Talking With High School Students about Writing

For quite a few years now, I have visited with a group of local high school students to talk about writing. It’s a special seminar, usually about 12 or 15 kids are involved. This year, I’m happy to say the students were as engaged and interested as they have been during each of my other visits.

 

 

 

 

 

The discussion always starts with me trying to explain why writing well is important. I usually use the “Let’s eat Mom” versus “Let’s eat, Mom” example. One of the kids this year said a comma can save someone’s life. Exactly! She got it. I also talked about the US President using his twitter so often. He has said he does it to communicate directly to the population, without his message being filtered or analysed by media or spokespeople. I guess he has a point with that intent, but his writing in those twitter messages is so bad that whatever his message is often gets lost in what comes across as anger or just plain meanness. I take pains to avoid talking politics with these students, of course, but they agreed with my point here.

 

 

 

 

 

I then try to relieve them of the belief all writers make gobs of money, using my own career as an example of that fact. If I had to rely on my writing income to survive, I would be in real trouble!

 

 

 

 

 

Two cool words they learned in this session: verisimilitude and alliteration.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, we get into the fun exercise. I start them off with a painfully boring sentence “The man walked across the room.” Divided into groups, they come up with really terrific ways to make that much more exciting. Examples from this year involved zombies dancing in a ballroom and silver-haired ladies sprinting across a dark cavern. I am always happy with the creativity they show.

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t wait to visit another class soon.

 

Talking to Young Writers

I visited a high school class to talk about writing. I have done this for a few years now and usually have fun doing it. This group was special, though.

There were engaged, and seemed to have genuine interest in what my work is like. They asked really interesting questions, well beyond “How much money do you make?”

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One girl told me she has 30 notebooks of writings she has done. She let me look through one and I was very impressed by the fact she had written the same story from the point of view of different characters. Think of “Poisionwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver. I didn’t think many high school kids had the imagination to do something like that, but she was well on her way.

 

 

A young man asked what he should be reading now. I asked what his favorite genre was. He said he like police stories, so I suggested he read something outside of his usual comfort zone. He had not yet read “Lord of the Rings” which I consider mandatory reading for everyone, so I suggested that. He said he would. Another convert!

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Each time I visit, we do a writing exercise. We start with a painfully boring sentence: The man walked across the room. Their job is to make that sentence more interesting by use of stronger verbs, colorful adjectives and plenty of description. Once they finished each one read their work, and some of them volunteered to act out what they had written.

 

 

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Again, they were involved and enthusiastic. I am also happy to report not a single one of them mentioned anything about a zombie.

 

 

 

 

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Geraldine Brooks at the Pordenone Book Fair

The last entry of my “authors who are better than me” series ends with Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. She was visiting the Pordenone, Italy Book Fair and I had a chance to talk to her.

She is, of course, well known for such excellent works as “Caleb’s Crossing” and “Year of Wonder.” Her Pulitzer was for “March,” where she took the character of the absent father from Luisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women.” Brooks follows March as he leaves home to support the cause of the Union in the American Civil War. I guess I don’t have to say much other than Pulitzer.

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She was here announcing the release of the Italian version of her most recent work, “The Secret Chord.” It tells the story of King David of Israel as told by his long-time advisor and seer, Natan.  One of the things that makes her interpretation so fascinating is she peels away the version of a superman and presents David as a normal person with ambition, greed and many vices.

She said she wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the women in David’s life. Batsheva, for example. “She was a victim, not a seductress. In that time, it is not believable that a woman could refuse the advances of the King.” In fact it was her desire to repaint the story of his wives that drew her to write “The Secret Chord.”

Because the novel I am working on now is Historical Fiction, I was anxious to ask her when she knew it was time to stop doing research and start doing the writing. Her answer makes perfect sense to me as a writer. “Let the story tell you what you need to know. Resist stuffing in extra facts whether the story needs them or not. When you are writing it, you will know what is necessary.”

As I said, it makes perfect sense to me, but actually doing that has been the challenge. Having talked to her about it has given me new energy – and writing it has restarted! Thank you, Geraldine Brooks.

By the way, I think “The Secret Chord” is a terrific novel. Plenty of it is uncomfortable to read, but David was a man, and we all have an idea what that means. Read it.

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Italian Book Fair (Part 3)

Part three of my series about authors I met at the Pordenone, Italy Book Fair is Peter Hoeg.

A 59-year old novelist from Denmark, Hoeg is probably best known for “Smilla’s Sense of Snow. At the Pordenone Book Fair he was introducing his newest work, “The Effect of Susan.” This is a futuristic thriller that centers on the title character’s unique talent to get others to be completely honest and open with her regarding their deepest, darkest secrets.

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, we did not talk too much about that book. In fact the most striking characteristic about him  (to me at least) was his deep spirituality. He talked about his morning meditations being one of the most important parts of his day. At one point, he had us standing and shaking hands with each other. He described the handshake as one of the most intimate and important connections between two humans. The act of physically opening the space between two people (in order to shake hands) exposes the heart. He also described how the collection of nerve bundles in the hand sends signals to our brain, which then elicits emotions of trust and generosity.  OK.

We did discuss his writing processes, but everything he said was driven by his spiritual journey. He talked about the beauty of a book is that one lives in it. The writer lives there for three or four years while making the story. The reader lives there for two weeks while reading it. I had never thought of it that way, but then Hoeg’s world view is more spiritual than mine.

He was asked why so many of his lead characters are women. “I think it is important for men to know women very well. By understanding my fictional women, I can be closer to the real ones in my life; my daughters, my mother.”

After the conference, I asked him what was the longest it had ever taken him to finish a book. “The Quiet Girl” was a ten year journey. That journey included destroying 2,000 pages of hand-written manuscript, and then starting over.

Hearing that give me some comfort as I am in year 5 of my second novel now. Will I throw everything out and start over? Not likely. But then I am not in the same place as the fascinating Peter Hoeg.

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Italian Book Fair Keeps on Giving

The second installment of my “discussions with writers who are way more accomplished than I am” deals with meeting Colm Toibin.

Born in Ireland in 1955, Toibin is probably best known internationally for “Brooklyn.” This is a gentle tale of a young Irish woman, not overly curious and never scarred by heartbreak. She travels to the United States from post-war Ireland where she will soon experience curiosity, love, tragedy and a host of emotions that make us – and her – completely human.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

 

Toibin was at the annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy to present his newest work, “Nora Webster.” This one allows us to enter the life of a middle aged widow trying to keep her life on track after the premature death of her husband. Set in southern Ireland in the late 60’s, Coibin sticks with what he knows best – his land, in fact his own home town.

The conversation with Toibin was almost exclusively about the craft of writing. To be more specific, Colm Toibin’s craft of writing. During the discussion, he left me with what he considers the three most important points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Show don’t tell,” he said first.  This is something everyone who studies writing hears. But the reality is most of us are not very good at it. Toibin gives a pretty remarkable illustration of it in “Nora Webster,” though. Read it. You won’t find a single overt description of the lead character. No telling us about her “long red hair.” Instead we observe as she combs her hair with slow, deliberate motions, allowing us to see her with our own imagination.

 

Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.  “Ambiguity in relationships between characters adds a rich tension and opens the door for drama to be introduced later in the story,” Toibin explained to us. I could not have said it better, nor could I write it better than he does in both “Brooklyn” and “Nora Webster.”

 

 

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Here, Toibin is signing my copy of "Brooklyn."

Here, Toibin is signing my copy of “Brooklyn.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, he stated his goal is for a reader to finish his book, put it down and think “I know her.” Having read the two novels mentioned here, I do feel if I met either character, I would know her immediately and be able to have an engaging conversation right away. So, thank you Colm Toibin, for introducing me to such interesting people.

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Annual Italian Book Fair Delivers Again (Part 1)

Last week, the terrific annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy was in full swing. I’ve written about this event in the past, so won’t go into detail other than to mention what makes it really great.

Authors from all over the world are there. They meet the public, present their latest book, answer questions, walk around the charming city, and revel in the culture of reading that is so strong here.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.














 

I have been fortunate enough to get into Press Conferences where authors meet the media. These smaller venues lend themselves to a more animated discussion, which is exactly why I enjoy them.

The first author I met was Scottish-born Irvin Welsh who was presenting “The Blade Artist.” He is best known for his brutal but sometimes funny description of drug addiction, “Trainspotting.” When made into a grim and troubling film, movie-goers met Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle.

“The Blade Artist” reintroduces us to one of the characters from “Trainspotting.” Begby – played by Carlyle in the film – has (sort of) cleaned up his life, changed his identity and moved to the U.S. The death of the son he hardly knew has him return to Edinburgh where old wounds are reopened.

Welsh talked about taking a former character and changing him so completely from his past. “I just wanted to keep up with the character. His trajectory was prison or death, not very interesting for a writer. I felt the possibility for change in Begby was an interesting idea.”

But you can be sure that some of Begby’s old habits will resurface.

Welsh talked about the phenomenon of what he dubbed white male rage. “We see it all over the world and in politics too; white male rage over the democratization and liberalization that has eroded their influence. Begby is the white male rage poster boy.”

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

 

 

 

Other media folks in the Press Conference were Italian, therefore interested in Brexit. Welsh called it a start, not an end. “It is a debate about who we are in England right now. It is exciting politically but there will be great stress on the society. But in the end, we just can’t have super-national organizations like the International Monetary Fund dictating to democracies. When a group like that protects banks but not states, it is a problem.”

Happily, the discussion went back to writing, or to reading, actually. Welsh said unless we encourage reading in schools, we are shutting the doors on the next generations. He feels doing so will likely increase the stress of white male rage and international disagreements and intolerance across ethnicities.

All in all, Welsh presented himself with an interesting and slightly pessimistic outlook.

Coming up:  Peter Hoeg, Colm Toibin, and Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks.

#PoweredByIndie

Annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy Delivers Again

It’s called “PordenoneLegge” in Italian. It translates to “Pordenone Reads.” Given there were more than 150,000 visitors over the five-day event, there must be many readers here.

From 16-20 September, this small city in Italy’s unexplored northeastern corner hosted the 16th annual Festival of Books With the Authors.  Most literary fairs feature booth after booth of publishers peddling books. There is some of that going on, but PordenoneLegge offers two realities to make this a special event.

Plenty of books are sold at this terrific festival, but the event is really about meeting the authors.

Plenty of books are sold at this terrific festival, but the event is really about meeting the authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, the authors are here. They sit in bars sipping coffee – or perhaps something more interesting. They wander through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pordenone stopping occasionally to admire the architecture or, as was the case this year, they simply marvel at the near-perfect weather.

Canadian author/actress Ann-Marie MacDonald thrilled the audience by reading the first chapter of her new book in Italian.

Canadian author/actress Ann-Marie MacDonald thrilled the audience by reading the first chapter of her new book in Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second special attraction is the city becomes a character in the story that is this book fair. Authors might present a new book in an elegant old palazzo, or seated outside in a picturesque square surrounded by magnificent buildings. After some introductory remarks, they generally stay to answer questions from the public on any topic that comes to mind. This is followed by autograph and photo opportunities.

Hundreds of readers sit in a nice piazza to listen to an author present his book.

Hundreds of readers sit in a nice piazza to listen to an author present his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took advantage of the proximity of one writer in particular, the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller. I really enjoy talking to people who are smarter than me. Admittedly it is not much of a challenge to find someone who fits that criteria, but Ms. Heller sets a new standard for brain power. For 45 minutes her remarks ranged from the on-going refugee crisis in Europe to the promise of beauty to the need for all of us to learn to think again.

 

Agnes Heller, a Hungarian philosopher, listens to a question during her press conference.

Agnes Heller, a Hungarian philosopher, listens to a question during her press conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She had particularly harsh remarks about the actions of her native country in handling the influx of desperate people trying to escape tragic circumstances. In her mind, the false reports that came from Hungary fostered fear and hesitation among western nations who ought to receive the refugees with open arms and open hearts.

Her discussion of beauty started with the premise that beauty is the promise of happiness, being experienced in the moment. This was not about physical beauty, rather beauty in life; great music, nature, art, friendship. You get the idea: the good things in our lives. She said beauty does not necessarily deliver happiness – it does not save us.  Being temporary, it offers an opportunity to get closer to happiness for those who are ready to embrace it.

She tied the topics together by urging us to not take what we read or hear for granted. To grow, to do what is right, to move in the direction of happiness, a person must ask questions and take the time to think. Only then will one achieve growth and direction in their life.  Pretty thoughtful stuff.

What would reading a book be without a glass of wine? At PordenoneLegge, you don't have to find out!

What would reading a book be without a glass of wine? At PordenoneLegge, you don’t have to find out!

 

 

Final Day of Pordenone Book Festival

I know I said I would talk about meeting Umberto Eco in this post, but I am not going to say much. He signed three books for me, which is great, and he is an impressive intellect. But my favorite moment was when he sat on the couch in the lobby of a hotel with Margaret Atwood.

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What I will talk about is meeting Hannah Kent. If you have not yet heard of her, you will. Her first novel, “Burial Rites,” has just been translated to German, Spanish, and Italian. Check out her web page to read what some pretty heavy hitters have said about that book.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

Hannah Kent (with a traslator) at a Press Conference during PordenoneLegge 2014.

I read and really liked it. She is a young writer, not yet 30 years old. But has a mastery of the craft that far exceeds mine and most other authors I have read. If she continues to write, she will be enormously successful.

So go get a copy of “Burial Rites” today. If you are in a book group, add it to your list.

 

I spoke with  her for about 30 minutes. She is quite smart and seems fully committed to becoming a truly great writer. She graciously accepted a copy of my “The Salome Effect.” I will let you know what she says about it (if what she says is good).

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

Me with soon-to-be-incredibly-famous Hannah Kent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, go get a copy of “Burial Rites,” and let me know what you think.

The Pordenone (Italy) Book Fair

This week the annual book fair in the small town of Pordenone, Italy opened.

I really love this event, as authors from all over the world come and speak to readers, journalists, and other authors.

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Yesterday I met Michael Dobbs, author of “House of Cards.” After great success as a book, and a few seasons on BBC, it is now a huge hit on US television (finally being broadcast on the Sky Network in mainland Europe). Season two of the US TV series opens on Sky next week.

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I sat through a press conference with Dobbs (and about 25 Italian journalists), then his presentation to the public, with perhaps 250 in the audience.

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He talked about how it has taken 27 years for “House of Cards” to become such a big success – so I take some comfort in being stuck for the last year or so on my second novel.

He started writing while on vacation after being sacked from his job as Chief of Staff to then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Sitting by the pool at a resort on the island of Malta, he had a pad, a pencil and a bottle of wine.

By the time the wine was gone, he had written just two letters, F U.

Given what had just happened to his political career, I think we all know what those letters meant. Anyway, as he finally started to get some traction in his writing effort, those letters became the initials of his main (and really, really nasty) character. Francis Urquart in the British version, Frank Underwood in the US (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey).

Dobbs said that drama comes from getting to the dark side of a character, and real drama comes from exploring the deepest depths of that darkness. If you have seen the show, or better yet read the books, it’s pretty clear he has found some drama.

When asked about Scotland voting for independence from the United Kingdom (Dobbs is a member of the British House of Lords), he first said if it were approved, it would be the saddest day of his political life. Results came in today and the independence bid was voted down by the Scots.

Dobbs then talked about leaders, in a political sense. As he is a MP, and has a long political career, and writes compelling drama about politics, this is a theme close to his heart.

He expressed his opinion the world, but Europe in particular, needs new charismatic and creative leaders to figure out solutions to the many vexing problems of our time.

I was more interested in his literature than his politics, but had to ask him if it took one bottle of wine to get him to produce the letters F U, how much wine would he need to be that charismatic and creative leader he wants?

He smiled and said (paraphrasing), “Wine does not keep you young, but it does keep you.”

I told him that since he was in Italy, he was in the right place for plenty of creative inspiration.

I found his presentation interesting and informative, and now can’t wait to read his entire “House of Cards” trilogy.

Later this week, I’ll meet Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco, and Hannah Kent.

 

Talking to young people about writing is an invigorating experience.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

During my one hour meet at the school, the kids asked plenty of great questions.

Next, we did an active writing exercise, substituting words and phrases to a painfully boring sentence to make it come alive with vivid descriptions and compelling verbs.

They did seem concerned at how frequently a writer is told “no” by agents or publishers or editors (this writer is, anyway). I asked them if they get back up when they fall down, and they got it.

Get ready for a group writing exercise

Get ready for a group writing exercise

I left them with two pieces of advice on being a better writer:  read more and write more.