"Finishing Your Book" an online class (starts July 10th)

Online Class: “Finishing Your Book”

Description: This is a class for anyone struggling with a book. Although that first sprint of fifty pages into a book—either novel or nonfiction—can be exhilarating, it’s hard to sustain. Sooner or later, you’re likely to find yourself in a creative ditch, wheels spinning. We’ll take a look at when to revise and when not to, as well as which questions are productive and which are not. We’ll seek out ways to reinvigorate ourselves for much more writing. The final class will be a tutorial on the business of finding an agent and/or publisher for your book.

Class Type: 8 Sessions

Term: Summer 2019

Dates: 07/10/2019 - 08/28/2019

For more info (or to register), click HERE

Best Short Stories for Writers

The best short stories knock their reader down, in one way or another. Their ends are startling and inevitable and as someone—I can’t remember who it was—once said of poetry, are “a device intended to detonate in the chest.” The following stories have useful lessons in plot, character and theme for writers. Arranged by author’s last name.

White Angel

Michael Cunningham

This is a fairly perfect and super heartbreaking short story. There’s a character who remains unnamed on purpose in it, the narrator remarks on being unable to say her name, and I admit to having stolen that device once or twice.

 

The Point

Charles D’Ambrosio

Another heart-breaker, this is also a surprisingly funny story, in a way. I love that it’s a “quest” story, in a way, with a very overt goal for the protagonist.

Some Other, Better Otto

Deborah Eisenberg

Eisenberg is one of my favorite short story writers—her ear for dialogue is so extraordinary—and this short story is richly layered and complicated and shows her at her best. 

 

“Snakes” in the collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

Danielle Evans

So much happening in this piece—it operates on many levels, not the least is that it’s about storytelling itself, the act of turning experiences into narratives that can be deployed at parties, and it shows the impact of inter-generational wounds with a kind of specificity and precision that is rare.

Little Expressionless Animals

David Foster Wallace

I read this a long time ago and it had a huge impact on my writing (as did Eisenberg, above, who I read at the same time). This story is set on the set of the TV show “Jeopardy” and features Alex Trebek, among other “real” people. It’s also very realistic, and blurs the boundary between fiction and nonfiction in a way that I have often strived to do in my writing ever since.

 

A Dream of Men

Mary Gaitskill

This one will make your hair stand on end, so hold onto your seat. In one way it’s just about a woman who wakes up, has some breakfast, and goes to work at a medical office, where she has a low-level job. She has a lunch break and then goes back to work. It’s extremely upsetting, trust me. 

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

Amy Hempel

A famous knockout tear-jerker of a story, it’s also got whiplash wit, and Hempel’s fascinating syntax—in her rage toward brevity she arrives at hyper compact phrasing, which is very hard to read aloud. Give it a try.

 

Work

Denis Johnson

So many Johnson stories to pick from, but I always love the final scene back at the bar, and the description of the bartender:

“Nurse,” I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm." You had to go down on them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I'll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.

 

Stone Animals

Kelly Link

16,000 words long, the story uses it’s length as a craft element, in a way, the vastness has an effect on the reader…we’re lost in a dreamscape that is growing increasingly warped over time, and it’s very repetitive, but in a good way, layered with wonderful motifs and repeating images. The reader, if you’ll notice, never meets any of the neighbors—there’s a tremendous claustrophobia here.

 

Intervention

Jill McCorkle

My favorite example of third-person limited, ever. It’s a near-perfect short story in the contemporary American style—but somewhat conventional.

 

A Village After Dark

Kashuo Ishiguoro

This story is the opposite of McCorkle’s, in a sense. It’s strange and oblique. The reader is always two inches away from being so confused that they want to give up. Ishiguro is a master of holding the reader right there, in that space where we know just enough to be remain interested and invested, but still quite replete with unanswered questions.

 

People Like That Are The Only People Here

Lorrie Moore

Considered Lorrie Moore’s greatest story (at least among the writers I know) this is peak Moore: funny, ruinously sad, harsh, mind-bogglingly witty, and supremely propulsive.

Brownies

ZZ Packer

A hilarious story, but also dramatic and finally quite moving. The craft here is perfect. One of my favorite things in the story, craft-wise, is how Packer “crowbars” open the dialogue in the first two scenes. Each scene is just a handful of lines of dialogue spoken over a minute or so, but after each line of dialogue Packer pries open the scene and adds all this lively and interesting summary, so that while the story ostensibly starts with two “scenes” she’s actually heaping information into the reader’s mind.

Brokeback Mountain

Annie Proulx

The movie adaptations is well known, but the story is perfect and does a wonderful job of keeping time as it moves across decades. It’s got a lot of sweep, and is totally devastating at the end. 

For Esme with Love and Squalor

JD Salinger

Salinger fought in all the American battles on the Western Front from D-Day forward. This story is really just two scenes — one with a soldier shortly before D-Day and the second, same soldier after the war has ended. His mind has been shattered by what he’s been through — much as Salinger’s was. The whitespace in the middle of the story between scenes represents the war in a sense; it’s not written about because it is, in a sense, unspeakable. The war scenes have been elided, because the war is so overwhelmingly powerful. The short story’s form and content are tantamount to theme.

Nemecia

Kirstin Valdez Quade

This story has a somewhat muted opening, but you should stay with it. Another that spans time (like Brokeback), it also has amazing motifs and themes and complex character work, an unreliable narrator, and powerfully demonstrates how buried trauma can put poison deep inside of a person, or a family—the long-term effects of not talking about these two girls’ family’s trauma is beautifully and so poignantly shown in this one.

Bullet in the Brain

Tobias Wolff

Instead of having a true, traditional plot, the story “ends” halfway through and the climax is achieved when the character changes from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional individual, and achieves complexity — with a dramatic impact on the reader.

Writing Awards and Prizes

A word about writing contests…

Most literary magazines have an annual award for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — there are at least a hundred of them. Mostly they are for a single story or essay, but there are also many for books (collections of stories, or essays, or a novel, etc.), which I haven’t listed here. The contests usually have fees of around $15-25 per submission and are anonymously judged by a guest judge, usually a well-known writer. Winners are published in the magazine; runners-up are sometimes published, too. Deadlines are often in the fall, though there are many in the spring, too.

One advantage with these contests is that, because they’re judged anonymously, there’s no way for the editors to favor already established writers, which unfortunately does happen a lot (at least with fiction), so it can be easier for someone who isn’t named Joyce Carol Oates to get a story into print anonymously. And if you’re just looking to have something to talk about in a query letter to a literary agent, even placing as a runner-up or finalist can be helpful.

Some to look at (please note that there are scores of awards like these that can be found at Poets and Writers), and the deadlines vary wildly, but many are in the fall or spring:

Bellingham Review Literary Contests

Genres: fiction, poetry and nonfiction.

Prize: $1,000 and publication

Black Warrior Review Writing Contest from the University of Alabama

Genres: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction and flash fiction.

Prizes: $1500 in fiction, nonfiction and poetry and $800 in Flash category. All include publication. 

Boston Review Aura Estrada Short Story Contest

Genres: Fiction.

Prizes: First prize is $500 and publication. Runners-up will also be published. 

Colorado Review Prizes

Genres: Poetry, fiction.

The Colorado Prize for Poetry: $2,000 honorarium and publication of 500 copies.

Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction: $2000 and publication in the Colorado Review.

Crab Orchard Review Writing Prize

Genres: Fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry.

Prize: $1250 grand prize and publication

 

Fish Short Story Prize

Genres: Fiction.
Prizes: First prize: €3,000, and 5-day Short Story Workshop at the West Cork Literary Festival. 2nd prize: €300 and a week at Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat.  3rd prize: €300. Sevent Honourable Mentions €200 each. The Fish Anthology will publish the top ten stories.   

Florida Review Editors’ Awards

Genres: Fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.

Prizes: $1000 and publication in The Florida Review.

Gulf Coast Contest

Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Prizes: $1,500 and Gulf Coast publication for the winner in each genre. Two honorable mentions in each genre are awarded $250. 

Indiana Review Fiction Prize

Genre: Short story.

Prize: $1000 + publication.

Iowa Review Awards

Genres: Poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

Prize: $1,500; first runners-up receive $750. All are published the December issue.

Los Angeles Review Literary Awards

Genres: Poetry, short stories, short-short story and essay.

Prizes: Four $1,000 prizes and Los Angeles Review publication.

Mississippi Review Prize

Genres: Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

Prizes: $1,000 and publication in the Mississippi Review. 

Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize

Fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Prizes: First place in each category receives $5,000.

New Letters Awards

Genres: Poetry, essay, fiction.

Prizes: $2,500.

October Fiction Award: $750 and publication.

October Fiction Award: winner will be published in New Letters and $750.

Nimrod Literary Awards

Genres: Fiction and poetry prizes, plus a special category/contest for new writers.

Prizes: First prize: $2,000; Second prize: $1,000. Francine Ringold for new writers: $500 in fiction and poetry. All include publication.

Rosebud Poetry Awards

Genre: Poetry.

Prizes: $500 for the best poem; Three runners-up will receive $100; all will featured in Rosebud.

University of Georgia Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award

Genre: Short fiction

Prize: $1,000 and publication

Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition

Prizes: First prize is $1000, second prize is $50, and third prize: $250. Prizewinners and honorable mentions are considered for representation by top literary agencies.  


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wait, Do I Really Need a Literary Agent?

Book Contract.jpg

I wrote a book. Do I really need to find a literary agent?

The short answer is: Yes.

It’s almost impossible to be published by a major publisher, or even a small press, without a literary agent to champion your work. Some, but very few, small presses accept un-agented submissions. So to understand why you need an agent, you have to understand why you want your book to be published by a traditional publisher (as opposed to self-publishing).

A literary agent gives access to publishers like Random House (or even a smaller press like Melville House ) who will pay you in advance (no take backs if the book doesn’t sell well). A publisher handles all of your book’s publicity, marketing, cover art, layout, and their sales reps can speak on your behalf to Amazon and regional bookstores. Your publisher will handle distribution, warehousing, and countless other unseen aspects of book production and sales.

If don’t find an agent and self-publish instead, a freelance publicist alone could charge up to $15k to get the word out about your book (and they’ll only work on it a few months). But you must print your own “advance reader copies” (there’s another few thousand dollars out the door), and of course your book will never be sold in Elliott Bay or any of the other thousands of bookstores in our country. Even with a freelance publicist, major reviewing outlets – such as the Washington Post – will almost never review a self-published book. A handful of reviewers will cover a self-published book, for a fee – but those reviews are for trade publications and aren’t often seen by everyday readers.

A few exceptions: Few poets have agents, and it can be difficult to get agents for short story collections, but there are lots of contests for story collections (winner gets a little money + publication). Some so-called “hard genres,” such as fantasy and science fiction, are suited to self-publishing because the readers already have a strong dedicated community that thrives on word-of-mouth. But the author is expected to be already invested in that community, not waltzing in with a novel.

So for most adult fiction, YA, or memoir – traditional publishing with an agent’s assistance is the best option, and you should exhaust all of your options in that direction before going your own way.

Why You Need a Literary Agent

A literary agent is your representative in the publishing world, and good agents open doors otherwise inaccessible to you. Agents have personal relationships with decision makers within the publishing houses – after all, they attend the same parties and have lunch together.

In fact, a good literary agent knows specific editors at specific publishers that your book would appeal to. If an editor’s recently adopted a dog … and is now crazy about dogs – your book about a dog is a perfect fit for that editor.

A literary agent will be able to help you edit your work and ready it for submission – then help you articulate what’s appealing and valuable about your novel, in a way that “sells” the book to publishers, who want to make money from your book.  A literary agent is able to get the attention of publishers in a way that you, as a stranger, would never be able to do.

Real literary agents only take 15% of the proceeds from the sale of your writing. They don’t get paid in advance, and they don’t ask for money from their authors. If an agent asks for money from you, run.

Ultimately, agents need to pay their New York City rents, so they need to sell books and make a fair amount of money doing so. They must be savvy and selective, which means sometimes rejecting a book they enjoy on a personal basis – but isn’t commercially viable.

Writers of memoir, fiction, novels and other genres do need a literary agent.

Once you have an agent, be respectful and professional, and understand that they’re drowning in e-mail every day. You want to keep your correspondence brief and infrequent, unless you’re in the midst of a book launch.  As a general rule, literary agents are very busy people.

Literary Agents Negotiate On Your Behalf

Bad cover art. A poor advance. Missing royalty checks. A literary agent not only sells your writing to publisher, but they also negotiate on your behalf, because you’re a writer, not a contract expert, and it behooves you to remain on good terms with your publisher. They have all the uncomfortable conversations, so you don’t have to.  

With regards to film rights and foreign market rights, your agent has co-agents around the world and colleagues in Hollywood specializing in book-to-film adaptation sales. With these film deals, your agent usually gets 10%, while the film agent gets 10% -- but Hollywood film deals are so spectacularly complicated that many film agents also have legal backgrounds.

When selecting a literary agent, there’s a trade off between those agents who have a lot of clout and can sell books for serious amounts of money to senior publishing folks – but they tend to have less time for their clients/authors, and it’s harder to get their attention. More junior agents may be less solid with publishing houses, but they’re also hungrier and enthusiastic, willing to work with you until a deal is done. As well, there are agents who are older and still newer to the agent side, but may have worked as an editor at Doubleday for 20 years. Janet Silver and Tina Pohlman are two examples – and Janet Silver’s first author after switching? A woman by the name of Cheryl Strayed.

NOTE: this Sunday (June 2, 2019) I’m teaching a Publishing Intensive at Hugo House with Karen Finneyfrock and Theo Nestor, find out more here: https://hugohouse.org/store/class/publishing-intensive-karen-finneyfrock-peter-mountford-theo-nestor-2/

Narrative Time...A Story that Covers a Lot of Time

detonator.jpg

My latest short story has just been published in Guernica, and it was a doozy to write and revise.

Much of the challenge came from the length and complexity of the timeline that the story covers, and the fact that the narrator has a brain injury, which means he’s a bit hazy about details.

Usually, I counsel writers to avoid narratives that take place over a long period of time, but as you can see from this one, it really just “alights” in several spots, spending most of the story in the first period near his brain event. The challenge with a long timeline is often that the character’s problem or the animating conflict of the story can’t be sustained over a long period of time or else the reader feels like the character is not doing anything about their problem. In this case, my character was, in fact, struggling mightily against his problem (which is himself), and the struggle changed over time, but remained active. So the story was able to sustain jumps in time in a way that most of my other stories haven’t been able to do.

If you’d be interested, please have a look. The story is here: https://www.guernicamag.com/detonator/

And if you’re interested in writing short stories, check out some of the best contests and awards for short story writing.

Fall 2019 Classes in Port Townsend, Washington (Oct 12-13)

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This fall I’ll be offering two classes at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, Washington. Space is limited, so sign up soon! More info HERE.

Start a Book You Can Finish

SATURDAY, OCT 12 / 10am-4pm

Maximum 12 students / $150

 This full-day course prepares you for success by focusing on the writing process, craft and feedback. First, we examine early and crucial creative decisions that help set your book on an exciting and healthy trajectory, as well as common pitfalls that can derail a book. We also discuss different processes and creative habits, and look at tested systems for accountability. Finally, you'll describe your book idea and read the opening of your book to the class (if you've already begun) and put classroom concepts into practice, ensuring that your novel, nonfiction or memoir work is sturdy enough to weather the long voyage from page one to “The End.”

This class is open to writers of all levels. Please come to class with 13 copies of a document that has a 2-3 paragraph description of your book, followed by the book’s opening 2 pages (note: the sample is optional, but please come with the synopsis).

Finish Your Book and Sell It

SUNDAY, OCT 13 / Noon-3pm

Maximum 12 students / $100

Every year, thousands of first-time authors are paid in advance for their debut books. In this one-day intensive we’ll focus on the complex work of preparing your book for submission, including sourcing the best literary agents, building a platform, and the fine art of query letter writing. Students will come away.

Teaching a Summer Camp for Teens (July 8-12)

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Summer 2019 Teen Writing Camp

This summer I’ll be teaching a week-long day camp for teens who want to write fiction. I wish we’d had something like this when I was a kid! Space is limited and it’s almost full already, but if you’re interested, please read more here…

FICTION SCRIBES

This one week fiction camp will provide teens with the opportunity to practice writing and telling stories through a diverse range of writing activities, special guests, engaging readings, and field trips. Together with Peter, students will work on building lively characters, exercising the range of their narrative voice, and understanding the interlocking elements of powerful and engaging fiction. The session will culminate in a community reading where Scribes will have the opportunity to share their work! All skill levels welcome.

Location: Hugo House

Dates: July 8 - July 12 (Monday through Friday)

Time: 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

FOR MORE INFO, CLICK HERE

Writers Connection Interview

The following is an interview that appeared in the Writers Connection Newsletter in March, 2019.
E.C. Murray with Peter Mountford

ECM: First, thanks so much this interview. I find writing fiction extraordinarily difficult. Most challenging is establishing depth of character. George Lucas wrote seventy pages before he came to the beginning of Star Wars. You've written that you know "oceans" about your characters; that "you inhabit them." How do you do that?

PM: Character development can be extremely hard, or else it’s the easiest thing in the world. I think there are basically two methods of really getting to know a character: one is to have them be based on yourself and/or someone you know very well. Sometimes I take someone I know, and put them in the body of an actor who I’ve seen on screen. Then they’re very easy to see.

The other method, which you probably have to do anyway, is to really research their life. Go find their elementary school, and the house they grew up in, and where do they live now. It’s as if you’re going to write a feature article about a real person, you have to do similar work. I often find real places on Google maps now—and choose a house for them. With a new character I’m working on, I just tried writing a pages intake session for him with a psychotherapist. I wrote it in first person with lots of his interior thoughts and perceptions. The scene will not be in the book, of course. But it was very informative for me. What does he do for fun when he’s not working? How does he see his childhood? I have my students in one of my yearlong classes at Hugo House doing the same for their characters.

Elizabeth George spends more than a year studying her characters in this way, learning everything about their compulsions and psychological makeup, their needs, desires and eccentricities. Then you can put that character into a situation and you understand how they see the situation, what they will do, and so on. 

ECM: Many aspiring writers start and restart their manuscripts, getting so bogged down they never finish. Do you have a linear process for tying together your research, plot, and character development? Some people use note cards, some sticky notes on a white board, some pen and legal pad. Some absorb their research, some go back and forth between the manuscript and their research notes. What do you do?

PM: Like a lot of people, I love writing that first 50-70 pages of a book. There’s little to no prep—it’s fun and free and anything’s possible. It’s a lot like the beginning of a relationship. Infatuation. No one is worried about who takes out the trash. There is no trash in a new relationship! Lorrie Moore once said something about how a short story is a wildly exciting love affair, and a novel is a marriage. With a novel, at some point it’s time to get serious…like are you going to move in with this novel and live with it? How is this actually going to work?

So I do that first 50 pages and then I pause and explore characters deeply, and thoroughly. I map out the major turning points. Five or six of them. I’m working on a detective novel now, and that’s a slightly different thing, because you need to know from the outset who the killer is and lots of other information that the reader won’t know until the final 10% of the book. You need a collection of suspects and red herrings. I don’t really believe in taking a full outline too seriously, since you don’t truly know what will really happen until you’re on the ground, so to speak. You can plan the next 8-15 scenes with some degree of accuracy, but the further down you’re planning the more it’s just a bit of a guessing game, because while you’re on the page things come up, opportunities and so on. You have to respect the plan but also respect the information that emerges in the moment.

Editing or re-writing can be a procrastination tool for writers who are afraid to exit the comfort of that carefree first 50 pages. To commit to the book. I often open a new document called “ACT II” or something and then I’m forced to proceed, because the original pages aren’t in front of me anymore. Also, revising on a computer is dicey, people become cavalier on the computer. It’s better to print and make notes with pen and then if they’re really that valuable you can input them later.    

ECM: Many writers claim there’s a difference between writing, publishing and reaching readers in New York versus Seattle - that writers in Seattle are at a disadvantage. What are your thoughts? 

PM: Knowing people in publishing does help. Of course relationships matter—it’s a fact of any business. And 90% of publishing is in New York. I’d say that attracting the attention of these gatekeepers by attending lots of Paris Review parties or whatever is actually a labor-intensive and limiting approach. Better to get on their radar through publishing essays or stories that these people read and admire.

Ultimately, publishing begets more publishing. If you’ve had stories in Tin House (RIP!), and A Public Space, and Southern Review, then any agent will pay close attention to whatever you send them. Roxane Gay, for example, didn’t spend years hobnobbing in New York, but instead spent years writing and publishing fiction and nonfiction constantly, building a lively social media presence, and in time she was well known and admired by the gatekeepers, and was signing major book deals. Anthony Doerr has lived in Boise his entire career and it’s going pretty well for him. You write stuff that people will notice and they will, in fact, notice.

 ECM: Your prose, like many writers I admire, is precise and lyrical. Do you have suggestions for writing strong, poetic prose?

PM: Lots of cutting. Also, read it aloud and imagine there’s a sizeable audience in front of you. Now how do you like that sentence? I spend upwards of 10 hours a week working with clients as a writing coach and manuscript consultant and I also often read my clients’ work aloud to them. It sounds awkward but it’s not. I pause whenever something occurs to me. Could be as simple as “oh, that’s a great detail,” or, “I’m confused by this,” or, “I like how you organize the tension here, making it really clear, but this metaphor is taking me away from the specificity of this situation.” People’s writing improves quickly this way. There’s nowhere to hide. And they begin to see what a person will actually experience while reading their work.

I’d discourage lyricism for the sake of lyricism. It’s like a long guitar solo in a song that doesn’t need it. The prose style has to be organic to the character and the point of view. If you’re writing from the POV of a 12-year-old boy, he’s probably not going to be admiring a stand of poplar trees, or whatever, or deploying canny metaphors. You don’t have to strip away the charm and descriptiveness, but you also want to honor the basic framework for the character’s perspective.

Generally speaking, selecting very apt verbs and nouns does a lot of work, also a natural but varied syntax. Generally avoid describing emotions—they’re abstract. As William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” There are some fairly straightforward techniques that can help make your prose feel alive.

ECM: When I start a work of fiction, an idea comes to me and I feel I absolutely must write that story. Is this true for you, or do you start with a larger purpose - a theme  - you'd like to explore? It seems one theme, or stream, you write about is that no matter how hard you work to make the right decision, you cannot predict the outcome. If this is correct-that you aimed to explore this idea, where in your process did it come?

PM: Yeah, I feel that too. With short stories in particular, it’s often just a character in a situation. And it’s so alive with conflict and engaging thematic potential, and then it’s a lot of fun to write. The thing writes itself, in a way. I love that. But generally I find the theme while writing, and that organizes my revision. Halfway through, I say oh, this story or novel is about x and y and z. Then I have to go back and make sure that it’s really about that—everything that is extraneous to that theme is omitted, and characters and situations are re-imagined to add pressure to that theme, or make it do something interesting.

Like my Modern Love column about a table and chairs I inherited. While I was working on it I realized that the table was a metaphor for connection and community and embracing your past, even the difficult flawed parts of your past. Once that theme was clear, I just went through the piece and removed anything that wasn’t bolstering that theme—the first draft to the final draft was a radical change, but it wasn’t hard. The first draft felt like an episode of Antiques Roadshow, or something, fun, sure, but ultimately frivolous.

ECM: We all know our writing shouldn’t be boring. Do you have any tricks to make your writing “un-boring?” Riveting, scintillating, engaging? 

PM: Absolutely, and I talk about these in my classes at Hugo House, and with my coaching clients. A lot of what’s crucial is to put the source of tension in front of the reader more or less immediately. A lot of students and clients of mine have taken the idea of building mystery and assumed all mystery is created equal, and that’s not quite true. Some unproductive mystery would be like who is this person and what do they care about, or what do they want. That can sap heat from a story. Is this person old or young? Are they inside or outdoors during this scene? Those questions are distracting and create confusion. A reader needs to see need to see those things as quickly as possible.

Very often in their zeal for writing scenes, people forget the importance of simply coming out and saying something to the reader. They spend a page getting the reader into a very situation that might be interesting, sort of, but in the process they’ve neglected to tell us anything substantial about the characters or the situation. Often you have to let a narrator narrate a bit more—a little more telling and less showing. 

My essay called “The Laughter Club” which appeared in The Sun a couple years ago opens with the following two sentences: “If you happen to survive base-jumping with a bum parachute in Montana, or make it through a gory woodchipper mishap in Alaska, Harborview Medical Center—the only Level One Trauma Center in the Pacific Northwest—is where you’ll end up. My job there was to collect anesthesia records—crumpled yellow sheets covered with doctors’ scribbles—and determine how much patients owed for their life-saving, if temporary, failure to feel.” The relevant information is right there. 

ECM: What are a few elements that contributed to you being the writer you are today? What tips do you have for aspiring writers? 

PM: My main thing was that I like the act of writing, the experience itself. And it was helpful to realize that publication and so on is a way to buy time to write. My goal is to have at least 20 hours a week to do the thing I love to do. Publication is a means to that end.  

The other thing is that a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. It’s for their benefit. It has to grab their attention and sustain their attention, or else it’s not a very kind offering. You want something that they will appreciate in some way, whether it’s upsetting or funny or thrilling or fascinating or some combination of these qualities. Once I realized that the bar for engaging a reader’s attention is actually quite high, I was able to stop writing stories in which nothing happened—where it was just people sitting around the dining room table having subtext-rich conversations about their subdued conflicts.  

Also, finally, respect the process, even though the process often requires quite a lot of a attempting and re-attempting before something works. Failure is good. Really. It helps you get better and find the thing that’ll work next time. My writing habit is the only aspect of my life where I manage to apply sustained attention (I have terrible ADD). I’m hugely impatient in most other ways, but when it comes to working on a book, say, I am relentless, because I love the experience of being inside a story as it comes alive, so I don’t want to stop and do something else.

For more information about The Writers Connection and E.C. Murray, check out: https://www.elizabethcorcoranmurray.com/ and https://elizabethcorcoranmurray.wordpress.com/

Up Close and Personal: The Magic of Third Person Limited

(Please note that this piece originally appeared in the Feb 2019 issue of Writer's Digest)

Let’s start with a flashback.

When my story was up for discussion in my first-ever writing class, our lanky, mustachioed instructor inhaled deeply and peered out at us. His eye glinting mischievously, he asked, “What is the point of view in this piece?” I rolled my eyes. Third person, thank you very much! Who wouldn’t know that? “Third … limited?” one of my peers ventured.

The instructor frowned, drew a deep breath, then said, “Well, look at the fourth paragraph.” Two-dozen heads tilted down toward their printouts. “The POV drifts,” he explained. “Is it omniscient?”

Silence. I was already lost. Limited? Drifting?

As it turned out, not understanding these terms was pretty seriously hindering my storytelling potential. Like many people, I assumed third person was just the point of view where you write “he” and “she” instead of “I,” without understanding the nuances. This is like classifying all wheeled vehicles—from bicycle to big rig—under the category of “car” as opposed to “feet.”

I didn’t fully understand third-person limited (TPL) point of view for a long time, and certainly didn’t understand why an author would choose to be “limited” in this way. Isn’t limitation generally an undesirable thing? Before that discussion, I’d received about 1,000 consecutive rejections—from literary magazines, agents and editors. But since figuring this whole POV thing out, most of my writing has been published. It’s not a coincidence.

TPL is a remarkably flexible and powerful approach to narration. As needed, you can move in close and pull away from your POV character. In the process, conflicts and characters and setting—almost everything—become clearer and more vivid.

THIRD-PERSON WHAT?

First, because even a writing professor such as myself needs a reminder from time to time, here’s a refresher on the primary types of third-person narration:

OMNISCIENT. The preferred narrative approach in classic literature. The narrator is all-knowing, allowing the writer to enter the minds of anyone they want. Examples of omniscient narration include the works of Charles Dickens, but also some contemporary novels like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

CINEMATIC. The author describes events as impartially as possible, as if just a camera on the wall. The reader can’t “hear” character’s thoughts. Think Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Beginning writers often start here because it looks easy. (It’s not.)

LIMITED. As the name suggests, the narrative is limited to a single person’s perspective. This is the most prevalent approach in literature since the early 20th century. If the character doesn’t know something, the reader can’t know it. Examples are boundless, but include everything from the Harry Potter books to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

SHIFTING LIMITED OR MULTIPLE LIMITED. In many books—including both of mine—the third-person narrator is restricted to one character’s perspective through the entirety of the novel. But in shifting or multiple limited, the point of view changes from chapter to chapter (or is divided by section, or in some other easily definable chunks). Examples of shifting limited POV include West of Here by Jonathan Evison (which employs nearly 50 different points of view) and R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries.

YOUR LIMITATION IS YOUR STRENGTH

When a short story or novel is written from one character’s POV, readers build rapport with that character. We see the world through their eyes, feeling their grief, joy or even cynicism.

In that respect, yes, third-person limited is much like first-person POV, but with the crucial distinction that readers aren’t completely trapped within that character’s perspective. The ability to convey a character’s thoughts—and then back away when you’d like to mute their thoughts—is a critical difference from first person. The narrator can sit on the protagonist’s shoulder for some parts of the story, then back away for other parts. Early in a book, employing a very close stance can help readers understand the character’s inner workings. As the book progresses, readers will come to know them so well they can probably predict their thoughts, and thus that close proximity isn’t as necessary.

When the plot is moving quickly, or to compress time, it makes sense to assume a more distant perspective, much like the cinematic POV. Moments of high drama and physical violence (also sports and sex, for that matter) are typically best served at a more removed viewpoint— helping readers understand unfolding events.

This perspective gives you, as an author, flexibility. In The Punishment She Deserves, Elizabeth George uses a close TPL perspective to evoke the turmoil of a young woman’s acute psychological crisis. Later in the book, George uses a distant POV during the climactic chase scene, as the detectives pursue their main suspect.

Limitation can increase suspense. If you can’t see outside of a character’s perspective, then the reader doesn’t know what’s around the corner or whether the character can trust other people. And if the POV character trusts someone that the reader worries might be dishonest, that can be an excellent tension-builder.

A FAVORITE EXAMPLE

The brilliant short story “Intervention” by Jill McCorkle does a terrific job of demonstrating the power of close third-person narration, as in the following paragraph:

The intervention is not Marilyn’s idea but it might as well be. She is the one who has talked too much. And she has agreed to go along with it, nodding and murmuring “all right” into the receiver while Sid dozes in front of the evening news. Things are so horrible all over the world that it makes them feel lucky just to be alive. Sid is 65. He is retired. He is disappearing before her very eyes.

From this selection, we can see a handful of sentences doing significant heavy lifting:

  1. Here, “… it might as well be … she is the one who has talked too much,” Marilyn feels she’s set in motion this intervention and regrets it.

  2. She murmurs “all right” into the receiver as Sid sleeps; presumably he can’t deduce the plans being made while he’s asleep, yet she’s still careful with her words.

  3. In saying, “Things are so horrible all over the world that it makes them feel lucky,” the word “them” demonstrates that Marilyn still feels a closeness with Sid, and that they often share the same worldview.

  4. With the sentence, “He is disappearing before her very eyes,” we see Marilyn feels there’s something wrong with Sid. When coupled with the word “intervention,” we gather Sid is an alcoholic.

The word “feel” appears only once: “They feel lucky just to be alive.” All the other emotional content is communicated by implication: Marilyn’s guilt and sense of responsibility, her concern about her beloved husband Sid’s drinking problem, and her accidental (or half-accidental) instigation of secret plans for an alcoholism intervention— as well as the fact that she regrets setting these plans in motion. The internal conflict and apprehension are cemented, drawing readers in.

If McCorkle had tried to do this in cinematic-third POV, the paragraph would be painfully blunt:

Marilyn regrets telling her daughter that Sid—Marilyn’s husband, her daughter’s father—has been drinking too much. Now her daughter has called her on the phone to say that she wants to stage an intervention. On the phone with her daughter, Marilyn is nodding and murmuring “all right” into the receiver while Sid dozes in front of the evening news, which is full of bad news from all over the world. Sid is 65.

HOW TO DO IT

Writing in third-person limited is surprisingly difficult. It’s a technique that requires close observation, practice and a willingness to rigorously rework sentences. I teach the approach in my MFA classes and with my clients as a writing coach. We struggle through it together.

Most commonly, writers seem to create richly drawn perspective for the characters they most easily identify with, but the POV becomes distant when switching to a character they feel is difficult or unappealing, or whose life experiences are totally dissimilar to their own. Readers don’t hear the ungainly character’s thoughts or get any of that complex, multi-layered writing, as in McCorkle’s story.

If you’re going to be close to your POV character, you need to completely understand their inner life, from their amount of self-awareness (or lack thereof) to how they see a sunset. It’s a lot like method acting.

In a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times, author Kaitlyn Greenidge described how she struggled in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman to write a subtly racist character in a way that felt convincing. She finally realized, with dread, that she would have to “love this monster into existence.”

Build your own experience with TPL by rewriting scenes in different perspectives, being keenly aware of the distinctions between each. Here’s an example of the same scene rendered three times, starting with omniscient third:

Tom, who owned the general store, was superficial and sexist, and he thought Mildred, a cheerful old lady who came into the store every day, was loud and unattractive.

With third-person limited, we want to ensure that the character’s beliefs are reflected in the narrator’s description of things. Not by necessarily telling us what the character thinks, but by coloring in their fictional world—setting, people, events—with the character’s perspective, informing the words selected. Here is the same scene rendered from Tom’s close-limited perspective:

Mildred burst into the store, braying hellos to everyone and brandishing her stained dentures in a crooked grin. Tom looked away, admiring the sleek new light fixtures he’d installed over the deli.

One of the biggest challenges in writing this way is that readers might end up thinking that the perspective being asserted here is the author’s, not the character’s—which can be unfortunate, especially if your POV character is someone as unpleasant as Tom. There’s little to be done to mitigate this, and if the author tries to wink knowingly at the reader, the spell may be broken. It is something to bear in mind if you’re hoping to spend a whole story on the shoulder of such a character.

Here’s the same situation described from the point of view of Lilly, a young woman who works at the deli in the general store.

The door opened. Lilly looked up through the glass of the deli counter, which she was doing her best to clean to Tom’s exacting standards—and grinned to herself at the irresistible enthusiasm of Mildred, that chatty old lady whose arrival was one of the bright spots of every morning at the store.

QUOTED THOUGHTS

Another way to put TPL into practice is by revising sentences where thoughts and statements are doing a lot of work. Moving emphasis to internalized view is called “free indirect speech.” For example, take this passage:

“I need you to pick up this room,” Teresa said to her sick daughter, who was gazing at her phone. As she looked around the dark room, she thought to herself, These tissues and dirty dishes are disgusting!

To get closer to free indirect speech, remove the quotes and thought tags—this will increase the emphasis on an internalized view:

Teresa’s daughter still hadn’t picked up the room. Disgusting, balled up tissues and empty plates and glasses were everywhere. Teresa glared at her on the sofa, at the girl’s puffy eyes and red-rimmed nostrils. Morgan was staring at her phone. Again.

As you can see, you don’t have to actually quote Teresa’s thoughts. We know exactly what she thinks if you get close enough.

The more time you spend with this point of view, the more you see the sentences beginning to do several jobs at once, layering meanings between the lines. This is what is so magical about third-person limited—readers don’t even see the sleight of hand, but find themselves immersed in the world of your design.

7 Tips for New Writers

Last year, I was invited to give a commencement speech at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA graduation—advice for writers heading out into the world. Here’s the text of that speech; I hope some of what I said rings true for you:

***

As we prepare to send these ten graduates off into the wilderness, I’m honored to stand up here and share some of what I’ve leaned about the writing life with you all. Please note that I’m going to sprinkle some concrete pieces of advice throughout this speech, which should take exactly 12 minutes and 23 seconds, some of which has already elapsed.

My first piece of advice: When you’re invited to read on stage, stick to the allotted time!

Second Piece of Advice: Pick the right verb and you won’t need an adverb.

This is the rapid fire part of the speech, so here comes . . .

THIRD PIECE OF ADVICE: You do have time to write.

If you feel like you don’t have time to write, I suspect that your problem is that you have a life. So, do away with that.

Like, adios to yoga and the gym. Facebook is not helpful, also quit knitting, sky-diving, stamp-collecting. Most personal relationships are overrated, so do the bare minimum to maintain civil relations with the people you value. TV’s out, of course, unless it’s late and you’re comatose after writing a lot—no, wait.

No TV. Instead, read a few pages of good stuff. Take long walks with great music in your ears. Let your thoughts about writing take over crazy amounts of real estate in your mind. It’s a love affair, a very dangerous love affair.

Good news. You’ve got time to write! Isn’t that nice?

***

Okay, back to this speech.

News flash: Writing is not an inherently brave act. But showing your writing to strangers, or worse still, showing it to loved ones? That’s brave AF. It’s personal, even when it’s not, even when you’re writing about vampires, or whatever. Your subconscious sneaks in, anyway, revealing your weird joys and proclivities and vulnerabilities.

And after opening that vein, failure is the norm. That’s the kicker. Only a massive sense of humility will allow you to withstand an inevitable waterfall of rejection—it’ll be raining down on your head all day and night.

I would love to tell you that you will not have to deal with a waterfall of rejection, but that would be a lie, and you’re not supposed to lie during commencement speeches.

Personally, I applied to 13 MFA programs and got into one, which awarded funding to students based on our “literary merit.” No pressure. Bad news: I received the least amount of funding from my cohort of 10 fiction writers.

Almost everyone else in my group got a full ride their second year, with a small stipend for living expenses. I got a pat on the back: “Good job, keep trying!” I exited the program with about $28,000 in student loans. It was humiliating.

On the upside, I left the program with a draft of a novel. Isn’t that nice?

Alas, that novel didn’t sell. No takers. Sent it around, no bites.

I’d also written a novel before I started at the MFA program, and showed it to a friend, who said to me, with a commanding seriousness, “Show this to no one else.” He was right.

Writing is an outrageous thing to do, if you think about it, and not just because of the certain vulnerability and failure. It’s a rough situation to get into on purpose. It takes a kind of bravery, I dare say. And you graduates embody that.

When you do publish something, you’re asking strangers to pay for the privilege of reading your poems or prose. A full book can take like 20 hours to read—so you’re asking this stranger if you can bend their ear for 20 hours, and by the way, they should pay about $30 for a hardcover version of this experience. And if they don’t mind, maybe they could write a nice Amazon review.

That’s some hardcore hubris we’ve got here, friends.

But that’s not the whole story. When you get past the craziness of this undertaking, a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. The act of reading puts that fellow human in a deep collaboration with you. You’re in cahoots, but the experience happens entirely inside their head. Every person who reads your writing brings their own motley collection of personal baggage to that experience—your subconscious is talking to their subconscious. As David Foster Wallace said, of fiction, “We all suffer alone in the world. But a piece of fiction can allow us to identify with a character’s pain, and imagine someone else identifying with ours. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

Every person who reads your work will experience something different. It’s magical. As writer Heather McCue said: “I began to write because I was too shy to talk, and too lonely not to send messages.”

***

Okay, Fourth piece of advice: Writer’s block is no excuse for not writing.

When faced with a seizure of creative energy, some writers turn to alcohol, or Adderall, but please follow the prescription directions under medical supervision. Most  writers I know don’t drink and write, actually, but do what you must. End of the day, you need to sit down and write sentences. Sentences self-propagate through asexual reproduction like amoebas. So try writing a bad sentence, the worse the better. Then another. Another. Keep going until they’re not so bad.

Once they’re not bad, try to keep them that way.

***

Back to my speech. The reason I wasn’t able to publish the first two books I wrote was that they were awful.

A few months ago I exhumed the second one and quickly hacked 50 pages out of it—the ease with which they were cut was, perhaps, a red flag—and sent it to my agent. She’s very polite, so after she read it she said, “When you’re famous, this will be of great interest to academics.”

By the time I finished my MFA at the age of 30, I’d also written and revised and submitted about 20 short stories, and had received—I kid you not—approximately 1000 consecutive rejections. I’ve kept them all in two large boxes.

But at some point my writing improved. I’d read my peers’ work closely, and kept writing and writing and writing, and reading and reading and reading. For YEARS. The thing that really accelerated my improvement was specifically sitting around with the other writers in my MFA program and talking about writing. Through the process of reading their work critically, and having them read mine critically, I began at long last to have a real sense of control and purpose on the page.

Fifth PIECE OF advice is something that I saw on a poster, it was a picture of a cute kitten, or maybe Winston Churchill, but it said, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.”

Because at some point you find yourself exiting hell.

By the time I graduated from my MFA program, despite being in many ways at the lowest place in my professional life, and feeling humiliated and foolish, I was able to write with a sense of aliveness and intentionality. I made craft decisions on purpose. Before that, if something was good, it was just a fluke.

These days I still get rejections, but most of what I’ve written since I graduated has been published—two novels, fifteen essays, about as many short stories.

What happened was I realized—here’s concrete advice #5, or maybe it’s #6—I realized that you must win over the reader, sentence by sentence.

This is, after all, an offering to them. It’s not for me. It’s for them. And I started to accept that readers are not naturally inclined to care about what I’m saying. I have to make them care.

They’re eager to watch The Walking Dead, which is understandable, and I’m trying to convince them to stay and read the next sentence. It’s a tug of war. Me versus those flesh-eating zombies. You’ve got to try hard, of course. I fail all the time, still. We all do. But it’s helpful to know what you’re up against.

Another piece of advice—this is #7, I think: There are always more words.

Most emerging writers assume a failed attempt—maybe it was too long, or scribed in Klingon, or no one likes it, not even their mom—but tossing that failed work in the trash means you’ve lost something precious.

This notion is born of a sort of "scarcity mentality," as opposed to an "abundance mentality." That is to say, emerging writers understandably feel that their "pile" of writing is small, and it is: because they haven't written much yet. They feel overly protective of those pages because they don’t have a stockpile of pages.

Instead of hoarding your iffy Klingon romances, try to just assume that there’s much more where that came from, and it won’t take long to write now that you know how to write. Keep building the pile and don’t look back. And once it’s ready, send it out and expect rejection, and keep your head down, don’t stop.

Here’s the thing: You are going to fail a lot, and you have to continue anyway. As Dory says in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” But Dory is blessed with the inability to remember anything.

Which is your final Tip—number 8 if you’re keeping track: Amnesia is helpful.

Because I tried quitting writing. Honestly, I did. But living without writing is not living. Colors drain. I get dumb. As Joan Didion said, “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” If I’m not writing, I’m not thinking.

I’m unable to stop myself from writing. I love the exhilaration of actually composing a piece of writing—usually I would rather write than go to a party, and I like parties. I love how the prose comes alive. It’s the one truly mystical thing I know of.

My characters are often funnier and smarter than I am. How is that even possible?

It has to be magic. The subconscious mind out-singing the conscious mind. I’m so delighted to hear that voice, which isn’t supposed to be audible.

Publishing is fine, it’s nice, but it’s a means to the end. The end, for me, is having the time to write. I don’t write to publish. I publish so that I can write—so that I don’t have to get a day job.

But writing is lonely, and it’s almost impossible to improve without community. You have all been blessed with this beautiful community here—keep in touch with each other, even if it’s difficult. These people will be your core literary community for the rest of your life. Make new community, too, of course, and lean on each other, offer to read your friend’s work, and read with generosity, but also read critically. But most important of all, please, please…beware of adverbs.

They’re not your friends. Just find the right verb.

Peter Mountford Consulting offers writing coaching, classes and speaking services in Seattle, Washington and beyond. I work with clients to develop a writing approach, revise work and submit writing for publication. I help you develop your unique writing strengths, and offer the writing tools and assistance you need to become a successful writer.