Friday, May 29, 2020

Unexpected "Container" in an Award-Winning Novel: An Interview with Ginger Eager

Not just because she's a generous, insightful member of my monthly writer's group.  Not just because her book won the coveted AWP award for the first novel. I fell in love with Ginger Eager's The Nature of Remains for the strong female characters and the unique place she writes about.  

Not unusual for a Southern novelist to be enamored with place.  Ginger Eager comes from Georgia and she set her novel in the fictional Georgia town of Flyshoals, but the larger setting of the book is its geological history.  The soil in that part of Georgia is riddled with amethysts.  The Nature of Remainsis about the people who circle that geological wealth, both the criminals who dig and sell it, and the families affected by their passion.  

I was immediately pulled into the structure of this novel.  Eager alternates timelines--the 1950s, when a chain of tragic events started, and 2009, when the main character, Doreen, is faced with a complex problem she never anticipated.  Her only son, Jonathan, becomes estranged from his family and gets involved with a crazy preacher who digs the amethysts.  For the men in the novel, life spirals downhill fairly quickly.  It's the female characters that pull themselves up and create unexpected lives from the chaos.  

Doreen fascinated me.  She travels through the novel, pulled between three conflicts:  the decline of her only son, Jonathan, as his marriage falls apart; changes in her long-time affair with her boss, Bird, as his wife becomes terminal; and her own realization that she needs to take radical steps and leave both of them to insure her own financial and emotional future.  Eager has character and conflict nailed.

But even more, the container, the culture of the town, with its geology and crystal crime, is what makes the novel superior in my view. 

Container is a term I coined after years of feeling unsatisfied with "setting" to describe atmosphere, culture, the elements beyond scenery.  Video here.  Container is the environment of the story, the vessel where characters and events grow and change, because, as we all know, story doesn't happen in a vacuum.  People try to overcome their backstories while living in the container of their present lives, the place that marks them.  

Eudora Welty describes it well in this article from BrainPickings, the intricacies of writing about place and why it's essential in good literature.  

So how did Eager get interested in this aspect of place, the idea of crystal crime?  How did she get the idea of placing these throughout the book in short intermezzos? 

Here's what she told me:
"We are born 'trailing clouds of Glory,' as Wordsworth wrote, but we are born into a self-hood. We are born into a particular body, in a particular family, in a particular place and time. DNA is affected by trauma. Our lived experiences further train us, like rat labs, to trust or distrust. Certain of our habits are adopted by our children, who may pass them on to theirs.
"It takes so long for change to happen-in a society, in a family line, in a single human life. This is what I hoped to convey through the crystal metaphor. I'm not sure that I believe in actual reincarnation, but I fully believe in the metaphor of it.
"As a structural device, the geology sections divide the novel into thirds: orogeny, crystallization, and weathering. The sections loosely translate to plot development. The novel opens with a period of heat and pressure, there follows a period of cooling, and then all of the secrets are exposed."
One of the main places in the story is an abandoned farmhouse.  Eager had gone with a friend to look at a farmhouse for sale in the "inarguable" heat of August. The owner had told her there were tenants in the process of moving out. But instead they encountered squatters who threatened them.  Evidently the owner had been unable to get the squatters out of the house.
Eager says, "The theory that there should be no homeless because there are enough homes for all feels morally right to me. But what does this look like in practice? What does this look like in a deeply rural area where the social safety net may be only what your friends and family are able and willing to provide? A home--only a home--is never enough.I kept thinking of that woman [the squatter who confronted them], and wondering how she'd ended up in the situation in which we found her.
"The first scene I wrote occurs near the end of the novel. Doreen, the protagonist, goes to help her son who has lost so much he is now squatting in a house much like the one I encountered with my friend. I thought I wrote a short story, but the characters haunted me, and soon I was working backward, writing the story that preceded the event."
If I were going to storyboard this novel, I'd be working with three threads:  the geological information, Bird's youth, and the present time storyline with Doreen, her son, and Bird. Fascinating, but not so unusual, to hear that Eager wrote that first scene with the image, the container, that spoke to her so strongly, then worked backwards.  That first scene, she told me, occurs about three-quarters of the way through Doreen's storyline in the published book.  
"At first," she says, "I tried to fit the events from 1958-1959 into flashbacks. I wrote the novel in close third person, which is similar to first person in terms of the information that a single character can know. There was information I needed to give the reader about Bird's past that Doreen wouldn't possess. Bird would know the information, but he couldn't convey it properly as his present day self. Bird is a Marxton, a member of one of the founding families of Flyshoals, and he has been told since he was a boy to maintain the family name. This can mean many things. For the Marxtons, this has meant maintaining wealth and power even when to do so required hurting others or suppressing information.
"As a teenager, Bird saw this family patterning and questioned it. He was a young man in the small town South at the start of the Civil Rights movement. There was a chance that he could be changed by a world that was changing. But then he suffers a tragedy, and he can either handle this tragedy in a way that alienates him forever from his family, or he can handle it in a way that inextricably links him to his family through shared lies and misdeeds.
"Bird chooses to stay tight in the bosom of his family. By 2009, the time of the present day narrative, he is a man so blinded by a lifetime of privilege and power that there is little hope he could tell a reader of the tragedy his seventeen-year-old self experienced in the way the narrative needs him to. The reader must experience Bird as that terrified boy being asked to choose between the known and the unknown. When we meet Bird in 2009, he's mostly a coward, but for a period of time in his youth he was not. For a period of time, he was brave. Then something scary happened, and he chose cowardice, and it damaged him forever."

Before the manuscript was complete, even after Doreen and Bird's stories satisfied her and the places were strong on the page, Eager added a third point-of-view character, Jonathan's wife Lexie.  "My writing group insisted upon these chapters," she says, "and I'm glad they did. The novel needed them, but they were the hardest for me to write. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty I was in an abusive relationship, and it was this relationship that I used as a model for the relationship between Jonathan and Lexie. I don't like thinking about that part of my life, and when I began to write the Lexie chapters, I realized there was a lot I didn't understand about my experience. I went to therapy for the first time, and I came to understand the long-term impact of sustained terror upon the body. I hope whatever wisdom I gained in doing the self-work required to write the Lexie chapters comes through in the work."

Often writers who are skilled at writing place, or container, as Eager is, fall down on plot or character.  Eager aces all three.  I'm not surprised this novel won the AWP award last year.  It was released this spring and can be purchased online at Charis Books.  You can also visit Eager's website to see more.  

As to what she hopes from the novel, Eager added, "I hope readers question societal structures as they read the book. I hope they think about gender and class and race. I hope they consider the ways they are bound and the ways they are free. I hope they think about whom they help to liberate and whom they help to oppress. I hope they translate the micro to the macro."

Friday, May 22, 2020

Using the Enneagram's 9 Personality Types to Create Vivid Characters in Fiction and Memoir

No one likes to be categorized or typecast, but when it comes to creating vivid characters on the page, I find the personality system of the Enneagram a life saver.

Twenty-some years ago, when I first began studying this system, not many people knew about it.  It had no huge institutes or psychologists tooting it, as it does now.  It was Greek and new age, a little odd.  My introduction was through Eli Jaxon-Bear, whose book, From Fixation to Freedompromoted an Eastern approach that appealed to me.  Later I discovered the more Western approach  used like Myers-Briggs typing and promoted by Don Riso and Russ Hudson in their Enneagram Institute.  

Friday, May 15, 2020

Unexpected Blessings of Writing by Hand: What Other Writers Find in Their Handwriting That's Not on Their Computer

Do you know "BrainPickings," the online newsletter/digest put together by Maria Popova?  (If you don't, it's worth a look.)  Popova recently wrote about her favorite books from 2019 and one was by the poet Ross Gay, called The Book of Delights.  In this article, Popova discusses Ross Gay's enjoyment of writing by hand, something not usual to writers in this super-fast electronic era.  

Writing by hand is slow, thoughts can come faster than they can be scribed.  But I read about more and more writers who swear by the practice.  Either for early drafts, sketching out ideas, even revision.

A colleague in this club tells me her handwritten scenes always contain unexpected blessings--ideas she would never have encountered otherwise.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Creative Resistance to Hard Times--Guest Blog by Author Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Ellen Prentiss Campbell's Known By Heart: Collected Stories, appeared May 1 (Apprentice House Press). In 2016 her debut novel The Bowl with Gold Seams(Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction) and her story collection Contents Under Pressure (National Book Award nominee) were published. Ellen's home in Washington D.C., hosting an online book group for children, writing essays, reading War and Peace and mysteries, and making soup. 

I've invited her to share her view on creativity and Covid times, as her new book launches.  

Looking back, we see the signs. It was coming for us, not reserved for others, not restricted to Over There. But denial is a powerful force. The pandemic arrived stealthily, catching most of us absorbed in routine. Startling us, kidnapping us, blowing away our routine, our assumptions, our plans. The lights went out on Broadway; the stay-at-home mandates swept across the land. Even if we were lucky and healthy, we were hostages, grieving lost expectations, fearful, and uncertain.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Refining Your Writing Space for Sheltering at Home

One of my favorite writing treats when life seemed normal was an afternoon at our local coffee shop. Surrounded by a dozen others, all plugged into their laptops and earbuds, we wrote.  Sun came in the big windows, I sank into my leather chair, and I sipped a new choice of tea in the coffee shop's huge mugs.   
I wrote at home too, when my family was out of the house.  But mostly at the coffee shop.  I was insanely productive there, even with the music and crowd and cramped space.

Then my coffee shop went to take-out only. For the first month of Covid life, my writing stalled completely, so I didn't even miss the coffee shop.  After a month, I began missing my story. But where to write? 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Ways to Inch Back into Writing--If You've Stalled Out (Some Good Habits to Test Out during a Pandemic)

I subscribe to Jane Friedman's excellent newsletter and the recent article, "Writing from the Bottom Rung." by guest writer Lisa Cooper Ellison hit home (if the link doesn't work, go to her website and search her blog for that title).  

Jane discussed Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the bottom rung is food, shelter, and warmth, the top is self-actualization, where creativity happens.  

Like many of us, she hasn't been writing either.  She reasoned it out:  If the bottom rung is where we are living during this pandemic, then we can't expect to support a productive writing habit.

Make sure that rung is strong enough to support your weight, Jane advised, before trying to move up.  

Friday, April 17, 2020

Online Connection--How to Find Your Virtual Writing Tribe While Sheltering at Home

One of my students emailed me this week with a good question.  He's been part of a writing group and loved the social and creative time.  But now that he's sheltering from home, he wondered what else was available for writers?

So I'm running a past post this week, sharing my tips on how to find your virtual tribe.  Hope they are helpful to those of you self-isolating and looking for writerly companionship.


Nikki, who travels a lot, took one of my writing workshops and recently emailed me with a great question:  how do you find a writing group or writing partner when you can't physically meet regularly?

Friday, April 10, 2020

Making Time for Writing When You Have Nothing to Do

Last week I taught my first Zoom class to five writers from across the U.S. when our weeklong retreat in Santa Fe was cancelled thanks to Covid.  Two were working on memoirs, two on novels, all in progress.  Each day, we gathered to learn and inspire each other virtually.  I read their writing and offered feedback.  They were patient as I practiced intricacies of teaching remotely.  I think we all learned a lot.

Our final Zoom meeting was especially heart-opening.  We talked about our lives and our writing during this pandemic.  How a retreat away from "life" gave time and space to really sink in.  But writing while living maybe gave us practice at fitting writing into each day.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Three Practices to Keep Creatively Healthy Right Now

I'm back to writing this week.  You may not be, yet.  I've heard from a steady stream of students and coaching clients and many are still stalled out, unable to resume a book project.  Life in its new normal demands ridiculous amounts of time.  A recent foray to shop for produce took five hours out of my day, given the protective gear, the controlled shopping experience, the time to clean everything when I got home.

It's understandable, too, that fear for self, family, friends, the world can prevent any creativity.  Who has time or energy for it?  And is it really that important, in the face of all that's happening?

Three Different Storyboards to Map Your Book's Structure

I love the random approach to writing a book (islands, a term coined by Kenneth Atchity in Write Time, appeal to me most).  

Storyboards, however, keep me honest.  

They tell me when that random writing has veered too far off my book's purpose. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Writing in Uncertain Times--A Few Thoughts on the Gift of a Writing Practice Right Now

I looked back in my journal this morning and was struck again at how fast everything has happened.  Like most of you, I've been trying to adapt to a new normal, trying to manage my concern about family and friends, trying to get sleep and outdoor time and some modicum of peace amidst the prevailing anxiety. 

A long-time student wrote me today. She's working on her second book; her first came out last year.  But she's been completely stalled these past weeks, no writing possible. She asked for any thoughts or tips I could share on keeping the writing going during these uncertain times. 

Interview Your Characters: Character Lists Coax Them Out of Hiding

In one of my favorite, easy-read, writing-craft books, Write Away, mystery author Elizabeth George talks about her writing process as she begins a new book.  She first writes detailed ideas about the plot.  She also researches the setting, often with trips to the location she's thinking of using.  And she always puts together a character list.

I didn't know what she meant by character list, but I soon found out they consist of many pages of stream-of-consciousness ideas about each main player in her book.  If you read Write Away (highly recommend), you'll see an example from her novel, In the Presence of the Enemy.  She shows the entire character list for one of her main characters, Eve Bowen.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Are We There Yet? How to Tell When Your Book Is Really Done

Each book I write, I struggle with this question.  And I'm not alone.  Even with many publications behind me, it's incredibly difficult to tell when a book is really done.  

There is an end point.  Truly.  Part subjective, part objective. But it can be confusing or depressing en route to that place.  One of my students recently questioned whether her book could ever be ready. "Some ideas may not be worth the effort or the money," she told me.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Benefits of a Writing Group or Writing Partner--How They Can Improve Your Writing (and What to Watch Out For)

Some writers create in a vacuum.  But most artistic types need human contact, if only for reality checks.  Writing groups and writing partners have been a foundation for my creative life for decades.  If you don't belong to such a collaboration, consider it!  It's nearly impossible to make serious headway as a writer without constructive feedback.

This morning, I met with one group of collaborators--all published, all dedicated in our different genres.  We meet by conference call once a month and two of the four writers workshop their essays or chapters.  The writer stays in the "writing box" during the call, taking notes and keeping silent, while the three others share feedback on the piece, read before the meeting.  I always come away with much to ponder, excellent ideas for improvement, and vast encouragement.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Reading Your Writing Aloud--How It Gives You the Necessary Distance for Revision

Revising a book requires distance.  Ideally, the writer has to detach enough from the emotional content of the writing, or the love of her characters, to "hear" the story as a reader would.  

Revising without this distance usually means we repeat ourselves.  We run the same track over and over.  

Maybe words get tweaked.  But  the overall sense of the story doesn't change that much.

I needed to revise a new chapter to send my writing partner this week.  I tweaked words, I adjusted sentences, but I could tell I was running that familiar track of what I already knew.  Something wasn't singing yet.  I also (sheepishly) knew there were scenes not holding their weight, which I kept because I liked them.  My chapter, after all, right?

Friday, February 21, 2020

Staying Authentic with Your Intentions as a Writer--Not Always Easy?

I had a very lucky and much too fast beginning as a published author.  My first book, now long out of print, was a huge success--the press's best seller and winner of a prestigious award.  I was in my twenties, busy with a new  relationship and a new business, and fairly ignorant about what was happening.  It was just a fast train, I was on it, and I didn't know the writing life could be any different.  That first book landed me an agent who helped me with several others.  Out of it came a nationally syndicated column and good income for a number of years.

Some writers fall into success.  That's not to say we don't work hard, but the ride we're on might not align completely with our deepest intentions.  I was too young, truthfully, to care back then.  

Friday, February 14, 2020

Really Good Creative Writing Prompts--for Exercising Your Inner Author

This week I've been teaching on retreat at MISA West, Tanque Verde Ranch, in the beautiful Rincon Mountains outside Tucson. Along with the workshops and coaching each day, I always offer creativity-stretching sessions before dinner. A perennial favorite at these retreats is freewriting hour.  

We gather before dinner to write from selected prompts.  Each gets ten minutes, and writers are encouraged to let the flow take them wherever it will.  Sometimes, the best ideas come from freewrites.  Even whole books can be born from a single freewrite.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Setting Writing Goals for the New Year: Three Different Approaches

I'm a goal setter by nature, so I enjoy the chance each new year to look at what I've accomplished in the past twelve months and think about where I'd like to be with my writing in the next twelve.  I've learned not to be too rigid with my writing goals: I don't know what I don't know, after all, and I may need to correct my direction if new ideas or information arrives midcourse.  

First thing in January is traditional for review and goal setting, but it usually takes me until February to really get a sense of what I want for the year.

This year I have a book with an agent, trying to find its home; another that's going to be re-released in a second edition; and a third in revision.  I sat down this week and envisioned what I wanted from each this year. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Too Slow? Too Fast? How Are You Communicating? (And How to Tell When Your Pacing Is Off)

Storytelling is all about communication, right? You, the writer, have something to say. Ideally, you present it in a way that's authentic to you but also communicates to your readers exactly the meaning you're after. 

If you "talk" your story too fast, readers can miss the point.  Just like in real conversation, they may start to get confused or irritated, or disconnect entirely.

If you "talk" too slow, same problem.  They'll skip sections.  Ever do this yourself, when reading?  You know what I mean.

So skilled writers (communicators on the page) find a "pace" that fits their stories.  When the scene is tense, the pace speeds up.  When we're absorbing meaning, it might slow down.

Friday, January 24, 2020

How to Help Your Manuscript Submission Stand Out--Being Part of a "Discourse Community"

I often refer clients and students to Jane Friedman, clearly one of the most savvy publishing gurus out there today.  Friedman is the former publisher of Writer's Digest magazine, and author of The Business of Being a Writer, a primer on publishing that every hopeful author needs to read.

Friday, January 17, 2020

A Cool Character-Building Exercise from Comic-Artist Lynda Barry

January is often a good time to shake up the writing routine, examine different ways of approaching recurring problems in your book, get inspiration from those who bust the barrier, which is why last week's post from Mo Willems got me thinking about publishing in a new way.

This week, I'd like to welcome Lynda Barry, who has a cool idea about character development.  Check out this link from Lit Hub (if it doesn't work, go to and search for her name). 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Best-Selling Children's Book Author Shares How He Busted Tradition and Won Anyway

Winner of three Caldecott Medals (the best win in kid lit), Mo Willems was rejected some billion times (his words) by publishers who said his work was "too unusual."  Listen or read this interview from PBS on how he kept his belief in his creative work and broke through the barrier.  Lots of great insights on putting creativity and joy into your work.