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 Michael Freed-Thall, whose debut novel is Horodno Burning (Rootstock).

Consider this Write the Book Prompt, inspired by my conversation with Michael: try using history as a frame from which to hang your characters in writing a story, poem, essay or longer piece. As you work, be sure you are accurately rendering the historical period, researching the industry, technology, customs, and events of the period. 

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 Melissa Perley, whose 2019 book The Violin Family (Rootstock) was recently named a winner in the Children’s Category of the 2021 Indie Reader Discovery Awards.

Here's a musical Write the Book Prompt: listen to a piece of music and try to describe it in your work. It's harder than it sounds! 

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 Vermont author and former president of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Thomas Christopher Greene, about his novel The Headmaster's Wife (Thomas Dunne). 

On Friday, at a football game in Burlington High School's stadium, community members were treated to a very special halftime show featuring many students and teachers appearing in drag. According to The Washington Post, and yes, this was covered by The Washington Post, the idea came from Andrew LeValley, an English teacher and alliance adviser at the school. He is quoted as saying, “I was just really hoping to give our students — who are both out and the students that were in the stands who are not out — a moment to shine and feel loved, and know that there is a place for them in public schools.” I loved reading this story, both the spirit behind the event and the support with which the performance was met. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about someone who wears clothing that is new to them and perhaps makes a statement about who they are or how they are feeling. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about dressing in drag, though that would be great. Also, though, a costume, a uniform, a borrowed outfit. What is the backstory? How does the person feel, dressed up in a new way? Do people notice? How do they react? Is there any consequence or change that comes about as a result?

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

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

Award-winning author Donald Antrim, whose new memoir is One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival (Norton).

In presenting his viewpoint that suicide is a disease, Donald Antrim experiments early in the book with a presentation of labels and names for mental illness. As you heard in the interview, this list begins, “Depression, hysteria, melancholia, nervousness, neurosis…” and goes on for nearly two pages. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to use a list of words in an interesting way to make a point. Perhaps you are writing about the foliage season. Might it be interesting to present a running list of trees and bushes that offer brilliant color in the fall: maple, oak, elm, hackberry, white birch, larch, tamarack, hazelnut. What could you do to make such a list both interesting, as poetic sound, and evocative? How might you then transition back into your text to continue making your point?

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 director and playwright Lisa Peterson, who has penned a translation of Hamlet for the Play on Shakespeare project, a series published by ACMRS Press.

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to choose a piece of your work and try to translate it for a different audience than it was originally intended. Change the language so that it might have made sense three hundred years ago. Or put it into words you could read to a child. Change it to appeal to someone from a different culture. If you are bilingual, translate it into another language.

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 author Ruth Ozeki, whose latest novel is The Book of Form and Emptiness (Viking).

In our conversation, Ruth mentioned that she has to dig really deep to find her characters and fully understand them. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to consider a character you are working on; perhaps someone you don’t fully understand yet. Ask yourself these questions about this character: 

  • What does he or she want? (And from here on, I’m going with she, to make life easier…)
  • Has she had it before and lost it, or does she want something she has never had or achieved?
  • What will happen if she does not get what she wants? 
  • Will this affect anyone else? 
  • Does she care about affecting anyone else? 
  • Where does she come from? 
  • What situation or life does she come from?
  • What matters to her? 
  • Who or what is keeping her from getting what she wants? 
  • Does she know that this person or situation is to blame? 
  • How does she feel about this person or situation? 
  • What is she willing to do to change the situation? 
  • Does she see herself clearly / does she understand herself? 

Consider these and any other questions that might occur to you as you work on your character, take notes, and then try again to write from her perspective.

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 and former WTB Co-Host Gary Miller, whose new nonfiction book for students and their teachers is There's No Way to Do It Wrong!: How to Get Young Learners to Take Risks, Tell Stories, Share Opinions, and Fall in Love with Writing

Gary generously offered us one of his many writing prompts to use for a Write the Book Prompt today. And that prompt is to begin with the sentence, “They told me, but of course I didn’t listen.” See where it takes you. Write for seven minutes. And there is no way to do it wrong!

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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Vermont Poet Ralph Culver, whose new collection is A Passable Man (Mad Hat Press).

In his poem, "Tableau," Ralph Culver writes about one person sharing a space with two other versions of himself, presumably over time (though this is never stated overtly). For a Write the Book Prompt, try experimenting with a similar moment that captures multiple expressions of one person - perhaps three ages, three states of mind, or three memories. Whatever strikes you as interesting.

Good luck with this, and please tune in next week for another prompt or suggestion.

Music Credit: Aaron Shapiro

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Interview with the poet Maggie Smith, whose new collection of poems, is Goldenrod (One Signal).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt, suggested by my guest, Maggie Smith, is based on the work of Joe Brainard, who wrote the book I Remember. The book is essentially prose poetry, and each line begins with the words “I remember.” Maggie says that the idea is that if you do that over a couple of pages in a big rush without editing yourself or self-censoring, or even trying, you may find yourself connecting ideas you might not have otherwise. She says to consider “first thought, best thought,” and then use the material to mine through for new poems and projects. This same book was recommended in an earlier prompt suggestion from Lauren Fox, so I’m betting it’s a great exercise to try! But to put another spin on it, since Lauren also mentioned this for a prompt and perhaps you’ve already tried it, I’ll additionally suggest that you try writing lines that begin with the words “I miss…” 

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 Jessica Hendry Nelson, who has a new book out - co-authored with fellow former Write the Book Guest Sean Prentiss: Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writer's Guide and Anthology, just out from Bloomsbury. During this interview, we talked about her memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is inspired by the title of my guest’s memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions. Write a list of simple directions concerning how to do something - how to change a tire, how to make pasta, how to tape a room before painting it - and then expand on that list, making it into an essay that has deeper meaning.

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 Nancy Hayes Kilgore, in a conversation about her new novel, Bitter Magic (Sunbury Press).

As we mentioned during our interview, one character who Nancy Hayes Kilgore describes in Bitter Magic is the devil himself. He appears to Isobel Gowdie in a spot where a tree had stood only moments before. She depicts him as a blonde man wearing green, but during their encounter he changes. This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write a character based on a famous non-human entity: a leprechaun, a fairy, a centaur, a cherub, a poltergeist, a ghost. Consider what you feel to be accurate about how this entity has been depicted historically, and how you might change that depiction. Will you use this character in your work without naming who or what it’s based on, or will you leave that to readers to identify?

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 consultant and teacher Carolyn Conger, PhD, about her book Through the Dark Forest: Transforming Your Life in the Face of Death (Plume). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was inspired by the book, Through the Dark Forest: Transforming Your Life in the Face of Death. No matter where you are in life - age-wise, health-wise, or otherwise - this week consider what you’ve left unfinished so far in your life, and what you would like to do about it. Maybe also keep in mind how you have navigated the pandemic, and whether the past year and a half have made you feel more vulnerable. Write about all the things that come up as you invite these thoughts and feelings.

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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Poet, editor, scholar, and musician Tony Trigilio, whose new collection is Proof Something Happened, winner of the 2020 Marsh Hawk Poetry Prize.

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Tony Trigilio. This prompt is adapted from John Daido Loori's The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life. Sit with an object/memory/experience until it begins to reveal itself to you -- its details, contours, emotions, and so on. Be open to the possibility that you might need to sit for a long time. As you get more comfortable with the object's familiar contours, the odd, strange, subtle, mysterious, and absurd (and equally-as-real) aspects of this object of your mind will reveal themselves. Express these in a poem - any form, shape, structure, tone, or pitch. You are writing about "what else" the object is, and likely also writing about "what it is not." Like a painter working with negative space, this approach can help you discover the fullest sense of your subject matter.

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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Best-selling author Caroline Leavitt, whose novel With or Without You just came out in paperback (Algonquin Books). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Caroline Leavitt. Write a page about two people who are in love without mentioning passion, desire, kids or any other words associated with love.

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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Interview from the archives with poet and prose writer Barbara Henning, regarding her book A Swift Passage (Quale Press).

I have family visiting this week - lots of loved ones filling our two guest rooms, and sleeping on the floor in the finished basement, and in one case staying in the dining room. It’s a lot of fun, and a bit of a clown car. Today’s Write the Book Prompt is to imagine a house full of visitors. What might look like in your case? Where will everyone sleep? How do they all get along? What do you feed them? Do any old rivalries resurface? Old flames? Does anything happen to create a moment of excitement or adventure? How would you establish the characteristics of each person to turn these visitors into interesting characters in a work of prose or poetry?

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 author Christina Baker Kline, whose novel The Exiles, came out in paperback this month from Custom House

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Christina Baker Kline, who suggests writing the details of your morning, making sure to include all five senses in the first paragraph.

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, yoga practitioner, and teacher Kyle Ferguson, whose new book (with co-author Anthony Grudin) is Beyond Hot Yoga: On Patterns, Practice and Movement (North Atlantic Books). 

Kyle's reading during our interview is excepted from Beyond Hot Yoga: On Patterns, Practice, and Movement by Kyle Ferguson and Anthony Grudin, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2021 by Kyle Ferguson and Anthony Grudin. Used by permission of publisher.

One concept discussed in the book is that of “flipping” an established practice—turning it on its head, you might say—to explore the power of opposition. Can we do this as a writing exercise? What is a pattern for which you regularly reach? Do you always write in the morning and find it’s not flowing lately? Maybe write after lunch instead, or last thing at night; maybe write in a notebook rather than on the laptop. Craft-wise, do you start every scene mid-dialogue? Do you use the same tired gestures for your main character? How might you flip these patterns to explore the power of opposition? Perhaps you could begin a scene at the end of an important action, and find a way other than dialogue to present what has happened. Perhaps Matilda avoids her reflection for once. Perhaps she reaches for her younger sister’s hand and not that cigarette. Or would she never do that? Why not? If it’s not consistent with her character, what other than a cigarette will satisfy (or at least live comfortably on the page alongside) her tension and unhappiness? Will she nervously play with a necklace? Will she stalk from room to room, always as if she has a mission, though never actually having a mission? Perhaps this in itself can underscore that lack of purpose you’re going for, and her feelings of inadequacy.

I have no idea, in fact, what you're working on and what the patterns of your writing practice look like. But for this week's Write the Book Prompt, consider ways to flip that practice, re-pattern your habits, and freshen both the words on the page, and the stories they tell.

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 Patrick Hicks, whose new novel is In the Shadow of Dora: A Novel of the Holocaust and the Apollo Program (Stephen F. Austin University Press ). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously suggested by my guest, Patrick Hicks. In order to develop new characters and make them believable, it's crucial to know their likes and dislikes. Patrick spends quite a bit of time doing character sketches before he starts writing in order to know their backgrounds and personalities. For fun, he sends his characters to the grocery store to buy five items. What do they need? What do they buy? Don't think about this for very long -- just write it down. What they buy will tell you something about their personalities, their wants and desires, and their daily lives. How do they get to the grocery store? By bus? Car? What kind of car do they drive? Why that particular kind of car? Do they have bumper stickers? What's in the car? How are they dressed when they go shopping? What are they thinking about as they move through the aisles? What's on their mind? Although this exercise takes less than 10 minutes, Patrick finds that it illuminates aspects of his characters that are new to him. He likes following them around and observing them. It offers surprising details, and he can see them more clearly as individuals. He writes that his students also love this exercise. 

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 Rachel Donohue, whose new novel is The Temple House Vanishing (Algonquin). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Rachel Donohue, who suggests writing a paragraph in which your character is in one mood at the beginning, and a different mood by the end. 

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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Interview from the archives with Vermont Poet Daniel Lusk. This conversation took place at the time that his collection Kin was published (Maple Tree Editions).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt comes from a local writer and artist who lives in Bristol, Vermont: Lily Hinrichsen. Choose one of the works of art on her website, and write an ekphrastic poem. Ekphrastic comes from the Greek word for description. Here’s a definition from the Poetry Foundation:  an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.  So my suggestion is that you visit Lily’s website, take a look at the art there, and write! If you choose to share the outcome with me, I’ll share it with Lily, and she may post it on her website at the side of the work you chose to write about.  

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 award-winning poet Natasha Sajé, whose new book is Terroir: Love, Out of Place (Trinity University Press). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Natasha Sajé, who discussed the concept during our conversation, referring to “The Flash Forward” and “The Flash Back.” As long as your readers know the present moment of a scene, and that scene is clear to them, you can move around in time to inform the moment, making it richer and deeper. In Natasha’s book, she presents a dinner party in such a way that it becomes an elegy to friends she will later lose to AIDs. And so a dinner party scene gives way to a flash forward of what is coming - the AIDS epidemic, insight into its roots and politics, lives lost, a community devastated. That scene in turn brings us back to the happy dinner party, so that we finish by reading the “present” moment of the party scene. A mouse runs through the room, Natasha and another guest scream, and the scene ends almost comically, but still a strong sense of emotion and disquiet. This week, play around with flashing forward or back to enrich a moment in your work and see what emerges.

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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Marcia Butler, author of Oslo, Maine (Central Avenue Publishing).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was generously offered by my guest, Marcia Butler, who suggests writing a 1200 word short/short story in the first person point of view. But do not use the pronouns “I” “Me” or “My” until at least halfway through, and preferably at the very end.

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 Author Alec Hastings, whose 2013 debut novel was Otter St. Onge and the Bootleggers: A Tale of Adventure, published by The Public Press. This one first aired on The Radiator

This week's Write the Book Prompt is to write about a flight delay (which I'm presently experiencing...) 

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 British Author Rupert Thomson, whose latest novel is Barcelona Dreaming (Other Press). 

This week’s Write the Book Prompt was inspired by my conversation with Rupert Thomson, who mentions Christine Schutt as an author who values "sentence magicians," those writers who particularly focus on sentence-level writing and revision to the benefit of their prose. Rupert refers to the way one excellent sentence can flow into the next, and how the best of these transitions will create tension. He mentions Mary Gaitskill, Joy Williams, Denis Johnson, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor as some of his own favorite "sentence magicians." This week, study your sentences. Are they doing all they can for 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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An interview from the archives with British Author Diane Setterfield. We discuss her novel, Bellman & Black (Atria/Emily Bestler Books). 

Diane Setterfield’s novel Bellman & Black begins with a child’s prank that has far-reaching consequences. Today’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about such a moment in the life of one of your characters--an act of thoughtlessness or cruelty that reverberates long past what he or she might have expected.

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 poet and author Erika Nichols-Frazer, who has edited a new collection on themes of mental health, A Tether to This World: Stories and Poems About Recovery (Main Street Rag). We are joined later in the hour by the poet A. E. Hines, a contributor to the collection. 

This week we have two Write the Book Prompts, thanks to the generosity of my guests. The first was offered by Erika Nichols-Frazer, who credits it to the poet Chelsie Diane. Write a letter to yourself that starts with the phrase “I forgive you.” 

And Earl, who publishes as A.E. Hines, shares an exercise on practicing self exposure. Pick a moment from your past or a personal circumstance that stands out in your mind as embarrassing: one that makes you at least slightly uneasy when sharing it. Now write a short poem about that experience using either second or third person — as if you’re telling the story about someone else. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it could be something you did, a mistake you made, or something that happened to you due to no fault of your own. The only requirement is that writing about it puts a twinge of angst in your belly.  When you’re done, change the POV back to first person, and see what happens. Did you learn anything new about that situation?

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 Laskin, in a conversation from 2013 about his book. The Family: A Journey Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (Penguin).  In March 2021, he published a novel, What Sammy Knew (Penguin).

This week’s Write the Book Prompt is to write about someone who follows through on a bad idea, even though they know it will be a bad idea. 

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 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! 

womenonswings.png

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.

india-4726515_1920.jpg

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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