Category Archives: a reason to write

The my writing process blog tour

If you saw my last post, you know that I’m sharing my experiences at the writers workshops I’ve attended over the past year. One of the many, many reasons that I love attending workshops is that I meet amazing writers who are also terrific people.

Jane Ward is one such writer/friend. I’m proud to say she is a front-row-seat-convert thanks to me. She has invited me to participate in a blog tour called the My Writing Process Blog Tour. I’m honored that she considered me worthy. Smooches Jane! You can read her writing process story here.

Jane Ward

Jane Ward

First, I’ll tell you a little bit about my talented friend. Jane Ward is the author of Hunger and the New York Book Festival award-winning novel The Mosaic Artist.  Yes, she rocks. She is currently at work on her third novel, The Welcome Home. A former baker and caterer, Jane now cooks on video for allfood.com, a recipe database cited on several online newspapers, and also regularly contributes articles to them. Her blog, Food and Fiction, is equal parts food memoir, cooking and baking discussion, and collection of food industry profiles and trends. (Jane’s friend Carla Panciera invited her to join the blog tour and you can find her entry here.)

Below I have answered the few questions required by the blog tour. By reading on, you’ll get to know a little bit more about what I do (and sometimes what I don’t do.)

1. What are you working on?

I spent the “Summer of Ellen,” as I affectionately call it, attending several writing workshops and not doing a ton of actual writing, just learning about writing.

The pieces I workshopped were:

– A 100-page excerpt from my novel in progress called The Alligator Purse. It’s a family saga, with a political backdrop, lots of secrets, and a fabulous purse.

– “In the Dust of Elephants” is a short story about a Somali man whose daughter is gravely ill. He participates in a hunt to get ivory dust from the tusk of an elephant because he believes it will cure his daughter.

– “The Dust in His Pocket” is a short story focused on a pre-teen boy who can’t find his grandfather. His only clue is a broken hourglass that contains dirt from all the places his grandfather has travelled.

And, yes, I seem to have an affinity for all things dust right now. I considered calling my novel The Dust in the Alligator Purse, but somehow that seemed a tad too much.

2.  How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Uhm, it’s not finished or published. Oh, besides that. Ah.

I think the fact that a woman is writing about a presidential run is a little unusual. Also, that the book has a strong political backdrop but the story isn’t about politics. It’s about mother-daughter relationships and the cycles–good and bad–that are repeated in families. And it’s about holding other people to higher standards than we hold ourselves–and how that can absolutely ruin us.

Also, an American woman writing from the voice of a Somali man–probably not a current trend in most literary works.

3.  Why do you write what you do?

I’m writing this novel because I won a contest. The prize was a consultation of the first 10 pages of a novel with a literary agent named Rachelle Gardner. I kind-of, sort-of raced off a smart-arse haiku and, holy crap, I won. Which would have been so fabulous if I actually had 10 pages written. Ahem. (Please don’t ask me WHY I entered the contest–that is still a mystery to even me.)

Getting 10 pages written was my obsession but I had no idea what to write about. None.What.So.Ever. That is, until I heard a story on the radio about a woman who had her purse stolen. She chased the thief down to get her purse back. And I thought, “what the hell was in that purse?” Angels sang, glitter spewed, and The Alligator Purse was born.

“In the Dust of Elephants” was inspired by another contest about hunger in the natural world. I didn’t want to have my characters hunger for food, so I needed something else, something more dire. My family spent some time living in India. While there, two of my children got sick with unidentifiable illnesses. Thankfully they were both fine but it was a scary time and I knew I would do anything I could to help them get well. I wanted to write a story in a foreign setting and Somalia seemed to make perfect sense because I needed an elephant to wander through the story.

“The Dust in His Pocket” is really a tribute my grandfather. The grandfather in the story is not at all who my grandfather was, but the special relationship he has with his grandson mimics our relationship.

4.  How does your writing process work?

Process. Hmmmmm, that sounds like a bad word. Can you tell I don’t really have a process? Ergh.

A lot of my story ideas/inspiration used to come from contests. The creative world is often too immense for me to come up with my own ideas. I’m a Pisces afterall and if I hold on too tightly to one idea, I fear losing all the others. Although, I am getting much better about it. Many of my earlier story ideas came from someone else saying “what about this” and me answering back, “Yea, but no, not that exactly. What about this instead?”

To keep the writing process blog chain going, here are some other writers you should know, and who will (I hope) let you know a bit more about themselves.

Virginia Pye – River of Dust
I met the talented Virginia Pye at a James Rivers Writers Workshop taught by Nancy Zafris. River of Dust is a fabulous story set in Northwest China in 1910 and chronicles the lives of a missionary couple whose young son, Wesley, is kidnapped by nomads right before their eyes.  During our workshop lunch, I squeezed myself in between them and soaked in every single word they said. I may have accidentally, on-purpose rubbed against them both in hopes of some of their tremendous talent falling off of them and onto me.

virginia pye2

M.M. Fink – Forget We Met
I also met M.M. at the James Rivers Writers Conference. (Yes, it’s a good conference. You should go. Find out about it here.) She is beautiful and asked a lot of smart questions and is super talented. At first, I didn’t think I could like her that much because, well, did you read the last sentence? But she is so talented and so kind that you can’t help but like her a lot. Her first novel  is Forget We Met is the story of a young woman who comes home to the Louisiana playhouse in which she was raised to claim her future in the theatre and the man she’s always loved, but ends up discovering lifelong betrayals, the father she never knew, and herself. She has an agent for it and the book should be coming out in the not so distant future. (Fun fact – she let her readers pick the title. For reals.) Her second novel is called Canary Falls and I think she just finished writing it.

 

And finally, I’d like you to meet

Tara Lindis-Corbell
She is an emerging writer (like me) who I met at the One Story Workshop in NYC. There are a couple of reasons I’d like you to meet her. She’s talented. She’s funny as hell. And it’s about time she updated her blog with a new post. (You’re welcome Tara.) She also inspired me. She has two young children and she still gets up  every.single.morning.before.they.do and writes. She said she does that because she’s grumpy if she doesn’t. Amen sister. Tara is working on a novel that deals with family dynamics, the trickle down effect of environmental shifts on our every day lives, and a missing cat. She also has a funny story about a voodoo doll on a bicycle. If she doesn’t tell that story, I will be forced to tell it for her. It’s hysterical. Fun fact – it’s a true story.

Tara reading at One Story

Tara reading at One Story

That’s it for now. Happy reading and writing!

The Tin House Winter Workshop……

Throughout the next few posts, I will share my experiences at the writing workshops I’ve attended this year. (Spoiler alert – they were all really good and if you are a writer, you’ll want to know about each one.) I started off the year at the fabulous Tin House Winter Workshop. It was held at the end of January 2014 in a small town called Sylvia Beach on the Oregon Coast.

Imagine going here…

The Sylvia Beach Hotel

The Sylvia Beach Hotel

Where each room is decorated for a different author…

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_029

Dr. Seuss room

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_037

Emily Dickenson room. I was worried the room might be haunted. But no ghosts appeared or disappeared.

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_035

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_032

Mark Twain room. It had a fireplace and a terrific view. A workshop leader got this room. 😉

And this is your view every.single.day…

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_064 2014_02_01_tin house_EW_099 2014_02_01_tin house_EW_119

And a super sweet cat roams the halls…and your room, if you let her (if cats are a no-go, you can just keep your door closed). But she is so smooshy and sweet…

2014_02_01_tin house_EW_157

And learning the craft of writing from Whitney Otto (How to Make an American Quilt, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, Now You See Her), Vanessa Veselka (ZAZEN, The Truck Stop Killer in Best American Essays), and Jon Raymond (Rain Dragon, The Half-Life)…

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_096

All hosted by the talented and gracious Tin House folks who also shared their insights on writing and publishing and karaoke…

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_074

Lance welcoming us – not doing karaoke.

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_012 2014_02_01_tin house_EW_130 lance cheston

You even get to see the Tin House office space where all the magic happens…

2014_01_31_tin house_EW_001 2014_01_31_tin house_EW_009 2014_01_31_tin house_EW_013

Yes, you might just think you’ve done died and gone to writers heaven, where muses sprinkle glitter out of magic pencils and writers block has been abolished because it’s been deemed too cruel a punishment for the creative mind to endure. Ah, yes, heaven indeed.

Tin House accepted 18 writers for the workshop out of 200+ applications. (The great news is that this year there will be two workshops – one fiction, one non-fiction – so 36 spots.) Yes, lucky me. But the real message here is polish, polish, polish before you apply. And then maybe polish one more time. Then set it aside for 3 days, and polish again. Rinse, repeat. Then apply.

The workshop was three days – workshops in the morning, panels/craft lectures in the afternoon. Each workshop group had only 6 writers – yes, that is beyond fantastic! We critiqued two manuscripts in each session, so each writer got about an hour and a half of dedicated individual attention and every participant provided written feedback, as did the workshop leader. The writing was top-notch and the participants were careful readers who offered tremendous insight into each piece. (My workshop leader was Whitney Otto – she was a very wise choice.)

One of the real benefits of workshops is that you get to analyze writing that is not your own. I tend to learn at least as much from the discussion of other writers works as I do from the discussion of my own. I’m not invested in their writing the same way I am invested in my own story and can see it as it truly is, not as it was intended to be.

Because it happened to me (no one else, just me), I will share a little bitty lessons-learned with you. So, if you want, you can meet at the Tin House office (yes, please) and ride with the other workshop participants to the hotel. If I remember correctly, it’s just under 2 hours. You do not need a car while at the workshop so this is a really great option.

Unless, that is, unless, you are someone who might get a tad nauseous in a warmish van filled with excited writers journeying up a curvy mountain road.

Ahem.

Maybe that was me. Perhaps I should have sat in the front seat. Undoubtedly I should have taken dramamine or at least TUMS, before–yes before–I got nauseous.

I started feeling cruddy and rested my head on the seat in front of me and the other riders started to worry and asked repeatedly if I was ok, which was very nice but when I raised my head to answer…well, let’s just say that probably didn’t help. 😉 I thought I could make it–until I finally realized I simply.could.not.make.it.one.more.curvy.turn and asked the driver to pull over.

But he couldn’t do that immediately. What? I hear ya. Excuse me?

Well, you see, the road is narrow (and curvy) without much of a pull off shoulder because it happens to be on.the.side.of.a.mountain. and there.wasn’t.a.lot.of.room. Whatever. This is a case where poor planning on my part does happen to constitute an emergency on your part. So Sorry.

The good news is that the driver was able to pull over quickly enough and I was able to dash out to the back of the van and lighten my nauseous load. The bad news is that the editors from Tin House and the workshop coordinator were driving by us just as I got sick. So much for fabulous first impressions. Ergh.

The best part of the story is that we were about 2 miles from Sylvia Beach when I got sick. Two minutes longer and I could have totally saved face. Oh well. Luckily, we all laughed about it later. The Tin House folks are gracious people and let me live it down (relatively) quickly.

Back to the workshop. Did I mention it was fabulous? Well it was.

Here are a few tidbits from what we learned:

– Tin House is a top-tier literary magazine–wait, we knew that already–but they reinforced that belief over and over again. Even though they have every right to be literary snobs, the people who work there are approachable, talented, knowledgeable, and supportive.

– If you want to be published in a journal, get to know the magazine–support it by subscribing to it, reading it, and sharing it with your writing community. But most importantly, get to know what kind of stories they publish.

– Don’t worry about what the story is trying to mean – you’ll see that at the end. And if you are lucky it will mean different things to different people.

– Be careful that multiple POV characters aren’t just telling the same exact story over and over. Each POV must move the story forward and reveal something new.

– Writing should feel a little out of control and not too neat. You can write the life out of something and make it feel dead on the page.

– Most professional writers are very open to editing. Not being willing to edit something you’ve written might will make you look like an amateur.

– Authorative voice is what the writer takes with her from piece to piece. The story varies but the authority remains.

– Narrative voice is the charisma on the page.

– If a story feels stuck about 1/3 of the way through, the writer might be relying too heavily on voice.

– Fiction allows the writer to take something private and make it public.

– We also learned about the fabulous essay by Betty Flowers called Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process

At these types of workshops, books are always a big topic of discussion. Some of the book recommendations that came out of this workshop are (I’ve not read all of these, so I cannot testify to how good they are but these were some smart readers, so there you go)

Of course any of the books listed above by the workshop leaders
Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (one of my favorite books ever)
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (very good)
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton
Telling by Marion Winik
Old School by Tobias Wolff
The Tenth of December by George Saunders

So there you have it – the Tin House Winter Workshop. Information about the 2015 workshop will be on the Tin House site sometime in September.  Tin House also hosts a summer workshop. Awesomesauce!

 

 

 

 

‘The great workshop roundup…….

I’ve spent a good part of this year attending some of the best writing workshops in the country. I affectionately refer to this year as the “year of Ellen.” It’s been amazing!

Over the next few posts I will share where I have been and (some of) what I have learned. I would love to tell you every single little detail – but I won’t be able to capture all of it. There is nothing like being there in person – writing, reading, critiquing, breathing in words. Ahhhh.

One of the best things I learned was this….

You don’t have to be published to be a writer. You have to write to be a writer. Afterall, you can’t become published without writing first.

Ahhhh, that’s a refreshing reminder. Yes, you are in fact a writer, if you are writing. Boom.

The first workshop on the list is the Tin House Winter Workshop. What a fabulous way to start off the year! Look for those delicious details in the next post!

The rest of the posts can be found by clicking these links…

Woodbridge Writers Retreat
Yale Writers’ Conference, Part I
Yale Writers’ Conference, Part 2

The Art of the Story with Tom Jenks of Narrative

 

Write.every.day. Write.something.every.day….

Writers hear this advice over and over again. Then we create excuses why we can’t–beautiful excuses filled with empty air and hyperbole and then promises to ourselves to do better.

Samuel Beckett says “fail better” but if you aren’t trying, you can’t fail. I guess you can fail to try but you’ll never get better at that.

Today is my promise to myself to fail better and then hopefully succeed.

If you are also a writer–or a person with a passion–come along, fail better with me.

A chance to write a story with One Story’s Hannah Tinti

In this week-long course, under the guidance of One Story’s own editor in chief Hannah Tinti, you’ll build a short story from scratch, learning the ins and outs of storytelling structure along the way. New lessons—in video or text—will be shared daily, but exercises can be done on your own time, and an active message board will allow you to communicate with fellow students and ask questions. For complete details and to register, visit www.one-story.com (look under “events” and then “online classes”).

This is an amazing opportunity to learn from one of the best editors in the business!

One Story’s Debutante Ball…..

One Story is a top-tier literary journal celebrating the best in short stories, novel excepts, confettiand stories for teens (One Teen Story). Once a year, they celebrate the authors coming out with a debut novel who have appeared in their journal  – it’s a big arse Brooklyn-style party and tickets are selling fast.

Not only does this party sound super fun, but the One Story folks are some of the nicest, most accessible people I have met. This an amazing opportunity to have a blast while meeting some of the most influential people in the literary world. Wowza!

The Ball is being held on Thursday, May 22nd, at the Roulette in Brooklyn from 7p – 11p.

The authors being celebrated are….

Tickets can be purchased here – but hurry! 😎

And some pictures from past events can be seen here – just so you have an idea of what to wear. You’re welcome.

Hope to see you there!

Grammarly….

I’m back with another review. This time it’s for Grammarly – an editorial program. (Just as an FYI, I was not compensated for this review – other than being given a free two-week trial to test things out. Otherwise…ahem…no review because how would I know if it works.)

This is actually a pretty cool program. You upload or cut/paste a document into Grammarly and it analyzes it for you, giving you feedback in a number of areas, like:

  • spelling
  • passive voice
  • commonly confused words
  • split infinitives
  • vocabulary use
  • capitalization
  • verb use/tense
  • confusing modifiers
  • split infinitives
  • wordiness

This is an excellent program for reaching beyond spell check and evaluating the basics of writing. It catches those supposedly simple mistakes that we all make.

A huge bonus is that it can also evaluate your text for plagiarism. This is a terrific feature because not only does it tell you if your text matches other text, it also gives you 3 different formats for citing your sources. The text I used had a quote from the internet and Grammarly found it and formatted the MLA, APA, and Chicago Style Manual citations for me. (Seriously, where was this little gem when I was in college?)

As you might imagine, there are some limitations of the program because it is, after all, a computer program and it can’t have a sense of voice or understand creativity in sentence structure. But it is a very valuable second set of eyes to catch the mistakes we as writers/students don’t see because, when we edit ourselves, we tend to see what is supposed to be there rather than what is there.

Here is a screen shot of their sample document.

Screenshot 2013-10-25 06.30.54

It’s great to have all of these tools in one place.

So now, you are probably wondering how much it costs. Here’s the breakdown from their FAQ page…

Grammarly offers a seven-day free trial, as well as the following subscription plans:

  • Monthly – $29.95
  • Quarterly – $59.95
  • Annual – $139.95

Grammarly also offers enterprise subscriptions for bulk users in K-12, higher education, enterprises and government.

You do have to enter a credit card number for the free trial and your subscription will start automatically (and your credit card will be charged) on the 7th day, unless you cancel your subscription before then.

It’s a little pricey but would quickly prove a valuable resource for students and writers. Go check it out – www.Grammarly.com.

 

Those people…..

by Ellen Weeren
@EllenWeeren

I just read this post by Seth Godin about “those people”. window washer car wash

If you aren’t familiar with the name, Seth is a guru of sorts on everything “thinking”. And that’s just what his posts do – they encourage you to think about things. And the posts are generally short, so they don’t hurt your brain too much. 😉

Seth’s latest post reminded me of a man I saw at the car wash the other day – in fact, that man has been on my mind a lot lately. I had thought about writing about him – but never took the time to do it.

Seth’s post reminded me that I should give this man his due.

A few weeks ago, I had my kids take all of their stuff out of the minivan so that I could drive it over to the car wash and pay $50 to have it cleaned, vacuumed, and spit shined.

And, please don’t even ask – of course, they were bothered by having to remove all of their c.r.a.p. so that I could pay someone else to clean up their mess.

Their shoes, their trash, and their basketballs (oh how I hate those basketballs clanking around in my car) … and I couldn’t reach the van-cleaning fairy … so they actually had to get off their arses and get their stuff out of the car so that I could spend an hour watching someone clean it for them.  And yes, I might have yelled out something just like that right before they leaped into action.

Maybe.

Probably.

Okay, I did.

Anywash, I got to the car wash and paid for the super clean option because that’s exactly what it needed – a super cleaning.

This option takes a while so I brought a book with me. I sat on a bench in the warmth of the sun with a cold Diet Dr. Pepper and read while my car was being cleaned. (And no, the irony is not lost on me here. I get it.)

One of the washers caught my attention and I lost all interest in the words in front of me.

He was absolutely fascinating. He cleaned my car with all the pride of ownership. As if he had saved for months for just that very car. Like it was a special car. He was even smiling while cleaning up someone else’s mess.

He’d polish a spot, lean back, and clean it again.

The window, that would have taken me all of a minute and a half, consumed a good eight minutes of his focused attention. This was not a “oh, if I take longer, I’ll have to do less” situation. It was very clearly a “this is my job and I’m going to be the very best at it I can be” situation.

He’d clean the back area of the car and then close the hatch. But, then he’d open the hatch again and double check – just to make sure everything was clean.

It seemed like he did this for every crevice he came across.

I’m sure I was sitting there like a fool with my mouth agape.

My doctor probably isn’t even that precise.

Now, I haven’t applied for a job at a car wash lately – but this guy can’t make more than say $12 an hour.

And it struck me how unfair this all really is. My kids were sitting at home on their arses with a litany of opportunities waiting before them (many that they can’t be bothered with) and this guy is busting his arse with probably not that many options.

To be fair to my kids, they do work hard too.

But not the way this guy does. They don’t have that kind of pride in the mundane things they do – heck, they don’t do too many mundane things.

I’m not really sure how all of this will change but imagine what that guy could accomplish with more responsibility and more opportunities.

It’s heart-breaking that he might not have the chance to do anything more than clean a window.

Some great writing articles…

I don’t think I’ve ever written a “best of” post, so here goes.writing pig

There have been some fabulouso writing articles on the web recently and I’m gonna share ’em – just in case you missed ’em.

A Simple Way to Create Suspense by Lee Child at the New York Times.

How to Keep a Story on Track by Lisa Cron on Writer UnBoxed.

A Simple Approach to Revisions by Cathy Yardley on Writer UnBoxed.

The Mentor/Mentee Benefit by Vaughn Roycroft also on Writer UnBoxed. (This is an older article, but a good one.)

That’s it for now. Happy Weekend!

Expat Blog Awards….

This is kind of exciting.

I’ve been nominated for the Expat Blog Awards for my writing about living in India.

If you have a second, please vote for me by leaving a comment here…
http://www.expatsblog.com/blogs/466/a-reason-to-write

Thanks!