Archive for the Writing Category

Workshop: Putting my work out there…

Posted in Workshop, Writing on April 23, 2011 by Melissa Henry

All you seasoned writers out there, I’m sure you’ve had your good and bad workshop experiences. Some of you may be like I was, just getting started with no understanding of what workshop entails. If you’re of the latter group, I hope my experiences will encourage you to get out there and find a workshop. If you’re of the former, hopefully I’ll send a few laughs your way and you’ll find yourself being wistfully nostalgic of your first workshop…

It’s difficult for me to comment objectively on the workshop experience, because my experiences are limited and I have few comparators. My first workshop was, perhaps, a unique experience.

Over three quarters, an entire academic year, a core group of us stuck it out through the three-part course. Having the same instructor and many of the same writers for a year, allowed us to really get into each other’s stories and build a good amount of trust. It was creative nonfiction, mostly memoir and many stories dealt with sensitive topics; trust was paramount. While I’m sure this sort of connection and camaraderie occurs in MFA programs everywhere, this class wasn’t part of an MFA program. So when you read this and other posts about my non-MFA program workshop, keep in mind this experience is likely a little different.

Workshop can be daunting to say the least. In the beginning, you are sitting in a room full of unknown personalities nervously making small-talk and hoping they won’t completely decimate your writing. It’s good to be nervous, nerves can help you put your best work out there, just don’t let it paralyze you.

During the first quarter, I definitely feigned having more confidence than I actually had. That’s just what you do. Much of the time it was: see an opportunity, hold your breath, and jump of the cliff. When we signed up to be workshop’d, I took one of the earliest dates. Better to just dive right in. When there was an opportunity to read a piece in class (horrible as that first piece was, now that I look at it), I did, shaky voice and all. When extra workshop dates opened up, I took a second shot. There is no doing it halfway, it’s all in or go home. I was all in.

When you take a workshop, the success of the class seems to be dependent upon two things:

1. Your instructor’s ability to keep everyone on track and control the mood of the feedback.

2. Your fellow writers and their investment in not only their own work, but the work of their peers.

What workshop really doesn’t depend upon:

To a large degree, workshop doesn’t necessarily depend upon how well you write but rather your ability receive feedback and better your work. This is easy to do if the correct tone is set.

I would think (hope) that the following would be true for any workshop:

Beyond simple participation, the most crucial aspects of a workshop course are respect for and generosity toward one another.  All feedback — written and verbal — must be provided in a constructive manner, with the intent of helping the author improve the work. Your goal is not to tell the author what she should be doing differently; your goal is to help the author understand how it feels to experience the work from a reader’s perspective. Two simple methods to ensure helpful and respectful feedback are to avoid value judgments, and to be as specific as possible.

We were encouraged to say things like:

On page X, I liked how you really grounded us in the scene by…

-On page X, the way you introduced the ——— character after ——— happened was effective because…

Then, towards the end, asking questions about the scene or story to highlight what might not be coming through for the reader:

I like the ——— character and would really like to hear more about him. How does he relate to the main character? I’d also like to see more…his mannerisms, physical characteristics, etc. and how he relates to the main character’s struggle.

So that’s how we began the class, a few guidelines and many jangling nerves. More on my first experience with feedback coming up…

Literary Immersion Therapy: How I dove into the Lit scene…

Posted in Getting Lit, Reads, Writing on April 2, 2011 by Melissa Henry

If you’re a writer and you know me, you’re never going to believe this but I’m going to tell you anyway…

Before I began writing I wasn’t one to show up at a party alone or strike up a conversation with a stranger. I have always been on the shy side at introduction, and my raucous and rowdy self once you got to know me. If I was going to dive into this new community of people I knew the shy side of my personality wasn’t going to get me anywhere. This goes back to, “Am I willing to do anything for my project? Do I believe in what I’m doing?” I did and I do, and so I struck out on my own, fearless.

Fearless is important, even if you fake it. Though I never misrepresented who I was, in any way, I looked at it as an acting part. When I am “Melissa the Writer” I introduce myself to other writers, I talk to strangers, I put myself out there without hesitation. What did I have to lose by taking advantage of every opportunity to connect with writing community?

Like I said, I dove head first into the Lit scene. This is where I started…

LitQuake. If you’ve never been, go! It’s amazing. Imagine 14,000 creative minds descending on the San Francisco Bay Area, new writers rubbing elbows with the literati in bars and shops and even alleyways. In 2010, they had 46 events during the festival and 65 events in the infamous LitCrawl on closing night. The New York Times even picked up the story. This is our Sundance, our Cannes Film Festival, and it’s a blast.

My first LitQuake was in 2009. I hopped BART, MUNI, and buses, I drove into the city after work, and I did it all alone. It was actually freeing to be alone at these amazing events, I could go to anything I liked and no one knew who I was or what I had or hadn’t written. Anonymity is comfortable.

My favorite event took place in the San José library. It wasn’t glitzy, there wasn’t a bar or crowds of rowdy writers, it was a single author: Mary Roach. You may have read: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, or the recently released Packing for Mars. She’s as witty and brilliant in person as her writing makes her out to be. Scientific information doesn’t have to be dry and her books prove it.

At the end of her interview, I stood in line with the rest of the room hoping for a minute of her time. I was thinking about breaking into science writing and was looking for a little advice. What I got was several minutes, and an email. Ms. Roach didn’t mind holding up the line to talk to me and didn’t mind responding to my emails. If you can find an author as generous as Mary Roach, talk to them, pick their brains, and for goddsakes shut up and listen.

The best large-scale event, held at Hotel Monaco on Geary, was Mouthy Dames with: Kim Addonizio, Christine Comaford, Jane Ganahl, Kim Wong Keltner, Wendy Merrill, Terry McMillan, April Sinclair, and Jane Smiley.

Never in my life have I seen eight people speak at an event and have eight people knock it out of the park. The room was electric with cheers, laughter, and roaring applause.

You’ll hear more about some of these amazing people later because as I found out, one thing leads to another, and another, and another. Everyone is connected to everyone else, you just have to get out there.

I don’t know how I ever thought I could fit all of my initial literary adventures into a single post so stay tuned for Literary Immersion Therapy: Part 2.

Best,

Too Busy to Write: How I found the time…

Posted in Writing on March 18, 2011 by Melissa Henry

Today is day 12 of my work week and so I thought I’d post about making time to write. It’s highly unusual to have such a prolonged grant push in the lab so I’m not grumpy in the slightest, just thoroughly exhausted. There’s something satisfying about delivering double the amount of work requested, particularly when you work with a highly appreciative team. But less about grant season and more about writing…

Just as I was diving into the literary scene, I had the opportunity to hear Christine Comaford read from her book, Rules for Renegades, at LitQuake 2009. From her book: “Renegades are willing to do whatever it takes; they have that fire in the belly.”

What stuck with me was a story she told about putting a poster up in her cubicle that read, “Your first million” printed over a pile of cash. Of course I wasn’t looking to make my first million, I was trying to write my first book, but the tactics ended up being the same. Her take home message: Do whatever it takes to reach your goal. Every time you do something whether it is a purchase or your time, it should further that single goal. Whether it’s making it in business or writing a book, having that sort of focus can take you far. She made her first million, and I very nearly have a first draft. Many thanks to Ms. Comaford, she may well be the reason I found time to write.

One simple question: Is this helping me reach my writing goal?

I asked it every time I did something, ensuring my mental RAM, my time, and even my money, were all devoted to chasing down my goal. This was me going “all in.”

It’s common to be over-committed, everyone is over-committed. If I’m not over-committed I feel like I’m wasting time. There’s too much to do and too much to see, to just lay around. But, that over-committed addiction was going to get in the way of my writing goal so I chucked it. It was down to bare essentials, back to basics, if I was going to get this thing written.

Basics meant no changes in my work life (I love what I do, it doesn’t just pay the bills), keeping up with family responsibilities (which happened to be fairly demanding, check out my next project CRUSHED at www.melissa-henry.com), and finding time to run. Now that I see them listed here, there were a lot of basics. However, the next list is longer.

Everything else was cut: reading science books (since college, I have almost always read three books at a time: science, non-fiction, and poetry), any kind of art (quilting, photography, painting, crafting, etc), and lazy free time. Yes, my hobby buddies were disappointed but I did keep quilt camp. I now only sew once a year for a week up in the woods with my quilting friends. Odd factoid, I know. No, putting all of these things on hold didn’t hurt as much as I thought.  I also cut out huge chunks of sleeping. Aunt Jean always said, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Agreed.

For months, I got up three hours early, crossed the bridge in the dark and was the first customer at the coffee-house. Yes, writing in a coffee-house has become such a cliché, that the cliché of writing in a coffee-house is a cliché in and of itself. I dare you to use cliché three times in a sentence. I ended everyday in that same coffee-house; I was typing when it opened and typing when it closed, working 8 hours in the lab in between. At least I avoided bridge traffic.

This wasn’t the only time I wrote, I bounced around to different places on weekends and built writing into my schedule. Every time I went somewhere, I left no less than an hour early. I’d get near where I was going, stop off somewhere to write and then make that baby/wedding/whatever shower on time. My cheap little netbook was my lifeline, I took it everywhere.

So that was partly how I got through my near first draft in less than 18 months. Now things are a little different, you can’t live your entire life with just the basics. However, that first year focused my energy and when I started adding things back into my life, I didn’t lose that fire in the belly.

That’s how I did it, how do you do it?

Best,

Up Next:

Literary Immersion Therapy: How I dove into the Lit Scene…

Day Zero: What I had to decide before I started writing…

Posted in FINE: starved without physical evidence, Writing on March 12, 2011 by Melissa Henry

It took me a long time to get started on this project because I wasn’t sure if I had anything new to say. There were/are a lot of books out there on eating disorders and even more memoirs, so why should I add to the ever-growing pile? But I had even more questions to answer before I put words down on the page so let’s back up…

Before I began writing, throwing everything I had at this project, I needed to know:

1) Is there a need for it?

2) Do I believe in it?

3) Am I willing to do anything to get my book into the hands of readers?

The answers were: yes, yes, and yes. Once I had ruled on these questions, I had no problem stripping everything else away from my life to chase down that first draft.

1) Is there a need for it? Before I left my dwindling spare time in the dust to begin writing, I had to see a need for my story. Like I said, there were already countless books on the shelves dealing with similar themes. Many of the stories I read when I was struggling mirrored my own disordered behaviors, but the authors’ physical image so greatly differed from mine that I often questioned the seriousness of my illness. While these stories compose a very real part of the eating disorder community, they are not the average image of an eating disorder. Not all women/men who starve themselves are emaciated, some aren’t even thin, but what they all have in common is a very serious disorder. If you’ve read my pitch for F.I.N.E.* at www.melissa-henry.com, you’ve heard me say that eating disorders are about physical evidence and that at a size 10, 12, 14, I didn’t have any. Feeling I didn’t fit into society’s image of what an eating disorder should look like hindered my recovery. Rationally, I knew I couldn’t be the only person who had ever felt this way and so it became clear that this story could potentially begin to fill a very real void.

When you have a partial manuscript in hand and are ready to start querying agents, this is the million dollar question so figure it out early.

2) Do I believe in it? I knew I had to believe in my project because if that intensity didn’t come through, I couldn’t expect anyone else to get excited about it. It’s similar to a job interview. If you interview with a prospective employer you must make them understand that the position they are offering is the one for you, the end-all be-all, your dream job. They have to know that you believe in their company, their work, and that you will join the company softball team. When you believe in your product, whether it is your skills as an employee or your 300-page opus, there is no halfway.

3) Am I willing to do anything to get my book into the hands of readers? A baseball nut I am not, but when I was deciding how much to throw at this project I thought of Babe Ruth. 714 home runs and 1330 strikeouts. I know, I know, it’s a tired quote but it still rings true: “swing for the fences.” I realized the only way I was going to be disappointed in the outcome of this project, published or not, was if I didn’t give it everything I had. I may not be a baseball fanatic but I do play poker, so maybe we’ll change that to “I’m all in.”

In future posts I’ll tell you how I zeroed in on my goal and found the time to make it happen. We all have busy lives, kids and parents to take care of, real jobs that pay the bills, but I’ll show you how I made it work.

What questions are important to you? I’d love to hear how you decided to start writing or what questions you’re still trying to figure out before you open that first Word document and start tapping away.

Up next: Too Busy to Write: How I found the time…

Everything I Learned, I Learned at Workshop

Posted in FINE: starved without physical evidence, Writing on February 19, 2011 by Melissa Henry

The only writing class I took in college was “Writing in the Sciences.” In science, writing is fitting your words into distinct categories: introduction, methods, results, and conclusions, whether its a paper or a poster (think glorified grownup science fair pictured right…a presentation I gave on neuroarchitecture differences in autism…worlds away from creative nonfiction). For me, creative writing became about making those distinct categories disappear. No theatre-goer wants to see the wires attached to Peter Pan, and no reader wants you to tell them how everything connects. Readers want to discover your story, trust that they can, they’re smart people. The best advice I’ve ever received: show don’t tell.

To figure out whether or not people could “discover” my story, I took it to workshop. On a whim, I enrolled in a three-part, yearlong, creative non-fiction workshop. The course description promised their potential students a quarter on “How to get started,” followed by “How to keep writing,” and ended with “How to get published.” It was perfect. My whims are often so much better than my carefully laid plans.

For me, workshop became the litmus test, my little focus group filled with writers who would tell me whether or not I had the chops to write. But that wasn’t my first thought about the course.

Initially, my thought (an incorrect one) was that I wanted to be taught by an expert, reviewed by an expert. Even I had had an expert at my disposal, a bespectacled little being I kept in a box on a shelf, I would not have gotten the kind of feedback I needed. I am not an expert on every single subject, and I can’t expect my readers to be either. They’re going to be diverse in their understanding of my subject, in the kinds of books they read, etc. and to reach all of them, I would need to hear from all of them.

My fellow classmates were the experts I actually needed. They generated ideas and asked questions about my stories, highlighting what was working and what holes I needed to fill in. In your head you see the whole story, from the Technicolor landscape of your surroundings to the micro-expressions of your characters. When another reader misjudges the emotional valence of a scene, you know you need to go back and rewrite.

What surprised me the most about workshop was how much their writing informed my own and, I hope, vice-versa. We were all writing on different subjects and yet, the way another writer crafted a sentence or anchored their story to a world event, sparked ideas in all of us. Our experience was as diverse as the subjects we were writing on; we were all at different points on the literary craft spectrum. If I had only sought the advice of a single “expert,” I would have missed out on some really important stuff.

Now for a little news…

I’m excited to enter the world of podcasting and will soon release the prologue to my book FINE: starved without physical evidence! Follow me on Twitter or visit my site www.melissa-henry.com for the latest updates.

Best,

Many many more posts to come on my workshop experience but, as promised, up next:

Day Zero: What I had to decide before I started writing…

300 pages?! Where I started…

Posted in Writing on February 5, 2011 by Melissa Henry

Staring down a full-length project is like standing next to a pile of lumber and saying you’re going to build a house. It’s daunting to say the least. I knew I was shooting for about 300 pages, tops. Later 300 turned into 400 when I realized a) I had more to say, and b) the old rule goes “cut 20%.” This is where some might want to tuck tail and run, but when you break it down it’s really no 10,000 sq ft Tudor.

I think the single greatest thing I learned fairly early was:

Don’t start at the beginning.

Maybe it works for some people, or maybe this simple idea is apparent to everyone else.

I decided to start with what inspired me to write the story: the crisis. Ah, conflict! And we’re back to scene construction, my last blog.

Since I was writing scenes, I had the flexibility to jump around without leaving too many frayed edges. The scenes were contained by their goal, conflict, and outcome. I wrote these initial scenes as they came, and they landed anywhere from chapter 4 to chapter 24. I didn’t have to stress or bite my nails wondering how to fit them together, I just wrote. For a long long long time I just wrote. It was freeing, not having to write something I didn’t feel inspired to write. This produced a sizable chunk of work, giving me a puzzle I could start putting together. Next, I took my “chunk of work” to workshop.

Follow me on Twitter for the latest updates, melissa-henry.com launches soon!

Up next: Everything I Learned, I Learned at Workshop

Note: A dear writer friend of mine, who began around the same time I did, had gotten stuck in the doldrums of trying to write linearly, beginning at chapter one. Together we started flailing about through our narrative arc, picking up in the middle, heading towards the end, only to arrive at the beginning. Once we began to trust that it would all round out, it did just that. Our middles informed our beginnings and ends, sometimes you just don’t know it until you write it.

Day 1: What I had to learn…

Posted in Writing with tags on January 28, 2011 by Melissa Henry

Day 1. What did I do the very first time I sat down to write my story?

A reader who is usually reading no less than three books at a time, I had some distant idea of how a book is constructed. Like a physics genius blasting apart atoms, I knew I had to get to the smallest component of a book and grow from there. From scenes to chapters, from chapters to a full-length book.

On that first day, I searched the internet for tips on writing an effective scene. I sampled five or ten sites and they all said the same basic thing: goal, conflict, outcome.  It was as simple as that. I’ll say it again…goal, conflict, outcome. I have a feeling this knowledge is innate to writers, that they’re probably born with it, but I had to learn it.

With goal, conflict, and outcome written down as a reminder, that’s where I started. I wrote scene after scene, referencing that hot pink sticky note attached to my keyboard, until I had a folder of twenty or so scenes. Eventually the scenes began to connect, cohere, and like protons and neutrons they should have formed atoms, or rather chapters. This is where I went wrong, I skipped over chapters and went straight to developing four sections of the larger work, but we’ll talk about that later. However, once I had the chapters, those chapters gave structure to the premature sections. Finally, those sections (with chapters after I got my head on straight) fed into one another and they became a first draft.

You don’t have to start out big, I didn’t. I built a solid foundation on the three basic principles of writing a scene: goal, conflict, outcome.

What did you do the first day you sat down to write? Post in the comments section, I want to hear your thoughts!

Though there is a Day Zero post somewhere in the future, there isn’t going to be a Day 2, 3, 4…6205 (yes, it’s been that long). I promise.

Best, Melissa

Up next in the series (likely to be interrupted by random posts): 300 pages?! Where do I start?

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