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My unpublished novel features a Senegalese restaurant owner who makes delicious meals for the customers in the immigrant community where he lives.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.

Enhance your public readings with THE MOTH

When my friend, Sue, asked me to join her buddies Rudy and Amy at THE MOTH story slam, held at Laugh Boston comedy venue this week, I didn’t hesitate. As a writer who tells stories, both fictional and true on the printed page, I was curious to see how stories are told in a story slam. Moth events are held in major cities around the country. There’s also THE MOTH radio hour at a station near you.

Laugh Boston

Here’s how it works. THE MOTH provides a theme for the evening’s event. When I attended, the theme was “dedication.” People sign up after they arrive to tell their stories. Only 10 are chosen per event. They are given 5 minutes to tell their story. If they go beyond 6 minutes, they must leave the stage. One of the organizers goes table-to-table asking people to volunteer as judges.

After we got our seats and ordered drinks, and the storytelling began, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the difference between telling a story and giving a reading. Storytelling is done without notes or pages of text so that we audience members could better connect with the speaker. The storytellers were animated, gesturing with their hands and arms, physically acting out portions of their stories. They changed pitch as they spoke, paused to let the audience laugh, and got emotional as they talked. They truly connected with the audience.

Participating in a story slam may not make for better writers, but could make writers, better speakers. So many writers just aren’t that comfortable in front of a microphone.

I picked up a few other tips. Wes Hazard, a local standup comedian, was picked to tellWES HAZARD a story. His was about gastrointestinal problems that left him flat on his back in both a men’s and women’s bathroom in a comedy club venue. At the close of THE MOTH, there were clusters of people wanting to meet him and talk to him about his horrible experience. Wes was smart. He was armed with postcards with details of his upcoming comedy performances listed and his website. There’s no doubt that he used telling his story at THE MOTH to market his standup. Writers can use events like THE MOTH to increase their fan base and readership.

Sue, Amy, and I did our best to cheer on Rudy when he got on stage and told his story, which, in fact, captivated the audience. However, he didn’t get the top score from the judges. We couldn’t believe it. Some of THE MOTH staff told him as he left the stage that his story was the best. They didn’t agree with the judges. It reminds me of the responses I get from publications I send my stories to. I can get a bunch of rejections and then a publication will come along and the editor will say it’s just what she was looking for. It’s all so subjective.

 

Seville is a writer’s paradise

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On a recent trip to Spain, I included stays in Barcelona, Seville, Malaga, and a day trip to Tangier, Morocco. Of all of these places, the one that got me feeling the most inspired creatively was Seville. Spain’s fourth largest city buzzes with art festivals, breathtaking architecture, flamenco dancing, hand-stitched shawls and lovely ladies’ fans.

Even the air is inspirational, filled with the fragrance of orange trees, jacaranda, and myrtle. The author, James Michener, wrote that Seville doesn’t have ambience, it is, ambience. While taking aDSCN4268 cruise down the Guadalquivir River, I thought of the literature Seville has inspired, including the opera Carmen. Strolling around this city, it’s easy to imagine finding a corner table in a coffee shop, opening up the laptop and creating stories.

Acclaimed photographer’s story is an inspiration to struggling writers

I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to an exhibition of the work of Gordon Parks, one of the most celebrated photographers of all time. The exhibition’s 42 photographs were from a series originally meant to accompany a Life magazine photo essay, but for unknown reasons, the story was never published.

In 1948, Parks was the first African American photographerimages family hired by Life magazine. The images for the unpublished photo essay depict the realities of life under segregation in 1950. Parks returned to his hometown, Fort Scott, Kansas, and then other Midwestern cities to track down and photograph each of his childhood classmates.

The experience of mining his childhood memories and the work on the “Back to Fort Scott,” seemed to have inspired him to write The Learning Tree in Life magazine cover1963, his best-selling novel about growing up poor in Kansas.

Once completed, Parks’ Fort Scott photo essay never appeared in Life. Most of the photos were never before on view until this exhibition at the Boston MFA. The reason remains a mystery, although the U.S. entry into the Korean War that summer had a major impact on the content of its pages for some time. The magazine’s editors did try to resuscitate the story early in April of 1951 only to have it passed over by the news of President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur.

The story of what happened to this photo essay all those years ago should resonate with us who work hard to have our stories published, only to have them passed over for unknown reasons. But, as in the case of Gordon Parks’ photo essay, that doesn’t mean that the creative work won’t eventually find its audience.

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.