Inspiration Station: On Sculpture and Writing and Having Conversations

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

Some say it resembles a human skull; others say it’s a mushroom cloud. To me, Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture suggests the possible.

moore_nuclearenergyUnveiled at 3:36 p.m. on December 2, 1967, Moore’s sculpture commemorates the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction initiated on Dec 2nd, 1942, at, you guessed it, 3:36 p.m. It seems strange, perhaps even beyond the pale, to mark a moment that eventually led to so much death and destruction. But I’m one for remembering. For knowing the past so that we don’t replicate it, so we can learn from it. I never saw this sculpture as a celebration—indeed it’s not a beautiful work of art in a “traditional” sense, but it is conversational—as, I believe, Moore intended it and as I take it.

Perhaps more than any other physical thing, sculpture to me is most like writing. The artist or the writer begins with an idea, an intention and molds and crafts her medium to fit that concept, tell that story. But once that piece is in the world, it’s for the observer or reader to continue that conversation.

Nuclear Energy engages the viewer. It invites you in and through. This 12 feet x 8 feet weighty chunk of bronze, is solid and yet somehow airy. There are moments when it seems it can take off, unshackle itself from gravity. Smooth, worn, rough, it both blocks the light and lets it pass. Like Enrico Fermi and the other physicists of the Manhattan Project, this sculpture has and can keep secrets.

Often I’ve seen students huddled in the sculpture’s niches, rapt in conversation. Once I saw a Nobel Prize winning physicist sitting back in one of the recesses, eyes closed, head tilted back, face utterly peaceful. I’d like to to think he was solving some of life’s great mysteries, but perhaps he was merely thinking about his lunch. I’ve sat in that sculpture myself, many times—searching for shade, a place to rest, or a moment to think in a quiet hollow. This sculpture calls to the passerby to engage; it invites you in.

At some point, Moore must have thought his sculpture was done, that it was ready to be made public, to be seen, to be known. As I come closer to my publication date, I think a lot about what it really means for a writer to be finished with a book—the time between first draft and final pass pages, where the moments to make changes in the story narrow until they are gone. But that book is just beginning to breathe and be a part of a conversation. That book is on a new journey—true, it can’t really be changed, but it can still evolve.

Moore’s sculpture changes with the viewpoint the observer brings, with the sun and shadow and clouds. What a wonderful metaphor for writing—for holding on and letting go. For moving from a writer’s soliloquy to the wide and varied chorus of readers who honor the writer by engaging with their words, who carry on the conversation.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: Who are you, anyway?

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

question markI recently submitted an application for a volunteer position that included a prompt for a brief personal essay: Tell us about yourself.

I’ve been thinking about that prompt in the context of writing fiction, since I’m transitioning from a manuscript whose characters I’ve gotten to know over six years to a brand new world with characters I’m still feeling out. I’d really love for them to tell me more about themselves.

When a reader comes to a story and meets new characters, it’s with this same question. But readers aren’t afraid to pry—in fact they’re expecting to—so the real question they’re asking is much deeper: Who are you, anyway?

In my opinion, this question must be answered on at least three levels. Today I’m going to walk through what those levels are, how to touch on them in your own writing, and how they interact with one another.

1. We are who people perceive us to be.

In middle and high school, this reality seems inescapable. Even after that, most of us remain conscious of it for the rest of our lives.

This is the most basic way to answer the Who are you? question: it includes age, race, cohesion to gender norms, and perceived sexuality. It includes the way we dress, the color of our hair, our posture and mannerisms and accents, the names we were given and the names we choose to use.

We might not like it, but humans are creatures of habit and prone to snap judgments: Who we are on the surface will always color the way we’re able to navigate the world. This reality should impact our characters too. That’s why you can’t only tell me that a character is, for example, an immigrant: in order to believe it, I need to see how that surface-level detail impacts other aspects of their lives.

Which brings us to:

2. We are the person inside our own heads.

The image we project on the outside matters, but so do the conversations that happen in the privacy of our own brains. These conversations are directly impacted by how others perceive us, but they also include all those moments of self-doubt, of pride, of desire, of superiority, of cruelty, and of regret that we might never share with other people but that are nevertheless part of our identity.

This comes through especially clearly for characters in first-person or close third, but it should be felt in any perspective. Who we are in our heads informs the things we choose to talk about and how we talk about them. It informs the options we think we have available to us and our perceptions of right and wrong.

The people we are in our heads are often the most interesting, and these quirky, specific things are what bring characters most to life—but to be fully realized you have to be honest about them, including times when your characters’ values and beliefs come into conflict.

In the privacy of our heads, we tell ourselves secrets. When we’re writing a story, we’re letting our characters share those secrets with strangers.

And in sharing those secrets, we realize that…

3. We are the choices we make, given the constraints we’re handed.

We all have constraints. Some constraints hang out for everyone to notice (see point 1), while others live below the surface but are still very real, including trauma, mood disorders, and emotional baggage. Other constraints might include income, geography, and the expectations of the communities you’re part of. In a story, a character’s constraints will also include the overarching plot.

What we believe influences what we do, though it doesn’t control it. A character might believe himself to be brave, but that won’t stop him from committing a hit-and-run. A character might believe herself weak, but that doesn’t preclude her from jumping into a lake to save a drowning child. Individuals who seemingly face the same set of constraints may react differently given their personalities, experiences, and other constraints we may not see or fully understand.

It’s easy to write characters who do stuff, but that’s not actually why readers are coming to your story. More often than not, they’re picking up your story because they want to see characters make tough choices (and subsequently do stuff). Your plot should seem to grow out of these choices, rather than the other way around.

The more clearly you’ve drawn your characters’ internal life, the easier it will be for you to understand the choices they would make (beyond what the plot might want to dictate). This will also make it easier for a reader to understand and believe a character’s choices, even if they disagree with them.

When you ignore one or more of these levels of identity, you create flat characters.

You won’t capture everything in the first draft, or even in the second. Think about how much learning you’re still doing about yourself, and you’re inside your own head 24/7!

Give yourself permission to write flat characters as you come to understand who they are. But also push yourself to ask how each aspect of their identity informs the others. How do their beliefs contradict or facilitate their actions? How do their actions cause others to change their opinions about them? How do the opinions of others influence their self identity and their future choices?

The interactions between how others react to us, what we tell ourselves, and what we choose to do in a given situation are what make us fully human. They’re what make us fascinating and contradictory and frustrating and heroic and unique.

So. With that in mind, let’s go craft some characters and find out who they are, anyway.

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This post is brought to you by Anna Waggener at ChiYAwriters.com.

Chicago Reads: #FAMOUS

About #famous:

Debut author Jilly Gagnon bursts onto the scene with a story equal parts bite and romance, perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Jennifer E. Smith, about falling for someone in front of everyone. 25116429

In this modern-day love story: Girl likes boy. Girl snaps photo and posts it online. Boy becomes insta-famous. And what starts out as an innocent photo turns into a whirlwind adventure that forces them both to question whether fame—and love—are worth the price . . . and changes both of their lives forever.

Told from alternating points of view, #famous captures the sometimes-crazy thrill ride of social media and the equally messy but wonderful moments of liking someone in real life.

On February 24th, Lizzie and I had the pleasure of attending Jilly Gagnon‘s reading at The Book Cellar for the launch of her debut, #famous!

The Book Cellar is a fantastic venue—they have coffee, wine, and snacks available to enjoy during book events and book club meetings, or just while browsing. For Jilly’s event, there was punch and chocolates available, as well as a gorgeous and extremely delicious cake that looked exactly like the book cover. Jilly wore her prom dress—her actual prom dress from high school!—to pay tribute to the prom scene in her book. Lizzie brought a tiara, which Jilly wore during her reading.

Jilly chose several passages to read. The first established her adorkable characters and fabulous voice, and we gradually moved on to explore more serious topics—how social media can lead to bullying, and how it affects boys and girls differently. We had some wonderful discussion about Jilly’s inspiration for the book—Alex from Target—and how she decided to explore more serious themes in the midst of a super cute romance.

I love the dual POV in #famous and how Kyle and Rachel’s voices are so different. I also love how unique Rachel is with her snark, her maturity, and her unique view on the world. I also love that she knows who she is and embraces that, but it alienates her because, high school. I related to that a lot.

Jilly and I will be having a young adult author conversation about complicated relationships on April 23rd, 2017 at Women and Children First at 4:00 p.m. We’ll be joined by the lovely Stephanie Kate Strohm (It’s Not Me, It’s You) and NYT bestselling author Brittany Cavallaro (A Study in Charlotte; The Last of August). We’d love to see you there! Details for the event can be found here.

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This post is brought to you by Gloria Chao at ChiYAwriters.com.

Finding the Write Place: Big Shoulders Coffee

Finding the Write Place is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that highlights some of our favorite places to write here in the Windy City.

Big Shoulders Coffee

1105 W Chicago Ave

Chicago, IL 60642

Monday-Friday: 6:00am – 7:00pm

Saturday-Sunday 7:30-5:00pm

(hours posted as of October 2016, check Big Shoulders Coffee’s site for up-to-date hours)

Noise level: moderate-conversations,  music

Availability of space: I always get a seat (I usually go on Sundays)

Bathrooms: yes (with key)

Food: yes (pastries and cookies)

Wifi: free with password

Outlets: YES! (by the counter as well as under the main table)

Big Shoulders Coffee is cute and simple in terms of coffee shops. It is right outside the Chicago/Milwaukee Blue Line stop, and on the route for the 56 and 66 bus lines. So it’s in a fairly accessible location for anyone in the West Town area.

I love going there when I want to hunker down and work, though sometimes there are groups chatting or doing a project together. The space is limited, but many people come in to get their coffee on the way to and from the train.

They also sell their own brand of merchandise and coffee. I actually covet their thermoses (I’ve yet to try their Big Shoulders Coffee beans).

It’s a nice, small coffee shop to visit to do work, but not the best for large groups.

From A to Z: Imagination as Empathy

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

Mohsin Hamid empathy quoteSometime in the early 2010s, I heard an interview with a woman who was homeless. She lived in a car with her children, and she said the worst part was at night when she would try not to wake up the children with her crying.

This story stayed with me and eventually became the very real inspiration for a fictional story. Instead of writing the mother’s perspective, I imagined the experience of one of her children. In my mind, this teenage child was not sleeping but rather pretending to sleep while listening to his mother’s tears.

Writing is an intimate exercise in empathy. I would never claim to know the exact dimensions of another person’s experiences, but through writing, I can take what I know of life and use it to imagine others’ lives. For example, I have not been homeless, but I have slept in a car. I know the stiffness that comes from spending the night at crooked angles. And I have not faced food insecurity, but I have skipped meals. I know the dull ache and distracted attention that come with hunger. The specificity of the details is what creates the illusion of reality, so I start with my own experiences and extrapolate from there to create the landscape of my characters’ lives, inside and out.

And when it comes to the important things, to fear and jealousy and love and longing, I don’t have to stretch too far. I have felt all of these emotions myself, and although the reasons might differ, the result is the same. Much as an actor draws on her own personal history—her own moments of shame and pride, of joy and sorrow, of anger and calm—I unearth my own deep wells of emotion to reveal these feelings in my characters.

So when my main character, Ben, hears his mother crying in the car at night, I can feel not only the pain of being crammed sideways in the passenger seat of a car but also the pain of witnessing another person’s grief and being unable to do anything about it.

And if I have done my job properly, my readers will feel the same.

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This post is brought to you by Lizzie Cooke at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: Surviving the Query Trenches

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

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I’d planned on writing an article about being in the query trenches, and how hard it was to keep motivated when the rejection rate is so high. But then I got an offer from the wonderful Caitie Flum, so I wondered if that topic was still relevant.

Friends, it is. I’m FRESH out of the trenches, so a lot of the feelings are still there. Querying authors know what I mean. The fear, anticipation, and hope that comes when sending out a new query. Then the paranoia! Rechecking the sent email, praying no typos snuck their way into the email mid-send! And then the waiting. Some agents respond quickly, some take a while, some not at all. And it’s such a roller coaster of emotions. I went through a myriad of them while in the trenches, to the point of “quitting” several times. The beauty of quitting a thing like this, though, is that the next day you can start again.

I’m very lucky. I have several writing communities and friends that helped me through the rough spots. Allowing me to step away when I needed to, for as long as I needed to, but gently encouraging me not to give up. And it worked. I survived the trenches long enough to sign with an amazing agent.

So now that I’m out of the trenches, here are a few things that kept me going, and still do:

  1. Community, community, community. Having safe people and spaces where I could vent my frustrations, my insecurities, my worries, and fears is so important to me. They are a shoulder to cry on, a pillar of support when I just want to crumble. I doubt I’d be here if I didn’t have that.
  2. Remembering who I was writing for. Every time I got determined to throw in the towel, I remembered little me, desperately reading anything and everything, trying to find even a little bit of myself in those characters. I don’t want any more little girls and teens to feel that desperate and erased.
  3. Plain old stubbornness and persistence. Being determined to make it no matter the odds. And the odds are so much harder for a black woman writing about black characters in publishing, especially when those characters are outside of stereotypical lenses. I simply refused to let the rejections completely wear me down.
  4. Comforts. Every time I got a pass, especially if it was on materials, it stung. Every single time. Even if I could nod along with the feedback and think, “OK I get that.” Some of the sting was because I felt like I should’ve known better. Some of it was guilt, feeling like I wasted that agent’s time. And of course, despairing if I had what it takes on many levels, to keep going in this business. So, I’d chat with my writer friends, pull out a Harry Potter book or movie, and eat junk food. Self-care is definitely important, but even more so when feeling rejected and vulnerable.
  5. Keeping it in perspective. Especially at the query stage. When I go to a bookstore and pick up a book, read the jacket, and think, “Nah, not for me,” and put it back, it’s no reflection on the author or the author’s talent. That story just isn’t my jam. I do this with NYT bestsellers all the time. Obviously those stories are resonating with a lot of people if they’re selling that many copies, but again, it might not be my jam. And that’s OK. When I think of a query rejection that way, it helps ease the sting. It really is subjective.
  6. Having a strategy. Some people send out queries in batches of 5, test the waters, revise/rework, and try again based on feedback. Others send a huge load at once and hope for the best. There are some who send a new query as soon as a rejection comes in. I was one of the send 5 at a time lot. I tried to be very deliberate, and I ended up querying fewer than 30 agents over the course of my year in the trenches.
  7. Distractions! Most people start work on another book while they’re waiting. I was worried I’d be a one-trick pony (even though I’d written full novels in the past, many times), but somehow, I began brainstorming 2 books! I also worked a LOT. Working a 9–5 plus freelance jobs keeps one busy. Also holidays, family, Netflix, day-to-day life, and a major surgery kept me distracted enough so I wasn’t refreshing my inbox over and over or stalking Query Tracker. Much. Also, I made a commitment to keep learning the craft. There are so many free writing resources out there. Pinterest has a plethora of links to explore, and there are even agents giving query and writing advice. Filling my life kept me from obsessing about query/submission status.
  8. Patience. That’s the hardest part. You’re excited about your work, and you want to move forward NOW. But, publishing is SLOW. At least to outsiders. Why does it take 2 years from announcement for a book to come out? Why do some agents take several months to respond to materials? The answer: Everyone is swamped! On the inside, there’s never enough time to do everything that needs to be done . . . but somehow, it all comes together in the end. Keeping that in mind helped me reflect on really pursuing this. As a matter of fact, I’ve come to embrace publishing’s slow burn.

I queried Caitie on August 2, 2016, and officially signed with her March 1, 2017. I’m excited and thrilled. She gets me and she gets my book, and her passion, her smarts, and her dedication makes me think we’ll be a great team.

The point of all of this is: Don’t Give Up. Every no, every hiccup, is a nudge toward the right agent. Keep going, keep working hard, and keep believing. And in the meantime, there’s chocolate.


This post is brought to you by Ronni Davis at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: Finding the Write Light

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

We all know that having a room of one’s own in which to write is a luxury for many writers. And even if you have that sacred writing space, sometimes it’s necessary to step out of your world and find a room with a new view to find a fresh perspective. For me, this is especially important when I find myself stuck on the page. On this blog, we highlight some of our favorite Chicago spots in our Finding the Write Place series—coffee shops and other public spaces where the muse finds us.

When I need to search for that elusive muse, I go to the library. Particularly, the newest library at my alma mater, the University of Chicago. (Only accessible to those with a U of C affiliation.)

To a lot of you, Mansueto Library is going to look familiar:

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Copyright 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC

Yup. It’s part of Erudite Headquarters in the first Divergent film.

And, nope, I’m not plotting a coup, though Mansueto might be an excellent spot for that as well.

I’ve always loved writing at the library for the lighting, the quiet, and the soft hum from the air conditioning or heating or some mysterious white noise generator. Mansueto, opened in 2011—long after I graduated, has all 3 of those writing environment qualities I need. Also, you can have coffee at your desk.

I wrote and revised and edited a huge portion of my upcoming book, LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS, at Mansueto. The University of Chicago has a small cameo in the book, but that’s not why I write at Mansueto. That light I mentioned as so important to me? Mansueto has it in abundance. Even on Chicago’s dreariest winter days, if there is any light to be had, I can find it at Mansueto.  This is what it looks like when I enter the Grand Reading Room:

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Even when I’m not writing about setting or weather, the quality of light is something I think a lot about when I write. Capturing the quality of light at different times of day, in different seasons, in different places—finding the right words to describe it is something I’ve often found elusive. It’s poetry, but it eludes me. In some ways, I guess light is a kind of muse for me. It presents me with a writing challenge. I love how it’s alive and how its character changes and how it can feel beautiful and soft, but also harsh and cruel. When I get to Mansueto early enough and can snag a table at the window, I can figure out my writing conundrums usually just staring out the window, not at my computer, watching the light play games and cast shadows out and across the lawn and gothic buildings.

Working at Mansueto helped me know the type of space I covet as a writer—the kind of space that doesn’t merely optimize my writing output, but a space that feels comfortable and inspiring. And where, if necessary, I can plan a hostile takeover of the other factions because I blame ignorance for the faults of human society.

WAIT.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.