Monday, January 7, 2013

The Terroir of a Novel

by Rayme Waters

Terroir (French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ] from terre, "land") is the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestow upon a particular product. It can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the product.

My debut novel, The Angels’ Share, takes place entirely in Northern California. From the craggy, wild coast of Marin, to the grand old money homes of Hillsborough to the wine country of Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, the settings of The Angels’ Share have inseparable influence over the story.

This puts me in great company. So many timeless stories cannot be separated from place. New Orleans is a character in Confederacy of Dunces, ditto the Mississippi River in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. James Joyce without Dublin would lose something in translation. As an author, I examine my writing to make sure all of the settings contribute to the richness of the story. If a setting isn’t absolutely vital to moving the novel along—building the character or creating resonance—I cut it. For example, here are the three main settings of The Angels’ Share and how I think they influence my debut novel.

San Francisco & Hillsborough
Small, but meaningful sections of the novel take place in a grand hotel atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill and at a formal, lonely Hillsborough mansion. The grandeur of Nob Hill gives us a sense of our heroine’s past, no matter how gritty her present may be. That she spends time in Hillsborough, a repository for much of San Francisco’s old money families helps color in the lines of her family and therefore her character. These settings represent the backstory of the novel: a grand age and a family in decay. The hotel, refurbished and reopened at the end of the novel is a metaphor for my main character—a phoenix reborn to live a better life: the ultimate California girl.

Western Marin & Sonoma Counties
The Angels’ Share started its life as a few chapters I wrote while staying at a charming, vintage Inverness farmhouse. Inverness and Bolinas are West Marin coastal towns: small, rustic with a fierce independent spirit. Early settlers there were cut off from the comforts of San Francisco and had to thrive in isolated circumstances. This quirky influence that has survived to modern day West Marin is palpable in The Angels’ Share. The gritty and rugged beauty of this Land’s End is the backdrop of novel’s opening scenes and sets the stage for the poignant and rocky struggle the main character will face until the resolution of the novel.

Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County Wine Country
I borrowed details from many different Dry Creek Valley wineries when I dreamed up Trove Vineyards and the fictional wine caves where important scenes in the book take place. The process of winemaking and the history of this immigrant-settled region help provide plot and a series of complex metaphors that create depth to the novel.

At the turn of the 20th century, Dry Creek Valley was one of California's most prominent producers of Zinfandel, America’s grape. Prohibition created ghost wineries and decimated the vintners in this area for several decades. Much like the heroine of my novel, the fictional winery in The Angels’ Share had to be entirely rehabilitated. Brought back to life, both the winery and the girl prosper.

The Angels’ Share is the story of California, the story of the old money gone wrong, and the indefatigability of the wild west spirit that still can be found in pockets of the Golden State. It’s the story of healing and recovery, the story of the wine county, the story of a girl, a little bit of a mystery, a whole lot of love story and the ability of California’s land and people to reinvent themselves. Novels must be rich and resonate to be successful. As an author terroir is one of your tools to achieve these goals—make sure you use it.

Born in San Francisco, Rayme Waters grew up in Northern California and the city of Linköping, Sweden. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Dzanc Best of the Web Award. Most recently, her work has appeared in The Summerset Review, The Rumpus and The Meadowland Review. The Angels’ Share is Rayme’s debut novel.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Organizing a Novel

Moving from line editing a complete novel to drafting a new one feels weird. Very weird. But not at first.

At first, drafting new material is what it is. I'd sit down and have an idea for a scene and just start typing away. During the course of writing, a new idea, wonderful turns of phrases, and lyrical language would come seemingly out of nowhere. (It's not nowhere, but the steady practice of writing on a regular basis that hones the work. But that's a subject for another time.) I was able to do this unimpeded for about 20,000 words into this new novel. And then the thing got unwieldy.

The more I wrote, the more I sensed that organization was needed. I had a think for several days about the structure, decided I wanted to have two main character POVs with both present and past tense narratives and some other material providing information for my reader. That got me through the next 10,000 words. But at 30,000 words drafted, I knew I couldn't put it off any more- I'd have to actually have some organizing scheme.

In the past, I've tried two different ways- outlining and note cards. Outlining works well for straight forward linear single POV narratives. At least, it did for me. But once two time frames are added or more than one POV, things can get confusing. I'm also not a linear thinker. My mind doesn't work that way; I'm a whole picture kind of person. It's one main reason I'm a novelist at heart. Most, if not all, of a novel comes to me in a short amount of time. I'm not one to have an initial idea and write my way through it to the end. Three-quarters to a whole novel come to me while I'm drafting the first quarter of a novel and then I have to write the various pieces together until they fit right. It's one reason I rely on note cards. I can write scenes in my non-linear thinking way and then rearrange them until I build appropriate plot tension. Perhaps not the most efficient way to work, but it's how my mind and narrative inclination operates.

For my current work-in-progress novel, I decided to go back to the note cards. This time, however, I was going to be ultra organized about it. With two main POVs, two time frames, and that third narrative factor, I need more information at a single glance than I ever needed before. So I devised a template:

As you can see, the upper right is the point-of-view. Here I simply put in the first name initial of one of my two main characters.

On the opposite side the tense- past or present.

In the middle, I leave myself room to write the gist of the scene at hand.

Down on the bottom, I have a place for the date. Mind you, this is mainly for my benefit. I don't intend to label each and every scene with a date for my readers. As long as I know the date, the month, the season, etc. and I make sure that I write in narrative time markers/transitions, my reader will get a sense of the novel's time without having to be banged over the head with an actual date or time. They don't need to know Scene A occurs on August 4th at 11:52 PM in that way.

"Location" on the bottom right is also mainly for my benefit. One of my main characters takes a long journey on foot and I need to know how far he will walk on any given day. As I added this to my template card, I thought of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Jude always seemed to be walking and I wonder if Hardy, like me, took out maps to visualize and mark his character's treks.

The bottom center contains other relevant information to help me keep my novel straight. Again, the distance thing is related to how far one of my main characters has ventured from his starting point.

As I continue to add scenes to this narrative and my word count rises by thousands of words, I know I might add other information to my cards. But not too much, the only spaces left on the cards are the right and left centers, so whatever organizing factors I might need as I continue drafting will have to stay at one or two markers.

With the narrative unfolding with each word I type, I know I'll eventually take out my note cards and fiddle with the order. I may simply stack them and go through them over and over to see if it feels right. Once I think I've got the sense of it, I'll lay them out first to last and see if my gut has any objections.

Novel writing's a messy business, but with some organizing tools such as note cards, it eventually cleans up and comes together.

Do you use an organizing scheme with your novel? A binder, an outline, note cards, a flow chart? Have you tried some and find they didn't fit? What tried and true methods have worked for you?

Photo by Curt Richter
Sabra Wineteer grew up in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. She has since lived in England, New Zealand, Germany, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and currently lives in rural Pennsylvania with her husband and their three tweens. Her work has appeared in TWINS Magazine, storySouth, The Rumpus, 7X20, and the anthology 140 And Counting. She has workshopped her fiction with Antonya Nelson, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Margaret Atwood. She is the 2012 Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient and founder of Talking Shop, an upcoming online literary community. She's shopping a social realism novel and drafting her next- a speculative dystopian literary novel.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Confusing Fiction with Autobiography

by Joanne Merriam

What does it mean to “write what you know”? Based on some of the submissions I receive, I fear many writers are taking this common piece of writing advice too literally.

Audrey Niffenegger has never been a time traveler or a ghost. Robin McKinley has never met a vampire or a dragon. Margaret Atwood has not lived through the rise of a theocratic dictatorship or the end of human civilization. Jonathan Lethem is not an astronaut, or as far as I know the boyfriend of one. Shakespeare was never the king of any country, and his father was probably not killed by his step-father. Philip Roth did not grow up in Nazi America.

And so on and so on, and yet, they all wrote what they knew.

It’s helpful to draw upon your own experiences when you’re writing, but there's autobiography and there's autobiography. I work plenty of my own experience into my stories, but I don't get confused between myself and my characters or insist that they act the way I did or that events happen the way they happened to me, or even that the experiences I’m drawing on have any obvious relationship to the ones I’m writing about. For example, take my Alzheimer's/vampire story completely aside from the futuristic vampire backdrop which obviously isn't autobiographical, I'm also not a caregiver for somebody with Alzheimer's, nor a short order cook, and never have been. But I couldn't have written as convincingly from the point of view of a caregiver without the experiences I've had with my maternal grandparents, as well as family conversations about their deterioration and care requirements, and of course a great deal of research.

Research is what allows you to write factually about things you haven’t experienced directly, so you can put your character in 16th century China or on the moon and avoid anachronisms or scientific inaccuracy, so your readers are not pulled out of the story by knowing more than you do about its backdrop. Writing what you know, on the other hand, allows you to give the story emotional accuracy. For example, while my facial transplantation story drew information from my day job as the administrative assistant to several head and neck surgeons, as well as a lot of research on PubMed, to make it emotionally convincing I needed to draw on my own life experiences of times I have felt socially awkward and alienated.

Think about the emotional core of your characters’ experiences, and relate them to times in your own life when you have experienced something sufficiently emotionally similar that you can relate to their joy, their pain, their fear, their whathaveyou.

If you’re having trouble with a scene or character, break down what your character experiences into its most basic emotional components, then think of a time in your own life when you have felt those emotions (even if the incident that brought them on has no relationship to what your character is going through). Say your character has just found out their husband is cheating on them; think of a time when you’ve been betrayed by somebody you trusted. Say your character is an assassin sent to kill an old flame; think of a time in your life when your duty has conflicted with your desires. Say your character is facing seemingly insurmountable odds in a battle for the future of the human race; take a time when you’ve faced something difficult and expand on those feelings.

Writing what you know provides the basis for fiction that feels true to the reader. It means mining your past (especially the weird and painful parts) and, to torture this metaphor a little, smelting your experiences into stories that shine with authenticity.

Joanne Merriam is a Nova Scotian living in Nashville. She is the author of the poetry collection The Glaze from Breaking, several short stories, and several unpublished novels, and is the editor Upper Rubber Boot Books.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Patience, Grasshopper

My story collection, “Margins of Tolerance” came out in May, and for pretty much the entire year preceding its release I was consumed with the seemingly endless list of things one has to do when one has a book coming out with a small, independent press—revising the stories, begging for blurbs, obsessing over the book cover and lay out, securing the perfect author photo, creating a website, joining Twitter, etc—not to mention the endless amount of publicity one has to generate, a full time job in and of itself. Translation: pretty much no new writing done, at all.

By June, after several readings and parties, things had settled down a bit and I was excited to get back to writing. Specifically, novel writing. I had two completely different novels that I’d started the year before I found out about the book deal, and was lucky enough to have two residencies ahead of me to work on them. Two seemed like a safer bet—I wasn’t sure which one would captivate me, but surely if one didn’t speak to me the other would. I saw myself finishing fifty, maybe even a hundred pages over the summer and being well on my way towards a first draft.

What I didn’t plan on was how hard it would be to transition from story-writing mode back to novel writing mode.  Novels are entirely different beasts, and they require a great deal more patience, a willingness to sit and stew in your thoughts, to think about your characters lives and how to gradually unfold these lives across the span of a book.

I’m not sure who made this analogy about the difference between short stories and novels, but it goes something like this. Imagine as a writer you’re a real estate broker taking people on a tour. Novelists take people on a tour of the entire house: Here is the bedroom. Here is the living room. Here is the kitchen, isn’t it lovely? They take their time, and let people get a full appreciation of every nook and cranny. The short story writer, on the other hand, takes readers to a single room and asks them to linger there. Let’s really get to know this room, he says. The doors to the other rooms are open, and you can catch a glimpse, but we’re not going to go inside of them. Let’s stay here and let this room tell us all we need to know about the house.

It’s hard, when you get into the habit of lingering in one room and offering only glimpses of others, to allow yourself to explore so many other rooms. I found myself getting impatient and frustrated with the pacing of the pages I was writing. Nothing exciting is happening, I’d tell myself. This is all so slow and boring. I was seeking immediate gratification, something that’s a whole lot easier to achieve in a short story, where the conflict must be immediate and visceral and there is little time for build-up.

Several of my novelist friends have told me that at the beginning stages, a novelist has to get used to writing pages and pages of crap. That you have to “write your way through” a lot of material that will not end up in the book, because this process is the only way you get to really know your characters and story well enough to understand what the novel is about. But after a couple of years of writing short stories, my brain was hard-wired against writing twenty five pages of “useless” material. Twenty five pages! That’s longer than my average story. Even though I knew that the material wasn’t exactly useless, that it was exactly what I needed to do to make headway, I was still resisting and feeling dejected and paranoid.

After days of what I thought were false starts, I gave up briefly and returned to story writing. And for a while I felt better, more in control. Yet this is precisely what the dilemma boils down to: for a long while, especially at the beginning, you are NOT in control as a novelist. You have to be okay with that, with plunging into the unknown and failing.

So have I learned my lesson? I’m not sure. I’ve put aside those two other novels for now, but something inspired me at my last residency and it looks like I’ve started another. The interesting this is, this potential novel started out as a short story. As I began outlining it, though, I realized it was going to be a very long story. Maybe even a novella. The longer I thought about it, I realized it could almost certainly be long enough for a novel. Here, then, was my “solution” to this problem, one that may just work for other short story writers turned novelists as well: You may just have to trick your brain into thinking you’re just writing a story. A 250 page story, but still a story. And maybe once you do, all those doubts about whether you can write a novel will start to diminish.

Eric Sasson is an MFA graduate of NYU and has taught fiction writing at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop in Brooklyn. His short story collection, “Margins of Tolerance,” was the 2011 Tartt Award runner-up and was published by Livingston Press in May. This summer he was named a Tennessee Williams Scholar to the Sewanee Writers Conference, and was granted residency fellowships to Ragdale and The Hambidge Center. His story “Floating” was named a finalist for the Robert Olen Butler prize. Other credits include pieces forthcoming in Explosion Proof as well as recently published in The Wall Street Journal Online, BLOOM,  Nashville ReviewConnotation Press,The Puritan, Liquid Imagination, The Ledge, MARY magazine and THE2NDHAND, among others.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cheating on NaNoWriMo, Again

by Sabra Wineteer

I am going to cheat on NaNoWriMo. Again. I've done it before. Two years ago when I needed to take an editing break from a work-in-progress novel and switch gears like the best of us.

Last time, I got a fair way into a novel that has yet come to nothing. There is sometimes a point in a writer's development in which ambition outweighs ability. This was the case with this "cheater" novel. I kept bringing in elements, not small little things that are quirky, interesting, and help to flesh out a character, but premise bending sorts of elements. Not to say that the novel's a mess, but it's got a lot of plates spinning, has a wonderful riff about London and the English language sort of thing. Bill Clegg would love it. But I didn't or probably still don't have the ability to pull together so many themes. I also fell out of love with it and have moved on.

This time, I'm cheating the same way I did last time. I'm not starting from scratch. Words are drafted. Thousands of words. Scenes are noted. I've invested in copious amounts of books to learn more about the world my characters will inhabit. According to the NaNoWriMo guidelines, this is a sort of cheating. Worse, I'm starting early. This week I have finished final edits (at least before an agent and/or editor gets hold of it) on a social realism novel. My speculative dystopian novel, now moves up in the world, becomes my work-in-progress novel. And for weeks this novel has been in the back of my mind, scenes coming to me while I walk the dog or take a bath or at night when I dream. I'm going to love on it now. This is early for NaNoWriMo. This is cheating on NaNoWriMo. Worst, I've already "workshopped" this novel. At least the first part of the first chapter. I've already edited it instead of doing a full on drafting blitz. NaNoWriMo is a drafting orgy.

 And I don't care that I'm cheating on NaNoWriMo. This novel has been crying out for attention for far too long for me to ignore it for another two weeks. So I won't. Call me cheater, cheater pumpkin eater. Or become my writing buddy and we'll cheer each other on, cheating or not. And let me know if you've ever done NaNoWriMo, especially if you've cheated on it.

*NOTE about my user name- dorcasweed- on NaNoWriMo. Dorcas Weed is such a bad name it's not just good, it's great. Dorcas Weed is also my oldest American female ancestor. At least that I've discovered. She was born in 1640 in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Wethersfield was a new Puritan colony founded by her parents, parents-in-law, and others.

Photo by Curt Richter
Sabra Wineteer grew up in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. She has since lived in England, New Zealand, Germany, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and currently lives in rural Pennsylvania with her husband and their three tweens. Her work has appeared in TWINS Magazine, storySouth, The Rumpus, 7X20, and the anthology 140 And Counting. She has workshopped her fiction with Antonya Nelson, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Margaret Atwood. She is the 2012 Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient and founder of Talking Shop, an upcoming online literary community. She's shopping a social realism novel and drafting her next- a speculative dystopian literary novel.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Switching Gears- Literary Ones

Breaking down the novel into bite sized morsels, or how to pretend you aren't writing a novel.

The idea of the short story is super appealing to most writers. Probably because it has the word short in it. Short sounds like this writing project could have a completion date in the current week, instead of the current decade. This appeals to the novelist.

T. C. Boyle said, "A short story is like a toothache and you must drill it and fill it. A novel is more like bridgework."

I heard Diana Gabaldon discuss her writing process once. She never outlines and doesn't write chapters in order, but random chapters that she later stitches together. She said that on her computer she'll have multiple files open at the same time and as she gets stuck in one project, she hops over to the other one and works there until she gets unstuck, then jumps back to the original piece. This may explain why the woman writes about time travel and men in kilts.

Yet, I found myself doing the same thing with my WIPs. I always have a short story going, and I use flash fiction and poetry to warm up my brain in the morning before I even open the novel file. I also walk around and read out loud, but that is neither here nor there.

When a paragraph in the trucker mystery gets sticky- in that I can't get rid of it and I can't fix it, I pull part of the paragraph out, stick in a blank doc and riff on it. This generally allows me to either find the way out or stab it in the left eye and leave it for dead.

Once, a single shoddy line pulled from a WIP became an entire sestina. (Super duper extra points if you knew what a sestina was without Googling it.)

The short story or flash fiction completion also serves another purpose. You can submit your work into the world, for glory and prestige or at the very least, let your agent know you're working.

There are also the famous novels told in stories sort of indie books. Perhaps you're writing one of those. I wrote an entire novel where every chapter had a really long title. I used that as a sort of permission to compose a short piece every ten pages. The problem came when I had to piece it all together, Then, I had the stitching problems of Gabaldon, without her mathematical mind.

I've heard about writers who compose stories on Twitter, even been invited to add a few of my own to the feed. This might seem like a good idea, and could work for you, but for me, I'd be clicking the ads and shopping for vintage snip toe Old Gringo cowgirl boots before I could post The End.

Whatever your process while noveling, you're probably storying— you just don't know it—the notes you're making as you shower, the long-winded gripes on Facebook, the silly observations you make on your phone in the checkout line at the grocer, the edits in the margin of your manuscript. They are all telling a story.

Again, TC Boyle says it perfectly, "The joy of the story is that you can respond to the moment and events of the moment. The drawback is that once you've completed a story, you must write another even though you find yourself bereft of talent or ideas. The joy of the novel is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. The horror of the novel, however, is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow."

No stranger to stalkers, Linda Sands encourages you to connect via Facebook,  or Twitter. Browse her website or plan a writing escape with Linda and pals at Write By The Water: Retreats designed to let your writing flow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Queen of Procrastination

It’s amazing I even was able to write this blog post since I am the Queen of Procrastination.  No one anointed me with this title; it is one I have given myself.  We as writers are known for being procrastinators, even joking amongst ourselves about how the kitchen is spotless, the laundry is done and folded, and all the meals have been cooked for the next fourteen days but the writing? The novel?  How is the novel going?  Eh, didn’t have enough time to work on it today.  I’ll definitely get to it tomorrow.
So what is the cure for this writerly malady?  Wish I could tell you, still searching for the answer myself.  I know the cause of it, of course, but simply knowing the origins doesn’t mean you can stop the behavior.  It’s sort of like acknowledging that you eat too many doughnuts when you’re distraught, but more importantly how do you prevent yourself from such gorging?  The irony is that you will feel so much better if you actually park yourself in a chair and write.  So why is there still all the procrastination in actually sitting down in the chair?  Why avoid something that could make you feel better?  The answer is obvious; it doesn’t always make us feel better.  Six shitty paragraphs aren’t better than zero shitty paragraphs.  Or are they? Yet the only thing to do, the only salve for the festering wound, is to write, and to keep writing.  Even though you may produce five pages of unusable work, the mere act of doing it guarantees that at some point your writing will improve.  That’s not to say you will reach a level of expertise (whatever that means) eventually, it just means that your writing will improve.  No one bakes a perfect apple pie the first go round.  But keep doing it, and you will end up with an edible and presentable pie, golden crust and all.  
Scheduling and organizing work and my life has never been my strong suit.  Efficiency always seemed like something reprehensible, the hallmark of an overbearing mother or a communist dictatorship.  I have always found it the domain of the office worker drone.  Yet every day tools are necessary in shooing away the evil procrastinating monster.  Other things such as exercising are scheduled, why not writing?  Don’t really productive people lead highly scheduled lives?  Don’t I want to be a highly productive person?  Yes, of course, but not at the expense of quality.  I am old enough to realize it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
How do you overcome procrastination? Is there something to be done?

Linda Tzoref was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She received her BA in philosophy from San Francisco State University and an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Currently, she is based in Atlanta, Georgia and is working on her first novel.