Mentors, Book Coaches, Guides and Gurus

ruthtype by Kate Maruyama

I wrote my first novel the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Avon books was running a contest for YA books by teens and damn it, I was going to win that five thousand dollar prize and be published. How hard could it be?  I was sixteen. My mom was a writer. It would happen. Sitting in an increasingly hot room in the upstairs of my house, fueled by ice water and The Who’s TOMMY blasting through the foam covered earphones of my Walkman, I banged out, day after day, a draft of DÉJÀ VU on my Great Aunt Ruth’s early twentieth century Corona. This, my soon to be published (of course!) first novel was the gripping tale of a teenage boy who hits another boy with his car, killing him. Lucky for him he gets amnesia and thinks he hit a deer. He goes to school and falls in love with Beth, a charming, clever girl who has, coincidentally, recently lost her brother to a hit and run. As the two fall in love with each other and our hero investigates the dent on the front of his car, his dreams and flashes of memory, the inevitable happens. She finds out he’s the one who killled her brother! dundundun. How our hero got out of things without doing a jail term, I honestly don’t know. But 128 pages later, I typed THE END. I was quite happy and a little smug.

The next summer I rewrote the book, alone in the same room on the same typewriter – I think CHEAP TRICK was the album for that draft, although TOMMY was still a reliable fallback. I had notes from my first beta reader, my mom(she is still my first beta reader today). I entered it into the computer in the evenings and, one sweaty afternoon, printed it out on tractor paper. I carefully ripped off the strips of hole-punched paper off the sides, ripped each page apart (remember?) and sent it off. Needless to say, I didn’t win the contest, and my hopes of being an instantly successful writer were shattered. Clearly I had not inherited my mom’s talent and sunshine was obviously not flowing out of my fingers onto the paper into anything significant. Dejected, I put away my little stack of two summers of work.

IMG_0759 check out the tractor paper fringe!

In my twenties, I worked at screenwriting. Fueled now by coffee and quiet (listening to music was too distracting), I pounded out around fifteen screenplays when I hit a story that wouldn’t work in screenplay form. So quietly, between screenplay drafts to my agent, I started writing a novel. I didn’t know at the time that writing a coming of age novel is training ground for so many writers out there. Unwittingly living a cliché, I forged forward, bit by bit, exploring all of the aspects of fiction that can’t be written in screenplay form. Senses, seasons, I was running around in my budding teen heroine’s body, experiencing all the awfulness grownup life can throw your way. I finished, rewrote and finally sent it out to agents who resoundingly rejected it. One barb stung in particular: “I’m used to a narrative story. You know, beginning, middle end.” That kicked me right in my narrative stomach.

A few years later, sections of that book, which I loved and sweated over and ultimately was shelved, got me into graduate school at Antioch University Los Angeles.

I found myself in an entirely new world. I learned I didn’t have to pound away at the words in a vacuum anymore. I didn’t have to wait until I had written a full draft to get feedback. So far, I hadn’t had to worry about producing pages, screenwriting had gotten me on a schedule and familiar with a need for constant progress. But knowing that I was responsible for twenty pages a month, and that those twenty pages a month needed to be good enough to hand into my esteemed mentors – all published writers, all trained in the art of helping a writer realize her work – this simply raised the bar for me. Instead of forging forward, accumulating pages, I was made to stop and think about what I was doing: to edit it not only for continuity and scene, but to work at my writing on a sentence level. All of my mentors were fantastic writers as well as instructors. Instead of getting end-of-the-draft notes, I felt like I had a writerly guide coaching me throughout the painful process of drafting – a ref in my corner with a squirt bottle, encouraging words and, most important, constant notes on my form and guidance in huge aspects of the craft that I was missing in my spotty past in fiction.

Dodie Bellamy, Gayle Brandeis and Rob Roberge, each in the role of mentor at Antioch really got inside my work with me and gave me feedback that showed they recognized my work; the power of I SEE this piece should not be underestimated. My mentors gave me the tools I needed or was lacking or simply hadn’t thought of as I forged forward with my manuscript. The book I wrote under their tutelage was the third book I wrote in my lifetime, but the first book of mine ever to get published.

Dodie Bellamy helped me find my sea legs in fiction. I had come off ten years of screenwriting, and was fortunate enough to bring with me a learned knowledge of dialogue, structure and plot. But, despite having written those two other novels outside of any program (or one, I don’t know if I can actually count the ever intriguing DÉJÀ VU,) there were still things I didn’t know about fiction, how it worked, and, most important, things I didn’t know about my own writing. The simplest of Dodie’s notes, “I can’t see it” and “where are your dialogue tags?” “POV?” reminded me that I was treading new ground and that fiction was a craft to be learned. Her reaction to the story as a whole was deeply encouraging and she was able to pull me along without (as I had feared going in) changing my vision of the book. With any coach or mentor, there is always an understanding that this is the writer’s book. Dodie served as first reader and instructor to help me hone my craft as I went.

Rob Roberge listened deeply to my characters and my plot, and, by pointing out what was working in my prose, helped me fix what wasn’t working and move forward. We had larger conversations about writing through his notes and my monthly packet which included a letter discussing the story, characters, theme, and where things were going.

As E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It is so helpful to have a coach or mentor help you keep the faith and offer guidance on that long drive. Having a mentor in your corner helps push aside all the Demons in your head and allows you to make real progress.

Gayle Brandeis allowed me to run free as I hurtled toward the ending of my first draft. Her encouragement, the books she assigned me to read and her deep notes allowed me to finish the novel that would eventually get published. I rewrote the entire book under Rob in my last semester, and based on the strength of my manuscript, I obtained an agent who schooled me all over again in readying the book for market.

When I graduated from Antioch with my MFA, I was definitely thoroughly educated in fiction, but what I pined for was that place where a professional reader and instructor expected 20 pages from me by the end of each month. I found it hard to move forward on something new. I stalled for a while, but eventually, through setting my own schedule and pushing through it, I realized that I still retained the wisdom of my mentors, which had become voices in my heads whispering as I went along. I still hear Rob’s “Trust your good dialogue,” when typing in a qualifier or Gayle’s “Remember the body.” Our coaches last long past the time that they work with us.

Most writers don’t have the money or time and may not even have the desire for an MFA. They also may not need a degree, but do need someone to respond to their work. We cannot write in a vacuum. While the muse whispers in our ear, gets us excited and urges us into a project, she then will often sit back and say, that annoying eyebrow raised, “Okay, what happens next?” The rest is up to us: progress, slogging along, making mistakes that will lead to clues that will lead to the real book that is buried beneath the words we are putting on the page.

I was thrilled when Antioch hired me to put together their book coaching program. Here was a way to provide book coaches to writers, all of us out there working alone in our rooms, charging ice water or coffee, driving forward in the foggy darkness. Here was an opportunity to provide writers with coaches who would read a work in progress, stand in a writer’s corner and offer advice, notes and bolster them before sending them out into the ring again. And it was a way to do so affordably.

I had the experience of training a fantastic array of wonderful writers, all fellow alumni of Antioch, all published, well-known and so involved and original in how they evaluate text. We worked together to create a comprehensive method for approaching a manuscript in our Manuscript Reviews, or, on a monthly basis with our Book Coaching Packages, a way to offer notes and support that would support and encourage a writer’s vision of their work in progress, while providing valuable tools and feedback for their next draft. I was able to articulate the methods and wisdom of my mentors and pass it on.

All of our coaches are trained, professional specialists in their own fields; from memoir to short stories, to poetry to novels. You can get to know them individually here. Sign up for book coaching today!

Kate Maruyama’s first novel, (or third novel, depending on how you look at it) was published by 47North in 2013. Her work has appeared in Arcadia Magazine, Stoneboat Journal and Controlled Burn as well as on The Rumpus, Salon, The Citron Review and other journals. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she now coaches and teaches. She writes, teaches, cooks and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family.


How To Write on the Internet in 5 Easy Steps

paper to pixels writing course

by Seth Fischer

Here’s something I probably shouldn’t tell you: part of me—a big part of me—hates the Internet with a passion I usually reserve for war criminals and people who grunt loudly at the gym. Maybe 50% of me wishes that I could’ve been born a writer 70 years ago, allowed to live my life peacefully in a library, still benefiting from the miracles of antibiotics and air travel but without dreading the constant pings from my phone … or wondering what’s wrong when the pings aren’t coming.

The other 50% of me is grateful. Just look at all I can do now: the other day, I wanted to know what happened to the guy who played “Hannibal” on the “A Team.” “Ask the oracle,” my girlfriend said. So I asked, and it told me that, sadly, George Peppard died in 1994, and he only did one show after the A Team, called Man Against the Mob, about a detective in the 1940s, which, I learned, is when he actually started his acting career—well before his breakthrough performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And what’s this? He played Ernest Hemingway in a movie called Papa? How have I never seen that? I wonder if it’s streaming on Netflix.

It is not. Damn.

But there’s more. This Internet thing gives writers a way to get heard, sometimes, if they’re lucky. I’ve been lucky enough to have publications go viral. Because of that, people from around the country have asked me for writing. It doesn’t always work out, but I just did an Indiegogo fundraising drive for a writing retreat, and I got a donation from Hong Kong.

Last time I checked, that is on the other side of the world.

Still, sometimes I wonder—after checking my email for the 132nd time that day, after losing an entire afternoon to a Facebook fight with someone I’m not sure I’ll be able to look in the face anymore if I see them in person, after realizing with horror that I feel panic (real, visceral, I’m-at-school-with-no-clothes-on panic) if I can’t check my email when I first wake up in the morning—whether or not I should just get off this thing entirely.

I mean, it’s a tool, right? If it’s a tool, it means we should be using it, and not the other way around.

I lied. There are no five easy steps to writing on the Internet. I cheated. People are more likely to click on a link if it looks like it’s a list.

I’m sorry. I feel dirty now, if it makes you feel better.

As I write this in a coffee shop, the staff of an online news publication is meeting behind me, figuring out their stories for the day. They are not out on the streets or holed up in seedy hotel rooms tracking down stories like Woodward and Bernstein. They are searching Twitter for trending stories that have just hit, emailing back and forth with leads, discussing what sorts of headlines are more likely to garner the most traffic. With a world’s worth of police blotters at their fingertips, they are questioning whether people will care about the carjacking of an ambulance (“That one is in the suburbs. Maybe if it was in a target neighborhood?”) or whether anyone cares about a body painting competition (“Really? Body painting?” “Yes, body painting.” “Hm. I don’t think people are into that.”). They are constantly checking their analytics, a tool that shows them how many hits they are getting and where they are coming from, seeing which of their stories are trending, trying to replicate that success over and over, because the more clicks they get, the more advertising revenue they get. And the more advertising revenue they can get, the more they can pay themselves and their writers, who, if I were to venture a guess, are lucky to get $50 a story, with bonuses if their material goes viral.

These writers are good at what they do, and what they do is drive traffic. Their website garners a helluva lot of that. But for them, a click has become an end in itself. And when most people think of writing on the Internet, this is what they think of.

I think we can do better than that. I think that together, we can come up with some answers that can lead to better writing and more clicks. I think that there has to be another way.

I don’t claim to know what that is.

About sixteen years ago, a couple of researchers at Stanford developed a theory about how people interact with the Internet. They found that people do what is called “information foraging.” When reading online, people look for information like a chimp forages for food. They grab what they need and move on, using the least possible amount of energy to get the largest amount of what they’re seeking, whether that be nutrition or information. For Internet users, this means almost never finishing articles.

When you sit to read a book, you generally have in mind to read the whole thing. When you sit down at the computer to find out about, say, Mr. T, you might scan his Wikipedia page, maybe go to his website, and see what kind of press clippings there’ve been lately. I bet you that you won’t read the entirety of any one of those articles.

In fact, most readers won’t even scroll down once when they visit a web page.  Did you just publish a viral essay on the Internet? If you see that your essay has received 100,000 pageviews, it feels great. Until you actually look at what that means. If you’re lucky, maybe 5,000 of those people read the whole thing. Almost half didn’t interact with the material at all.

But you, reader, you’ve made it this far. I like you.

Because of the Internet, more people are reading and writing than ever before in history.  3 billion people used the Internet in 2014, mostly from the developing world. Sure, some of those people are probably only watching videos, but any way you look at it, that’s a lot of people reading and writing. And reading in a different way than the average person picking up a book at Barnes and Noble.

What I mean is: how many of us who view writing as an artistic pursuit have thought much about this? How could we use, for example, the idea of “information foraging” to our aesthetic advantage, instead of thinking it only as a commercial one?

In Paper to Pixels, we’ll explore some examples of work by those who have explored the questions above, and I’ll give you findings about how reading as a practice is changing because of new technologies. But I won’t give you any easy answers, because I don’t think there are any. In sum, we’ll explore how to use different aspects of this interface—from social media to linked fiction to figuring out where it is in cyberspace that your work can speak the loudest—to serve our own artistic goals.

Seth’s Class: From Paper to Pixels: Writing Online Content that Matters and Gets Noticed begins July 2.

SETH FISCHER’S writing has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Buzzfeed, PANK, and Best Sex Writing and listed as notable in The Best American Essays. He is a developmental editor for independent publishing houses and individual clients. Seth is also the nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown and was a contributing editor at The Rumpus, and he teaches for Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.