Our own Susan Chase-Foster says goodbye to her beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Our own Susan Chase-Foster says goodbye to her beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Robert Duke is a RWB Writer who has recently self-published his book, Waking Up Dying: Caregiving When There Is No Tomorrow. His journey to write and publish this compelling book was not an easy or fast one, but it was a learning process. Below he tells us about his path as a writer/author and encourages us to keep plodding forward.
A huge thanks to Bob for sharing his hard-won wisdom with us!
A writer is one who writes.
It is where noun meets verb.
Everything else about writing is an adjective.
I became a professional writer in 1961 in the U.S. Air Force when at age 22 I was assigned to the Course Writing Office in the Air Training Command at Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado. My job was to write instructional texts and tests for teaching military students how to operate and maintain missiles and bombs
I was only a high school graduate and had no writing education or training, but I had demonstrated the ability to string together words into clear and accurate sentences.
From that beginning I wrote professionally for 50 years. Yet, my most recent and ambitious writing effort left me wondering not only whether I could write, but asking myself if I had ever been able to write.
Writing a slice of time, non-fiction memoir about caring for my dying wife had shaken the writing-me to my core. I couldn’t seem to do what at the outset had seemed so obviously doable. Though unnerved by what the experience was doing to me, I had this deep conviction that I could do it if I would only keep at it. Ultimately, I published the book and along the way discovered more about writing than I had learned during the past five decades of writing.
What I learned was that writing is a complex and multifaceted activity, and that no one but an occasional genius can do it all well. Writing for most of us self-styled or designated writers is some unique subset of skills and knowledge that enables us to start and finish assembling words into some coherent context that can be shared with others.
So what did I conclude writing to be? What was my epiphany?
Writing is starting. Unless you start transforming thoughts into words and committing them to some tangible medium no writing is occurring. If no writing is happening then you are not a writer.
And I will stand by that definition, that writing (the verb) is the foundation of writing (the noun), because anything beyond that is such a complex personal experience as to defy comprehension. It is ultimately a journey that is impossible to share. But I will try.
I had written 22 emails to 17 friends and family over the 18 months of my wife’s battle with brain cancer and I was convinced that writing a book about my caring for her was simply a matter of writing introductions, transitions and conclusions around the updates and I would have a book. But after eight weeks I discovered the emails were extemporaneous and without context, so I abandoned that approach and started again, this time trying to view the whole 18 months in terms of key story elements. That seemed like it would work and ultimately that proved to be the framework for the finished book.
For the next six months I wrote for five to six hours everyday, producing three drafts totaling about 120,000 words. I had a couple of writer friends read portions of the manuscript and one brave soul read the whole thing and offered many solid editorial suggestions. But I knew good writing and a good story when I saw them and I knew none of this was “good”. I sensed hopelessness rising in me like indigestion.
I went on to do three more revisions and knew when I completed revision six that I had made no progress and was in deep trouble. I had proceeded with the idea that if I would just keep writing I would finally hit my stride. My subconscious would kick in and things would piece themselves together and flow out coherently through my fingers tips onto the keyboard into the computer’s memory. I had never been stymied before and so my confidence remained high. I just had to stick with it, but a year had now passed and there was no end in sight. In fact, much to my horror, I realized I was merely writing the same thing over and over.
It began to dawn on me that I didn’t know what I was doing because this was writing unlike anything I had previously attempted. None of the skills, experience or techniques I had acquired was relevant to the work I was attempting. I needed help but was so helpless I didn’t know what kind of help or where to find it.
A writer friend in Anacortes, Washington, was having trouble with her book. She at least knew what kind of help she needed, but not where to find it so she called me to ask if I could recommend a developmental editor. “What’s a developmental editor,” I asked? She explained that such an editor plans and develops the overall structure of a book and may offer advice chapter by chapter. I realized that’s what I needed and set out to find one. For me, I found that a developmental editor was an objective person able to articulate the faults and strengths of a book manuscript.
I turned my manuscript over to a developmental editor and suffered the same feelings as when I first took my infant daughter to day care. We estimated it would take about two months of work to salvage the book, but it took more than three months. Over that time the editor fed back to me each chapter with revisions and recommendations, which I returned for assessment and a final content edit.
We didn’t always agree about what to do and how to do it, but we did agree on two essential things: there was a viable book in there somewhere and the editor was skillful and usually right. Since we had a viable book, it meant the editor wasn’t wasting her time on something beyond salvage and since she was usually correct the author was receiving constructive advice.
After three months of intense collaboration, the editor and author produced a manuscript that both were satisfied with and that was ready for copy editing and forwarding to a book designer. From design the book went to printing and bound copies were delivered on March 25, 2014, just six weeks later than the author had planned 20 months earlier.
Working with a developmental editor was just one of many unexpected and new experiences I had as a writer of 50 years while writing my first memoir. While getting the help of a developmental editor was key to successfully completing my first book for a general audience, what was critical to writing and finishing a 318-page highly personal book about the care and death of my wife of 40 years was that I kept on writing.
So if you want to be a writer, my advice after more than five decades of writing is to start writing and keep writing. Everything else will fall into place for you as a writer if you do that.
Bob will be talking about his book Wednesday, July 30, 7 p.m. at Village Books in Bellingham, WA. Email him with questions or comments: robertaduke.com
New RWB attendee, Laura Malone, started her April reading with a short piece about her first time at happy hour. We asked her if we could reprint it here, because we want others to know that everyone is welcome at our gatherings. Laura trembled when she read, but pushed through her nerves. And we are glad she did. Her presence and her story are a welcome contribution to our community. If you’ve been thinking of attending a Red Wheelbarrow Happy Hour, don’t be shy. Follow Laura’s example and jump in!
by Laura Malone
A good friend is in the process of writing a teen Science fiction novel. She has been to a few of the local writing groups and suggested I join her last month at the Red Wheelbarrow group.
On the first Saturday of the month the Red Wheelbarrow writing group meets at a lovely Irish pub that the bartender opens an hour early so that they can meet and read aloud 5 minute portions of their work. Friends, spouses, editors and general supporters are also welcome to join in. There is an empty pitcher to chip in for the bottles of wine being passed around to share and an assortment of nibbles. Note to self…. bring a snack next time.
I am so glad she suggested I tag along! I love people, books and people who love both. I was excited to see a new side of it and curious if I would find a connection here for myself. In a way it seemed like a behind the scenes pass to the dressing room after a show or a peek into the kitchen of a favorite restaurant.
The group was a comfortable mix of many different types of people working on many different types of projects…poetry, memoirs novels and I think at least one short story. They were warm and kind to each other catching up and introducing themselves to the newcomers.
As everyone settled in, I could sense the tension of preparations for the coming sharing of their work. Pages and tablets appeared in some hands as they signed up for the order they would read in. After a quick self-introduction around the circle of about 20 people, they got right to it!
A flurry of different styles and stories were shared over the next hour or so. I enjoyed every moment. The people were attentively listening to the others work and they enthusiastically clapped at the end for all. They used a timer to keep to the five minutes, but they also used a soft kind hand at the end if the writer was at a crucial point of their work or hadn’t notice the buzzer went off.
When all had finished there was a palpable sigh of relief and appreciation. Some stayed to relax and mingle while others gathered up their snack trays and left quickly. We lingered a while to find out a few more details of the writing retreats and to chat with a few of the members. Overall it was lovely! I knew I would return and that I would bring with me an offering that I would read aloud…voice shaking or not.
Now for the tough part…What am I going to write about and why. More and more at this point in my life I am especially guided by asking the question and listening to the answer of the why….Going to the group and listening to the others read what they had chosen to write helped me sort this out. Time has also helped me know that we all have something to say. Whether it is to process an experience for ourselves, share an experience with others or create something from scratch that is as compelling to create as it is to consume the completed work.
I have wondered before if my experiences over the last few years, my ongoing commentary in my head and what I have learned from it all are the makings for something to be written down and shared. At the beginning and in the midst of the tumultuous middle, it just seemed like toxic waste that should be cleaned up and incinerated. However, now that I am further along the path, I realize it might do me some good and offer someone else swimming trough a similar rough sea a glimpse from the safety of shore….My why….
The years since 2007 would provide me with more than enough material to work on and would allow me to jump right in and avoid my strong skills of procrastination.
Warning: [I've got] no writing experience, no reading experience probably too many analogies as well as grammar that some would consider tortuous!
And even with “no experience,” Laura offered us a heartfelt reading that took us right into the heart of her journey of self-discovery and growth. Join us with a five-minute reading of your own (or just come to listen). We meet the first Saturday of every month at Uisce Irish Pub in downtown Bellingham at 4pm. Come on down.
Hi Writers. We have a very special honor coming up right around the corner. Please do what you can to support this RWB-sponsored event!
As you probably know, Jenny Milchman, winner of this year’s Mary Higgins Clark Award and the author of Cover of Snow and Ruin Falls, will be signing at Village Books on Wednesday, May 21, at 7pm. She will then speak at a reception in the Book Fare Café (upstairs from Village Books) from 8:30 to 9:45 which has been organized just for writers. Tickets for the second event will be $12, available soon via Brown Paper Tickets or at the door.
We are very fortunate to have such a gem of a writer come through Bellingham. The stop originally was not on her itinerary, so we hope for a turnout that will put Bellingham on the map for other writers who are Seattle-bound. Our success depends on you. It would be lovely if you could buy a book (Jenny requests that we purchase from VB), but do come to the reading and the reception in any case. And bring friends. Packing the place would be the best way to show how well Bellingham writers support our fellow artists. Thanks for your help!
Here are Jenny’s topics:
13 Years, 7 Months, & 35,000 Miles:
One Writer’s Road to Publication Jenny Milchman’s journey to publication took thirteen years, after which she hit the road for seven months with her family on what Shelf Awareness called “the world’s longest book tour”. Her debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick, reviewed in the New York Times and San Francisco Journal of Books, given the Mary Higgins Clark award and nominated for a Barry. Now Jenny’s second novel, Ruin Falls, has just come out to starred reviews. Cinderella story, dream come true? Yes, definitely, but there were also many struggles along the way. How much time should you devote to a goal that may never come to pass? Is it possible to “car-school” two kids? And what happens when you hitch everything to a dream?
Cafe Chat ($12–8:30pm on Wednesday, May 21 at Book Fare):
Two Roads Diverged:
Publishing a Novel Today Following the Village Books presentation, Jenny will discuss how the publishing world changed out from under her during the thirteen years she spent trying to get published, and what made her decide to stick to the traditional path. Would self- or indie-publishing have been a better option? If not for Jenny, then for another writer? This informal talk will contain plenty of opportunity for Q&A about one of today’s most in-flux industries, and the chance to explore which publishing path might be right for you.
A Pact for Writers and Readers
Henry James to a woman seated beside him at a dinner party nattering nonstop about his latest novel: “Tell me, Madam, are you that elusive person commonly known as the Gentle Reader?”“
We all need Gentle Readers. Even if you and your writerly friends meet, for instance at the RWB Write-Outs, still the essential work takes place in solitude between the writer and the page (or the screen). When at last the Writer finds the book or essay has achieved some sort of pleasing shape, and past that first flush of pride, and joy, the Writer now needs to know if these words can speak to anyone else—which is to say, a Reader other than the besotted Writer. As the Writer what ought you to expect of your Reader(s)? As the Reader, what ought you to give back?
As the Reader: Remember you are not a full-on editor, not doing a line edit or a copyedit or any of that. If you’re reading a short piece, a chapter or an essay, or a poem, give it at least two reads, one a plunge-in, no pen in hand, the second to make notes to yourself. If you have a paper manuscript, ask the Writer if you can mark on it. If you are reading via a Word Document, ask if the Writer wants all those crazy edit options possible. To my mind, for anything other than a line edit, they are totally distracting. The Writers needs, at least for beginnings, a broad overview, a canopy insight.
If you are reading a whole book, you’re not likely to go through it twice. Still, plunge in, at first with no pen, just for the splash of it. As you, the Reader, go through the manuscript and see patterns or difficulties, make some notes to yourself. Keeping notes, either on the page or in a computer document, helps to refresh your recollection, especially if you are reading over a period of months.
Your task as the Reader is to provide the Author with response. A vague, general (I don’t think it worked….I didn’t get it…) helps no one. Not the Writer. Not the Reader. Be astute. The best readers and writers always ask why and how. Bring to this work your intelligence, your imagination, your careful eye. Ask questions of the material in order to shape your responses so they are coherent and useful to the writer. In doing so, you will become a better Reader. Are there places where the narrative flags? Where the material is confusing or bizarre, or perhaps too predictable. Are there scenes or characters or incidents, even language that are memorable, that stand out? Are there scenes or chapters, or characters, for that matter, that impede the story, dull the pace?
The Reader needn’t necessarily come up with strategies to fix these problems; that’s the Author’s or the Editor’s job. You are not being asked to rewrite or revise, but to pass the manuscript through your own intelligence and imagination. When I have shared my work in process, I have always been most grateful to Readers who can comment on the overall structure of the book, the portrayal and motivation of character. I appreciate a reader who looks at pacing, coherence, and those elusive qualities of voice and thematics. (And, if in addition to these large-canopy concerns the Reader also says: Laura, you use too many parentheses, well, so much the better!)
If the mss is new, and the story/material unknown to you, the Reader, ask the Writer to supply a brief list of important characters, or a timeline, or any other info that will help you focus on what’s important to the Writer. Perhaps ask the Writer to supply a short description, not synopsis (which is boring) but vivid presentation, 700 words, max.
When the Reader and the Writer are ready to discuss the Work, they should try to schedule some time when they can both concentrate. On the phone, fine, in person, fine, but when both your lives are not otherwise full of outside chatter. The Reader’s conversation with the Writer should always begin with the strengths you’ve recognized. All Writers work best from strength, and the Reader should acknowledge what those are. Move from those strengths into the areas where you see difficulties, problem patterns.
Grant yourself time. Not just time to do the reading, but time to think about what you’ve read. In the midst of everyday life, to act as Reader for a long book might take months. Each time you return to the work, back up a few pages, or a chapter to get your bearings in the mss, to remind you where you were in the story before going forward.
As the Writer: Remember to grant your Reader time. Do not expect that this person will blaze through your mss in a matter of days or weeks. (If you are paying for developmental edit, however, you surely have every right to have it read and returned to you in a timely manner.)
In general you want to find your Readers among the people who are doing what you are doing: writing. They know the struggles you face because they face the same. It’s better to give your book to another Writer than say, to your mechanic or your dentist, or your spouse. Good writing is good writing, whatever the genre. But if yours is a light, and lively tale of family mishaps or falling in love, then probably you wouldn’t seek out another Writer whose work is deeply dark, or gothic. Your sensibilities are not well-matched.
When your Reader has finished your book, and got back to you with responses, you should be able to ask questions. Clarify. Be certain you understand what they are telling you about your work. The best Readers become the Author’s resource. Later when you’ve dived back into your book, revised, altered, you have ready-made someone who has spent time in the world you created on paper: the Reader as ally. And that is a wonderful gift to any Writer.