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Writing Certificate

Online Writing Certificate > The Writer's Spotlight > Winter 2023

Winter Writer's Spotlight

In this Issue:


Ask a Writer

Please enjoy our new advice column, featuring questions from our community answered by creative writing instructor Malena Watrous.
Hemingway once said, "...the only kind of writing is rewriting..." and once revealed that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell To Arms 39 times. I have a hard time with rewriting and revisions. When do you know when to stop? For one of our recent assignments, I liked my third iteration better than my fifth iteration. Do you have any advice on the challenge of rewriting? There is an old bromide, "Perfection is the enemy of good." When do you know you are finished? Can some rewriting be too much of a good thing? Thanks.

- Kevin L.

Dear Kevin,
In my opinion, writing is a layering process, not so different from how a painter might start on canvas with pencil, then move to broad strokes and light washes, and eventually refine and paint over the canvas until finally being satisfied with the result. Each draft of writing represents a new layer of the story. I always save all of my drafts, for the following reason. Maybe your Draft #3 was in some ways (structure? voice?) better than Draft #5, but maybe in Draft #5 you came up with a great new sentence or eliminated a paragraph that didn’t need to be there. Draft #6 could restore whatever was lost that you loved from Draft #3 while also incorporating those few good changes that made their way into Draft #5.

I would say that you know the piece is done when you can no longer think of things you’d like to do to change it, and when the thought of playing around with it no longer excites you. Feedback can also be helpful in making this decision, if readers no longer have questions or comments to address.

One last suggestion: always set a piece aside for a while, then come back to it with fresh eyes. Revision requires an editorial mindset that’s different from the initial creative mindset. You will probably be more efficient and effective at revision if you approach your piece once you have some distance from it.
How do you keep track of plot development in a story? Detailed diagram? Detailed written outline?
- Kerry W.

Dear Kerry,
Authors employ all sorts of strategies to keep track of plot development. I love to use colored index cards that I can pin (and move around) on a bulletin board or the surface of a table. I write down a brief description of each scene on one side of a card, and on the other what I want it to accomplish in the story. Being able to move the cards and explore alternate structures allows me to maintain a fluid sense of possibility as I keep track of what’s happening.
For help with this one, I also went to a few of our instructors to hear their answers.

Martha Conway, whose most recent novel, The Physician’s Daughter, was published this fall, said, “I write scene lists and revise them every few months—not scenes I want to write, but what I’ve written. I also write the “story” down sometimes, as though I were telling it to a friend. This helps me focus on character and the character’s action (and I think about what it means to me)."
Sarah Stone, author of Hungry Ghost Theater, said, “I love to read over a full or partial draft and only then create an outline of the crucial elements and events. I do make notes ahead of time, but I find that writing works best when I let a story or book teach me what it’s about.”
Ron Nyren, author of The Book of Lost Light, said, “For my recently completed rough draft, I had a very sketchy idea of the plot before I started. I made a chart with a row for each chapter, including a key word or phrase to remind me of the central challenge I thought would be in that chapter, the POV character, and when that chapter’s events might happen. As I wrote each chapter, I also wrote notes, including what I still had to figure out, possible alternatives for motives or actions, and questions about the characters and the journey they’re each on.”
I think that for all of us writers, even if we start from an intuitive and loose place, the goal at some point becomes seeing the “forest” rather than the trees (or seeing what trees make up the forest) and all of these strategies help. I would suggest playing with different approaches to see what works for you! 
What are your thoughts on the use of italics or all capital letters in narrative? Should the emphasis be obvious or obvious? What are your thoughts on the use of words in another language? Does it make a fiction piece more authentic, or is it distracting? How do you distinguish between essential details and superfluous ones? 

- Valentina A.

Dear Valentina,

I personally prefer not to use italics (or underlining or ALL CAPS) for emphasis. I believe that as writers, words are our tools and with so many great ones available to us, we should be able to find the precise words to convey the emphasis that we’d be going for without italics or any other kind of formatting gimmick.

As for using words in another language, I think that they can add something to a novel or story when used smartly and sparingly. Here are a few rules I’d follow when doing so:

1. They should be words that communicate something essential to that language, which would be lost in translation. There is no English word for schadenfreude, or the Japanese concept of kawaii. In instances like this, the foreign word might really add something to the story.

2. Don’t use a footnote or parentheses to translate them within the story; this will pull readers out of the text. Instead, provide context within the scene so that the reader can make a good guess at what the word means. 

To answer your last question: I would say that essential details are ones that enrich the reader’s experience of the story, enable them to access the world on the page vividly, and also advance the plot or theme in some way. There is nothing more satisfying than coming upon a detail early in a story that seems a bit random at first, and then having it come up again later in a way that makes you realize why it was given that focus. 

Do you have questions for our writing instructors? If so, feel free to submit them to [email protected] for possible inclusion in our next quarterly Spotlight.

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Student Writing News 

We are thrilled to celebrate new publications, awards, and other writing-related news from our student community. 
  • Wendy Adair is the proud author of the novel The Broken Hallelujah, which she worked on while she was a student in our Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. The novel follows the relationship between a Vietnam veteran who goes MIA and his granddaughter who inherits his missing footlocker.
  • Luanne Castle is delighted to announce the debut of her newest poetry collection, Rooted and Winged (Finishing Line Press, 2022).
  • Patricia Contaxis has had a great year for publications of essays and short fiction. Here are four that are recently out or shortly forthcoming: "Luminous Things" in Wrath-Bearing Tree; "You Are Standing in a Doorway" in The Pluralist; "Obsidian Fields" in Rivanna Review; and "Repeat to Coda" coming in February in Pithead Chapel
  • Sherrie Page Guyer had her first op-ed published in Newsweek!
  • Dana Brewer Harris had a short piece, "Had She Been a Waterstrider," published in Dark Winter Literary Magazine. Her piece, "Sweep" was also nominated by the Atticus Review for the 2022 Best Small Fictions award. 
  • Megan McDonald was recently picked as one of 1,000 authors to be featured on a reality writing show called America’s Next Great Author, hosted by Kwame Alexander. 
  • Isidra Mencos has a newly published memoir, Promenade of Desire: A Barcelona Memoir.
  • Linda Moore published her first novel, Attribution, with She Writes Press in October. It was a finalist in the International Book Awards for best new fiction and was named to the short list in the Fiction category of the 2022 Sarton Awards. Read more about Linda's novel in our Feature Article »
  • Donna Obeid’s short story, "Everything Will Be Taken Away," was published in the Hawaii Pacific Review. She was also thrilled to learn that her published flash fiction piece, "Paraíso," has been nominated by South 85 Journal for a Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses series.
  • Roan Raymundo had a mini "Modern Love" story accepted for publication in The New York Times, called, "He Uses My Head as an Armrest." 
  • Amy Reardon has a new story, "How to Boss," in Superstition Review. Amy shares this: "I have long been obsessed with how conforming to patriarchal expectations can make us complicit in hurting or diminishing other people. This story has taken many forms and shapes over the years and is one section in my novel project."
  • Jane Saginaw has a newly published memoir, Because the World is Round, released in November by Deep Vellum Publishing. 
  • Anna Voloshnya published her first cookbook, BUDMO! Recipes from a Ukrainian Kitchen, in October of 2022.
  • Jessie Weaver will see her first published YA novel, Live Your Best Lie, released in January of 2023 from Melissa de la Cruz Studio (Disney) books.

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Instructor Writing News

Martha Conway has published her 5th novel! The Physician's Daughter is a page-turning historical novel about a young woman at the end of the Civil War aspiring to become a doctor and a soldier returned from war grappling with PTSD. 

Ammi Keller published a short story, "Cora," in The South Dakota Review. The issue (56.4) can be ordered here.

Thomas McNeely, author of Pictures of the Shark, has had a few new stories published recently:

A story from his story collection, "Ariel," was just published in EPOCH (Volume 69 No. 3).
A story that's not in the collection was just published in the American Literary Review.
And a horror story was published in Road Kill Volume 7: Texas Horror.

Rebecca Sacks is the proud and well-deserved winner of the 2022 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for her novel, City of a Thousand Gates.

Julia Scheeres recently published Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America's Most-Read Woman, which was described as, "the first biography of Elsie Robinson, the most influential newspaper columnist you've never heard of."

Antoine Wilson's third novel, Mouth to Mouth, made the list of Barack Obama's top ten books of 2022!

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Feature: Interview with Linda Moore

Linda Moore was a student in our Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. Please enjoy her interview with instructor Angela Pneuman (author of Home Remedies and Lay it on my Heart).
Introduction from Angela Pneuman

In Linda Moore’s debut novel, Attribution, Catherine Adamson is an aspiring art historian in battle with an unsympathetic academic supervisor. When she finds an undocumented Spanish Baroque painting hidden in the basement of a university in New York, she is launched on a journey that takes her from her own humble roots in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to a crumbling castle in Olivares, Spain. Along the way, Cate discovers the astonishing provenance of the painting, La Gloria. But exposing the truth would launch her into a controversial career and might cost her the love of a Spanish nobleman, whose estate library holds the key to uncovering La Gloria’s full story. At stake are the reputations of leading historians, the legacy of one of the great master painters, and the brilliance of the women relegated to their shadows—until now. Linda delivers a riveting, flawlessly paced plot full of unforgettable characters, satisfying turns, and the complex workings of an art world the author knows intimately. I caught up with Linda after her book launch at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Q: What was the germ of Attribution?

Attribution disputes have always fascinated me, but the specific spark of this novel can be traced to a lecture I heard in 2008 at the San Diego Museum of Art. A young curator spoke about his journey to prove who created an artwork that had been labeled with an unspecified "School of…" The scientific techniques to identify pigments, date the wood, pinpoint the origin of linen fibers, and the x-rays and super x-rays to see underpainting were as riveting to me as were the political battles of titans defending their reputations. His experience held all the components of a good story.

Q: How much research did it require, and how did you handle the mix of historical fact and creative invention?

I spent seven years integrating writing and research. I would take research detours for a month or more until I understood everything I needed to know. Then I would move on to a scene. For example, I had to verify when the artist was in Italy, where he traveled, and who was there at the same time that he might have encountered.

The creative invention of historic components in a story depends on whether known facts exist. If something is not known, the writer has the freedom to imagine details or at least suggest possibilities. However, this requires an extensive knowledge of what is known. A writer needs to dig deeply for answers to questions that remain to avoid overlooking facts that contradict the imagined story.

Q: You’ve given Cate professional ambition, as well as personal history of the loss of her brother, and, ultimately, a romance. Could you talk about how each of these factors contributed to your understanding of this character? Did you know a lot about her from the outset or discover her details as you moved forward?

I had written the first draft as a woman’s journey to overcome barriers in her profession with very little about Cate’s brother. At some point I realized that Cate was failing to heal her grief, and that this was her motivation to leave the Midwest and head to New York. A writer friend read the draft and suggested I expand that subplot. As a result, trying to ‘fix’ her family and impress her father became a major reason for Cate’s career ambitions.

I was not aware until the third or fourth draft that the subplot I’d developed was my own story. My sister drowned in an accident when I was twenty-five and she was twenty. I realize now how that journey to heal a grieving family was a subconscious journey that I needed to write about.

When Cate meets Antonio, he became an added complication for her. Many readers are fond of Antonio as a character and wanted their story to end differently, but I was determined to make him a partner, not a savior. I did not want to write a book where a female protagonist redefined her life to save a relationship. I wanted a clear conflict between her needs and his, so that Cate is faced with a difficult choice.

These discoveries came in the revision process. I don’t think I could have gotten there in a first draft. It’s like meeting someone you’d like to know better at a cocktail party. With a second or third meeting, you learn more of their story as they begin trust you and you become friends. Cate and I are friends.

Q: You were one of the early graduates of the Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing at Stanford Continuing Studies. Was this the book you worked on during the program? What was most helpful about the program in developing and completing a novel?

I wrote The Baobab Tree (unpublished) during the program, a complex braided novel with three narrators set mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Completing a novel was a clear goal and the structure of the program required that of the students. In the Writing Life course, we had to identify where and when we would write, to understand sitting in the chair and doing it was the path to success. I am stubborn, determined, and achievement-oriented to a flaw and the program reinforced that in me. The message that perseverance is the path to results rings true for me.

Another huge gift of the program was the writing community that we developed. I traveled extensively during the years before Covid and I met Stanford colleagues from my cohort in Australia, Guatemala, Canada, and all over the United States. Zoom sessions with approximately half of our cohort continue every Friday morning. I met other Stanford alums who share the same publisher. I have connected with faculty where they live and at various conferences, and they have provided invaluable support to me, especially Joshua Mohr, Stacey Swann, and you, Angela. I treasure these writer friends and could not have published this novel and put the book into the world without their help.

Q: Can you describe how you and your press went about promoting and marketing Attribution? What surprised you about the process?

The extent to which the author has to promote the book. Most publisher marketing budgets are too small to be successful. In a world where more than four million books a year are published, there’s a lot to do if you want to have your work read. You need an extensive marketing plan that touches a lot of bases—social media, publicity, advertising, events, book signings, price promotions, giveaways…and the list continues.

According to marketing research, readers telling other readers about a book remains the number one reason people buy a title. I focused on in-person events at bookstores, book clubs, presentations, and niche groups that connected to topics in the book because I enjoy talking with readers and interacting with people. It turns out these activities also put the book in readers’ hands. The publisher and the publicity people are minimal help, although of the two, the publisher has more financial incentive to sell actual copies. I took help from wherever it was offered.

I am surprised by how well this marketing plan is working and that people are enjoying the book, telling others, inviting me to their book clubs, and writing reviews. I am also surprised I haven’t collapsed from exhaustion.

Q: What’s next?

I signed a publishing contract for a second novel, Five Days in Bogotá (a recently widowed art gallery owner, desperate for money, goes to Bogotá to find wealthy collectors during the cartel wars of the early '90s). If all goes to plan, it will be released in Spring 2024. I need to work diligently with looming deadlines, just as I was taught in the program.

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