A long time ago, when I was teaching freshman composition and trying to dream up engaging exercises to help students connect with their writing, I happened to subscribe to Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. The first issue I received introduced me to a recurring one-page feature titled “Caption: What’s in a Picture?” It invited writers to interrogate or investigate an image of their choice and included the image above the text.
We live in the era of instantaneous news. Social media has made it possible for events to be reported to the public within hours. Hashtags are trending 24/7. Atrocities are delivered to ears and minds in an unending stream. There is always something to grieve for, to be angry about, to protest against, to fundraise for, to petition, to debate about, to dissect in think pieces, to retweet and to like, to wonder if we are powerless to stop it.
As an artist, it is a daily challenge to remain both stimulated and grounded in such a reactive environment.
Cynthia Swanson’s debut novel The Bookseller has only been out from HarperCollins since the beginning of March, but already she is seeing great success: the novel is being translated into 11 foreign languages and its hardcover version is already in its second print run! Set in 1960s Denver, Colorado, The Bookseller tells the story of a woman caught between fact and fiction when she begins to have vivid dreams of a life completely unlike the path she has chosen. A mid-century designer herself, Cynthia has woven a compelling, fast-paced story with a beautifully intricate backdrop.
Most fiction writers, even writers of speculative fiction, hope to create realistic characters. Such characters are the great ones—they seem like actual people who remain in your memory like someone you met. And what qualities does a realistic character have? They are complicated, often funny, conflicted, surprising, someone with a past, experiences, memories, dreams, and habits. They are riddled with insecurities, yet full of self-importance. That is, a character is a person like you or me.
It's no secret in the Twin Cities that anyone around you could be a literary superhero. Trust us—we see it all the time at the Loft.
Right now we're seeing a lot of it in front- desk volunteer Joey McGarvey. Originally from Sacramento, Joey worked in publishing in New York before finding herself here, literally in the middle, last September. She talked to us for a while about how she's settling in:
I'm always interested in literary uses of "you" because I love the slipperiness of the second person, the way it can slide from one meaning to another. "You" can be a direct address to the reader, or it can be a specific fictional character that is addressed. Colloquially, "you" is often used to mean "one." And "one," of course, can be a roundabout way of saying "I." A deft writer can make use of these separate meanings, transitioning skillfully from one to another.
I find a useful illustration of that skill in Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird.
It’s important, even if you don’t speak another language, to experience the literature of other countries: there are so many people out there living lives entirely different from yours, and because they have written them down beautifully—and because someone else has translated them into English—there’s no reason you can’t gain a better understanding of other cultures.
Blame Aristotle. Blame classical Greek culture. Blame all of Western Civilization. But every story must have a beginning, middle, and end. And more than that.
Without narrative structure, nonfiction writing is just a boring recitation of one thing after another. You may think because it is based on your experiences, historical events, scientific experimentation, or natural observations that you don’t need a story to write a book. Think again.
In the essay “Dear Writer,” Richard Bausch lays out 10 commandments for writers. The first commandment on his list is “Read.” He suggests, based on advice that F. Scott Fitzgerald imparted to his daughter, that writers should try to “absorb… six good authors a year.” He goes on to describe the way that writers should read books, which is not “as an English Major is trained to read them.” Rather, he suggests that writers should “swallow” and “ingest” books. This kind of reading, reading not for the type of analysis done in literature classrooms, but for plunder, is the first step in learning to commit literary theft.
This past weekend, I had the delight of attending CONvergence. It was four days of meeting and reconnecting with many folks, seeing some amazing panels, participating in a few panels myself, and catching up with others in publishing. One panel that I particularly enjoyed was “Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Writing.”
This was an informative discussion, and something that any writer would take inspiration from. How does this translate into the agent-author relationship?