Archive for Fiction misc.

Writing fiction is difficult. Duh.

This Wall Street Journal post says it all: “How to Write a Great Novel.”


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Top 10 favorite short stories

My only complaint about short fiction is that I don’t have time to read more of it. That said, here’s my current top ten list of short stories (listed in the order they came to me). I hope you’ll post a comment about your faves.

1. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” By Flannery O’Connor

2. “Red Weather.” By Lewis Buzbee (from the After the Gold Rush collection).

3. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” By Raymond Carver

4. “The Twenty-seventh Man.” By Nathan Englander.

5. “Brokeback Mountain.” By Annie Proulx

6. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” By Flannery O’Connor

7. “The Masque of Red Death.” By Edgar Alan Poe

8. “The Chrysanthemums.” By John Steinbeck

9. “Hills Like White Elephants.” By Ernest Hemingway

10. “How to Date a Brown Girl.” By Juno Diaz

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musicConstance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose calls voice “the je ne sais quoi in all strong writing.” Other writers and critics refer to voice as the music behind the prose, the unique way a writer expresses herself–a fingerprint of language. Voice can be imitated but not duplicated; its rythymn and tone are unique to each writer.

Voice is often confused with style. But style is concrete–the way we structure our sentences, our word choice and use of metaphor, whether we tend to write formally or informally, etc.

I think voice is something deeper and ultimately unnameable because it orginates underneath language and only takes shape through language.

The writer’s task is to write from this original source, particularly when first drafting a story. In revision, we must continue to listen for the original voice and build on it. The result is an authenticity of language that the reader immediately feels and wants more of.

On a more superficial (but equally essential) level, voice is shaped by the writer’s background, cultural heritage, and personal experience.

Voice changes with point of view. A cat sees the world differently than his master, a sister views the house she grew up in differently than her brother.

The writer’s experience of a landscape also shapes voice.  My first novel is set in the Salinas Valley where I grew up. Sheila’s story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. The Valley is in my bones, my very being.

Finding Your Writers Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall stresses finding one’s “raw” voice, and then refining it through craft (revision). What enables us to tap into this raw voice, “the writer’s most powerful tool?”

Writing about childhood–simple memories such as climbing the tree in your front yard or a meal your mother prepared–can unearth an interior language that existed before our egos had fully formed. Before we learned that writing required us to be someone other than who we are.

I’ll be teaching a two-hour class on Voice tomorrow night at Book Passage in Corte Madera. It’s the first in my Fiction Toolbox series, which will also include an evening each on character, plot and setting. Get dates and other details here.

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Some of my favorite novels



1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

2. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

3. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

4. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullen

5. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

6. Middlemarch by George Eliot

7. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

8. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

9. Victory by Joseph Conrad

10. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigura

11. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

12. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

13. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet

14. Atonement by Ian McEwan

15. Independence Day by Richard Ford

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From novel excerpt to short story

pencilI’ve been working on a couple of short stories. I’m in awe of how difficult, and liberating, it is to write a good one. Every gesture, scene, and piece of landscape and dialogue has to matter and work to move the reader towards a defining moment.

I’ve learned an interesting lesson with one of these stories, “Letting Go.”  I took a chapter from the novel I’m working on and tried to make it a standalone story. The novel is in first-person present.  I may change that, but for now that’s the narrative point of view.

So I printed out the chapter excerpt from the novel (the point in the novel when the heroine’s mother is dying) and marked it up, adding a little information to make it clear who the characters are, why the mother is dying, etc. My writing group gave this revision the thumbs up. Mind you, they had the benefit, or disadvantage, of having read everything that proceeds and follows this chapter.

I thought the story was ready to send out.

Then I gave it to my husband to read. He hadn’t seen any of the new novel. So he came to the story cold. He was very frank, which I love about him. The story didn’t work. Not enough background, not nearly enough time with the main character. It was “weird.”

I sulked for a day (for me, resistence always proceeds a major revision), then got to work. Cut the story to ribbons. Changed the point of view (to third-person) and tense (to past).

Guess what? It’s better. And different. The standalone version gives the reader enough distance and background (I hope) to be able to take in what the main character’s experiencing at a critical moment of her life.  

I’ll give the story another pass for typos, substitute a verb here and there for better one, and then it’s outta here.

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Farm-grown writers

pigI was invited to be the “featured” reader at Poetry Farm last Monday night. (I read from The Love We All Wait For.)

I’ve been hearing about this Marin County writers community for several years. I had no idea what I’d been missing.

The “farmers” at Poetry Farm are a wonderful mix of poets and prose writers–most of them of a certain age (comme moi).

I read and answered questions, and then singer/songwriter and guitarist Sam Neff played a beautiful tune, “Everything to Me” (the chorus has stayed with me). Kirsten Neff read half a dozen poems that blew me away. (“California Cousins,” a sensuous celebration of two young cousins on the 4th of July, is gorgeous.)

Donna from Kentucky read a lovely prose piece about a ten-year-old boy watching a fly “on the wrong side of the screen.” Mark, a slam poet  flips through sheets of poems like a mad orchestra conductor, and Marilyn’s “April 12th” made me cry. There were other readings–like the clever, whimsical poem about Quantum Physics. (The reader’s rhinestone eyepatch was a nice touch.)

Poetry Farm is more than the sum of its parts. It’s community at its best: People sharing their work, encouraging each other and talking about the ups and downs of writing and publication. A place to keep growing.  

Poetry Farm meets the second Monday of the month at 7 pm at Dr. Insomnia’s Cafe on Grant Street in Novato. Fortify yourself with the great coffee and tasty homebaked goods on sale–the scones are to-die-for.

I’ll be returning to the Poetry Farm just to listen next time. I hope to see you there. Bring something to read. There’s a signup sheet for scheduled and impromptu readings.

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champagneI’m in a writing group. We’re four serious writers. All published, and all writing regularly with an eye towards improving our craft and consistent publication.  We share our work, successes, frustrations, a lot of laughter and now and then a few tears. 

When I’m with these three women I feel like I’m home.  And when great things happen to them, they happen to me too.

There’s been plenty to celebrate lately. Elizabeth landed an agent for her kick-ass historical fiction novel (this after having a dozen plus stories accepted). Mary just found an agent for a  fantastic, tipping-point (mark my words), non-fiction book about “archetypal soulscapes.” Annie, a southernerner with a wry and wacky sense of humor has had ten poems published. She’s now in the homestretch of a novel about two sisters, their mother’s murder, a newspaper reporter with a weakness for gossip and baubles, and a voodoo doll named Lolo. Original? You bet.

I’ve been in half a dozen writing groups over the years. This one’s a keeper. Congratulations, dear friends. Thanks for keeping me honest, and writing.

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