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Editing Challenge Day 11: Turning Up the Heat

The Blairzone - 36

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Last time I talked about building a character that is multi-layered, existing in multiple spheres of existence. But that’s not enough for a compelling story; we also need to turn up the heat. If we think about great characters from stories that we loved, we are almost never seeing those characters at a time when everything is fine and dandy. In fact, we are dipping into the character’s life at exactly the point of greatest strain.

Think about when you’ve chosen to show us a slice of your character’s life. Is it a time when things are more or less all right? For a story to be memorable and compelling, we need to put a character under threat. That character’s very hold on life must be in question in one way or another. This threat can be physical or emotional or financial; but it must be real, and it must be targeted.

What I mean by that is that if you’ve established a character who deeply desires a stronger relationship with his father, then it’s not the right threat to have a bear going through his garbage. We need to find a threat that is tailor-made for this character’s particular insecurities. If we think back to the example of the Larry Brown story I mentioned, about a guy whose wife is flashed by a stranger, this is the right threat because the character has a great deal of insecurity about his own masculinity. The harassment from a strange man is a direct threat to his own sense of manly pride and ability to protect his wife.

So today, take a moment to examine the threat that you’ve selected for your character. Is it pushing the bruise? Accessing the weak points? We need to understand who the character is by seeing what makes him nearly buckle under the strain. If your character has a fear of spiders, then a spider has to walk in the door.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at

From Boston: My Summer Reading List

Just because we’re out of school doesn’t mean we can’t use the summer as a time to catch up on our reading. In fact, most of the writerly and readerly folk I know are hungry for those warm months when we can finally devote our energy and attention to a big ol’ book. In the past I’ve used summers to get through David Copperfield, Middlemarch, and War and Peace (not all in the same summer!). Your summer reading list doesn’t have to be hefty old tomes, though; it could be way to get your finger on the pulse of contemporary literature. Here’s the list of recently completed and upcoming books on my list, and why they’re already making my summer awesome.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Is it a coincidence that I picked up this book right around the 70th anniversary of D-Day? Either way, I’m glad I did. The reminders of the absolutely titanic struggles in the time of world war II are on my mind these days, and they’re brought to brilliant life in this intricate, epic, tender, crushing World War II-era novel. I haven’t actually read that many books from the perspective of the occupied French, but half of this book is closely with Marie-Laure, a young blind Parisian in love with her Braille edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and deeply attached to her father. On the eve of a calamitous firebombing by Americans, she will find herself in a northern seaside town scheduled for total destruction. And that’s only in the first chapter. Every other chapter will be following Werner, a penniless orphaned German boy determined to escape the life in the mines that has been slated for him. The book is dramatic, mythic, sometimes whimsical, but always moving.

The Sandman, Neil Gaiman

I’m working my way through Neil Gaiman’s funny, thought-provoking, and certainly dreamy comic book series about Morpheus, god of dreams. He is a very cool character, sometimes intimidating, sometimes gentle, sometimes merciful, sometimes horrifying. He reminds me a lot of a character from the Matrix, and I’m not just saying that because of the name.

Sleep Donation, Karen Russell

One of my favorite current authors has a short novella out this season, and as with her previous work, it’s funny, quirky, mythical, strange, and blurring the lines between fantasy and science fiction. In this one, a contagious insomnia is sweeping across the nation. The only cure is the donation of sleep from unaffected donors; and the protagonist must perform the story of her sister’s death from the disease again and again to win donors.

What books do you have on your list for this summer? I hope it’s not silly mindless beach reads that I’ll see poking out of your bag; just because the weather’s warm doesn’t mean we have to read soggy warmed-over writing! On my list to come are Re-Deployment, The Goldfinch, The Savage Detectives, A Possible Life, White Out…and too many more to count!

Kickstarter Project Launching Today!

I’m very excited to report that Two Cities Review’s Kickstarter project has been approved and we have officially launched! By visiting our page, you’ll be able to see a video of me and my co-editor talking about the review’s mission; you’ll be able to contribute to our review’s launch effort and get some swag in return, ranging from a mention in the review to personalized workshopping from our experienced editors.

Stay tuned, and get ready to hear more about our project. Spread the word! We hope you’ll consider supporting our exciting new literary adventure. Over the years, it’s been my pleasure to write for Writerly Life and share what advice, tips, and techniques I can about staying creative in your own life. Now that I’ve got the opportunity to actually curate and shape a publication of my own, I hope you’ll consider supporting me. I would greatly appreciate the sponsorship — and would love to know that readers of Writerly Life would be interested to read a magazine edited by me and my co-editor.

Donate to our Kickstarter project today!

Terror and beauty: creating the sublime in your writing

I had the pleasure (and terror) of seeing the new movie Gravity this weekend. I also saw it in 3D, on an IMAX screen, and the experience might be enough to cause heart failure in those with frail constitutions. You can already read all about Gravity in other reviews, but let me say that it was the most purely enthralling cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time. At some point fairly early on in the movie you realize that all the scientific rules you learned in school about angular momentum and life in zero G, you never REALLY absorbed. You never REALLY understood the total lack of control one has in a frictionless, gravity-less void.

Gravity is so thrilling as a movie experience because it taps into the very thin line many of us have between what is absolutely terrifying and what is absolutely beautiful. One of the major sources of terror for me was the inability to stop yourself in zero G — without air, without gravity, once you are headed in one direction there is absolutely no way to stop yourself or to slow down. Even if you grab hold of something, unless it hits you dead center, you’ll just start spinning helplessly. It’s like being a bullet that never stops ricocheting. At the same time, that cold and brutal fact is also what gives the movie its bizarre, balletic beauty. And this odd mix of the awful (and I mean awful by the word’s original meaning, or something that fills one with awe) and the beautiful is something we can all access in our own writing, even without a hundred million dollar budget and a four story screen.

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Adding a Little Magic to Your Story

Many story writers who are in the pursuit of Realism with a capital R express suspicious attitudes toward fantasy of any kind. They turn up their noses and scoff at swords and sorcery or science fiction. It’s not real, they’ll remind us. Why is important if it doesn’t have something to say about the way the world really works?

That’s the most common complaint I’ll hear in my creative writing classes from students when I assign a bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Kafka. It’s too strange, too fanciful; surely it’s for kids, because only children could enjoy fantastic events and themes. Many of us are tempted to lump magic realism in with the purely escapist (and often distressingly stereotypical) fantasy and science fiction paperbacks of our youth. My goal on magic realism day is to change those students’ minds.

It’s not like I’m any less of a realism fan. My own writing strives for realism in every way. But I’m also truly delighted when I encounter a story that uses fantastical or magical elements in a new way. There’s just something so refreshing and strange, so utterly beguiling about the details of real life invaded by fairy tale or fable. The themes of fairy tales, for example, remain powerfully connected to the problems of being human. Fairy tales teach us how to behave and what to fear; they fill us with the hope that loved ones can come back from the dead or that the wicked will eventually suffer. They show us that children can be brave and resourceful, and that girls and women can be their own heroes. I’m always impressed with how many fairy tales actually star women, from Rapunzel to Rumplestiltskin; though there are many stereotypes,there are also surprising moments of agency. Consider the Russian fairy tale character of Baba Yaga; she is an occasionally benevolent but always dangerous witch who lives in the woods and sometimes saves the day.

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New from Two Cities: The Two Cities Story

Don’t worry, readers of Writerly Life — I haven’t forgotten you! You can keep expecting regular posts on the writing life to continue. Coming soon will be more thoughts on writing in bits and pieces, as well as thoughts on what to write when your novel is finished. . I’ll also be writing about when you can be sure your novel or story is ready to send out.

For now, though, check out a brand new article up at Two Cities Review that explains our mission. It offers a little background about where the idea for the review came from, and what kind of writing we’re looking for. If you think you could write something about the city for our blog, or if you have fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry to submit to the actual review, head on over to to find out how to submit. We want your writing!

Now here’s an excerpt from the new post:

We are Olivia and Blair, and we are writers living in two different cities.

We both grew up near Boston, and moved to New York for grad school. Then we split paths — Olivia stayed in Brooklyn, and I returned to Boston. But we knew we would keep a bridge between these two cities, and some part of both of them would always be our home. There are so many writers and artists out here who are shuttling back and forth along the coast, climbing and descending the hills, riding the Mass Pike, coasting down the George Washington bridge. We thought that nowadays, so many of us are multi – city people. We have grown up in one city, and matured in another; we have played in the parks of one town and frequented the bars of a different one. So many of us are living two lives, or are stretching our creative lives across bridges to different worlds.

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New from Two Cities: What is Your Favorite Part of Your City?

I’m excited to announce that the very first post at Two Cities Review is officially up! That means you can read all about city life, but with a literary mindset. As long as the posts are relevant to my Writerly Life readers, you can expect some cross -posting. Check out an excerpt below and be sure to read on at the site.

The view in the Boston Public Gardens

I’ve written earlier about how public transportation is probably my favorite part of living in a city. Both the filthy New York subways and the screeching rusty T of Boston are places to get some of the best views of the skyline, the town, the bridges, the lights, and the people. But I’m wondering what your favorite part about city living really is. There are those big conveniences and pleasures, of course – the big reasons that we move to the city in the first place. There’s the availability of jobs, of cultural events, and of opportunities. There are the friends that live there, the family, and so on.

But once we actually live in our chosen city for a while, I think it’s the little things that we end up loving the most — the sensory experiences of living there. I love the shout of color in a New England fall; the special clarity of the light; the smell of chestnuts, of coffee, of the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts (more on this in a future post). I love (and hate) the crowds of red-wearing baseball goers packing the T after a Sox game.

Continue reading at Two Cities Review

When Ambiguity Is in Too Many Dimensions

20131002-102150.jpgIt’s very cool these days to be dealing with some level of ambiguity in stories. We see this in the popularity of TV shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, and we see it in a different way in classic (and equally popular) shows like the X-Files. The former shows are playing with a degree of moral ambiguity. They present characters who aren’t clearly good or evil, who challenge our concept of good and bad. That kind of moral complexity is always satisfying to see. On the other hand, shows like the X-Files are playing with ambiguity on the plane of reality. Sometimes we aren’t sure whether what we saw was real or not; we’re not sure who we can believe. Playing with reality in that way is an age-old technique, such as in The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland. At the end of Alice’s story, she appears to wake up from a dream. Is Wonderland real, or only a mental state? That question adds a fresh dimension to the story.

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Taking the Train out of Cliche Town

When I teach creative writing, as I’m doing this semester, I try to find funny ways to keep harping on the same old lessons. After all, a great deal of the mistakes and problems I see in student work can be boiled down to about three repeating themes, and of those, about eighty percent fall into the category of clichéd language. A cliche doesn’t just represent an over-used phrase, image, or idiom; it also represents a fundamental lack of imagination, a deep-down laziness of language. That’s why cliched character types so often display stereotypes, to the point of offense; it shows a similar lack of imagination in picturing the diversity and inner lives of kinds of people. That’s why I take certain kinds of cliches – like having the girl robot clean the house in a science fiction story — downright offensive.

At the same time, I fully understand the pull of cliched language. There they are, right at your fingertips; they’re all around you, like a friendly city of words and phrases and images. They’re the houses we all grew up in, the stories we curled up with at night. They’re so damn comfortable. They come so easy.

So here’s where the joking comes in. “Now leaving cliche town”, I announce. “All aboard. Last stop in cliche town. This train is LEAVING THE STATION.” It’s silly, but sometimes a visual metaphor can help us picture the difficult thing we have to do. We have to pack our bags and leave the town we grew up in. We have to do the brave, difficult work of departing and setting up shop in a completely new place, where the frameworks of the houses haven’t already been built for us. We have to build from the ground up.

That important work can’t begin until we symbolically leave cliches behind. In past classes, I’ve had students write down cliches on strips of paper and then tear them up. We need some sort of a dramatic physical act in order to avoid cliches. We have to strip them from our lives.

Do you ever find yourself sliding back into cliche town? I know I do. Particularly when I haven’t directly experienced something, I’m tempted to rely on what I’ve seen in books or movies. Don’t know much about drug addiction? Let’s draw upon what I saw from Requiem for a Dream.. Haven’t been to Egypt or Japan? What book has depicted these places? The shakier the foundation I have, the more I’m tempted to pull on sketchy, cartoonish depictions. I’m afraid to make up random or different depictions than what I’ve already seen, because what if I’m wrong? What if it’s not like that at all? Far safer just to rehash what other people have already written about the topic. And far more cliched.

It’s easy, so easy, to fall back into that grimy little town you grew up in. But if you want to write in an original way, then you have to leave. So all aboard!

Don’t Die at the End!

I’m entering an exciting phase of my novel process. It’s also a very frightening one, however; I’ll soon start sending the manuscript to prospective agents and possibly publishers too. It’s time to start getting some real feedback from professionals about how to take this novel to the next level and hopefully see it in print.

This is a time that requires the most commitment, persistence, and relentless, dogged dedication. And yet curiously, this seems to be the time that many fledgling novelists lose energy and just peter out. I’ve met many people who tell me they’ve written several novels, yet none of them have been published. It’s not always because there’s no talent there; often I get told that the writers just stopped at that stage in the process, unsure of how to proceed — or afraid to. So the writing that they’ve poured their hearts into for a year or more now has a quiet life languishing in a drawer, and that dream of being a published novelist goes meandering along as only the vaguest concept of a dream.

Why do people allow themselves to “die” at the end of the race? Why do runners slow down before they cross the finish line? It seems to be a very human tendency, because I’ve learned how running coaches have to train their runners to keep going at full speed until the finish line is crossed. Without that training, as soon as we see the finish line we start to slow down, anticipating the end of the race. Well, that strategy is just as self-defeating on the publishing trail. We can’t let ourselves just peter out.

So how can we prevent ourselves from dying at the end? The first step is acknowledging that this new phase of the novel process is just as important, and that it is going to require a different kind of energy. Instead of writing and thinking and writing and wondering, we have to make a plan. When we know the novel is ready, we have to start doing research. We have to look into agents and publishers and start figuring out where our work is most likely to have a home.

Start thinking about who you know who might be able to help you. Have you met agents, or other writers who have agents? Have you gone to any professional development meetings or writerly social events? Try getting a book with agent listings or publisher listings. Start small. Google people’s names. Learn what these agents and publishers are about. Craft a killer query letter. Summarize your novel in a devastating paragraph. All of these things will be discussed in more depth in future posts, but the first step is to understand all the different things that need to be done. Finishing your novel is only the end of a phase, not the end of the journey to publication.

Stay tuned at Writerly Life for more thoughts on the publishing trail, and remember to stay energized — there’s a long road ahead.