Writing a novel calls for total immersion, sometimes with fruitful results

When I was a journalist in both newspapers and television, I embraced “immersion journalism,” reporting on a story by participating in it, immersing myself in the situations and the people involved.

As a result, I once climbed into firefighter turnout gear and crawled around on my stomach in a “smoky” building to search for victims using a thermal imaging camera, floated around in an icy pond until first responders threw me a rope and pulled me out, rode around with a state trooper stopping motorists for DWI one New Year’s Eve, and strapped on roller skates and took a few whirls for a story about a roller rink that had been in a community since the 1930s and was closing down.

I believe that immersion techniques also work well with novel writing. Author Heather Sellers writes about this in her book, Chapter after Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus you Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams. “If you don’t surround yourself with your book, you risk it creeping away from you—or you unintentionally creep away from it,” she says.

grilled_chicken240To avoid the drift that Sellers refers to and bring authenticity to my story, I recently borrowed from the library a copy of Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, a cookbook written by restaurateur and Senegalese native Pierre Thiam. I was particularly interested in the recipe for Yassa Ginaar, grilled chicken with lime-onion sauce.

My unpublished novel features a Senegalese restaurant owner who makes delicious meals for the customers in the immigrant community where he lives. One of his specialties happens to be Yassa Ginaar. I thought it would be neat to prepare the recipe, just as my character would.

The recipe calls for juicing 10 limes and grating the zest from three of them. I never knew how hard it would be to peel limes. Their skin is very thin, far different from lemons. Also I had to cut up five onions, julienne style, something I had never done before.  I also had to get my hands on a habenero pepper, a tiny pepper that I had never seen before in the supermarket, but apparently has been there for quite some time.

After rubbing in the ingredients into the chicken I had to let it marinade for a few hours. Once I had my husband try it. I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong. The taste of lime was overpowering. I had miscalculated the proportions. The meal was a disaster. I tried to save it by soaking the food in cooked white rice (my husband’s idea) but the next day the dish was as sour as it was the first. However, the effort wasn’t a total loss. I gained an appreciation for what goes into Senegalese cooking, particularly in Yaasa Ginaar. I gained more of an appreciation for the restaurateur in my novel and the effort he takes to create savory meals or the public. I kept this in mind as I revised the scene in which he prepares this (usually) tasty dish.

A Retreat Center Offers the Solitude a Writer Needs

My cat, Savannah, loves my manuscript. She loves to lie on it, bite the corners of the pages, claw the spiral binding. A few mornings ago, she backed up, sprang forward and pounced on it, ripping out a page. I’d had enough.

What Savannah doesn’t understand is that I love my manuscript too, possibly more than she does. I hope to one day see my manuscript published, taking its place on the shelf alongside other novels at your friendly neighborhood bookstore. In order to make that possibly happen, I need to have peace and quiet to work on revisions. So I ran away from home, but only for a weekend. I left Savannah with my husband. I blotted images from my mind of Savannah scaling the window screen like Spiderman as I backed the car out of the parking lot—a feeble attempt on her part to gain my sympathy and change my mind about leaving. I became gleeful as my home became tinier and tinier in my rearview mirror.

Retreat ManuscriptThe retreat center, where complete silence was required, was just what I needed to enter the world of my characters and stay there until I’d read through to the final page. That was one of the best ways to discover inconsistencies in the story, dialogue that didn’t seem to work, repeated phrases.

Retreat BedThe retreat center accommodations included a modest room with a twin bed, desk, and closet. Three hot meals were provided, lush grounds and walking trails for getting in touch with your thoughts. I got more done in two days than I would have in two weeks, going about my normal routine of work, the gym, household distractions, Savannah.

So writers, next time your birthday or a holiday rolls around you’ll know what to ask for, not one of those fancy metallic ball point pens you’ll end up losing in the couch cushion, not one of those blank books you’ll never get around to using, but a stay at a retreat center.

 

Local restaurant serves up real-life inspiration for my manuscript

Teranga's Stephane Lamour

Teranga’s Stephane Lamour

One of the characters in my yet-to-be-published novel is a restaurant owner from Senegal. He serves sumptuous meals that keep the other characters coming back to patronize him. Not so coincidentally, many of the dishes served are inspired by selections on the menu of real-life Senegalese restaurant Teranga in Boston’s South End.

Owner, Marie-Claude Mendy, has been a great help to me in learning more about the Senegalese culture, taking the time to gather her friends for lively conversations with me. Teranga serves as the inspiration for the restaurant in my manuscript. I’ve done my best to accurately depict what it’s like to go to a Senegalese restaurant and how appealing the food is.

Pictured above is Teranga’s Stephane Lamour, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts,  preparing a delicious coconut appetizer from the m

 

Will you join me on my writing blog tour?

I have been invited by writer Barbara Beckwith to participate in a writing process blog tour. I have enjoyed getting to know Barbara through her work with the National Writers Union. During the years that I was the president of the Women’s National Book Association Boston chapter, she and I conferred on joint activities. Barbara is an accomplished essayist. You can read more about her on her blog. This tour has included Leslie Brunetta, Ken Wachsberger, and Adina Schecter.

Lisa Braxton’s Writing Blog Tour

What am I working on?

I’m working on a novel. I’m completing final revisions and plan to begin sending the manuscript out to literary agents before the end of July. The manuscript is set in the 1970s in a struggling New England urban community. The two sets of main characters are from different sections of the same town and are profoundly affected by an urban redevelopment project taking place. The novel explores issues of race, class, culture, and social responsibility.

In addition, I had a story published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dating Game and have written three additional stories that I’ve submitted to the editors of the Chicken Soup Series that I hope will be accepted. I have also written an article for Guideposts magazine that I hope will be accepted.

Why do I write?

I enjoy expressing myself creatively through the written word. I write short stories, magazine articles drawing from my journalism background, and essays. When readers tell me that my writing inspired them, gave them hope, made them cry, made them reflect on their own situations, then I feel that I’ve done my job well.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

My professors at the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University told me that no two people can tell a story the same way. I hope that I bring something unique to the reading experience.

How does my writing process work?

I write with my feet up in the bed. I write on the couch. I write in the library, during my lunch break at work, at the crack of dawn at the kitchen table, while I’m under the hair dryer at the hair dresser, while on airplanes. Whenever I can fit in a few moments of writing, I write.

So now it’s your turn. What do you think of the writing blog tour? Care to join me? How about some fellow alums of the Southern New Hampshire University MFA program. Let me know.

The return of the lady with the sharpened pencils in her quiver

Wile E CoyoteRaod RunnerI know it’s a cliché, but I’ll use it anyway. I’m shaking in my boots. About 10 months ago I sat down with the lady with the sharpened pencils in her quiver, S.W., the retired editor of a major academic publishing house, to hear her critique of my manuscript that I hope to one day soon turn into a novel.

Afterwards, I felt like Wile E. Coyote in one of those old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes with The Roadrunner, in which Wile E. is flattened by his own steamroller. Once I peeled myself off the floor and hosed down my manuscript I went to work revising it. I’ve been in “the bunker” for the past 10 months, rising before dawn, taking cat naps in the evening. My eyeballs have the texture of sandpaper on a good day. I recently returned the new version to S.W., confident she’d read it without finding any “speed bumps.” I put a star in magic marker on my calendar to mark the date I plan to start soliciting literary agents.

In my cockiness, I asked S.W. if we could meet at the tail end of an upcoming meeting of our monthly book club gathering. What was I thinking? In her private school headmistress voice, she responded, “My dear, you must think I only have a few corrections.”

My stomach began to roil. Now we’ve now come up with a date which will give us plenty of time for discussion. Since then, I’ve gotten another email from her. She said, “About your manuscript, Lisa, ‘Then’ is not a conjunction. Do you have a copy of Strunk and White? If not, you may borrow mine.”

Strunk and White? Didn’t I read that freshman year of college? Gulp!

I’m steeling myself for this next critique and dusting off the fire extinguisher in case I can’t stamp out the flames on my manuscript the old-fashioned way. Afterwards, it may be back to the bunker for me.

What it means to have a writing space all your own

As Virginia Woolf wrote 85 years ago: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Virginia Woolf’s words hold up to this day. Over the weekend my husband fashioned a “writing nook” for me in our bedroom. He thinks much better in a spatial sense than I do and suggested that we put a desk that he had before we got married into the bedroom so that I’d have my own area to write. There was some shifting around of furniture, but we got it to work. The timing couldn’t be better. I’m giving my manuscript a final read-through and plan to start contacting agents in a few weeks, literary agents who handle fiction and are interested in first-time novelists. My writing nook makes me feel that all the toil on this manuscript all these years spent on it were for something of merit that people will want to read. I hope that proves to be true.

It’s show and tell time for my manuscript

Book Club

I’ve been working on my novel since 2008. I started with a 10-page sketch, then expanded it month by month as a student in the MFA program in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. Now I feel that my manuscript is polished enough for others to see it. I’ve decided to share it with my church book club members. Each month we read and discuss a novel or work of nonfiction. I want them to read mine, let me know what works, where I need to improve it. There are benefits to having personal friends read your work, but there are limitations on what you can expect. For more, read my article on the topic in a special edition of Bookwoman, the Women’s National Book Association national publication.

In her own words: The Literary Life Coach says there’s a book in everyone

Scratching HeadCoaches are enthusiastic men and women who help us achieve our goals. One of the most visible is the sports coach who works with a team, evaluating athletes’ performances and giving feedback. There is the dialogue coach who works with actors to help them sound convincing before an audience. A dating coach helps individuals pursue healthy relationships. I worked with performance coaches during my broadcasting career to improve my on-air delivery.

But what about writers? Do they have anyone to coach them? If so, who do they go to? What happens to the writer suffering writer’s block, or the writer who can’t get motivated enough to sit in the chair and write the thing, or the writer who’s got a great manuscript but doesn’t know how to market it? That’s where a literary life coach comes in. Lisa Allen Lambert first discovered the lure of writing while researching and writing travel news at Yankee magazine. Later, she wrote, designed, and self-published Eating Clean, a cookbook based on the healing and healthful benefits of unprocessed foods. Recently, an excerpt from her MFA memoir thesis, “Paradise Not Quite Found,” was a finalist in the anthology contest “Times Were A-Changing.”In this exclusive interview, Lisa Allen Lambert, the Literary Life Coach, talks about being a motivator.

Lisa Braxton: What has inspired you to become the Literary Life Coach?

Lisa Allen Lambert: Two things: One, I believe everyone has a book in them. And, two, it was a matter of making official what has long been an avocation: talking with people about their book projects, problem-solving concept and/or structural issues, encouraging writers and following up on their progress. I am a cross-pollinator of people and ideas and love to bring people together; if you meet with me, be sure to bring paper and pen for note taking. As the Literary Life Coach I work with non-fiction writers, primarily business owners, who use a book(s) about their area of expertise to broaden their visibility in the marketplace — to help them make noise in the world. A book keeps your message fresh, long after a meeting or workshop has ended.

L.B.: How does a literary life coach differ from a literary coach? From a writing coach? From a book packager?

L.A.L.: The easy answer first — I am not taking on another author’s book project myself, or collaborating with a publisher, as a book packager would. I function as a writing coach, in that I provide a step-by-step process for growing an idea into a book. Also, I am an accountability partner, a customizable cheerleader. Although I do not proofread, copyedit or edit, I work in tandem with others who do. The word ‘literary’ is my way of implying quality for the end product, the book. In the excitement of seeing their names in print, it is easy for first-time self-publishing authors to overlook the fundamentals such as grammar and spelling. It is my mission to ensure that my clients’ books have integrity, from the inside out.

L.B.: So many authors slog away in privacy and do it all themselves, why would someone need a literary life coach?

L.A.L.: Because writing can be a lonely process, because figuring out how to develop an idea into tens-of-thousands of organized words can be overwhelming.

L.B.: At what stage must a writer’s work be for you to work with him or her?

L.A.L.: Think of my services like a menu — it is possible to order just an appetizer, or an entree, or even dessert, or all three courses. Any stage is the right stage.

L.B.: Do you help with the mechanics of the manuscript? Keeping the writer motivated? Guidance in finding an agent? Marketing the book? Self-publishing?

L.A.L.: All of the above.

L.B.: Tell me of rewarding experiences you’ve had as the Literary Life Coach.

L.A.L.: I’m working with the author of a children’s biography of someone famous. The manuscript has been edited, finely groomed, given the thumbs-up by important people in high places, yet the author needed regularly scheduled check-in sessions to override self-doubt. With the manuscript already in good order, we’ve brainstormed publishing options and marketing strategies. In September I’ll be meeting with the author and her illustrator, an accomplished artist. It is thrilling to seeing this project come to fruition.

I recently had a call from someone who has written several books but described her current project as “writing hell.” She had three versions of the manuscript with input from her team of advisors, and was absolutely stuck on how to organize the chapters, how to edit how some elements that should be used for a different project. How lucky was I that she was vacationing at her lake house, and that we could meet there for a day-long session?! Together we worked out the best flow of information for her book, and, the true test, after sleeping on it, she was energized and focused and back on track.

As the Literary Life Coach Lisa can help you with your nonfiction book or blogging projects. She is the managing editor for Tall Poppy Writers (web site launching in Sept.), a new online consortium that connects smart readers with smart books, and is the assistant residency director for a low-residency MFA program in creative writing. 

 

 

 

Why I won’t let my fiancé read my manuscript

Looking back at my term as president of the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), I have to say that Hank Phillippi Ryan, investigative television reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate station and author of Prime TimeFace TimeAir Time, and three other books, including a new one due out in September, is one of the most generous authors I know.  Lisa Hank Head and ShouldersThe award-winning crime fiction novelist took time out of her busy schedule to be the keynote speaker at one of our annual year-end dinner banquets. Before an audience of about 30 members and guests in the private dining area of one of Boston’s upscale hotels, she regaled us with stories of how she began writing her first novel. She talked about the long hours in front of the computer screen after her shifts at the TV station, the social events she skipped to carve out time to work on the book, the reams of paper she went through as she revised what she had written. I’m sure she doesn’t know this but her methods provide me with guidance as I work on my own book project. However there was one tactic she told us about that I would feel uncomfortable using: she had her husband read her raw manuscript pages and give her feedback.

I cannot imagine having my fiancé read my manuscript, not a chapter, section, or paragraph. He is also a writer, a very good one, with a background in journalism, like me. I know that he could provide me with insight that would be helpful in polishing the story. However, because my manuscript is so personal, has been a part of my life for more than five years, and because he is so close to me, he is the one person I won’t let read it. I plan to show it to him after it’s published, after it’s been edited, bound, and printed, but not before. Does anyone else feel this way? How do you feel sharing your work in progress with a significant other, whether it’s a writing project, work project, or other personal creative venture? I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

The lady with the sharpened pencils in her quiver

Blog Photo

 

Several years ago I was introduced to S.W., one of my mother’s high school classmates. We’ve been friends ever since. S.W. and I enjoy going to classical music concerts, movies at independent theaters, museums, and dinners at ethnic restaurants.

S.W. and I have made plans to get together in the near future. However, as the date grows near, I am filled with such trepidation that I think about postponing the meeting or canceling it altogether, not because of anything personally involving S.W., but because of something she has in her possession: a copy of the latest revision of my manuscript. S.W. is not only a friend, but a retired editor at one of the country’s top educational and general interest publishing houses. Her ability to shepherd a project from raw manuscript to award-winning literary treasure is legendary.

S.W. didn’t put her sharpened Ticonderoga Number 2’s back in the pencil case when she retired. The woman whips through the New York Times crossword puzzle before her first cup of morning coffee has cooled. She’s been known to call television news reporters on the phone and scold them because they misplaced a modifier during a live report. And those reporters thank her profusely for doing so.

Two years ago I handed S.W. my manuscript and when I got it back it was covered in so much red ink and post-it notes that I thought I’d need a defibrillator to bring my story’s characters back to life. After spending a month decompressing, I read through her edits, which I largely agreed with, and went back to work, confident that I could make the story much better. Now that I’ve handed it back to her again, I feel ill at the prospect of seeing her for our meeting. Who knows what she’ll do? Maybe I’ll need a fire extinguisher to hose the pages down. But it’ll be okay. I value her skills. S.W.’s level of editing is exactly what I need.

 

In Praise of the “lockdown”

padlockI had been working on the revision of my manuscript, The Talking Drum, for the past two and a half years. It was 75 percent rewritten, but I just couldn’t find blocks of time to power through the rest of it. I’d find an hour here or there at the end of the day at the library or the coffee shop, but by the time I’d familiarize myself all over again with my characters, plot, and subplots, the place would be closing for the evening.  I’d get home only to have the TV and the refrigerator vying for the privilege of distracting me.

Then an idea occurred to me. I decided to go into “lockdown mode.” I found an affordable hotel with just the bare amenities in a boring town in driving distance from home and booked myself a room for an extended weekend. To save money I packed nonperishable food items –peanut butter came in real handy. When I got to the room I tossed the TV remote into the safe and forced myself not to turn on the wi-fi. I flipped open my laptop, pulled out my notes and wrote for four days until my eyeballs felt like sandpaper.

Despite my discomfort, I felt good when I walked out of that hotel bleary eyed and squinting at the sun, because I had achieved my goal.

I know that lockdowns are popular at writing centers. Grub Street writing center, for example, in Boston conducts a lockdown every so often. For a small fee, members can be locked into the classrooms of Grub Street. They write until the lockdown concludes without the distraction of family, friends, or electronic temptations.

Funny. I was telling a friend about my lockdown. She’s a busy mother of young children. She has a fulfilling career and is going for an advanced degree. She suggested that writers aren’t the only ones who could benefit from a lockdown. She began toying with the idea herself.