Write The Book: Conversations on Craft

A writing podcast for writers and curious readers, featuring interviews with authors, poets, agents and editors. Twice chosen as one of Writer’s Digest Magazine’s 101 Best Website for Writers. Vermont-grown.

Vermont Author Joseph Covais, whose debut novel is Quiet Room, the first in the "Psychotherapy With Ghosts" trilogy (New Line). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to consider an alternative to the conventional discovery of a ghost -- that blood curdling scream and dash out of the house with your arms in the air. If you spent the night in an old, unfamiliar home and found a ghost leaning over you in the middle of the night, could you  maintain your presence of mind and ask the spirit a question? What might you say? Write a short dialogue and see what comes.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Author David Arnold, whose new novel is The Electric Kingdom (Viking Books for Young Readers).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, David Arnold. His first inspiration for The Electric Kingdom came to him as he was a new stay-at-home Dad, caring for his newborn son. It was the image of a boarded-up farmhouse in the middle of the woods. (I suggested that maybe his new-dad brain was trying to encourage him to rent a cabin as a writing retreat. He said no...) For him, the farmhouse allowed him to begin taking notes for The Electric Kingdom. He invites us to use that same image as a prompt this week.  A farmhouse, deep in the woods, boards over the windows. Where does this take you?

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Two interviews from the archives. Ralph Culver, author of Both Distances (Anabiosis), has a new book coming in the fall: A Passable Man (MadHat Press). And James Fallon is the author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain (Current). 

This week's Write the Book Prompt is again visual. Take a look at the photo,  below, and write! 

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Image via https://unsplash.com/@bewakoofofficial

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion. 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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An interview from the archives with author, film maker, and founding editor of the online magazine The Rumpus, Stephen Elliott. Since our interview, Elliott has been in the news for filing a lawsuit in New York court against Moira Donegan, the creator of the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet.  I didn't know about the suit when I aired this week's show. I include relevant news links here in case you want to read more about the situation.

This week's Write the Book Prompt is visual. Have a look at the photo below, and write.

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Image by Balaji Srinivasan

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion. 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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An interview from the archives with Vermont Poet Neil Shepard. We spoke in 2013 about his collection, (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel (Mid List Press).

Have you ever felt like a displaced tourist? Ever get lost in Rome, trying to find your friends at the Trevi Fountain? Or even in your hotel, trying to find the bar, unable to recall how to ask directions? Did you ever try to do something as simple as try to feed a meter in Montreal, and have no clue in the world how to do it? This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about that moment, the feelings you had, the person who helped you, if anyone did, or the person who most certainly did not. Write about how you unraveled, and then (hopefully), reintegrated--raveled, as Neil Shepard puts it--back to a place of comfortable belonging. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Local Irish Poet Angela Patten from 2015. She has a new book since this conversation: The Oriole & the Ovenbird (Kelsay Books). 

Given that Angela Patten’s new poetry collection concerns birds and their meaning in our lives, today’s Write the Book Prompt is to observe the birds as they come back to our attention with the advent of spring, and write them into your work. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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A conversation on blending the tangible and the ineffable in fiction, with two authors who do this beautifully. Steven Wingate's new novel is The Leave-Takers (Univ. of Nebraska Flyover Fiction Series). Maxim Loskutoff's debut novel is Ruthie Fear (Norton). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to consider how your work might benefit from an infusion of the ineffable. Your work might be strictly realistic, and yet even in life we encounter that which is hard to explain or express--that which inspires awe or fear. This might mean picking up on an unseen presence in a room, or perhaps conveying how it feels to lean over and drop a pebble into a canyon. Working to express something inexpressible simply has to be good for your writing.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Matthew Salesses, author of Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Matthew Salesses. This comes from his book, Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult), and is the tenth in his series of revision exercises. “Add a major source of outside complication to your story. That is, add something big that comes in and forces itself on the plot, something like a toxic spill or an earthquake or a war or a rabid dog or a serial killer or a rapture. Don’t make this a small insertion, but something that truly changes the story. You might think about what large outside force would connect thematically to the character arc. In other words, how can story arc and character arc inform each other and help each other to resonate? A toxic spill (and subsequent cover-up) might help a story in which a character is hiding a secret that would reveal him to be a dangerous person.”

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Author Jakob Guanzon, whose new novel is Abundance (Graywolf Press). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by Jakob Guanzon: Think back to the last time you made a purchase for which you had to really budget, negotiate, discuss with a loved one, and so on. Before you begin drafting a scene, list out all the pros and cons that you'd weighed before reaching a decision—such as how the purchase stood to improve your life, what else you could have purchased with that money, what emotional/symbolic value it held in your view you, how its acquisition could change others' perception of you, etc.

Then write a scene that's centered on the decision making process—to buy or not to buy—while incorporating as many of your earlier considerations as possible. Jakob recommends doing so in the third-person to give yourself some abstract distance. The goal here is to experiment with ways of charging a sense of drama and urgency into the minutiae of financial decisions, "which generally aren't brimming over with the sexiest narrative material."

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Author and journalist Andrea Williams, whose new middle-grade nonfiction book is Baseball's Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues (Roaring Brook Press). 

In our conversation, Andrea Williams and I discussed a moment in history when Effa Manley spoke up at a meeting. Not only did she speak up, but she suggested that if the store she’d organized a boycott of didn’t start to employ African Americans, those potential employees would be forced to "work as prostitutes." It was a bold move, speaking in such a way at that time, and it worked.

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about a time that you took a chance to better a situation, putting yourself at risk for a good cause. This could be a situation that arose at work, or it could be about that time you convinced your Mom that your brother really had not been the one to break a vase by throwing a baseball in the house. Give yourself over to that memory and write.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

 
An interview from 2013 with Vermont Author Howard Norman. We discussed his memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place (Mariner).
 
Howard Norman’s memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place begins with a sentence about how, in the summer of ‘64, he used to sit on his basement steps, reading a book and trying to stay cool. It’s a wonderful way to open: that specific action and image, complete with an insinuation about the weather, and the different temperature downstairs. The scene does not disappoint, but goes on to offer more action and imagery from his fifteen-year-old memories. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to remember when you were fifteen, and write a sentence worthy of opening into a larger recollection--if not a memoir--from that time in your life. Be specific, imply some activity or impending action, and see if you can’t involve one or two of the senses in some way.
 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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A conversation with two of YA's finest: Sharon G. Flake, whose new book is The Life I'm In, and Bill Konigsberg, whose latest novel is The Bridge (both are published by Scholastic). 

Both of my guests write about the pain, joy, discovery, and hope of the teenage years. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write a paragraph on each of those four subjects: pain, joy, discovery, hope, from the perspective of your own teenage self. Perhaps you are still a teenager. Or maybe you fit that description five years ago. Perhaps fifty. No matter the case, a young adult sensibility still lives in your memories and the person you became and are still becoming each day. Harness those feelings and memories, and write.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Columbia University Campbell Family Professor of Anthropology Claudio Lomnitz whose new memoir is Neustra América: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation (Other Press). 

My guest’s title, Nuestra America translates in English as Our America. In the case of Professor Lomnitz’s book, the title refers to his own family’s experience of America. But if you were to say them aloud, what might the words “Our America” mean to you? This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about that. Consider America, the continent or the country, as you interpret it, and whatever sense of ownership and community the word “Our” might bring to your own mind. In times of post-election fallout, particularly this year, it might be a good exercise for all of us. What is Our America, and who are “We?” Who is a member of Our America, from your viewpoint; what does that collective share in common, and what do you think about or hope for that group?

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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A conversation about setting with Susan Conley, author of Landslide, and Lauren Fox, author of Send For Me, both published by Knopf.

This week we have four Write the Book Prompts, thanks to the generosity of my guests. 

From Susan:

  • During the interview, Susan urges writers not to be fooled by "description for description's sake.” Instead of just being happy with beautiful sentences about place, take your setting to the next level with this activity: Go to a place that has the most heat for you in your mind, in your project. Think about that setting and "describe the heck out of it" in a free write for 2-4 minutes. Then in the second half of the prompt, bring a huge problem to that place. Susan suggests that two characters have a big fight in that setting. Suddenly you introduce complexity, which brings in place as conduit for trouble and emotion. Leap from pure description and the beautiful sentence to the catalyzing action. She says she speaks of this with humility, having come to fiction through poetry. She liked writing beautiful sentences. But now she realizes that, in fiction, action really is necessary. It's not enough to describe the ocean. You have to have, in her case, "a teenager imploding in a boat on the ocean."
  • Read "The Colonel," by Caroline Forché. A powerful poem, it begins, "What you have heard is true." Susan offers this line as a prompt for students and asks them to write without censorship for ten minutes. Something about that line often cracks open some big stuff for people. 

From Lauren:

  • Write a short scene, and then rewrite the same scene in a different setting. As Lauren mentions during our interview, playing with setting—inventing, changing, renaming, re-placing (literally)—can present opportunities that open up our work in new ways. 
  • She also suggests an exercise that both she and her husband have shared with students; he's an English professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Inspired by The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (Library of America), the prompt is to write a series of sentences, all of which begin with "I remember." Lauren says that beginning with these two words tends to almost magically unlock memories and ideas. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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An interview from 2013 with Vermont Author Kathryn Davis. We discussed her novel Duplex (Graywolf Press).

How are you sleeping? Recently I realized that I know many people who, like me, were not sleeping particularly well in 2020, and some who still are not. We could discuss this at length, but instead, let’s write about it. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about sleep. Deep, happy sleep, fitful sleep, dreams, interrupted half-dreams, involuntary dozing in (Zoom) meetings, naps, medications, sleep walking, waking unexpectedly to something you can’t quite name. So much to work with, because sleep is universally vital.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Vermont author Ryan Scagnelli, whose debut is Where Is My Mind?: A Book About Depression. Based on Ryan’s own journey with depression, the novel came out in December through Amazon.

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Ryan Scagnelli. What would the world look like if men simply stepped aside, elevating women? Consider the ramifications: political, cultural, creative - whatever comes to mind - and write!

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.  

 

Music: Aaron Shapiro

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A conversation on plotting the so-called (one of our discussion points) literary novel. Margot Livesey's new novel is A Boy in the Field (Harper) and Jill McCorkle's latest is Hieroglyphics (Algonquin). 

This week we have four Write the Book Prompts, thanks to the generosity of my guests. You’ve heard Jill’s prompts. The two exercises she suggested for writers who aren’t sure what comes next for their plot was so great, I’m using them here as well. Jill’s teacher Max Steele originally suggested these first two exercises to her:

  • First, write a 1000-word sentence. In one sitting, spend the time to write out that four-page, double-spaced sentence. This will “clean out the attic,” as Jill puts it.
  • Another exercise is to complete the sentence “I wish.” Later, and hopefully without actively thinking of how these sentences might link or thematically relate, write out an early memory. After you’ve written about these two ideas, see if your wish and memory connect. 
  • Margot suggests writing a scene that begins with the question, “Where were you last night?”
  • A second prompt Margot likes to share with her students is to take a scene that you’ve already written, and rewrite it from the point of view of another character. This doesn’t mean that you should change from first person to third person, but from, say, Milicent to Larry. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Author Ally Condie, whose novel, Matched, has been re-released by Penguin in honor of the book’s tenth anniversary. After its release in 2011, Matched was followed by the series sequels, Crossed and Reached.

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Ally Condie, who advises taking your character (or yourself) on a walk into a wood. Ally says she is very loosely defining “wood”—a wood can be any grove or stand of trees. "This can be a desert bristlecone forest, a forest in the Amazon, a cold white Vermont forest, the pines up the canyon near where I live in Utah."

  • Somewhere in this wood is a clearing.
  • There is a bench.
  • There is either fire, or water, or light, depending on what you or your character need most in this particular wood.
  • Someone is waiting for you.
  • Who is it?
  • Sit down and talk to them.
  • They will give you one thing.
  • What is it?
  • Will you take it with you?

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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A conversation from the archives with David Jauss about his collection Glossolalia: New and Selected Stories (Press 53, 2013). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about a man who is trying to get two dangerous snakes out of his garage.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Local author, artist and pet lover Dawna Pederzani, whose new book is The Bread Fairy (AuthorHouse).

During our interview, Dawna mentioned that the first writing she recalls taking on was the sermon for her grandfather’s funeral. She was twelve. This intrigued me. Writing offers the opportunity to really spell out how we feel about a person and to get the words just right. Dawna finds that her sentiments generally spill onto the page exactly how she intends right from the first draft, which is unusual, I think. For me, the ideas are the first to spill. A kernel of something right may build and take on life and energy as I continue, and then as I revise. A funeral sermon might be an opportunity to delve into emotion and offer tribute in a way that few other writing projects could. So this week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write a funeral sermon. Interpret that as you like. You could eulogize someone you lost years ago but have not yet fully said goodbye to. You could write your own funeral sermon, or one for a fictional character you’re trying to get a better feel for: a protagonist, perhaps (or maybe a villain...) Though as Dawna points out, few people are fully heroes. We all have shades of gray in the good and the bad that we show our community, especially during times of duress. 

Good luck with your writing in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Author and educator Martin Puchner, whose new book is The Language of Thieves: My Family's Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate (Norton).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Martin Puchner. Take one piece of research, a photograph, a document, an object and contemplate not only what it says, but how it got into your hands. How many people handled it before you? What kinds of institutions, and the people working for them, preserved them? How did these objects come into being and how did they survive? Hopefully, in asking these questions, you’ll discover the biographies of these objects. They will become full interlocutor and not just props.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

I also spoke with Martin Puchner in 2018. You can listen to that conversation here. 

Music: Aaron Shapiro

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An interview from the archives with writer and psychologist Matt Fried, MA, PhD, MFA. Among many other things, Matt teaches workshops on writers' block. 

When I spoke with Matt Fried in 2013, he generously suggested the following as a Write the Book Prompt: Write about a way in which you usually protect yourself in your daily life. You can define protection any way you like: emotionally, communication-wise, physically, etc. Then write about the reason or reasons you believe you protect yourself this way. Ask yourself: do I still need to do this? Finally, write about what might be a better (more effective, less emotionally costly) way to accomplish self-protection. I don’t generally repeat the prompts when I run archive episodes, but I feel that, given the pandemic and the divisiveness we’re experiencing as a nation, it might be a good one to offer again. Consider our present situation as you write about the ways you protect yourself in daily life, and your own answer to the question: is the way I protect myself sufficient, healthy, safe? Is it the best way to accomplish self-protection right now? 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Author Lewis Buzbee, interviewed in 2013 at the request of a listener. (Thanks, Shannon!) We discuss his middle-grade novel Bridge of Time (Squarefish) and his nonfiction book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, (Graywolf Press).

Lewis Buzbee’s book The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop celebrates the unique experience of exploring a bookstore—getting lost seeking your  perfect next read. And yet, due to the pandemic, many of us are unable to shop in bookstores at this time. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about your favorite bookstore or library, recalling what you most love or miss about the experience of being there, and what you will do when you can again browse its shelves.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Author and co-founder of Joyland Magazine Emily Schultz, whose new novel is Little Threats (GP Putnam's Sons). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Emily Schultz, who used her character Kennedy’s writing exercises as a way into the novel. In prison, Kennedy takes a creative writing class in which she writes about the past and her feelings about all that has happened to her. Emily suggests writers try letting a character write something in this way. It can be a journal entry, or it can be directed to the reader. See what comes of it, even if you end up rewriting it later in the third person or putting it into a scene.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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An interview from the archives with the author Roxana Robinson. We discussed her novel Sparta (Sarah Crichton Books). She has since published Dawson’s Fall, a novel based on the lives of her great-grandparents. 

The election is over, and Joe Biden has won. In considering how emotional this election was for our country, it occurs to me that drawing on our personal reactions to the 2020 election - now, while they are fresh - might be a good way to approach writing emotional scenes in our work. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about how you are feeling. You can write about political beliefs, patriotism, exhaustion, energy, patience, joy, disappointment, hope. Whatever you feel, write it down. Perhaps you already know how to apply these feelings to something you are working on. Perhaps it will take some time to process it all and see if it might fit into your work. Either way, good luck with your writing this week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Dr. Debra Horwitz, veterinarian and co-editor of Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones(HMH).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is a piece of advice that my guest, Dr. Debra Horwitz, generously suggested. People do their best thinking at different times. Dr. Horwitz says she sometimes comes up with her best ideas when she’s driving, or has just woken up in the night or in the morning, or is otherwise unavailable. So she recommends having sticky notes in the car, on the bedside table, and all those places where you might get a great idea and want to jot a note despite not having a computer at hand. If you like dictating notes instead, be sure you have a dictation app on your phone, or a recorder that you can carry and have at hand.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Former Vermont Laureates Sydney Lea (Poet) and James Kochalka (Cartoonist) on their latest collaboration, The Exquisite Triumph of Wormboy (Word Galaxy). 

 

This week I have a visual Write the Book Prompt to share, thanks to the illustrative talents of James Kochalka, and inspired by the way he and Sydney Lea worked together on Wormboy. Have a look at some of James Kochalka's work on his Tumblr site, find a panel that inspires you, and see what words come to mind!  Maybe try to write a poem or a short scene. Maybe a brief lyrical essay. Whatever you choose to write, good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Guest Host Kim MacQueen interviews Sameer Pandya, whose new novel is Members Only (Mariner Books). 

Sameer Pandya’s novel Members Only concerns Raj Bhatt’s enjoyment of and desire to fit in at his posh tennis club. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about a character feeling out of place. Whether this place is a school, work, a club or maybe an old group where fitting in never used to be a problem, what hurdles have to be overcome? Who or what presents the obstacles to feeling like a part of things, and how does your character cope - well, poorly? Do her goals change? Does he capitulate?

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Award-winning Irish Author Tana French, whose new novel is The Searcher (Viking). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was inspired by my conversation with Tana French, who, as an actress, seems to have a leg up on many issues of craft as she writes. One habit she mentioned is her tendency to act out gesture. So this week, try that. Your character has to admit to something shameful, or is feeling aggressive, or is really excited. What will he do that both fits the situation and isn’t the same old gesture we’ve all read in dozens of books before? Act out the moment. Try to get yourself into the frame of mind of your character, and go through her motions. Does she pick at a loose thread? Does she chew the inside of her cheek? Does she absentmindedly doodle on her bedroom wall with a pencil? Don’t have her ash the cigarette unless that is literally the only move that fits her frame of mind in this particular scene. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Vermont writer, artist and anthropologist, Dana Walrath, who has contributed to the graphic medicine book, Menopause: A Comic Treatment (PSU Press). You can check out the book trailer here. 

Dana Walrath generously offered us a Write the Book Prompt for today’s show, which is related to the advice she offered for writers. Precede your writing session by spending some time drawing, even simply drawing the evocative and inspiring spiral, which is a great way to tap into your subconscious but also establishes a ritual that announces to your creative self that it is time to write. 

I have to say, I got all excited as I wrote this prompt out and put down the word inspiring right before the word spiral. But then I looked them up and there is no etymological link; the association must be coincidental. However!!! …  that doesn’t mean we can’t link the words for ourselves as we work. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week and please tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Wildlife Journalist and Vermont Author Laurel Neme, whose new children's book is The Elephant's New Shoe: A True Rescue Story (Orchard Books). 

Laurel was kind enough to suggest a Write the Book Prompt for us, based on an exercise that she learned by taking an intensive picture book workshop by Anastasia Suen. Keep a daily journal and creative record--writing for a set amount of time each day that you assign for yourself--but keep it on your computer and in a single file. This way, if months from now you remember writing about something you can’t quite recall, you can search that file for a theme or keyword in order to find it. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and please tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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An interview with two Vermont Authors: Chris Tebbetts (1st Case, Little Brown) and Margot Harrison (The Glare, Little Brown).  

This week we have two Write the Book Prompts, thanks to the generosity of my guests. Margot suggests that if you have a character-- perhaps an antagonist or a supporting character you’re not doing justice to because you don’t understand what is motivating them--do some free writing from the point of view of that character and have them explain themselves: give their backstory and explain why they are doing what they are doing in the story and what feelings are driving them. 

Chris suggests a warm up exercise: people balk at this, but end up enjoying it. Write a passage using only words of four letters or less. The artful writing that you can come up with under that duress can be very satisfying. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Bestselling Welsh Author Ken Follett, whose latest novel, The Evening and the Morning (Viking), is a prequel to his popular book The Pillars of the Earth.

In our interview, Ken Follett mentioned that during the dark ages, the Anglo Saxons ignored the Romans’ brick houses and built wooden huts right next door. “It was a backward time." Also, and not the biggest news story of the month, but I just learned that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin wanted to build a castle in his Santa Fe historic district backyard, and the city has emphatically said that he may not. The project would have exceeded height limit zoning regulations and, though this wasn’t probably stated in the city’s findings, was just plain too weird. Anyway, this week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about a construction controversy. Frame it, as they say, as you like. But have fun. See where it takes you. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Episode from the archives with author and librarian Josh Hanagarne [The World's Strongest Librarian, Avery], as well as a short book chat with Bear Pond Books co-owner Claire Benedict. 

This week's Write the Book Prompt is to write about a tool or machine that is being used in a way other than was originally intended. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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American Novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, whose new novel is Dear Ann (Harper). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Bobbie Ann Mason, who exchanges prompts with her “flash-fiction co-writer buddy Meg Pokrass.” They send each other lists of interesting words with a challenge to use at least some of them in a story. 

One of their lists was: leaky, clawfoot, waddle, bonk, ribs, peace, rapier, feather pillow, steam, sherry, geraniums, skimp, booth, rabbit’s foot, diner, vitality, jet-lag, quivery, Lady Astor, punchline, kettle, bitter coffee, flub.

Bobbie wrote a flash fiction called Corn-Dog based on one of Meg’s lists, using most of these words: corn-dog, frozen, carnival, necks, Animal Planet, parcel, shorts, crisp, weed, note, thrill, stucco, cravings, wispy, unmarried, fat, laryngitis.

This week, Bobbie Ann Mason suggests that you open up a few novels from your shelf. Flip through the books and find interesting words. List a dozen or two. Then pick a word and start a story. Where does it lead you? To another word on the list? Then what? She admits that this exercise can lead into the absurd, but it’s great fun, and you might discover where you are going.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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David Goodwillie, whose new novel is Kings County (Avid Reader Press).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by David Goodwillie. Have a character go for a walk in a city, along a country lane, or in really any place. How would that character see the world? Have the person see it in a different way than you, the author, would. David points out that all too often, we try to give characters our own traits, rather than wholly letting them be their own people. If you’re having trouble building a character, this exercise in setting and perspective can really help. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

Vermont Author Stephen P. Kiernan, whose latest novel is Universe of Two (William Morrow). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by Stephen P. Kiernan. Conjure a very specific setting - not just location, but time of day, weather, and other factors that leave no doubt in any reader’s mind where that place is and what it is like.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

 

Tiffany McDaniel, whose new novel Betty (Knopf) is based on the life of her mother. 

In my interview with Tiffany, we talked about bringing deeper meaning to detail. In Tiffany’s case, she brings deeper meaning to the corn and corn silk, that show up throughout the book. Corn is in the characters' lives as food and as a crop. But also, corn is a part of Betty’s father’s Cherokee-inspired story about Betty and her sisters. As such, corn comes to represent more than it initially seems as the story unfolds. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to bring deeper meaning into a detail that has already appeared in your work. Don’t force anything, but work with a detail that is already in the work and might mean something more. Use it to enrich what you’re trying to bring to the page.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

Diane Cook, author of The New Wilderness (Harper), which has been long listed for the Booker Prize. 

As I mentioned early in today’s show, when I interviewed Diane Cook, her infant son could be heard in the early part of the hour. Then he went to be with his dad and his voice was no longer heard on the recording. But it got me thinking: children fill our world, but are sometimes absent from our settings. Why is that? Do they make too much noise? Would the chaos keep your scene from working smoothly? (Kind of like life?) The world is full of children, yet it sometimes seems like I see way more dogs than children in the books I read. So this week’s Write the Book Prompt is to put a baby, toddler, or child in a scene. This doesn’t necessarily mean introducing a new character. But maybe your narrator is at a coffee shop. Is there a cherubic baby in a car seat by his mom’s side at another table? Is a young child acting up? Is a teenager sitting with a friend, in ardent conversation? Keep children in mind as you build your poetic and fictional worlds.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

"Choreopoet" Monica Prince, as interviewed by guest host, Kim MacQueen. Among other works, they discuss Monica's choreopoem How to Exterminate the Black Woman. (PANK Books)

This week’s Write the Book Prompts were suggested by Kim’s guest, Monica Prince. She says the first was inspired by Fear No Lit in Lancaster, Pennsylvania:

  • Set a timer for 2 minutes. Write the word “WATER” at the top of your page. For the next two minutes, write down everything you can think of related to this word. (Don’t stop writing! If you get stuck, doodle or write the alphabet until you think of more to write.)
  • Once the timer goes off, reread your list. Circle the idea that most surprised you.
  • Set another timer for 10 minutes. Write a poem in response to/related to/about the idea you circled. Keep writing until the timer goes off.

Monica's second prompt is a poetry writing exercise, inspired by emojis:

Write a poem translating the emojis below. Feel free to go from left to right, right to left, up to down, down to up, diagonal, or at random. Make sure you include all the emojis. (I suggest crossing them off as you use them.) You must use every emoji at least once.

Tips: Instead of using traditional definitions of these emojis, think about what else they could represent. Don’t be afraid to only tangentially use some of them, while with others you might use for deeper meanings.

Description of emojis from left to right, top to bottom:

Row 1: Smiley face with sunglasses; sheep’s face; box of popcorn; swimmer

Row 2: World map; Chinese lantern; paint brush; fleur-de-lis (stylized lily)

Row 3: Green chick; baby bottle; golden key; silver crow

Row 4: Mind blown smiley face; dove; chocolate glazed donut with sprinkles; fireworks

Row 5: Theatre masks; hourglass; pills; rainbow flag

Row 6: Speaking bubble; flower bouquet; swiss cheese; racquet and ball

Row 7: Mosque; smiley face with mouth zipped shut; waxing/waning moon; crystal ball

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For an example of what this might look like, see this link to Carina Finn and Stephanie Berger's emoji poem published on Poetry Foundation. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

English author Lucie Britsch, whose debut novel is Sad Janet (Riverhead Books).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was mentioned by my guest, Lucie Britsch, during our conversation. It’s always good to take a step back and remember why you are writing something. Take a day off, take a week even. When you come back, you’ll likely rediscover the energy that was part of why you began, the enthusiasm around what you’d set out to do. The break, and that rediscovery of intention, will help you move forward with your work. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

An interview from the archives with the author Alex Grecian, who writes a fictional series about the Scotland Yard's Murder Squad, as well as stand-alones, like his 2018 The Saint of Wolves and Butchers (Putnam). 

 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to wear a mask, for the sake of your community and your loved ones. And write about the joy of this horror show ending thanks to the united efforts of responsible citizens, which all of us are, deep deep down inside. Says me. Sorry, I got political. But who can even believe this level of mild, patriotic self-sacrifice has become political? 

 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

Fiona McCrae, Director and Publisher of the Minneapolis-based literary publisher, Graywolf Press

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Fiona McCrae. Consider the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, and write. Maybe write from the perspective of someone with different or more extreme opinions than your own. Or write from two distinct perspectives. Or perhaps write from the point of view of someone who has one opinion, but is somehow personally affected by the movement in a way that amplifies, changes, or even negates that opinion. In responding to this current moment in history, consider your goal to be one of inspiring meaningful dialogue. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

Vermont Author Ann Dávila Cardinal, whose latest supernatural YA thriller  is Category Five (Tor Teen). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Ann Dávila Cardinal. She says that it’s not a prompt, exactly, but an exercise in encouragement:

Get three smallish pieces of paper. 

1) On the first one, write down your short term writing goals, say for the next week. Even day by day. It can be to write 1,000 words, or finish a chapter of revision, or journal everyday for a week. 

2) On the second, write down your goal for the year. Send out a certain number of submissions, finish a full draft, pull together a poetry chapbook. Whatever that looks like for you.

3) And finally, on the third, write down your long term writing goals. To be a published writer, to teach writing, to publish a book a year or every other year, to build a writing life. 

Put the first one somewhere you will see it every day. When the week is over, look at it, and access how you did. Adjust your goals for next week accordingly. The second one, put it away somewhere nearby, but not in immediate sight. Somewhere you will find it over the next year and be reminded, a jewelry box, in a book you look at a couple of times a year, in the tool box. For the third one, Ann recommends doing what Dr. Tererai Trent suggests in her book The Awakened Woman, and "plant your dreams." Either in a garden or a pot you then use for a plant, or even a park. Visit the place you planted your dreams as often as you need to, but trust that you are creating "intentional rootedness." If this is too "woo woo" for you, says Ann, don't worry about planting it, write down your three levels of goals and work towards them. Period. The point is, build that writing life your way.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

 

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

 

Author and NY Times "Dark Matters" Columnist Danielle Trussoni, whose new novel is The Ancestor (William Morrow).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Danielle Trussoni, who also suggested it in a recent workshop. In a discussion of dialogue and character, Danielle suggested that her students have one of their characters, perhaps an elusive character who's hard to pin down, write an autobiographical letter of introduction to the student, to the author. Danielle says this can be a helpful way to find the voice of the character and learn more about who that person is.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

 

UVM Professor Emeritus Robert Manning and Artist Martha Manning, authors of several books on long distance walking, including the subject of our 2013 conversation, Walking Distance: Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People (OSU Press).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about a famous walk. This could mean Steven Newman’s famous solo walk around the world, or it could mean your own child’s first steps. Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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American Poet, Essayist and Translator J. Chester Johnson, whose new memoir is Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation (Pegasus).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to consider your own family’s leanings when it comes to filiopietism, that veneration, often excessive, of ancestors or tradition. Does this exist in your own circle of relatives? Do people excuse behaviors because it’s just how the family has always been? Do you have beliefs based largely on what you were raised to think but have never questioned? Are there, even,  certain artifacts hidden away in your home that you keep simply because they belonged to a great grandfather or grandmother? If so, think about why you keep them, why you believe what you believe, why you cling to what you cling to, what you might shed of your family’s past if you could (or what you would not), and then write about it.

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Evan Fallenberg, author of The Parting Gift, which came out last week in paperback (Other Press). 

In a review of The Parting Gift, the Jerusalem Post called the book “Intoxicating…Fallenberg is a fearless writer; particularly on the vulnerability and rawness of desire. His crisp taut sentences compel us to keep reading.” This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about vulnerability, either in your own life or in that of a character. Perhaps this has to do with exposure, the telling of secret. Perhaps it’s about actual physical danger. What is at stake? As you work, keep in mind the appreciation of Evan’s crisp taut sentences. Play around with concision in your own writing as you work to convey vulnerability. 

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and please listen next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

 

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American academic and political advisor, Stanley "Huck" Gutman, who writes a newsletter about poetry which is distributed by email and through the UVM listserv, "Poetry."

See below for links to pages featuring some of the works that Huck and I discuss during the interview. 

This week's Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Huck Gutman, who writes:

The surprising subject of many, many poems of the past two hundred years has been the need to pay attention to what is right in front of us, of what is so ‘ordinary’ that we look at it, through it, but don’t see it.  In some sense, our lived reality is invisible to us; in our habitual movement through our lives, we don’t pay attention to what is actually there in front of us and around us.

So as a writing prompt, I would suggest writing about something right in front of you that you don’t normally ‘see.’  For many, this is an object; for some, like Wordsworth, it is a person who seems ordinary but who has that amazing spark that is the emblem of life. 

 Among the life of ordinary things is where our existence takes place.  A poem can recognize that in the ‘ordinary’ are the things that make our world our world.  Write about such a thing.  (If you want to see what this looks like, lots of William Carlos Williams poems do this; so do a lot of poems by Elizabeth Bishop; so do the remarkable ‘Odes’ to common things that Pablo Neruda wrote in the later years of his life…) (For ‘ordinary’ people, there is Wordsworth; there is always that superlative writer – though not a poet – Anton Chekov. )

Good luck with your work in the coming week, and please tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

Works Discussed:

Paul Celan, "Once" 

T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Zbigniew Herbert, "Five Men"

Tim O'Brien, "The Things They Carried"

Stevie Smith, "Not Waving But Drowning"

Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning"

Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself 47 "

C.K. Williams, "Jew On Bridge"

William Carlos Williams:

"Calypso II"

"This is Just to Say"

"Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"

William Wordsworth, Extracts from the Prelude: [Ascent of Snowdon]

Paul Zimmer, "A Romance for the Wild Turkey"

 

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