, or whatever, which sets them apart—it’s something else—it’s the presence of dramatic tension, the bomb under the bed.
If you don’t have that dramatic tension in a story you are writing then the words pretty as they might be, can lack focus.
When I’m writing fiction now I sometimes stop and ask myself where it is – that bomb – that sense of jeopardy.  The form it takes varies widely depending on what you are writing of course , but in some form it’s a must.
Author’s bio:
Chris Hill is an author whose latest book The Pick-Up Artist was released in February 2015 by Magic Oxygen Publishing, you can find it on Amazon here:
You can find Chris on his website here on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook here

Chris Hill is an accomplished writer and author with a Bridport Prize winning feather in his cap His first novel, Song of the Sea God, was published by Skylight Press; and was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year competition as well as winning the eFestival of Words award for best literary fiction. Chris Hill works in communications and has a background in newspaper journalism as a reporter, news editor and editor. His second novel, The Pick-Up Artist, was published by Magic Oxygen in early February 2015. It is described as a raucous rom com about dating in the digital age.

Case Study: Publishing a Chapbook with Amazon’s CreateSpace by guest blogger Amy Miller

Author Bio: Amy Miller is the author of 10 chapbooks of poetry and nonfiction, including In the Hand and Beautiful Brutal. Her writing has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, Northwest Review, Rattle, and ZYZZYVA, as well as The Poet’s Market, Fine Gardening, Asimov’s Science Fiction and numerous anthologies. She blogs at Writer’s Island [].

Case Study: Publishing a Chapbook
with Amazon’s CreateSpace 

                                                                     by Amy Miller
All those nights when you can’t reach me?
I’m making these things.

When it comes to poetry chapbooks, I’m a DIY gal. So far I’ve self-published nine chapbooks at home using InDesign or QuarkXPress, a couple of desktop printers, and a huge stash of paper from a print shop that went out of business*. I edited books for a living for many years, and I still get a creative rush out of designing and assembling them. So if it means giving up a few evenings to print, fold, staple, and trim chapbooks while listening to Bollywood music, that’s OK. I like it. It’s fun.
        But recently I went a different route and published a chapbook through CreateSpace, Amazon’s print-on-demand program. A client had asked me to help him marshal his book through the CreateSpace process, so I decided to use one of my own chapbooks as a guinea pig first. I figured if things went badly, I could steer the client away from the mistakes I’d made. And if it went well, it would be smooth sailing for him…and I’d get a spiffy new book at the same time.

Something for nothing?
In a nutshell, CreateSpace works like this: You design the book (either by yourself, or with the help of their online templates and design services), and then Amazon
prints and ships copies of the book whenever customers order them. If you design it all yourself and
simply upload your PDFs to their system, it’s completely free and seems almost too good to be true.
You do pay for any copies of the book you order for yourself—say, a few dozen for your own readings or book shows—but you buy them from Amazon at such a deeply discounted author price that it works out
to about what you’d pay a local print shop to do them (for most chapbooks, a little under $3.00 per book, including shipping). And, unlike with a local print shop, your book gets listed on Amazon and is handled and shipped by them, which means your readers can find it easily and buy it while they’re shopping for frying pans, yoga balls, and Breaking Bad DVDs. I’ve got to admit that, even for an independent-
bookstore lover like myself, it was all weirdly attractive.
The CreateSpace portal.

        To back up for a moment, let me repeat one point: CreateSpace is only free if you can design the whole book—interior and cover—either completely by yourself, or by using their simplest templates. (They also have fancier templates, for a fee.) Obviously it’s great to have InDesign or Quark to do the interior layout, but you could probably use Word, assuming you’re good at it (which I’m not) and your book is something simple like poetry or fiction. For the cover, you might be able to figure out how to lay it out in Word (again, if you have more prowess with Word than I do), but just about any graphics program will work, as long as you can save your final design as a PDF.

        If you don’t want to wade into the world of design on your own, CreateSpace can do that for you too, but this is where it can get pricey. They offer all sorts of professional services and packages, ranging from design and copyediting to help with marketing and publicity, costing anywhere from a hundred dollars to several thousand. And judging from the online forums that I’ve scoured over the past few weeks**, many authors do use these services, and some are perfectly happy with them. But I didn’t wade too deep into that; I figure that thirty years in publishing should have taught me a few skills. And besides that, I’m a cheapskate. I was going it alone or bust.
Enter the guinea pig
Editing—in my house, anyway—
still takes paper and patience.

For my test case, I decided to do an expanded version of my book Beautiful Brutal: Poems About Cats. I chose this baby for one reason: I sell a lot of copies of it. Now, I pride myself on being a real poet, but this little novelty book has turned out to be surprisingly popular—it always sells well at book shows and writers’ conferences, and people contact me out of the blue to order five or ten to give away as gifts. I spend a lot of time printing those little books.

        Beautiful Brutal started life four years ago as a palm-size nugget of a book, 5.5 inches high by 4.25 wide. So I took a couple of weeks to add a few new poems to it, revise some of the old ones, and do a little re-ordering. I also gave it a larger, airier trim size (6 x 9), fancied up the interior design, and built a new cover around a 17th-century painting*** by Georg Flegel that I particularly love and that is firmly planted in the public domain. Finally the files were ready, and I followed CreateSpace’s easy directions and made the PDFs.
The next step was to register the book with CreateSpace. This is where you let them know what you
want your book to look like—page count, trim size, paper color (white or cream; I chose cream), cover finish (glossy or matte; I chose matte). At this point you also set up the book’s Amazon page, which entailed a couple of curveballs I didn’t see coming, such as deciding on a cover price and where to send the royalties, and that brought the process to a grinding halt while I pondered them. The toughest was
the “book description,” that little marketing paragraph that you see on the book’s Amazon page. I tinkered
with that thing for a long time, trying to make it descriptive but not dorky.****
        Filling out the online forms was fun, but then came the meat and potatoes: uploading the PDFs of
the book. That part went quickly. I clicked through a few windows to send the files, their system processed them in just a few minutes, and then a digital proof of my book appeared on my screen. Many printers use online proofing systems, and CreateSpace’s is particularly attractive and realistic, with animated pages that appear to turn. My book looked fine—nothing had shifted or reflowed, and the fonts looked the way they were supposed to. The one hiccup was that the system froze up twice while I was sending the files, and I had to quit out of my browser and go back in. Also, they didn’t process the cover file right away, I presume because I asked them to insert the UPC barcode on the back (another free option). They finished it the next morning and sent me an e-mail; I looked at an online proof of the cover and it looked fine too.
The moment of truth
Sharp yet velvety.

The last step in the approval process was to order a print proof of the book. This is the only part of the process that cost me money, and the total was $5.74—about $3.00 for the book, and the rest for shipping. You don’t have to order a proof; you can just have them print the books without seeing a sample, but I wouldn’t recommend that no matter what printer you’re using. And I especially wanted to see how the matte cover and cream paper looked, since I’d chosen both sight unseen.

        The proof arrived in my mailbox about three days later. Just like in my book-editor days, I opened the package with a mixture of excitement and dread. I pulled the slim volume out of its little box, leafed through it and sniffed it. I scrutinized the cover: handled its silky matte finish, pressed my thumbs on it to try to make fingerprints, and lightly scratched it to see if it got easily marred. It passed all the tests. And I’ve got to say—it was beautiful. The matte cover felt velvety, the type was clear, the cream paper robust, the perfect binding elegant and crisp. I was pleasantly surprised. This system actually worked.
Next up
So now Beautiful Brutal has a new home on Amazon (see its page here). I like the way it holds its own alongside the Hawthornes and Lemony Snickets—there’s a wonderful sort of democracy at work*****,
 not unlike the internet itself. I also did a Kindle version (which you can see here) while I was at it—it
was like, I’m in the hospital already, so while they’re fixing my knee, I might as well get my gall bladder
out too. That’s a whole other story, which I’ll write up at a later date. And Amazon is a world unto itself, with author pages and analytics and keywords and search engine optimization, which I will also write
about later. For the time being, I’m just trying to figure out how to get the print and Kindle versions on the same page. Apparently the Amazon robots, which take care of such things while patrolling the system
like so many Skynet terminators, haven’t figured it out yet.

How to Deal with Rejection

I wrote a novel, got an agent, and the novel was sent to about twenty editors.  One of these was even Hosseini’s editor. I received these oxymoronic letters: the writing is strong, or evocative, or lyrical or spellbinding, BUT it’s not marketable. How could that be?
Okay, I thought, I’ll put it away and write another.  That’s precisely what I did, and that’s precisely what anyone out there who has faced rejection should do.  Write another novel.  Now this second novel will be your first, and if it is picked up, will probably stand more of a chance then your first one, which will now become your second novel.  With the experience of writing another novel, you can now face that first one now dubbed “your second,” and make it stronger and marketable. 
Maybe, just maybe, it’ll be better than your first.  Why? You’ve gained much more experience. Surely, you won’t have trouble beginning it, because all you’ll have to do is read it over, make notes, and then revise it. Read it again and make final changes.  You’ll save yourself time, emotional roller-coaster feelings of self-doubt, and be able to send your agent that “second novel” sooner rather than later. How long did it take you to get that final draft you sent out? Think of all the time saved! And if, like me, your agent drops you, send the manuscript to more agents and publishers. 
Of course, it helps if you have a terrific writing group like the one I have to give you support.  It helps if you have co-authored: Writing in a Changing World–but if you haven‘t, you still can read it! 
Available on for $12.95 here:

There is no perfect writing—there is only re-writing. Deal with it. Good luck.

Where do ideas for writing come from?

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” 
~~Charles Baudelaire

This morning I asked my husband, a NON-WRITER, if he were a writer what would he like to read about on a blog, and without hesitation he said, “Aspects of life.” And I thought–gotta keep this guy around.

So many people ask writers at readings: “Where do your ideas come from?” It’s happened to me many times, and I’ve heard the question from people in the audience at readings given by A. S. Byatt, Dennis Lehane, Joan Didion, John Dufresne, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz, Campbell McGrath, Marie Howe, and countless others.

The answer is that ideas come form our daily lives.  I’ve never kept a journal or diary, and was embarrassed to admit this in some writing classes.  But I always have notebooks filled with things: lists of wines, types of flowers and trees, names of rivers, book titles, recipes, names of bottled water, names of oysters, constellations, stars, bits of dialogue, snatches of scenes, pieces of eulogies, prayers, dreams, song titles, titles of poems, descriptions of places I’ve traveled to, names of people, towns, and streets from foreign cities and those Stateside…like Dubrovnik, Seattle, Bejing, Boise, Paris, Singapore, Bora-Bora, Kuala Lampur, Venice, Mandalay. You get the picture.  So I guess I’ve been keeping a type of “writer’s journal” all these years after all. 

Ideas come from all aspects of life.  Nothing is too insignificant to take note of or jot down in a little book you carry with you…everywhere. Keep a notebook in the car, one on your nightstand, one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom, one by the computer. 

My first guest blogger: cozy mystery writer Marni Graff

Marni Graff
The Art of Mystery: It’s Not Just a Puzzle
There’s a reason Agatha Christie’s mysteries are outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Despite the differing variations within the mystery genre, they all have one thing in common that readers embrace: the solving of a puzzle.
Subgenres are categorized by the level of violence contained in them, and this ranges from the least, such as cozies and amateur sleuths like Miss Marple where the puzzle is the prime factor, to action and thrillers, which up the ante in violence and psychological suspense.
Yet all of these variations can probably be classified into three main categories:
Whodunit: where the identity of the criminal is initially unknown, and discovering that identity is the focus of the story.
Whydunit: where the criminal’s motive is the focus; sometimes their identity is revealed early in the story.
Howcatch’em: where the focus is the means by which the detective/PI/hero catches the killer, and both identity and motive may be revealed earlier.
Devices all of the subgenres will contain are:
Red herrings: a clue or piece of information intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual question or situation. This can be suspects, physical bits of information and evidence, even misleading lines of inquiry that don’t pan out.
Plot twists: a radical change in the direction or outcome of the plot, used to keep the interest of the reader, surprising them with a revelation, new evidence, or a change in action. Some ‘twists’ are foreshadowed.
Foreshadowing: hints to readers at a possible outcome or twist, within the confinement of the narrative. Can pertain to theme, plot or ending. Can use similes, metaphors, symbolism or dialogue.
Cliffhangers: put a main character in a precarious or difficult position or dilemma, or have them confront a shocking revelation. Used often for chapter endings to push readers to continue on to the next chapter.
These are the usual conventions of crime fiction. But how does the writer distinguish between mystery and suspense and know which they are writing?
When writing true mystery, the reader should discover the mystery (puzzle) along with the protagonist. The reader expects the author to be fair. Many readers hope to figure out the puzzle before it is revealed to the protagonist.
When writing suspense fiction, the reader should know more than the protagonist. The author can show the reader things the protagonist doesn’t know, such as chapters from the antagonist’s point of view, to build suspense and the reader hopes the hero fill figure it out in time.
One caveat: both contain ‘suspenseful’ elements, which is created by increasing tension from the opening and not answering your pivotal question until the end—either whodunit, whydidit, or howcatch’em. Writers need to build on small clues, red herrings, cliffhangers, and plot twists to answer some of the minor questions while keeping the reader turning pages to get to the final big answer.
That’s it in a nutshell. But for anyone wanting to take a stab at mystery, be aware that most readers across the subgenres, from the sweetest cozy to the toughest violent action thriller want the same thing at the end: resolution that restores order.  This can take the form of the killer being caught or brought to justice (and the manner in which this is accomplished varies widely), or the kidnapped child restored to its parents, or the hidden family secrets revealed, or… whatever your imagination can dream up!

On Submitting work

Don’t let procrastination, hesitation, lack of marketing experience or fear stop you from submitting your work! (and be careful of those exclamation marks!!!)
We’ve all got good intentions. We’ve all see seen countless talented writers postpone their way all the way to the alley of failure. Some people never get their ideas on paper; yet others write and rewrite, and then revise again, but never get their submissions in the mail. And those that do sometimes fail to follow the EXACT requirements, so their work goes directly into the slush pile. Those that do, get discouraged by rejection!  Well, welcome to the real world of writers.
Set aside one day of the week for the BUSINESS, not writing —say every Friday you’re going to send out at least one piece.  My mentor, John Dufresne, said, No it’s not creative, nor fun, and yes, it eats your time and day, and is mind-boggling, but if you want to see your work published, guess what? You gotta pay the piper and just DO IT. 
Oh, and a little secret—a dear writer friend, Leonard Nash, author of the short story collection You can’t Get There From Here, ( told me years  ago—if you want something to get picked up, then make sure you have at least twelve to twenty pieces circulating at all times. Got those numbers?
Read the instructions carefully in the GUIDELINES before you submit—5 poems, a short story, a short-short, flash fiction, an essay, a whatever, etc. REMEMBER that it’s 5 poems, not 6, and 2000 words, not 2045! If that’s what they want, give them precisely what they want.
Okay, now for the actual submission.  RESEARCH the review, literary journal or magazine and if you think you have a piece that “fits” then GIVE them what they’re asking for, nothing more and nothing less!
If you’re asked for a cover letter—write one.  Be brief.  Doesn’t have to be fancy–a simple introduction and what you’re enclosing.  If you don’t have the necessary or requisite publications for your author bio, write a different letter—say who you’ve studied with, mention conference, and /or workshops you’ve attended and with whom you’ve studied.   Mention your degree, if you have one or an interesting job.  If you can’t say anything with regards to the writing world, call yourself an idiot savant! Whatever you do, keep it short and succinct—no one wants to read three pages before they get a look at what you’re actually submitting.
Send this material to the editor—if you know the person’s name—use it.  And send it to them the way they want it: by Word attachment to an e-mail, by an e-mail with the work in the body of the mail, or by snail mail with SASE.
Don’t change or invent your own method.  Just stick to what the editor or publication WANTS.
Oh, and, here’a biggie—get over yourself—you’re going to get rejected.  So what?  It’s all subjective anyway—what one person hates, the next reader/editor will adore!  Just pop that rejected piece in another envelope and send it off to some other editor. Of course, if the piece is man-handled and a mess, have the courtesy and good sense to make a fresh copy.  Also make sure to change your cover letter’s heading to the proper person.
Good luck. Don’t wait.  DO IT NOW! 


 Here’s what I know that may be useful for writing dialogue.  Always keep a notebook handy and write down everything you overhear or can remember from dreams!  Note the accent, the patterns of speech, the way people interrupt each other. Write down what they are doing when they speak and where they are when the conversation is taking place. Scribble a few words on their phraseology and the patterns and rhythms they use.
In a diner having breakfast with a friend, we overheard this: “You’re dead meat.  You’re so not worth it.  I pay the friggin’ bills and you drink beer with your buddies, watch the Dolphins lose, and slobber over Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue. What? What did you say? What the f—? Take a hike, Harry.  It’s over. Finished.  As in done—like last night’s movie: The End.”
With that the blonde in a navy blue Nike sweat suit, slammed shut her micro-mini cell phone swathed in powder pink faux leather, tossed it in her bag, and proceeded to order breakfast. 
My friend whispered, “Did you get that?”
“Every friggin’ word, Harry.”
Can I use this material?  Probably not.  But I was lucky enough to watch while she was on the phone and maybe her actions while she spoke to Harry could be useful in writing a kiss-off.  The woman had the phone snug to one ear as she spoke into the phone and at the same time pulled out her cosmetic bag from her purse.  It was a small white Fendi.  From it, she extracted her mirror, a lipstick and a small pencil.  The minute she flipped the cell phone back in her purse, she called the waitress over and ordered breakfast for two.  Did I miss something?  Is Harry going to show after all?
She then outlined her lips with the small pencil, smeared lipstick all over her lips and blotted her mouth with a brown, re-cycled paper napkin several times.  She closed the compact, put it back in her purse, and smiled with smug satisfaction.  The next thing that happened was that a very handsome Latino-looking man walked over and kissed her on the mouth she’d just blotted so carefully.  She smiled at him, then licked her lips.
Aha!  So what do I know or did I just learn about dialogue?  It needs action.  There are two people involved in it at least even though not both can be seen. People need people.  Never leave a character alone too long so they have to speak to themselves or a mirror.  The dialogue has to occur in a place, a setting, otherwise, we have “talking heads.”  Someone is speaking and someone’s listening. If the other person is present, there will be body language to record.  There needs to be a reaction—and though we didn’t get Harry’s because the blue-suited Nike woman didn’t give him a chance, we know several things.  She was not really upset or emotionally charged about breaking up with Harry.  How do we know this?  Simple.  She was more interested in taking out her make-up to look good for the Latino guy and ordering breakfast.  No tears for blondie.  
So if I were writing a break-up telephone scene I would describe her actions, using the five senses and steal some of the dialogue.  Let’s approach the action and the senses and analyze what she did.  She touched the phone, spoke into it, listened while she asked, What? looked at herself in the mirror, felt the lipstick go on too thickly, wiped it off, tasted the Latino’s kiss. What’s missing? Smell.  Perhaps I’d write this scene adding something of the odors in the diner, the pervading smell of burnt toast, or perhaps have my blonde character apply some perfume or sniff the guy she kissed, savoring his aftershave.
The important things to remember about dialogue are these: make it sound natural and give us visuals.  When writing dialogue, use contractions so it doesn’t sound stilted, omit superfluous words, such as: Okay, yes, no, perhaps, maybe, hello, well, etc. and get to the meat of what’s necessary to say: dialogue moves the action of the story along and reveals plot.  Other things to do, which will come mostly in revision are these: eliminate “eye” dialect and overuse of jargon, and don’t have all your characters sound alike. Indicate who is speaking with action as well as “he said, she said,” and never assign attributes to how a person says a thing.  Avoid: “she said, sweetly, he said, angrily.” Skip the adverbs and show us instead by actions. Try to keep from using names—even in multi-person scenes.  We don’t usually talk like this: “Jen, do this,” or “Hattie, do that,” rather say: “Do it.” People cut off words, combine words, break off their thoughts; they interject words into others’ sentences and speech. The best way to catch errors or stick-figure dialogue is to read it out loud.

Stuck on Writing

In a lecture at Harvard, e.e. cumings once said: “If poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about selfstyled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you — nobody else — who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There’s the artist’s responsibility; and the most awful responsibility on earth.”
This all boils down to one thing. No one can write like you do whether it’s poetry or prose.  Even if you get stuck, or your mind strays, or you feel there isn’t another bloody thing you can bleed onto the page, or if you’re writing is interrupted by thinking about recipes and how you can make the Chilean sea bass for dinner, you are writing. Simply take whatever it is and turn it into a scene, or at the very least, exposition or dialogue. Who cares if it’s lousy?  You can always toss it.  but maybe, just maybe there will be a little spark–there will be a kernel of something you can really use.

Easy to say.  Try it. 

The Importance of Place

The Importance of a Sense of Place
I remember being told in a graduate fiction creative writing course by John Dufresne 
that I use “excruciatingly tangible details of place.” And this is still true in all of my
writing.  I want to put the reader there.  PLACE is super-important in fiction, memoir
and poetry.  It is where you ground your characters, so the reader has a clear picture of
where the action is taking place.  And because they are grounded when these character
use dialogue they are not just “talking heads” suspended in space.
Place to some extent is synonymous with setting and if it is strong enough can
almost portray a character in the work. For instance Jack London’s wilderness
(place) is so convincing that it becomes the actual antagonist in his short story,
“To Light A fire,” in which the main character dies because he’s out in the wilds
and doesn’t know how to properly light a fire.  London gives us the setting of
the outdoors in severe, frigid, wintry weather, and plenty of snow with night
descending while his character is trying to light a fire from a single match to
keep from freezing to death. 
Place can be a kitchen, the woods, a church, the dining room table, etc.  Once
you chose the location here’s what happens—let’s say I chose the dining-room
table at Thanksgiving.  Mood and theme immediately enter our brains as well. 
Is it a happy time, sad? Perhaps because of a recent death in the family we have
the added perspective of grief looming.  Crepe is hanging from the mirror over
the sideboard.  Is the food on the table going to speak to the reader about what
kind of family this is, what kind of kinky hang-ups they have?
In reading Jonathan Franzen’s quirky, wonderful novel, The Corrections, we get
a scene at the dinner table where Al and Enid and their two little boys Chip and
Gary are partaking of a really yucky meal.  Enid has served the small children a
mound of overcooked rutabaga, liver, and turnip greens, if recollection serves me
well.  So the older boy Gary eats up everything and pleases the mother, while the
younger son goes through all sorts of machinations not to eat, and at first the
father helps him by polishing off some of the food on Chip’s plate and then says
that if the Chip eats everything he can have dessert.  The mother states she has
pineapple, the father says that if he eats the dinner he should get something like
a cookie. The mother doesn’t budge, the older boy eats the pineapple, and the
Dad feels threatened, guilty what-have-you—lots going on in his thoughts as
well as the table.  I think I got this right—finally the father gives the order that
Chip will not have dessert and will not move from the table till he finishes eating.
This creates conflict and tension and many other opportunities for motivation,
cause and effect.
Another example of the significance that a scene can play using a strong sense
of place is from Amulya Malladi’s The Mango Season. Malladi makes use of place—
the heart of the house, in this case an Indian kitchen.  It is here where three
generations of women, plus a sister-in-law and a cousin are cutting mangoes in
order to pickle them, and where a lot of intimate family details are revealed with
a quite a bit of cattiness, which displays each characters’ personality, traits, and
gives the reader insights into family and its hierarchy.
These are only a few examples of place in fiction.  In poetry, what first comes
to mind first is the strong sense of place that echo the themes and geography
of New England.  Maxine Kumin uses features and topographies of her world
and in her poetry.  In her fourth collection, Up Country, the poems are inspired
by her life near the woods and on the farm, and the collection was awarded the
Pulitzer Prize. Another poet who uses terrain and countryside as background
for his poetry is Robert Frost.  Yet another is Mary Oliver.  But any good poet
worth his/her words knows instinctively that the backgrounds, backdrops and
backcloths of good poetry are necessary elements of craft to build the poem.  
When I write poetry, fiction or nonfiction, the people I use for characters are
portrayed in different scenes. Usually images of places come to mind first before
I start a first draft. In my poem “The Death of August” the reader knows
immediately where the scene is happening.  We get the landscape and panorama
and a picture is sharply painted. Here are the beginning lines:
            Last eventide before Corsican starfall
            we watched sunfire slip to its descent
            beyond the mountain that is Bonifacio.
In my short story, “The Other Side of the Gates,” the main character Oreste Spano
is a prison cook. So naturally we will see him at work cooking in that old kitchen. 
Here’s the opening of this story.
Oreste Spano struck a match against the Regina Coeli prison’s kitchen wall.
Lighting a cigarette, he thought of his children.  He’d risk anything to see them.
When the cigarette burned down and he felt the heat on his lips, he took three
long drags and flicked it upwards.  The cigarette ricocheted off the rusty iron
window frame. It glanced off his shoulder, bouncing onto the floor.  Spano
crushed it.
The use of solid, concrete objects and characters in a particular surrounding
or place can only infuse the writing with force that spells control and the sense
that this writer knows where he’s leading me, the reader.
Excerpt from my short story “The Thief” published in the collection: 
The Other Side of the Gates (10/2014)
Thieving always came easy to me, and I enjoyed it.  I practiced, raising
my skill to an art form, but never realized there was something more
important I needed in my life until I walked onto the promenade deck
of the Oceana.  It was a revelation that shook every fiber of my muscles,
but I didn’t learn its importance until that day in May, 1988 when I
reached the marketplace in Cairo, and stepped into the El Calili souk. 
I stopped by the railing as the ship hit some nasty weather. 
The boat rocked and pitched and my footing was unsure.  I had
noticed a knockout bookish type with a beard and horn-rimmed
glasses at the fire drill earlier.  He seemed a little stuffy, and
reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t place whom.  The man
was six feet of delicious.  I’m a tiny girl, bottle blonde and have
been described as a pixie, a word I hate. 
From the corner of my eye, I watched him stroll around, and
then it happened.  He casually bumped into an elderly gentle-
man and lifted the man’s wallet.  Now, for sure, I was
determined to make his acquaintance. 
I pretended not to have seen him, turned abruptly, and crashed
him.  Fortuitous?  Hell, no.  Calculated! 
“I beg your pardon,” he said and introduced himself. “I am
Count James Ausberry-Bickerford Contraire.” 
In my heart I knew he wasn’t a Brit, and no way a count, but
my lineage couldn’t even lay claim to being a Jewish-American
Princess from New York’s lower eastside.
 “Pleased to meet you.” I offered my hand.  “Marchesa Titi
Patagonia,” I said, dreaming up a title and hoping we would
hit it off.  Our meeting electrified the air like the ensuing storm. 
He kissed my hand, and with him still holding it, my other hand
was on his money clip.  Destiny? I left nothing to fate’s whimsies.  
I laughed at his formality.
            “My dear,”
                                                                        “You have a wonderful laugh.”  He extended his palm for his
money clip,                                                      money clip and moved his fingers as if to say, Give it back.
“Caught!”  Not just me, but him too.  I wanted him to think he
was dealing with a rank beginner.  
             “It doesn’t appear that you’re in need of money.”  He sounded
aloof, but no way off-putting.  He gave me a gander, approved.
I was about to hand him back his money clip when I declared,
“Sorry, I never restitute stolen goods—contrary to my principles. 
I’ll treat for coffee.  This type of stealing isn’t my specialty, but I
was dying to try it after observing you at work with that man over
there.”  I pointed to the elderly gentleman, struggling to open the
heavy door that led to the game room. 
The Count hooked my arm, and his touch registered TILT on my
mental pinball machine so much so that I placed my hand on my
racing heart.  
            “Are you unwell?” he asked.
I couldn’t be better, but went mute, thinking maybe romance
was also in store for me, not just a possible business partnership. 
He escorted me towards the old man. “You saw me relieve the
gentleman of his purse?  I had mistakenly assumed that my
performance had gone unobserved.  An oversight.”   He bent down
with the man’s wallet in his hand, straightened and said, “Sir, I
believe you dropped this.” He then opened the heavy steamer door
for all three of us.
This essay first appeared on 11/2013
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