Release

I’ve had a re-occurrence these past weeks of some painful episodes – physically and emotionally; and never let it be said that those two things are not intertwined. Well, in addition to physical interventions, I’m getting ready to mind over matter this bitch. Not as a distraction but as a way of getting positive energy to flow all through me.

So, my daily affirmations for the time being, my greeting of the day will come with rhythm and dance, the kind of wild dancing you do when no one else is looking even if they are. Because there’s no way to throw yourself bodily in to the dance without releasing whatever’s keeping you flat-footed. You have to move.

I love music. I can’t say this loudly enough. Even if I could never write again (heaven forbid), I wouldn’t want to live in a world without music. It would be too quiet and oppressive. Because music is movement and momentum, calling to us body, mind, and spirit. So, I’ll turn my affirmation in to a dance party, add that to my daily exercise, a song a day (at least!) to keep the pain at bay. And I’m going to let that music and that dance lead me to the page (writing time, baby, because writers write whatever the hell else is going on); yep, I’m re-orienting my day. You feel me.

Today’s selection:

What’s getting you moving today?

Writing is Your Business is Back – Register Now

ETA: Want to pitch Writing is Your Business l and Persuasive Public Speaking to your boss or HR manager, here’s a letter explaining what it’s all about: Letter to businesses April 2017

I first offered this course in 2016. Engagement was successful and reviews were positive. It’s been a minute, but it’s back, still under the banner of Barbara Arrindell & Associates .

If you’re a working person in Antigua and Barbuda who wants to improve her/his written (and/or oral) communication skills, here’s where you start:

flyer

To download registration form, right click above or download this: BA & A registration both 2017

 

Stimulating New Writing

Since completing the University of Iowa Massive Online Open Course in November 2016 I’ve been going over the course material, bird by bird so to speak: the transcripts and the readings (including the non-mandatory extra readings). I know, nerd. But just as the course itself, while it was live, was one of my favourite parts of the day, pouring over the course material is helping to keep me stimulated. No, I’m not writing as I was during the course, under the pressure of weekly assignments, but I’m still engaged – so I’m still counting this toward writing time. I’m still learning, still loving it. Hopefully, becoming a better writer in the process. Plus, I plan to do more work on the stories that came out of the course assignments too, maybe turn them in to something submittable.

Final Workshop RI 2012

No pictures of the online workshop, obviously, but …This is from another workshop, a physical one this time, the Callaloo Writers Workshop at Brown University in 2012. Another stimulating workshop experience.

So, was this course good for me? As with most things of this nature, you get out what you put in. And getting the opportunity to learn from the likes of Margot Livesy (she was the staple) and a rotating line up of esteemed writer/instructors through the renowned Iowa writing programme, being pushed to write every week, steeling myself to receive feedback on that writing every week, interacting with writers around the world on things writing related had me putting in energy that was about more than chasing those points needed to collect the course completion certificate I didn’t even send for.

Writing courses and workshops (I offer some of those, too) are learning opportunities obviously but they are also ways of pushing yourself to write instead of just thinking about writing. And they provide an environment where you and others in the workshop/courses can engage critically with what you produce (I’ve told the story before of how I slipped an early draft of With Grace, which is now my latest picture book, in among the works being reviewed by participants in my 2013 Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project for some honest feedback and how the work was better for it).

 

How are you feeding your writing?

#TheWritingLife

Throwback Q & A: Musical Youth

I got some promising news from the publisher of Musical Youth this past week. Can’t share it yet, but I can share this previously unpublished interview that I did shortly after the book’s launch.

Musical Youth

What inspired you to tell this story?

I’m a music lover. It was probably inevitable that I’d someday write a book inspired and driven by my love of music.

How did you begin? Did you research or do other prep work, or jump right in?

Jumped right in. Pretty sure I should have been asleep when these teens showed up one ‘foreday morning intent on telling me of their musical dreams, friendships, romantic entanglements, fears, families, discoveries, adventures, and the excitement of embarking on a summer production that would ultimately change their lives. They were persistent, and it was a matter of trying to keep up with them on what turned out to be kind of an epic but compacted writing binge.

What is your writing process like? What do you do when you feel stuck or stumped?

Well, I’m feeling stuck and stumped right now. Stuck because of time. Stumped because when I do make the time the snippets I’ve written aren’t quite fitting together into a narrative that makes sense. And that provides some hint of my process. I write to discover, so in that first draft I’m rushing forward or inching forward, but it’s forward, not all over the place like I am right now. Usually it starts with the character and different moments, feelings, impressions, ideas weave their way in; but I picture it as a character kind of taking me by the hand and pulling me into her/his story. Once I have a first full draft down, I tinker. With longer works, novels, because I also write stories and poems, it takes months, years to get that first draft down, so the tinkering happens as I dip back into the world of the story but then hopefully I keep moving forward until I figure out what the story is about. The redrafting and editing allows me to fine tune, rip out what doesn’t fit, shade in what needs colouring, texturing. If the story I’m working on isn’t happening, I’ll work on something else, just step away from it for a while. I write best at night, I don’t write best in absolute quiet – so music is a good companion, but I grew up having to write with life happening around me, so silence is actually quite distracting. I try to schedule writing time every day, and I try to do something writing related during that writing time even if the story I need to be working on isn’t happening.  The scheduling is more a reminder to myself to prioritize my writing even if the writing itself sees fit to rebel against being wrestled into a schedule; it comes best when I’m just walking or taking the bus or driving or feeling life – times when my brain is kind of just idling. I always have something to write with because of this. And I always have a book on go, because I also find reading not only entertaining but inspiring. Having goals is a motivator for me as well, if there’s somewhere I want to submit or just a workshop activity – oh working with other writers, as I do as a workshop facilitator and writing coach, is actually quite stimulating as well. But there’s no single thing I do to get myself out of the rut… whatever works.

What’s the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned about the creative process while writing your book?

Sometime after I wrote and published Musical Youth, I discovered an unfinished story called the Guitar Lessons, and I could see the link between my personal story and Guitar Lessons and Guitar Lessons and Musical Youth. It reminded me of this poem called Stealing Life that I’d written years earlier, about how we, writers, kind of snatch and store bits and pieces of things, pulling them out without realizing it like a seamstress digging through his or her basket of scraps while sewing a patchwork quilt. It wasn’t a discovery so much as  reminder but I did blog about it here  It’s a reminder as well that sometimes you have to push but sometimes the story will emerge when it’s ready.

I’m most surprised though that I was able to write a full first draft in roughly two weeks. Not recommended by the way, but maybe the fact that the scraps were already scattered inside me waiting to be sewn together is what made it doable. The story was ready to be told and the characters thankfully were a joy to be with so the telling though …feverish… and tightly focused was fun.

What was the hardest part, and what was your favorite part?

Plotting is always a struggle for me. There has to be an internal coherence to the story, a logic to the flow of the narrative.  Character, voice, pacing, tone, these things came fairly easily – the chemistry between the characters, Shaka and Zahara as young love blossomed, Shaka and his crew, their camaraderie, the melding of kids from different backgrounds as they take on a challenge, a number of challenges, was actually fun. But this particular story had some underlying themes and some reveals that required careful handling in the case of the plot, making sure the backstory is consistent with what’s now being revealed etc. Thank God for editing and at the same time editing was my personal hell – so much to do in a very tight window because the original draft had been so rough and the publishing deadline was so tight, the book having been fast tracked after the manuscript placed second for the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean literature. In the end, I’m happy with how it turned out – but between addressing structural issues and fighting for what I felt was essential and picking my way through the things that needed clipping and additional writing for texturing and to better connect certain dots – it was stressful.

If you could meet three authors (living or not), who would you choose and why? OR What author do you read for inspiration? OR Who are three authors who inspire you?

Well, if I could have a lime without the social pressure of being chatty and interesting myself, I’d gladly sit over drinks and nibbles with Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Dandicat and Zora Neale Hurston soaking up their stories, and wisdom. I’ve actually met and had drinks with Jamaica, Edwidge is my literary crush – I love everything she writes especially Farming of Bones and Create Dangerously, and I’m fascinated by Zora’s adventures, in love with her spirit and talent, saddened by the arc of her life, and encouraged by the post-note to it, to which a lot of credit I think has to go to Alice Walker, another woman I would like at that lime. (lime: Antiguan for social gathering/hanging out).

What’s the best writing advice you have been given?

I honestly can’t think of one solo piece of advice off the top of my head; but you know which writing book I’ll be recommending forever and ever I think, Stephen King’s On Writing. Lots of good advice in that one. And for the mechanics, I always return to Janet Burraway’s Writing Fiction.

Please ask and answer one question you wish I’d asked.

Stumped again…  I suppose, since this is an American blog and I am a Caribbean writer, I could ask something like why would a reader from America be interested in books by a writer from Antigua. My answer, it’s an imaginative road trip to a different culture, and the realization at the end of it that wherever they rest their heads at night, people are, after all, just people. My characters for all their differences from your reality are still people – and I’ve found as a reader and writer that even within the differences it’s often possible to find something relatable. The best writing, in my view, doesn’t pander to that idea but lets its characters live and breathe, and the open reader can really have an enriching experience stepping into that other-world as it is and just breathing it in. If you’re anything like me, you’ll like the adventure of exploring a different world for a while, all without leaving home; though travel is fun too.

By the way, you can find out more about me and my books here https://jhohadli.wordpress.com

Revision Notes

Some recent back and forth with a reader re a story-in-draft provides an opportunity for a post on things to look for on revision

revision

– which, for me, is best after letting it sit for a time (length of time can vary from the amount of time it takes to make coffee to weeks) and taken in bits and pieces (as small as one note at a time as big as one section at a time) for emotional distance and manageability.

Length and Pacing issues

One of the issues with my story-in-draft was both the length and the pacing. Yes, they were interconnected because I’d let the length determine the pacing, and the length was unfortunately being guided by outside forces. I was angling for a contest submission that had a specific word count. I knew the general arc of the story, had been working on it for some time (before I was even aware of this contest), knew the things that had to happen before I got to The End; but now (my eye on the prize), the prescribed length was causing me to rush certain things, stretch others in a way that was not organic.

Writing a story to a set length is not unusual in the other side of my writing life: I make a pitch and if it’s accepted, I’m given a word count and write to that. Meanwhile, the flash writing prompts I do on this site force me to hone in on only what’s essential to the story arc – good practice on the creative side. While I’m glad I have that discipline, I’m also mindful that fictional pieces can take on a life of their own and sometimes you need to allow it as you figure out what the story is and what makes it work. Characters can and do have a mind of their own, there are plot diversions you really won’t be able to pick up on until you start to write.

That’s drafting; on revision, it’s about determining if that diversion is a necessary detour to get you to your destination, if you’re indulging your characters too much or giving them required nuance, if you’ve sufficiently coloured in the scenery, especially if it’s different or unusual scenery, or rushed past it.

The length ought not to be about a prescribed word count, in the end, but the story’s true arc, and the pacing a matter of finding the right rhythm…contests and other external forces be damned.

road-sign

Signage

The reader said she felt at the end like she’d fallen off a cliff. This can be a good thing, if desired. But in this case, it caused me to question if the end was the story’s true end, and if it was, if there had been sufficient signage to direct the reader there. Signage can be tricky because you don’t want to give the ending away but you want to keep them moving in the desired direction – even if your desire is to push them off an emotional cliff. If it’s not though, you might have to go back and do some tweaking as I had to, nothing heavy-handed, just a little suggestion (foreshadowing) here and there.

Character imprinting

You want your characters to stick. Some characters are background characters, of course; part of the world you’re building. But, especially for the characters you intend to move the story, you don’t want them to blend in to the background – unless that’s their role – and you don’t want them to blur together so the reader can’t tell them apart. The thing is to make them individuals – details help give definition, texturing and shading helps them become more full-bodied.

You’ll find as you write that certain characters assert themselves in ways you had not anticipated, and you might find, in taking a second or third look at them that they have a larger role to play than you had anticipated – that plays out in the revision process. When my reader mentioned responding strongly to a particular character, I acknowledged that I had too and that, though she had not been there when I started writing, she had imprinted on me during the process. While she wasn’t central to the story she had imprinted on one major character in a significant enough way to shift the plot (though not the major story arc) ever so slightly. She was never going to be a main part of the action though I struggled with the math of that for a while, but her presence provided inspiration and direction, and the door was left open for her return. By contrast, there’s another character who tried for a bigger role – oh, he tried it – and while he played a pivotal role, it was still my story, and I directed him where I needed him to go.

world_building

World Building

As it is with character, so it is with shading in the details of the world you’re building. With this particular story – a work of speculative fiction in which the world is different in significant ways from ours, with some elements being the same (e.g. different atmospheres but the rules of gravity still apply). The details that marked the difference, I discovered as I wrote. On revision, I had to make sure that the rules of the world were clear and logical to the reader. Where the language was different from our language, I had to make sure either context clarified it or spell it out if it came to that; but don’t let the confusion over the details of the world become distractions from the story. So the revision process involved some texturing and shading in of the details as needed, making sure the world is clearly articulated but not in an expository way, but through the ways the characters move through and interact with it. The reader feedback was good for pointing me to the things that didn’t come through as clearly as I thought they had and for pointing me to areas of inconsistency in terms of how things were labelled in this world that was in some ways new to me as well.

With a world as different as this one, it helped to have some points of reference from my real world, similar enough to the character of the place I was trying to create, and then tinker with them turning them into an alternate reality version of themselves. Use whatever helps you see it; and then (re)imagine it. There was one particular bit of otherness that my reader really responded to as I would have liked and it was really a matter of taking a familiar detail and making it ‘perform’ differently in this other space. For me the whole thing was an experiment with world building and the main challenges were not inadvertently inserting some detail that served only to distract, or forgetting to tie off the end to effectively hold the illusion (p.s. this last sentence is an allusion to the regency era glamourist series by former editing client Mary Robinette Kowal, which I’m currently reading, and in which both writer and the characters inhabiting the world she creates grapple with this whole thing of helping the audience see and hold the illusion).

Detailing and contrasting were my friends during this process.

The dreaded backstory

Flashbacks can be clunky; exposition can and will bring the narrative to a slow sluggish halt like a backed up Caribbean gutter, the ones where the water is smelly with a green layer of top skin. But your characters have a whole history much of which informs the actions playing out in this particular arc of their lives; simply because it informs who they are. and how they interact with their world and react to the people and things that happen to them in it. Most TV criminal procedurals work that exposition in to the opening 5 to 15 minutes then when you’re all caught up that’s when things start moving forward; in print, different approaches come in to play – and, yes, this can include flashbacks and some exposition if you know how to pull your hand. But mainly you’ll be looking for ways to thread that backstory into the forward moving action. While revising, I learn more about the characters, more than I knew when I first wrote them, but I don’t end up using all of it, only what serves the story. You want to give the reader enough to accept the reality they’re in and accept that the characters are full-bodied people each with their unique history, who would re/act in this specific way…but here’s what’s happening to them now.

fast%20flowing%20river%20with%20stones%20in%20the%20water%202

Flow

This nebulous, often overused, term can make or unmake the story – it’s about how it all comes together and, sigh, flows. Reading out loud on revision helps: do you feel breathy and rushed, do you feel languid, do you feel an adrenaline high as you read? All of these can be an indicator of how its flowing – too fast, too slow, just right. Tension, action, pacing all work together to achieve this; as does word choice and sentence length and constructions, how you vary them. A story’s flow won’t necessarily  be the same throughout, at some point you may pull the stopper out of the dam and the water (the words, the action) begin to flow more freely.

How to use edit notes in the revision process

Some notes will point to problems you already knew were there – reinforcing that, okay this is a wrinkle and I need to iron it out (unless keeping the wrinkle serves the story). Some notes will point to problems you had no idea about but need to consider. Some you will completely disagree with – and that’s okay, as long as you do a self-check to make sure you’re not just being defensive because “my story, mine, mine, mine!”

-Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of several books, editor editor of others and writing coach when called upon; she remains a work in progress. Please note, there are many things, particular to your story, to look for on revision. This list is not exhaustive as it applies to the story-in-revision that prompted this post; that said, it touched on common issues which may be of value to you in your revision process. Hence, the share.

Query Letters

I’ve only ever written query letters* for myself…until now. A recent client wanted me to not only edit her manuscript but assist with her query letter. This person had been a do-it-your-self-er in the past so she knew publishing, but knew enough to know that she needed help jumping the hoops and hurdles of traditional publishing. I’ve jumped those hoops and hurdles, and have the knee and palm scrapes to prove it.

Drafting the query letter was easy (relative to drafting my own) because I not only genuinely liked the book but could see where it could fit in the marketplace, and that’s what you want to communicate in the query letter – the story and its hook (or hook-ability).

This freelancing journey continues to give me opportunities to transfer skills learned in one area of my life to other areas. Who knew all those hours, days, weeks, months, and years of research and practice with shopping my own books would prove useful in this other side of my writing life – the one where I provide editing services to others, including other writers? As with so much else, I continue to learn as I do, and look for the opportunities.

Fingers crossed re the sale of my recent client’s book. But I’m confident that even if it doesn’t – because there are all kinds of reasons, having nothin to do with the quality of the book itself, why that could happen – and the author decides to try the self-publishing route again, I hope the process of trying to pitch and sell it will bring clarity to positioning it in the marketplace.

As for me, I’ll be adding drafting and editing query letters to the services I provide because, thanks to this job, now I do.

For more on my writing, editing, and other services, go here.ad re books and professional services

*”A query letter is a way to introduce yourself and your work to a literary agent or editor. It is a letter you send to convince agents or editors that you have a project that not only will interest them but also make them money. If they like your query, they will ask to see your work. Depending on the editor or agent, this entails seeing a book proposal from a nonfiction writer. If you’re a fiction writer, be prepared to send a full manuscript or a few chapters of your novel.” (Writers’ Digest)

Jhohadli Writing Project – updated!

Jhohadli Writing Project – what it means – Jhohadli (this refers to my pen name/alter ego), Writing (this refers to what I do and what I teach), Project (a piece of work or an activity towards a specific purpose; a study of a particular subject). Beginning with my first Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project (in 2013), the Jhohadli Writing Project has evolved in to the umbrella under which I offer my writing workshops and courses. Read more.