Monday, November 9, 2009

Robert Boswell's
The Half Known World is a great read for anyone interested in writing "literary" fiction and the first two chapters are a great read for anyone period. Chapter one is the book's cornerstone. Here Boswell inveighs against creative writing classes that have students making character lists, about birthdays, jobs, etc. This reminds me very much of Flannery O'Connor who insisted on the "mystery of personality" as the core of good stories. Anything that kills mystery for readers and writers is bad practice. Boswell describes wandering an unknown, forbidden territory as a boy, a destination he and his friend never successfully reach. To really write well and make evocative characters "the writer must suggest a dimension to fictional reality that escapes comprehension. The writer wishes to make his characters and their world known to the reader, and he simultaneously wishes to make them resonate with the unknown." It's this territory of the unknown, the mysterious, that is our true aim. I loved every moment of this first chapter.

Likewise, the second chapter captivated me. By telling a story of an encounter with a troubled woman at the bar, Robert Boswell describes his writing practice. I heard him read this aloud at the AWP convention a few years ago and was enthralled. It's something I could share with my undergraduate students. I also really liked his chapter on the "Alternate Universe" and his thoughts on omniscience are likewise indispensable.

Other chapters were intriguing, but a little troubling for me. Boswell's repeated use of the term "literary" is meant to establish a hierarchy in the fictional world and to make his points he sometimes dismisses the work of popular authors like Barbara Kingsolver or Sue Miller. He speaks of his own loves, for baseball and film noir, as "soft spots" that he wouldn't be able to write about in his fiction. This feels like bad advice to me. I think our core material often grows out of our obsessions, what we love. However, these are small quibbles. This one of the best books I've read recently on writing, one that has me longing for the free time to get writing again this coming month when school lets out, to once more set out to explore that mysterious terrain, the woods and iced over streams leading down to that unreachable river beyond.

You can read more about Boswell, including links to his stories, here:

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Worth the Price of Admission

Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today's Best Writing Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis, is a useful addition to the bookshelf for writers, especially those who also teach creative writing. I immediately started using some of the exercises in my fiction class.

I had a moment where I laughed out loud. Amidst the usual exercises on character and point of view there was this advice from Kathleen Spivak in her "The Writing Exercise: A Recipe."

Ingredients and Preparation

Before bedtime, pick up the alarm clock. Set it to ring two hours earlier than your usual wake-up time.

Sleep. Or don't. But get up anyway.

Put a mug of coffee, tea, or other comfort in your hands. Now go to your desk immediately. Sit down. Look dazed. Open the computer-mind.

Work on a writing project--somehow for two hours. Don't complain. (Spivak 64).
Spivak goes on to describe doing for this a year, comparing the writing project to a "dominatrix" and a "virus that takes hold." I loved it. Here is the writing process boiled down to its stark essence. Art will always require sacrifice, as she makes clear. If you want to write you must be willing to give up sleep, set aside distractions, and carve a space for yourself seperate from the world. As Rilke once said, "Ask yourself in the stillest hour, must I write?"
I loved it, but this is very difficult for me to do now right now. I'm in the midst of a new semester. I have two lovely young daughters, age four and one, to help raise. I'm content with my life and why would I spoil such contentment to work morning after morning on something that may never see the light of day?
Art. I know I'll be returning to the novel soon. In the stillest hour I will write!

There are many other worthy chapters in this essay collection. For teachers of writing, chapters like Crystal Wilkinson's "Birth of a Story in an Hour or Less" make Now Write! well worth the price of admission.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Book Lovers Night at the College of Saint Benedict's!

I am very excited about this upcoming event. I'm heading to the College of Saint Benedict's as part of the summer reading program next week. I look forward to the evening and conversation!

SB “Book Lovers' Night" features author Thomas Maltman


Thomas Maltman, author of The Night Birds, is the featured guest at the College of Saint Benedict’s “Book Lovers' Night” Wednesday, Aug. 5 at Teresa Reception Center, Main Building, CSB.

The book program begins at 6:45 p.m., and is free to the public. An optional “light” dinner will be offered at 6 p.m. for $7.

The Night Birds is Maltman’s first novel and was released in 2007 by Soho Press. Set in 1876 in Minnesota, the book spotlights 14-year-old Asa Senger and his German immigrant family. It is a time of uncertainty for the family, as vast clouds of locust descend on the Great Plains. The James-Younger gang, a band of murderous thieves, is rumored to be riding north of the area.

During this time of uncertainty for Asa and his family, his Aunt Hazel arrives on the scene. Confined for years in an asylum, she brings with her stories of the Dakota War (also known as the Dakota Conflict) of 1862. Her arrival propels the story into the past, as far back as the Senger family’s initial settlement in slave-holding Missouri.

The Night Birds has received the Alex Award from the American Library Association, the Friends of American Writers Literary Award and the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.

"We all set our sights on the Great American Novel. . . . (Maltman) comes impressively close to laying his hands on the grail," wrote reviewer Madison Smartt Bell in The Boston Globe newspaper.

Maltman’s essays, poetry and fiction have been published in the Georgetown Review, Great River Reviewand Main Channel Voices, among other journals. Maltman, who lives in Minneapolis, is expected to release a second novel, Little Wolves, soon.

The Night Birds will be on sale at 20 percent off at both the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University bookstores through the event. For more information on the event, please call 320-363-2119, or e-mail

Diane Hageman
Director of Media Relations
College of Saint Benedict
Phone 320-363-5748
Fax 320-363-5136

Monday, July 27, 2009

Burn Calories - wikiHow

Okay. This blog is supposed about aspects of creative writing, but I had to post this. My Google page includes many odd links including a daily Wiki-How, a "how-to" of the day. The subjects are unfailing esoteric and interesting, everything from how to tell a good horror story, to how to look good naked. The following post is creative, even if it's not about writing so much. It includes odd ways to lose weight, from fidgeting to linking your work station to a treadmill. (Could you treadmill while writing a novel? The idea intrigues me. ) So it's not about writing, but after a long winter of dark beer and heavy foods, I am still looking for ways to lose weight this summer. Here's some tips, courtesy of Wiki-How.

Burn Calories - wikiHow

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rules for Writing a Novel?

As I work on this final draft on Little Wolves over the summer, I'm constantly thinking about craft and principle. "There are three rules to writing a novel," W. Somerset Maugham once said, "but no-one can agree what they are." The truth is that you have to teach yourself how to write every novel. Writing one is no guarantee that you'll ever finish another. Many don't. One of those depressing statistics I've encountered is that 80% of all debut authors never go on to publish another work. That's frightening for those of us in the trenches, so when I get frightened I look for a helpful guide.

One of those guides that I've written about in my Goodreads account is Sol Stein's How to Grow a Novel. Stein is a former agent and author and provides an insider's view of the art. (He's also the author of Stein on Writing, and The Magician.) He places a writer's focus where it should be, on the reader. In the appendix section he offers some "principles" that I'd like to list here for those of you spending your summer writing. I'm a lover of lists and I find this one instructive. For copyright reasons this is just a partial sampling of the book. The list itself does not hint at the full riches the book offers. For that you'll need to buy yourself a copy!

Before Beginning to Write

  1. What does your protagonist want badly?
  2. Who or what is in your protagonist's way? ("Who" will be more dramatic)
  3. Get into the skin of characters who are different from you.
  4. Why would you want to spend time in the company of the person you are choosing as your protagonist?
  5. How do your characters view each other? Write a short paragraph about each character's views of the virtues, faults, and follies of other important characters. Save these paragraphs for referral and guidance.
  6. How are you planning to hook your reader on page one?
  7. Consider starting a with a scene that is already underway.
  8. What are the dramatic conflicts you intend to let the reader see in each chapter?

Keep in Mind While Writing

  1. The "engine" of your story needs to be turned on as close to the beginning as possible. The "engine" is the point at which a story involves a reader, the place at which the reader can't stop reading.
  2. Keep the action visible on stage as much as you can.
  3. Don't mark time; move the story relentlessly
  4. Is your hero or heroine actively doing something rather than being done to?
  5. Use surprise (such as an unexpected obstacle) to create suspense.
  6. During your descriptions of places do you also move the story along?
  7. End scenes and chapters with thrusters that make the reader curious about what happens next.
  8. To increase a reader's interest, deprive him of something he wants to know.

There are many items on this list (25 in all!) and I recommend you buy the book which includes many instructive examples highlighting why each point is so crucial. Copyright:

Stein, Sol. How To Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Avoid Them. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

My book's been out for awhile, so I wanted to post some of my favorite reviews before they vanish from the web entirely.. This one below came from Tad Simons, the art critic at Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine: The Best of the Twin Cities. The review came out months after the book was print and was a wonderful surprise. The other book feaured is Warren Read's The Lyncher in Me, which I still look forward to reading.
Hang Time

Two of the most notorious incidents in Minnesota history provide the backdrop for books that grapple with our collective shame in very different ways.
April 2008
By Tad Simons

When it comes to lynchings, Minnesota does not have a stellar record. More than a few times in our state’s history people have opted for the expedience of the rope over the plodding rule of law, and each time it has happened, whether the motive was to hang a few black men or rid the prairie of Indians, a wave of shame and guilt has rippled through Minnesota’s collective conscience.

Minnesotans are good people by and large, not given to bursts of vengeance, but these tragedies are part of our legacy, and though we might wish otherwise, all of us share the responsibility for making sure such things never happen again. One of the ways we do this is by continuing to tell the stories of these unfortunate events; or, as two Minnesota– bred authors have done in their new books (one fiction, the other nonfiction), tell the story behind the story.
Thomas Maltman’s novel, The Night Birds, is set in the prairie outside of New Ulm in the decades before and after the infamous 1862 Dakota uprising, which resulted in the massacre of scores of white settlers and the subsequent hanging in Mankato, after a hasty tribunal, of thirty-eight Indians and sympathizers—an event that still holds the United States record for number of people executed simultaneously in one day. Though the massacre is central to the tale, Maltman wisely lets the horror of that day burble in the background, creating a slow, seething tension that builds for nearly 300 pages before he even mentions it.
In the meantime, the narrative shifts back and forth between 1876 and the late 1850s, telling the story of a German immigrant family that settles in a valley outside of New Ulm, across the river from a band of Dakota Indians. Through much delicate and beautiful writing, the saga of the Senger family unfolds and their relationship with the tribe of Indians on the other side of river grows more complicated. The children play with each other and occasionally fight; the adults have an uneasy but respectful friendship; and when push comes to shove—when one or the other is sick or in need of assistance—they act like neighbors and help each other out in order to survive. But they are not the same. Both sides know it, and their differences eventually lead to bloodshed.
There is nothing didactic or cloying about The Night Birds; it is simply a first-rate tale of historical fiction that rings true with every word, amplifying one of the most horrific episodes in our history without exploiting or sensationalizing it. However, Warren Read takes a far more personal and confrontational approach to history in his memoir, The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History.
During a random Google search, Warren Read discovered an awful truth: That his great-grandfather, Louis Dondino, was the man responsible for inciting the riot that led to the infamous Duluth lynching in 1920 of three black circus workers accused of raping a white girl. Starting with the seed of this unsettling fact, Read does a brilliant job of showing how his grandfather’s shameful legacy (the men were later proven innocent) was not an isolated event, but rather part of a pattern of violence and bigotry that extended through the generations to his own abusive, alcoholic father all the way to the present and the hatred Read himself has felt as a once-married man with three kids who is now openly gay.
Read doesn’t just tell his story, though—he attempts to make amends for his family’s ignorance and brutality and in the process fashions a kind of heroic template for how a thoughtful, conscientious person can take active responsibility for their own life, however uncomfortable or inconvenient the facts of one’s life may be. Read can occasionally be faulted for polishing his own halo a little too brightly, but for the most part he presents the facts of his personal life and the back story of the Duluth lynching with unflinching honesty and a great deal of effective, poignant writing on a subject that Minnesotans, try as they might, can’t seem to forget.
The Night Birds, by Thomas Maltman, Soho Press, 2007. 370 pages, $24 The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History, by Warren Read, Borealis Books. 208 pages, $24.95

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I am always on the hunt for good books on writing so I gave this one a try based on the recommendation of a good friend. I liked it so much I assigned the book for my fiction workshop last fall and I'm glad to report that students responded well to it, too. I've included some of my favorite quotes below, along with my comments in italics.

Quotes from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird

“Publication is not all it’s cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part.”

Writing is a lonely business filled with rejection slips and disappointment. For most of us, it just won't pay the bills. Publication does matter, however, but Lamott is right in pointing out that there's more to strive for. We should try to make art with our writing, something lasting and true. We should savor those rare successes, a publication, an award, but the key thing is to keep up with the daily struggle of writing and growing in our craft.

Getting Started

“The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth” (3).

“But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat. Some lose faith” (3).

“Flannery O’ Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life” (qtd in Lamott 4).”

“You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively” (6).

I love the Flannery O'Connor quote. I recently had my students complete an activity where they draw the floorplan of the first house they remember living in--an activity inspired by Janet Burroway's great introductory text Imaginative Writing. Once the floorplan is complete they trace the map with their fingers, marking places of special significance. The bathroom mirror where they invoked "Bloody Mary." The spot on the white carpet where they spilled kool-aid. It's always surprising to hear the memories that rise to the surface. We then talk about the O'Connor quote and how each of us has experienced the requisite emotions--sadness, joy, betrayal--the raw working material of good fiction.

Daily Work

“What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better” (14).

“It reminds me that all I have to do to is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame…just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her” (18). “E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (qtd in Lamott 18).

I love the idea of the frame. Not everyone can write Stephen King style--2000 words a day. For busy parents, for those who teach, Lamott's idea of a frame is more practical.

First Drafts

“Now practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts” (21).

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people” (28).

“I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds—the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both—to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out” (30).

“Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth’” (qtd in Lamott 32).

“Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is supposed to look like until it has finished developing” (39).

On Character Shaping

“And finally as the picture comes into focus, you begin to notice all the props surrounding these people, and you begin to understand how props define us and comfort us, and show us what we value and what we need and who we think we are” (40).

“Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them. One image that helps me begin to know the people in my fiction is something a friend once told me. She said that every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own […] One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in” (44-45)?

“Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thinks, talks, survives” (46).

“One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t” (47).

“Someone once said to me, ‘I am trying to stay in the now—not the last now, not the next now, this now. Which ‘now’ do your characters dwell in” (48)?

On Hope
“In general, there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this” (51).

Plotting Your Work

“Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen” (54).

“Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is set-up, buildup, payoff—just like a joke…Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable…The climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed” (59-61).

“…which goes ABCDE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what is going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they most care about. The plot—the drama, the actions, the tension—will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean” (62)?