Ross Klavan’s (a) “Schmuck”

August 12, 2014 by

Ross Klavan, the charismatic voice of the creative writing program and one of our beloved screenwriting faculty members, was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and process for his novel, Schmuck with The Write Life blog.schmuck

Schmuck takes place in 1960’s New York, where Jerry Elkin and Ted Fox rule the radio airwaves. Between Elkin’s zany dialects and impressions and Fox’s golden, straight-man voice, they’ve got it down pat. But if listeners could hear between the lines, they’d notice an undertone of tension between the hit team. Jerry resents Ted for his dismissive attitude towards TV offers, and his ability to sweet-talk the ladies. Even his own son gets the girl, Sari Rosenbloom, an eighteen year old bombshell that Jerry can’t get off his mind.

Between seedy, well-connected mobsters, a head-swiveling femme fatale, and a son that just doesn’t get it, Jerry navigates this post-war, Jewish-infused, zany, larger-than-life landscape.

Schmuck was published by Greenpoint Press and is available through their website, which can be found by clicking here: http://www.greenpointpress.org/gb_book_schmuck.html

You can also purchase the book on Amazon and through Barnes & Noble.

Schmuck is loosely based on your father’s radio show. Why write something so close to home?

The most famous joke about show business is the one about the guy in the circus who sweeps up behind the elephant. You know which one I’m talking about. He walks behind the elephant with a broom, clearing all the elephant crap and cursing to himself about how much he hates his job. And when somebody says, “If you hate it so much why don’t you quit?” He says, “What?! And leave show business?!” I’ve lived all of my life connected to show business and I’m sort of the guy sweeping up behind the elephant…and also the guy writing about the guy who’s sweeping up. All writing and performing is obviously based in your self since you’ve got no other place to begin. I’m lucky that my own personal lunacy–mishegas as the holy men say–leans sharply toward a combo of the masochistic and exhibitionistic. That means that I can exploit my own experience and then beautifully alter, embellish, form, shape, structure and compose until it both seems real and strangely heightened, both at the same time. It’s either that, or I go back into analysis.

Does your artistic work take from your real life often, and is it hard to balance between what’s real and fictional?

My work almost always takes off from real life, at least to start out. As for the line between real and fictional—I don’t know, it’s not so solid for any of us, I think. I like to jump back and forth across that line or blend both sides or step aside and see what gets called up from the dregs. That’s an incredible pleasure. Dream experience—that’s real experience, too, just a different kind. And like I said before, I’ve spent all my life around show business and I like writing about show business—not major movie stars and big money deals, for some reason that’s a snooze for me. I like the other levels. Clowns and jokers and radio guys who live in a world of TV. Where people are desperate and striving like their life depended on it and not usually succeeding. The screenwriter who can’t sell anything and who ends up shot dead by his mistress and floating in her pool, to me that’s a better story than the big names who end up on the cover of “Vanity Fair.” It’s plays more in my imagination. For a while, when I was younger, I supported myself as a reporter doing grunt journalism and you were supposed to be accurate above almost anything else. Eventually, my mind started to develop hemorrhoids. Even if you’re not going to be in the arts, I highly recommend living by the imagination as long as you’re not walking off a cliff.

“Schmuck” has been said to blend zany humor with a deadly somber undertone. Was it hard to write in such opposition?

It’s much more difficult to live with that opposition, which many of us do. It’s sort of like, one minute it’s all “ha-ha-ha” and you recognize the Absurd…then, when you see how absurd it all is, you start to feel it’s all so sad there’s not enough tears in the world to cry, and then you start laughing again because you hear yourself thinking that and it all seems so ridiculous. I tried to give Jerry Elkin that quality—underneath it all, he knows that we’re all sharing a misshapen rock spinning around in space and nobody really knows what the hell is going on.

Jerry Elkin is loosely based on your father. Has your father read the book, and if so, what does he think of Jerry?

My father died ten years ago so he hasn’t read the book—at least, I don’t think he has. I like to imagine that if he’s out there in that Great Radio Station in the sky, that maybe he got a few laughs out of it. He had a pretty wicked sense of humor that stayed with him until the end.

Do you have a specific process that you use when you write, and does “Schmuck” differ from your usual process because of it’s roots in your own life?

A theater director once told me that he went into rehearsal with a specific goal in mind for each particular session and then, when he got there, it was time to go home even if rehearsal only took five minutes. For some reason, that’s how “Schmuck” was written. Every time I sat down to work, I had a specific problem to solve—not a number of pages—but a chapter or a scene or a sequence of scenes to finish. Just what felt right. When that was done, I headed for the couch, lay down and put the “New Yorker” over my face. I also kept a notebook of ideas and lines and things to look at or change when I hit the next draft. Every project has something of its own character. I usually start off with a process of free association, just riffing and coming up with scenes and ideas that light up, even if they seem to be totally unrelated. Then, if I haven’t completely cracked up, I start finding some kind of narrative line that connects what scenes I’m going to use.

What the most important thing that you want to convey to an audience when you write, and how do you try accomplish that?

That’s an incredibly tough question to answer so I’ll hide from it as best I can. One way of looking at it—only the book itself can answer that question, otherwise there wouldn’t be a reason to write it. Also, you don’t want to get between the reader and his or her experience of the book–a writer has no business being there, you should be off working on something else or taking a nap. Then, overall, I’m going for something that’s tremendously alive and vital, or I hope it is, anyway—I don’t have any grand theories that make sense and I’m not smart enough to have any mind-bending ideas. But I hope the reader comes away at least with a feeling of life and enjoyment—like they’ve been hit in the head with some kind of weird tuning fork. And in a book, I think, you do that by rhythm, tempo, structure and a certain kind of language.

Sari Rosenbloom has been compared to Daisy Buchanan. Was this an intentional inspiration, and how else does “Gatsby” fit into “Schmuck’s” world?

Oh, yeah, there’s a definite “Gatsby” thread running through the story. Partly, that’s because I wanted to convince my audience that I’d actually read at least one great book. Also, growing up, I spent all too much time not too far from the real Gatsby House—or what was supposedly the house Fitzgerald used–and I got a feel for the parvenu’s outlook. Then, at one point, I started to think of “Schmuck” as a sort of “Gatsby” that’s told through the eyes of Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster character, the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series. Which, by the way, is not a bad trick if you can get away with it.

You’ve written scripts for Miramax, Paramount, and TNT. How does your script writing differ from your novel writing?

At the gross level—which may be our favorite—a script has more people involved and you get a lot more money. But aside from the practical–there’s a common level in all narrative writing, I think, from commercials to novels to feature films. You’re dealing with characters and stories and people and you’re trying not to bore anyone. I wrote the film “Tigerland” which starred Colin Farrell but I did the script off the first draft of a novel I’d written. I’d worked out the story already, so it was much easier than starting from zero. For prose fiction–a novel can rest more in its language, going directly into the reader’s psyche, a mind dart. A screenplay has to do that also but it has to unfold in the reader’s imagination as a film, so that even a character’s consciousness is there to be literally seen, heard and understood in a medium that’s going to be watched and that takes place in time, somewhat outside of the viewer’s control. At some point, even if it becomes second nature, you have to care about that when you write a screenplay. I love film—I’d have to say that film and a kind of molecular understanding of what it is to write a screenplay have only been of the greatest help in other kinds of writing, especially prose fiction. It teaches you to move a story, not to be precious with yourself, to make everything count.

Your wife, Mary Jones, is a painter. Does her artistic vision bleed into your work, and vice versa?

Mary’s a terrific artist and I’ve probably learned much more from her than she’s learned from me. Her courage and seriousness and willingness to take chances, her connection to her own work and her respect for it, her ability to let it change…that this is part of everything she does and that she wears it lightly, I’ve gained from all this now for a long time. When we first knew each other many years ago, I remember once she lost a lease on her studio and was looking around for a new place. I asked her why she didn’t just rent a cheap apartment, what difference does it make where you paint? And she said, “Because during those times when you’re not selling anything or you’re stuck or you feel like everyone hates your work, it’s important to have a place to go that reminds you who you really are.” Maybe writers have to have a version of that, too…and since we don’t need a lot of brushes or canvases, it can just be in the mind.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Ah ha! The old advice question. Sometimes I hear writers say that there’s more bullshit out there about writing than there is about sex…but actually, I think, a lot of the writing advice is pretty good. It’s just…what do you do with it once you hear it? How do you make it your own? Can you actually sit down and use it? Then there’s this—I think what most of us want when we go after advice about writing is for somebody else to do the real work for us. I’m not talking about specific craft questions. But we live in a world that’s got a large sign across the sky that says, WARNING: DON’T BE ALONE IN YOUR IMAGINATION! And effort, pain or frustration? Forget about it, they get chosen last for the team. But that’s exactly what writers have to do and where they have to go, hour after hour. Real problems with writing are solved by writing. Eventually. Maybe painfully and with much frustration. OK, on some days, more easily. On some days, it’s like a tight muscle opening. So the best advice is that, ultimately, there’s no advice—you have to do your own work, day after day. Abandon all hope! Nobody can do it for you. And if you’re having one of those days when you think everything you’ve done sucks, you don’t deserve to live and you’re wasting your time at the pad or the keyboard…well, after you’ve screamed into the pillow, try not to have too much to drink and then, take a look at your stuff and try to see very, very specifically, exactly what it is that’s turning the blade in you. Try to see exactly what it is that you don’t like. Because that, exactly, can be fixed. With a generality, you’re screwed.


 

Ross Klavan’s work spbossklavanans film, television, radio, print and live performance. His original screenplay for the film Tigerland was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, he recently finished an adaption of John Bowers’s “The Colony,” and he has written scripts for Miramax, Paramount and TNT, among others. The “conversation about writing” he moderated with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer was televised and published as “Like Shaking Hands with God,” and his short stories have appeared in magazines and been produced by the BBC. An earlier novel, “Trax,” was published under a pseudonym. His play “How I Met My (Black) Wife (Again),” co-written with Ray Iannicelli, has been produced in New York City, and he has performed his work in numerous theaters and clubs. He has acted and done voice work in TV and radio commercials and has lent his voice to feature films including Casino, You Can Count On Me and Revolutionary Road and the new Amazon web series Alpha House, written by Gary Trudeau. He has worked as a newspaper and radio journalist in London and New York City. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter, Mary Jones.

Todd McClimans’ Time Traitor

August 4, 2014 by

In collaboration with Wilkes Magazine’s Summer Reads Contest, in which participants comment on the featured book of the week in order to win a free copy, I interviewed Todd McClimans, author of Time Traitor, whose book is currently participating in the contest.

Todd’s book, the first in the American Epochs series, is a middle grade, sci-fi/history novel about the adventures of children who travel to significant events in American history, such as the American Revolution, and where they meet historic American icons like Benedict Arnold.

The book’s Amazon reviews are very telling, with comments like, “McClimans does a masterful job of character development with his young heroes Ty and Kristi as well as the story’s supporting cast of friends and foes,” and “The author doesn’t shy away from the brutality of slavery or ground combat, and he does a fine job of showing that history, even the most painful aspects of it, is more complex than any textbook could capture.”

You can find out more about the book by going to Time Traitor’s website (http://www.timetraitor.com/), or it’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/toddmcclimans2013).

Could you tell me a little about your book?TT-frontcover-103013

Time Traitor is the first book in the American Epochs series, a Middle-Grade historical/sci-fi series that is meant to take kids to important eras, or epochs, in American history and hopefully trick them into learning some important history while enjoying a story. I decided to incorporate science fiction and time travel instead of writing traditional historical fiction because, for one thing, I would LOVE to time travel myself and writing stories about time travel is the next best thing. But, equally as important, I want my readers to experience the events in history through the eyes of contemporary characters to which they can relate.

 My main characters, Kristi (an African American girl from a rich family) and Ty (an orphaned boy from England) are real life kids with real life problems. Kristi is struggling with the divorce of her parents and lashes out in school as a way of getting attention. Ty is an introverted bookworm who deals with bullying and harassment and is unwanted by his step-father after the death of his mother.

The two discover that their eccentric history teacher, Dr. Xavier Arnold, is a direct descendant of General Benedict Arnold, a former patriot who sold out his friends and countrymen by switching to the British side during the Revolutionary War. Xavier Arnold, in an attempt to improve his tainted family name, invented a time machine to go back to the time of the war and assist Benedict in his plans for treachery and make him a hero again, but for the British this time. He drags Kristi and Ty back with him as pawns in his scheme and they have to traverse colonial America to stop Dr. Arnold and force him to return them to their own time.

How did the idea come to you?

I am currently an elementary school principal, but when I came up with the idea, I was a fifth grade teacher. I used novels about specific time periods in history to help the students gain a better understanding of the time periods and the cultures of the people in our social studies curriculum (Sign of the Beaver—frontier life and Native American relations, Rifles for Waite—western theater of the Civil War, etc.). But, beyond Johnny Tremain, I had trouble finding novels about the Revolutionary War for my students. So, I decided to write one of my own.

About how long did it take you to write it? What was your favorite/least favorite part of the process?

My first draft came to me quickly. It took me about six weeks to plan and outline the story. Once I had an outline, it only took me about two months to write my first draft. However, I am a compulsive reviser, so I spent the next eighteen months rewriting and revising before I started submitting. Revising is my favorite part of the whole writing process. In the classroom, I tried impressing upon my students that stories, or any other kind of writing for that matter, are never truly finished and can always be improved upon.

I love how you can simply change a few words or descriptions around to make a story funnier, scarier, happier—whatever-er.

My least favorite part is most definitely the submission process. Trying to boil your story, your baby, down to a few sentences in a query letter that probably won’t get past the cubicle of a college intern in a publishing office or agency is daunting and discouraging. I hate to use the cliché needle in a haystack, but that’s how it feels.

Have you started work on any of the other books in the American Epochs series? Can you tell me anything about those?

The second book, Time Underground, is currently with the editors at my publishers and is due to be released in November of this year. In Time Underground, Kristi finds out that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad and survived to sire her family. However, he had a younger brother who attempted to escape with him, but was caught and disappeared from history. Kristi and Ty go to 1858 to find Kristi’s uncle and help him get to the north and safety.

I’m about 25,000 words into the first draft of the third book in the series. My working title is Time to Heal—but I’m not in love with that title yet, so I expect it to change. The third installment is set during the Civil War where Ty works in the hospitals and experiences the horror of Civil War medicine before he’s dropped right on top of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate assault.

What was it like trying to collaborate factual, historical events to turn them into a fictional, fantasy narrative?

It was very important that my narrative be as historically accurate as possible. As I stated above, I wanted my readers to learn about the historical events while they are reading, so I do a great deal of research before writing and while I’m drafting. I believe the term for it is active history. It’s not a rote recitation of historical events, but a recounting of events through the eyes of characters who do not see the outcomes as predetermined. It’s a fine line to tread, but that makes it all the more fun to write…and hopefully to read.

How do you work with suspended disbelief, making something so fantastical become a believable scenario?

I use some author’s license and try to write in a way that seems believable. My stories are technically science fiction because of the time travel, but they are not traditional sci-fi. I don’t go into extended explanations into the science behind my time machine or the theoretical possibilities of time travel. I think it works because my stories are written from the points-of-view of young characters who don’t really care how they were transported through time, just that they were transported and what they are going to do about it. I count on my readers to use their imaginations while they are reading, giving them an active role in the story instead of a passive one.

When writing a young adult novel, do you have to give your language any special consideration? Is it difficult not to condescend to your intended audience? What do you think is the real difference between YA literature and Adult literature?

My series is meant for a Middle Grade audience (ages 9-14), a step younger than YA. That being said, storytelling is storytelling so I don’t see a whole lot of differences in the language for different intended audiences. Kids are more intuitive than we give them credit for. They know when language and descriptions are condescending and they’ll drop a book much faster than an adult at the first sign of condescension. No middle grade reader would be caught dead reading a “kiddie book”.

I see the major task for any writer, whether he/she is writing MG, YA, or Adult books is the ability to get his/her readers to relate to the characters and the real life issues they face. A story comes alive when the reader can see him/herself in the main characters. Take an adult detective novel, for example. The antagonists often deal with social issues such as alcohol abuse, broken marriages, or kids who won’t talk to them. Adult readers can relate to those issues. YA readers deal with teen angst (do we still call it that???) in their real lives. Many antagonists in YA books deal with questions and decisions about overbearing parents, individuality and independence, an even sex, alcohol, and drug use because those problems/questions are real to YA readers. MG readers worry about their parents’ divorce, bullying, and mean teachers. I see these issues as more innocent, yet no less real to the characters and the readers.

Have your children read Time Traitor? What do they think?

My oldest son is eight and going into the third grade. He has the reading ability to comprehend Time Traitor, but he doesn’t have the background knowledge about the Revolutionary War to truly understand the importance of the events in the book. I’ll wait until he reaches that point in school to let him read it.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

I’ll be cheesy and steal Nike’s motto. Just Do It. Everybody knows someone who wants to write a book someday. And all of those people have real, legitimate reasons for putting it off (jobs, family, time, etc.) But to be a writer, you have to actually sit down and write it. Then rewrite it and rewrite it. You have to understand that you’re going to write a lot of garbage along the way as you learn. But the more you read and the more you write, the better your writing will develop. I’m not aware of any savants who sat down and wrote the Great American Novel on their first shot. You get out what you put in.


IMG_5076Todd McClimans is an elementary school principal and former fifth grade teacher.  He holds bachelors degrees in Creative Writing and Elementary Education and master’s degrees in Creative writing and Educational Leadership. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and three young children.  A self-styled history buff and fantasy nerd, Todd first became interested in writing about American history when teaching his fifth graders the riveting stories of patriots and their struggle for independence during the Revolutionary War.  He aims to bring history to life for young readers by writing stories with a careful mixture of historical fact and fantastical story-telling with characters to which children can relate.

What are you Writing for?

July 21, 2014 by

Let me introduce you to Gaia. Gaia is a human clone or more aptly, a human garden. She is a twisted, mutilated version of woman with little conventional beauty to behold. Yet there’s a sense of strength in her structure and: the beat of her HEART, the bright BLOOD pumping through her veins and the light yellow aura that floats above her- are riveting. Gaia struggles, as so many main characters do, to find her place in the world.

scifiindiegathering

She is also the main character of my sci-fi script, GAIA, which took first place in The Indie Gathering’s sci-fi feature script contest, one of a couple dozen contests I entered over the past two months or so. The win is my first and a welcomed reprieve from the repeated thrashes of rejection from others.

Admittedly, the validity and usefulness of screenplay contests continues to be debated, especially for any contests other than the “Top 5.” Indeed, as I searched for contests, and weighed the benefits and costs of each, I struggled not to let the naysayers drag me down.

Site after site, person after person, nay after nay; these sounded much like this:

“contests that charge over $25 aren’t worth it”

“any other than the top 5 are a waste of time”

“contests are a waste of time… they won’t help you sell your screenplay”

“contests are good for the ego, but that’s all.”

Of course, some of these comments were by people who had not yet placed in any contest, but not all of them and some were directly from people working within the film industry. Regardless, the impact varied little.

With each nay, my enthusiasm waned, even after my win. That is, until I realized something so profound that when I told Confucius he said, “Do what?” Not really, actually he rolled his eyes and said, “Uh.. duh.” So what is this not-so profound realization?

In the screenwriting world (and in fact, most any artistic industries), a reverberating factor of success seems to be the ability to find like-minded people.

A win may or may not mean you write well, but it means that someone or several “someones” appreciated your writing. It doesn’t matter if they appreciated it because it was “good” writing, or because it was a “good” story or for some other reason. All that matters is that you made that connection. For that win, you “won” someone over, and each contest you enter increases your chance to connect.

Think of these contests as fishing. They take time, money and can be tiring. Sometimes you’ll get a nibble, sometimes a bite, but you won’t get anything if the fish in the lake don’t like your bait. Even the biggest worm won’t hook a fish if the fish in the lake prefer crickets. Thus, for me, these contests are my pole.

I use them to gauge the interest in my bait. What other route offers you so much direct access to such a large, diverse range of people. Whether the judges are members of the Hollywood elite or not, they are people you can connect with.

There are many reasons why cult followings are popular and movies that have them are ultimately successful. Not every success is based on the size of the catch. Sometimes it’s taste that counts.

And as I consider the value of screenwriting contests, I remind myself also that Indie films and the whole site of Kickstarter are all about funding based upon a connection. Not a network of who you know, but a connection of a shared vision and goal. And isn’t that why we write anyway; to connect with others?


Autumn pic

Autumn Whiltshire earned her Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She writes poetry, short stories and screenplays. Her thesis script, Gaia won first place in The Indie Gathering’s 2014 Sci-Fi Feature category.  You can follow Autumn at: http://autumnwhiltshire.wordpress.com/

L. Elizabeth Powers: Contesting Rejection

July 14, 2014 by

Recently I shared the news with my Wilkes Creative Writing “family” that my short screenplay The Importance of Sex Education was chosen as one of six finalists in the D.C. Shorts Film Festival Screenwriting Contest. I had just sat down to a late Chinese Buffet lunch with my mom when the festival organizer called me to inform me of the selection. I was so thrilled I couldn’t eat another bite. (I had to pay the full “all-you-can-eat” price anyway.)

When I was asked by The Write Life to speak of my experience of submitting to festivals, I hesitated because in order to share such an experience in its entirety, I must admit to all the rejections!

As a burgeoning writer/filmmaker, one is inevitably guaranteed more rejections than acceptances, and while this is well-known, the rejections still sting. But, the stings lessen with experience and a good acceptance letter can numb any number of past or future stings. I am lucky that with this script, I only received one rejection prior to placing in this contest. But, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t exactly the same script.

I had entered this script into another festival some months ago. While it received favorable remarks, it did not advance into the final rounds. When I received the rejection, I went back and reworked it. Though I had shared it with a few people the first round, this time I found new readers. I did some polishing (mostly cutting) and then I sent it off again to the D.C. Shorts competition and this time, it advanced.

Of course, the standard advice is to not send work off to start with until you think it’s “perfect. “ For me, that would mean never sending anything. I have to let go and send my work off in the belief that it is ready. But, if it comes back, that gives me the guilt-free excuse to reopen it and piddle some more, or on rare occasions confirm that it’s as good as I can get it. I rarely resubmit the same exact work after a rejection.

As for screenwriting contests, there is an on-going controversy as to whether or not they are worth the effort. After all, there are hundreds of contest winners every year that don’t get their scripts optioned or produced, and tons of terrible scripts that DO get produced. I tend to think that for me, as someone who is early in her career, it’s worth the effort for networking, and for resume building. Of course, the networking aspect only makes sense for someone who actually means to attend the festivals. Festivals that are film and screenwriting are of particular interest to me because it’s an opportunity to meet other industry types and not just screenwriters.

The D.C. Shorts competition was for shorts only. I like short film festivals as you often get to meet filmmakers early in their careers as well. Some would scoff at the effort and cost of submitting a short film, preferring to submit only feature length in the hopes of getting it sold or produced. But, short scripts also show off writing skills, and for me, the goal is as much to garner notice as a writer as it is to sell any particular script.

Of course, some competitions are more valuable than others and it’s worth it to investigate them before submitting. One thing to consider is the cost versus payoff. How well-known is the festival and how much prestige would participation garner? If accepted, do you get a free pass? And, if so, what kind of conference offerings are there? Is there prize money? (D.C. Shorts offers $2000 production fund to the winner and as a filmmaker, I would like to shoot the script.)

Many script competitions offer coverage (feedback) for a few extra dollars. I’ve not partaken of this option, personally, and probably would not elect to do so unless I knew absolutely who was providing that coverage, and that the person was a true industry professional and not, say, a film school intern. That’s not to say professional coverage services aren’t valuable: I’m just not sold on the value of anonymous festival coverage. There are a few competitions that offer free coverage, though, so of course that is welcome.

As for the festival at hand, the six D. C. Shorts screenplay finalists will be read publicly September 19 at the U.S. Navy Memorial Heritage Center in Washington D.C. The winner will be chosen by audience vote at the end of the event. My script, The Importance of Sex Education is a short comedy that follows 12-year old Adeline as she fumbles her way into puberty in 1975 with some embarrassingly errant assumptions about sex.


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L. Elizabeth Powers

L. Elizabeth Powers received her MFA from Wilkes University’s Creative Writing department in 2013. Before that, she worked for 12 years in feature film visual effects. She currently works as a freelance artist, and as a designer for Etruscan Press. Her short film, Killing Time, was a finalist in the Louisiana Film Prize 2012, and she has had work published in Poetry Quarterly, Red River Review, Every Day Poets, The Germ and Big Country Magazine. A story she penned while at Wilkes can be read in the current issue of Belle Reve Literary Journal. She has worked in Shreveport and New Orleans, LA for the past few years, though she is currently helping out on her family’s farm in Texas.

 

Contact Information:

http://www.lelizabethpowers.com

 

Trigger Warnings: Survival of the Fittest or Life Spoilers?

June 9, 2014 by

Let’s face it. The world has become 360 degrees of constant chaos. Trigger warnings, which some academic institutions place in front of works of art and literature warning students that they may relive a traumatic experience by studying the work, are just one more reflection of how society has erected barriers. These same barriers prevent people from observing – and perhaps understanding – life. A trigger warning (or TW) is intended to allow readers to prepare for what might be an upsetting subject; yet it reduces a work of art to nothing more than its plot points, thus taking the moment of impact out of the equation.

 The debate has left many academics fuming, according to New York Times writer Jennifer Medina (May 17, 2014). She suggests professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. “Trigger warnings,” Medina writes, “suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”

 Trigger warnings remove the substance from coffeehouse discussions and college seminars. When I was growing up, this was known as a conversation. Now, these same subject matters are considered dangerous. Really? How can we put a warning label on life itself?

 Let’s put life and reality in perspective. The blog post by Jay Caspian Kang on http://www.newyorker.com (May 22, 2014) relays how during a graduate-school lecture on Lolita, his professor stood up in front of a crowded classroom and said something he had never been able to shake: “When you read Lolita, keep in mind that what you’re reading about is the systematic rape of a young girl.” Kang benefited from hearing a warning about a piece of literature that represents life, culture and raises questions about social norms. Why the warning?

 I witnessed something just as disturbing as Kang’s experience. There was no trigger warning, nor was my professor cautioning me beforehand of the carnage I was about to witness. Long before Kang was in graduate school, I was driving on a crowded freeway in southern California and came upon the scene of a fatal vehicular accident. As my yellow Volkswagen bug crawled past the motionless truck, I saw an image that has remained imbedded in my mind for nearly four decades: the lifeless body of its driver suspended through the shattered plate glass window, with blood pouring from his puncture wounds. Haunted by this gruesome image, I wondered where the driver was from. Did he leave behind a wife and kids? How long after he was thrown through the windshield did it take for him to die? How much pain did he endure? Somewhat obsessed by the waste of a human life, I searched the newspaper in the days following the accident for a report or an obituary. Finding nothing, I wondered if this man’s life was meaningless, and his death had become nothing more than a traffic disruption.

 The body sprawled through the truck’s window is an image I still remember today, yet I continue to drive. In fact, I used this image to propel the subject of my M.A. thesis about a young taxi driver who becomes comatose following an automobile accident. Did I get a TW on the freeway? No. I witnessed life – and death – unfold before my eyes; and from that experience I developed an awareness of how fragile life is.

 While witnessing the still-fresh death of a gruesome auto accident pales by comparison to a rape or a violent attack, the trigger of a flashback is no less crippling. There is a parallel to living life, which is sometimes raw and often without any warning. Life doesn’t come neatly packaged with warning labels. It simply unfolds. As Kang opines in his blog, “A trigger warning or, really, any sort of preface, would disrupt the creation of those highly pressurized, vital moments in literature that shock a reader into a higher consciousness.”

 Kang believes that literature should only be examined as an object unto itself – detached from time and history; however, it is the elements of story – both time and place – that help the reader better comprehend society and discover how culture has evolved over time. One thing I do agree with regarding Kang’s assessment about trigger warnings, is the impact they have on the creative process. Evolution requires freedom.

 In his May 20, 2014 article, Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, points out how trigger warnings are intended to caution about any content that might stoke anxiety or trauma. Friedersdorf suggests that critics of the “trigger warning” movement fear that requiring alerts in the classroom would chill speech and erode academic freedom. Others argue that the alerts are condescending, showy, or useless. The bottom line is that trigger warnings do not allow an audience to learn about life, even when the experience of life might be upsetting.

 Several years ago I traveled to South Africa and Botswana, where I experienced life unfold in the most basic of ways: survival of the fittest. In the Kalahari Desert, animals fight to survive. On my second day of a safari, I witnessed a kill. An impala was attacked and ripped from limb to limb by a hungry cheetah. There was no trigger warning – only the blood-curdling squeal from an innocent impala as it was attacked, savagely mauled, and soon became the cheetah’s next meal.

 Was there trauma? Yes.

Did I observe tricky terrain? You bet!

Was it graphic? Absolutely.

Did I watch crippling anxiety unfold? If you call death crippling, then yes; however, I realized that life as I observed it in Botswana was about survival of the fittest.

 Reflecting back to my Kalahari safari, I wonder how trigger warnings would work. Friedersdorf believes that college students should know what’s coming when they set out to plumb human civilization. “A huge part of it is a horror show,” he says. “To spare us upset would require morphine.” There was no morphine on the floor of the Kalahari Desert.

 Much closer to home, while waiting to take off from Boston, I realized how lucky that impala might have been to have lived life without a TW. There was a guy walking down the aisle of the airplane as I sat toward the front of the plane reading The Great Gatsby. He stopped near me as people beyond him were looking for a place to stash their luggage. No TW needed here. As I read my book, I was interrupted as the guy yapped on his cell phone. He was talking about some girl – Shelly – who was a slut. She had gone to bed with nearly every guy in his class. “Don’t repeat this,” he said. “She’s a regular patient at the abortion clinic.” Shelly was bad news, and if the person on the other end of the phone knew what was good for him, he would stay away from her.

 As the line of passengers began to move, the guy continued to warn his friend about the fear of sexually transmitted diseases. The Great Gatsby no longer held my interest. I wanted to know where Shelly was. Where was the TW?

 Singer-songwriter-musician John Legend recently performed a song he had written (“Maxine”) about a woman he was in love with. He was confused when he discovered her out at a club, wearing the dress he had bought her, the necklace he gave her on Valentine’s Day, the shoes that were her birthday gift. There she was, all dressed up, with another man. Legend’s heart-wrenching song was inspired by a tune recorded by Nancy Wilson in 1960, “Guess Who I Saw Today?” about a woman who finds her husband having lunch at a romantic French restaurant – with another woman. Both of these compositions reveal the pain and heartache when infidelity is discovered. In both scenarios, there was no trigger warning. The pain was real.

 Life is filled with stories like these. Whether or not we want to know about them, they exist. Thus begins conversations about life.

 Perhaps Mary Poppins was right in her rhythmic diagnosis that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But then again, I caution everyone with this TW: life is not a Disney movie.

 Be real. Experience life. Savor the moment. Endure the pain. Enjoy the journey. Conquer the nightmares. Share your story!

 Bill SchneiderBill Schneider’s previous experience includes a three-decade long career in the music industry accompanied by extensive travel throughout four continents. Prior to joining Etruscan Press, where he serves as managing editor, he resided at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he wrote near the same sand dunes that inspired Harry Kemp, Eugene O’Neill, Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams. He received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism Magna Cum Laude from Suffolk University. Bill also earned his MA and MFA from the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes University.

Jeff Minton: Save the Essays

May 26, 2014 by

I mean this in 2 ways:

1) to save the essays from the dumpster:

Roughly 12 million essays are written every year by college freshman comp students, and, by my educated guess, roughly 12 million of them are eventually trashed, in one way or another. Once graded, they’re eternally stored away in folders, on backup discs, in the dusty closets of hard drives, they’re cheerfully deleted, or thrown away. As a recent MFA grad entering into my first instructional position, the inevitable doom of my students’ papers made me question the point of it all. Here I am preaching audience audience audience, know your audience, and they’re thinking dumpster dumpster dumpster, what’s the quickest route to the dumpster.p12608

2) to save the essays from becoming worthy of the dumpster:

What’s even sadder is that many—if not most—freshman papers deserve their wasteful fate. If they were written for the dumpster to begin with, then the dumpster can have ‘em—who’d want to read them? To “save the essays” we need first to inspire essays that are worth saving.

I do not mean to say that all college freshman writing is bad. Certainly, there are a few exceptions in every comp class—self-motivated students with a predilection for writing. Ask any English prof, though, and you’ll hear a dismal testament of the student majority. Comp students just don’t care that much. And why should they? No one’s ever going to read their writing, right? Except the instructor, who is paid to be sympathetic to shitty work and polite in criticizing it. If they can get past the instructor, then they’re golden, and they know it.

In his article English Compositionism as Fraud and Failure, veteran instructor Jeffrey Zorn describes the field of composition pedagogy as his “adrift, embarrassing, infuriating, failing profession.” I agree.

Many experts blame the students: a spoiled, lazy, inept generation. Seriously? Take a look on YouTube—the greatest showcase of talent anywhere ever. Read the quippish genius happening all over Facebook and Twitter and in the captions of memes. People are brilliant . . . when they care—the same ones texting in the back of class and citing Wikipedia on their research papers.

Perhaps the predominant view is to blame lackadaisical and feeble professors for skirting extensive feedback because it’s either too much work or they don’t want to upset students and face grade disputes, that instructors need to push harder, be tougher. I used to share this outlook, before I experienced how poorly it works.

You can drill students until their typing-fingers blister, but they won’t learn until they want to. To an unreceptive student, intensive line editing and heavy-handed feedback teaches only how to imitate your correctness. So yes, you can improve a student’s writing by telling them what they did wrong and how to fix it. They’ll fix it, and it will be better, just like a patient takes pills to get better. You gave the student a fish. If they don’t care, all your brilliant advice goes into the dumpster along with their papers the second they see their final grade. Try as you might, you cannot teach a student how to fish until s/he’s hungry enough to need to learn.

How hard is it, anyway, to learn active voice? Every writing text and a thousand websites explain it pretty clearly. If you don’t care, you’ll struggle with it all semester, and then you’ll use it (badly) in the future because your professor told you to and you assume it’s always best. If you care, you’ll look it up and teach it to yourself in an afternoon, and when you use it in the future it will be because you want an active agent in your sentence in lieu of stating existence or victimizing your subject. Yes, it’s vital to teach craft, but it’s futile to shout it into deaf ears.

In my (fairly virgin) view, issues of craft are secondary to the primary concern: saying something worth reading—eschewing vapid bullshit. I’ll get 20 papers on gay marriage rights, 30 on marijuana laws. Gay marriage should be illegal because it’s in the img_6025
Bible. Legalizing weed will stimulate the economy because of the tax surplus. Every round of papers amounts to a grand collection of other people’s ideas. The papers are so fluffed and formulaic and monotonous and trite that offering feedback is an often worthless endeavor. You can’t polish a turd, as the saying goes. More aptly, you can’t edit substance into a vacuous composition.

Editors won’t take the time to line edit unless the manuscript is worth the work. Why should teachers? We know how to teach grammar and logic. That’s the easy stuff; it’s concrete. Railing students on passive voice and semicolon use while ignoring the banality of the thesis at best churns out exceptionally active, grammatical writers who actively and grammatically say nothing. I see a greater challenge. How do we teach significance? Passion? Originality? A desire to express oneself, to seek information and self-improve?

Call me a hippy (I’m not), but I believe everyone loves writing, in some form. It’s one of the defining traits of being human. It’s tragic that so many people are growing to hate it. How do you effectively teach someone how to do something they hate? You don’t. Thus, first and foremost, I believe my role as a comp teacher is to tap my students’ natural love of writing to draw out substance. I don’t care if there are a hundred passive constructions. If the core is strong, we have something to work with, and the student will lead the charge if s/he actually wants to make it better.

So how do we teach caring?

I’m asking as much as I’m suggesting. In the past, I’ve tried provocative prompts, personalized assignments, peer evaluations, every manner of bonus offering (this at least gets a response), hard-ass threats (this doesn’t), public challenges, direct communication, the “you’re all geniuses” approach, sardonic humor, harsh criticism, all positive criticism, all negative criticism, extensive feedback, sparse feedback, and on and on. Some methods work better than others, but in the end the papers are compost, and who knows if anything stuck. The core of the problem remains. They’re writing for a grade, not for an audience.

Perhaps the solution, then, is to provide an audience?

This question echoes back to my previous life as a music teacher, where I faced a similar problem. Kids would come into my little guitar closet and genuinely want to learn, but weeks of practicing at home and playing for me and practicing at home and playing for me would gradually suffocate the students’ fire and they’d often quit halfway through. Then I joined the faculty of a progressive school of rock (www.musichouseschool.com, ftr). They held end-of-semester performances, which gave a stage to the students. The same kids who took months to learn half a song were suddenly learning full songs in a week, perfecting them in a few. The difference was staggering.

This past semester, I reflected heavily on my past student rock stars. I wanted to offer a “stage” to my writing students, so I tried something entirely new. I published my students’ writing—like for real (contracts and all). I aimed to kill the arbitrariness of my assignments by providing a real outlet. We worked together toward a common goal. I needed them to write well because their papers would be in a publication associated with my name. They needed to write well if they wanted to get their name in the publication, and to be proud to have other people read it, which gave them an incentive to write beyond the grade. The focus remained on the writing and the publication as much as possible and shifted to grading only when the college demanded it.admin_1-asset-5036304298008

Aside from the lectures, which I viewed more like training seminars, class ran like a publication house. I was the editor. They were staff writers. Instead of requiring assignments and arbitrarily grading them, I gave prompts and payouts for those who responded. They chose which prompts they wanted to respond to. The payouts came in the form of “class cash,” which accumulated to determine their final grade (a bit corny, I know, but it gave the realistic feeling that I was paying them for their work, which essentially I was). When they submitted papers, instead of line editing, I played editor and either accepted or rejected their papers. If rejected, I would give a paragraph or two detailing the reason and offer them the chance to resubmit for the next revision period.

Some of the papers I read 3 or 4 times before accepting, and they vastly improved throughout the process. Often, in narrative writing, students would interpret their experiences through sentimental, vague, clichéd language in their early drafts and then gradually comb out the mawkishness in trade for original expression that conveyed their significant and inimitable human plight. Many students clearly learned something about themselves through revising: that they weren’t just “a broken heart” or “an ordinary kid”—they saw that they were distinct and complex people living complex lives and that personal writing is a process of unraveling and understanding who they are and what made them. I’ll take that over active voice any day.

At the end of the semester, the students took roles as editors to address the minutia—at the point where it’s actually appropriate to deal with such issues. The entire class came together to edit and produce all the accepted papers into journal form, which now has its own website (www.thefreshmanreview.com) and is available in print through lulu.com.

The semester was not without its problems (I have many tweaks planned next time around), but for the first time, on a large scale, I saw students take genuine interest in their work—especially during the production process. When I turned the responsibility over to them, they took off. Apparently, real responsibility incites real effort.

My publication, however, is a temporary fix. It’s absurd for me to create an external publication company just to get my students to care. If everyone did this, there’d be 100,000 new publications just to cover freshman writing, and the overabundance of publications would become another type of dumpster. I believe firmly, now, that students need a real audience to develop writing skills, and I think colleges should be the ones to provide it. They could run a freshman publication within the college for the best papers—perhaps through the school paper or university press. Or, professors from different fields could commission papers from freshman students: allow them to provide real-world, needed research. Freshman writers are a valuable untapped resource. Use them. Save them.

Let their 12,000,000 papers count for something.

 

Jeff Minton Photo

Photo by Shauna Yorty

Jeff Minton lives in Camp Hill, PA, where he divides his time between his wife and three boys, his writing, composing music, disc golf, and teaching English at Elizabethtown College and Harrisburg Area Community College. Recently, his fiction won finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award and he presented a panel titled “Orchestration for Writers 101″ at the 2014 AWP Conference. He holds an MFA in Creative writing from Wilkes University.

Corinne Nulton’s 14 Symptoms

May 20, 2014 by

A fellow Wilkes student, Corinne Nulton is currently running a fundraiser on IndieGoGo for her original play, 14 Symptoms, whichcorinneblogphoto will appear at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn, NY this summer. The page for the fundraiser includes a video featuring some of the characters from the play and the lovely playwright herself and can be found by clicking on the link above or the picture to your right.

She was kind enough to answer some questions about the play for The Write Life blog!

Tell me a little bit about your play. What’s it about?

14 Symptoms follows the story of four very different teenagers—an egotistical hacker, a predetermined serial killer, a cheerleader with an alter ego, and the ghost of the ideal best friend. The play unfolds as they collide online through chatrooms and games in both the present and the past in order to investigate or conceal a gruesome murder.

I’ve heard that the play was inspired by an actual murder. Could you tell me more about that? 

Intrigued by the mis-identities on the internet, I was drawn to the article “Murder by Text,” published in Vanity Fair in October 2011. According to sources, the real Kruse Wellwood and Kimmy Procter often passed each other in the hallways of their small high school. As a cheerleader, Kimmy seemed to have little in common with Kruse, an outcast whose abusive father was arrested. However, the online game World of Warcraft leveled the social stratifications that existed in high school. Kruse offered her a secret friendship through games, chats, instant messages, and texts. He would tease her about sex and death while engaging in the adolescent sport of video game competition, and despite his warnings, his confessed desire to kill her, all of his foreshadowing was shrugged off, because the chats did not feel real to Kimmy, who assumed Kruse was only as dangerous as his avatar. Ultimately, the story ends with an adolescent from a broken home brutally raping, dismembering, and burning a classmate with no real explanation as to why except for a blog entry listing the “signs” of a serial killer, of which, Kruse had all fifteen.

I realized this was exactly the sort of problem I wanted to artistically portray—the blurred boundaries between reality and cyber reality that gave Kimmy this false sense of security while also allowing Kruse’s cyber-girlfriend to listen to his murder confession, but wait months before calling police. The blog entry, likewise, filled my head with questions about fate.

While researching, I was able to access the private chat logs between Kimmy and Kruse, the integration videos, interviews with Kimmy’s parents, her facebook memorial page, and even a recent letter Kruse wrote to the judge overseeing the investigation. It was sickening how easy it was to access all of this information in our post-crazy society—no, I’m not hacker, but it was just all out there waiting on the internet. However, what I discovered was that Kruse, essentially, was a writer, a master at voice imitation and at reinventing himself through words. And as this brief description indicates, there were a number of philosophical, practical, and psychological questions left in the incident’s wake that would forever remain unanswered, which seemed unbearable.
However, my play isn’t an adaptation of this event for my characters are different individuals entirely facing only a similar experience. I hesitate to even say “was inspired by”. It certainly moved my pen for two years now as I tried to wrap my head around it, but the result is something that stands alone, bearing little resemblance now of the event that kindled it except for the names which I kept as a sort of tribute as the play evolved. It is by no means a justification, nor is it a definite answer to many of the questions it poses. It’s merely an illustration of these topics in order to inspire serious discussion.

What was the writing process like for you? How long did it take until this play was complete? How different was the first draft from the final?

A word on the writing process : Hell.

Since fourth grade I was a perpetual daydreamer, scribbling down bits of my imagination, but this was my first piece of substantial length and my attention span and sensitivity as a shy undergraduate could hardly bear it. Initially, I was obsessed with the project, and couldn’t wait to declare it as my creative thesis. I decorated all the walls of my dorm with serial killers and chatlogs and any bit of evidence I came across. However, after the first few months, I was bored with what was trying to write and ready to start a new short story but my mentor wouldn’t allow it. I had to keep with it, regardless of all the other issues I wanted to pursue. He also liked to make me think by responding to all of my questions with more question. I also wasn’t sure how to sustain interest for my audience or how to write convincing dialogue and for a while I couldn’t hear the voices of my characters. Draft after draft after draft I’d hand in and rewrite and hand in again and scrap and rewrite and complain and rewrite and curse mentor and rewrite and listen to it read aloud, curse, and rewrite and beg my mentor to let me quit and rewrite and listen to it again and rewrite. I’m pretty sure I killed a whole forest, and I took every edit so personally in the beginning that I grew to hate writing. But eventually I noticed my fiction was getting better, my imagination more refined, my dialogue more genuine with actual voices. I started getting recognized in the community, even if the play wasn’t in a state of progression but digression, and it served its first year and a half as a learning experience and towards the end things began to “click” into place.

And being in and out of Kruse’s head for months was hardly an enjoyable experience especially at first. I tried to write only in broad daylight in populated places after suffering several chilling nightmares, and I began regretting my dorm decorating, since it seemed too frightening or too overwhelming at times.

It wasn’t until recently I went back to review the play with new eyes using what I learned in undergrad with some of the new things I learned at the graduate level. I was more emotionally removed, too, which also helped in refining the latest draft. I used the contest mainly as motivation to review something I had tucked away, and its acceptance was a complete shock. Thus, the company is scrambling to gain publicity and adequate funds.

But as always, it’s still a work in progress. I’m sure it will continue to evolve in little ways throughout the next round of rehearsal as well.

How did you research the project? What sources did you use? Were there any surprising discoveries?

As mentioned I raided the internet for newspaper articles and found more than I should’ve, but I went in another direction, too. I read books on human nature, like “Radical Evil” by Bernstein and I studied philosophies on predeterminism vs. free will. I read memoirs of former children who suffered from abuse. I looked into serial killers and what they all shared or how they were different. I read about sociopaths and psychopaths and empathy disorders and passion murders. I even played W.O.W. But, more than anything, I read plays. I read close to a hundred in a single summer that shared those ideas and used language to manipulate, like Dark Play or Story for Boys and Speech and Debate.

What is it like seeing something you’ve written performed on the stage? Is it exciting? Are there some disappointments?

The first readings were unbearable—I couldn’t seem to separate myself from the words and from the audience’s reactions or failure to react. I’d just sit in my seat shaking. However, seeing it come to life in rehearsal has been a surreal experience, both chilling but also rewarding to experience the things I imagined and watched how the actors and director not only enact, but enhance my original words. Every now and then I will slam my palm against my head—and think, it’s not said like that! Timmy Flynn, for example, our original hacker-character barely knew how to turn his computer on, so he would murder the pronunciation of words like Linux, but he eventually grew so close to the character that in my rewrites I could hear his voice as Cam.’s voice—the two were one in the same by the end, which is sort of magical

corinnebiophotoCorinne Nulton is a recovering coffee addict and is one semester into Wilke’s MA/MFA program in Creative Writing. She recently graduated from the University of Scranton as an English major and has since become an adjunct professor and professional writing tutor at Penn State Worthington. As far as writing, she has had several short stories published in college literary magazines such as Esprit and Ellipses. . . and her ten-minute-play, Flesh, was a Kennedy Center Finalist in 2010.

Barbara J. Taylor’s Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night

May 1, 2014 by
Barbara J. Taylor received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University in 2008. Her first published novel (and the first book in a series of three), Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night was recently selected for Publishers Weekly’s “Best Summer Books 2014” list. Akashic Books have also provided a description of the novel on their website:
“Almost everyone in town blames eight-year-old Violet Morgan for the death of her nine-year-old sister, Daisy. Sing in SingintheMorningCryatNightthe Morning, Cry at Night opens on September 4, 1913, two months after the Fourth of July tragedy. Owen, the girls’ father, “turns to drink” and abandons his family. Their mother Grace falls victim to the seductive powers of Grief, an imagined figure who has seduced her off-and-on since childhood. Violet forms an unlikely friendship with Stanley Adamski, a motherless outcast who works in the mines as a breaker boy. During an unexpected blizzard, Grace goes into premature labor at home and is forced to rely on Violet, while Owen is “off being saved” at a Billy Sunday Revival. Inspired by a haunting family story, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night blends real life incidents with fiction to show how grace can be found in the midst of tragedy.”

After hearing about the novel’s success and having enthusiastic discussions with other members of the Wilkes Creative Writing program who are excited about the book, I prepared some questions for Barbara Taylor. Luckily, she was kind enough to share some of her insights about her novel with The Write Life blog!  (Clicking on the book cover above will take you to the Amazon page where the book can be purchased.)

Your book Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night was just put on the Best Summer Reads list for Publishers Weekly. You must be completely thrilled! How did you feel when you saw that?
 
I was stunned and delighted. When you’re writing a book, you never think about how it will be received once it’s out in the world. I had a moment after I signed my contract where I realized people who don’t know me, people who have no idea how hard I worked, will be reading my book. That was a little scary.  
 
How does a writer get acknowledged by a publication like that? Did you have to do anything special to promote the book?
 
You’d have to ask the amazing people at Kaylie Jones Books and Akashic Books. They are responsible for getting Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night to places like Publishers Weekly. As far as first book experiences go, mine has been amazing. My publishers are so author-centric. I found a very safe place to land.
 
How long, from the original idea to the publication, did it take for you to produce this novel?
 
I started writing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night in 2007 and finished my first official draft (with lots of unofficial revisions in between) in late 2008. I probably spent another year revising after that. My agent sent the book out, and while there was some interest, no one picked it up. I decided to move on and wrote the first draft of my second novel. Then, one summer, Kaylie Jones had an idea for restructuring the first book. I spent the next year doing rewrites, so the novel took about four years to complete over a period of seven years.
 
What was that process like? Was it an emotional journey?
 
The process was definitely emotional at times. My novel is based on a family story. Growing up, I always heard about the death of my Aunt Pearl, my maternal grandmother’s sister. She was baptized on July 4, 1918. Later that day, she and her friends were playing with sparklers and Pearl’s dress went up in flames. She survived for three days and sang hymns. When I was partway through my novel, I remember sitting at my desk, staring at the last picture taken of Pearl, a group photo from the day of her baptism. The picture was always in our house, but for some reason, it really hit me that night. This was more than a story. This was someone’s daughter, sister, friend. I sat there and cried as if I’d just lost her myself. 
 
The process was emotional in other ways as well. I started the novel just after my divorce, and my dad got sick along the way, so there were hardships. While it wasn’t intentional, I’m sure I poured some of that emotion into the work as well.
 
How much research was involved in writing this novel?
 
Since my novel is historical fiction, there was a great deal of research involved. I spent countless hours at the Lackawanna Historical Society, the Albright Memorial Library, and the Anthracite Museum. I also interviewed numerous people, visited mines, and read lots of primary source material.
 
You mentioned that the story was inspired by a family tragedy. Are there any other real life events that made it into your novel?
 
At one point in my novel, several of my characters get snowed in at a Billy Sunday Revival on March 1, 1914. Billy Sunday was a well-known evangelist at the time, and he held one of his campaigns in Scranton that year. My grandmother used to say she was born during the “Billy Sunday Snowstorm” where 2500 people were stranded overnight with the very charismatic preacher. I thought that would be an interesting setting for my characters.
 
What advice do you have for other aspiring writers/novelists?
 
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Repeat.
 
And get involved in a writing community, be it a local workshop or an MFA program. Writing is such a solitary activity. It’s good to have a network of like-minded people to support and encourage you. 
 BarbTaylorBarbara J. Taylor was born and raised in Scranton, PA, and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University. She still resides in the “Electric City,” two blocks away from where she grew up. “Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night” is her first novel.
CONTACT:
Webpage: barbarajtaylor.com
Email: barb@barbarajtaylor.com
Facebook Author Page: facebook.com/barbara.j.taylor729
Twitter: twitter.com/barbarajtaylor

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Overcoming Vanity; Just Write

April 14, 2014 by

“I want to make something of myself. I believe it’s called a statue.” –Jarod Kintz

Lately I’ve been having a problem, concerning my writing, that has affected my personal blog, a few pieces I’ve been asked to write as an “expert” on being inside of juvenile detention centers, and even in my creative writing classes. Okay, particularly my creative nonfiction class. I constantly find myself falling victim to “impostor syndrome,” a condition characterized by the inability to take credit for one’s own work, or in my case, the constant feeling that what I’m writing is self-indulgent, unimportant crap that nobody cares about.

To spare everyone the tedious lecture, I’m going to avoid a long, preachy blog post where I pontificate about self-confidence. That would be incredibly dull and the last time I checked, I’m not exactly qualified to be giving people self-esteem pep-talks. (See what I did there?) Anyway, I want to focus on the writing part because that’s the theme of this blog, and that’s what really matters.

During my first residency, all of the speakers emphasized the importance of our unique voices and unique perspectives that we can use to bring our writing to life, but I just can’t help feeling a little less than unique lately. For example, I’ll be typing up an assignment for class, when I look back over the material, I’ll see some awful cliché and think to myself, “I’m the most boringest person ever!” Then I criticize myself in my head for bad grammar, then I begin to wonder about the neuroses behind correcting my inner monologue’s grammar, then I wonder if it’s normal to be having this discussion in my head, and then I end up on Web MD for several hours researching mental illnesses. The point is, instead of just writing, I stare at the page for unprecedented amounts of time, fighting off an anxiety attack because I can’t reconcile with the fact that—yes—making an effort to write with the intention of sharing my experiences with a large audience may be slightly self-indulgent, but it does not make me a bad person or some sort of ego-maniac. It makes me a writer.

Excuse me for a moment while I act like a hypocrite and provide you with some possibly needless preaching to suggest that we all want to be validated. Everyone wants to feel that his or her experiences are unique and that they deserve to be heard. Just because people don’t alwaysFunny Cry for Help Ecard: Me? Vain? Oh I just took all those shirtless mirror pics of myself to prove my photography skills to Facebook. put it in writing, doesn’t mean they don’t constantly do the same thing when they talk to co-workers, family and friends. I mean, just look to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter if you’re worried you might sound a little vain or self-important . People express their unique perspectives every day, and they don’t sit at a computer screen frantically typing “narcissism” into Google about it.

Needless to say, even this post was a huge obstacle for me. What will people think of me, I wondered, Will they be offended by what I have to say? Will people feel I am unqualified to speak on this subject?

The truth is, fretting about whether or not people are going to believe your opinion is valid is the most egotistical thing you can do. You’re not being humble, you’re being obsessive, and according to Web MD you are expressing several symptoms of narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, and…well, you get it.

Just sit down wherever it is that you write (I personally enjoy doing so at my little desk in the creative writing office—all this typing makes me sound very busy, and I don’t have a 90 pound puppy whining loudly at my feet), and write something down. I’m sure we’ve all heard this enough times during residency, but stop thinking about the writing and just write! Get something down; then worry about whether or not it’s any good, or if you might sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Chances are, if you say it confidently enough, people will be too impressed by the writing to know you’re an impostor sense your self-doubt.

butttrumpetHillary Transue is a current student in the Wilkes Creative Writing program and the editor of The Write Life blog. She spends her time engaging in futile attempts to train her 11-month pit-bull puppy and thinking up really good excuses not to write–most of which she finds at 3am on Web MD.

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Christoph Paul’s Bizarro World

April 3, 2014 by

by Christoph Paul

I keep getting asked a lot what is “Bizarro”, but I never intended to be part of the genre or even knew what it was until I put out my third book “Great White House”.Great White House Final COVER

 Working with an editor who lived out in the hills of Vermont, and myself isolated in the Bronx, I started writing strange short pieces to get my writing confidence going again; they were a combo of surrealism, satire, and having fun with genres and turning them on their head.

I was looking for a renewed confidence in my writing as I started as literary novelist and finished an ambitious literary novel for my thesis at Wilkes called “Prophet”, inspired by Dostoevsky and Camus.

 After giving it my all, I ended with an ambitious and beautiful book that was still a few years away from being ready from publication. I was disappointed but instead of giving up I went a different route for inspiration and started getting back into lower art like Grindhouse 70’s films, Horror, and heavy-handed satire and followed that love of lower art and put them into fiction as these stories started to flow out of me.

 They were not post-modern or academic and no reputable literary journal would or want to publish them, but they were entertaining. I started to post them on my blog and people thought they were really funny and I got a small following and caught an editor’s eye.

Big Foot Cop The editor and I did not know what to call what I was writing and even though I enjoy being pretentious, ‘Christophian’ was not going to cut it. We didn’t know how to market what I was writing but the stories and strangeness kept coming and we just embraced it but struggled to market them.

 I started to get on a roll writing in this very playful style mix of Gindhouse, humor, satire, and decided to put all together in longer form as a novella about a shark attack on the white house, which I ended up cowriting with a Wilkes alum who goes by the author name Brody Thomas. The idea was so ridiculous, but we loved it and it made us laugh. I realized I had one golden rule: the more ridiculous the idea the tighter the writing and structure.

He was a screenwriter and our goal was to make it feel like a “South Park” movie on the page. We wanted (and still do) to be a movie, but loved the idea of a movie being in book form and just putting it out ourselves under my own imprint The Only Rx Press named after my old band.

 As I started to promote it with a marketing budget of a seventh grade science project using guerrilla marketing tactics of social media and a single poster of the book cover, it ended up exposing me to an audience where someone told me on Twitter, “Hey, I like Great White House it is a cool Bizarro novella.”

Happy to get praise I googled “Bizarro” and saw a writer come up I’ve known and liked for a while named Carlton Mellick III; I’ve been a fan of his for years but I never thought about his genre but I saw there were many others like him and realized that I was part of a genre across the other side of the country that was thriving in Portland and didn’t even know it existed.Morbidly Obese

 It’s weird (not just the genre) but I prided myself on being independent and just doing my own thing but I really loved finding and being part of a genre; I even went to BizarroCon and it was like Wilkes but everyone was way weirder but in a good way.

 What was interesting about the bizarro crowd was they speak and act very much like screenwriters: very interested in structure, story telling, 3 acts, and of course a great pitch and title. I saw book deals get made there at the Con and now seeing them published as I write this blogpost.

 I think that is what’s so appealing and what this genre is really about, it is like a bunch of lovers and film makers of the cult movie section on Netflix who found their way into literature.

 Time PimpIf you had to label Bizarro that’s what it is: a cult-like B-Movie done with a lot of craft and a fast moving entertaining structure into prose.

 It follows the same rules of good writing: great character development, settings that serve the story, and a structure that is tight and moves usually at a film-like pace.

 The only difference is it is really weird, but weird in a very great way.

 I feel very at home with the genre and it’s ok if it’s not taken seriously or will not win a Booker Prize, it’s getting young people to read books which is the best award an author can ask for these days.

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Christoph Paul is an award-wining humor/Bizarro author of five books of prose and poetry and the singer/songwriter of rock band Moses Moses. He received an MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. He has managed an adult video store and worked for the Department of Labor which he found both to be morally dubious. He is currently working on his 6th book.

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