Get Out to Lean In Takeaways from CWC 2016

Chicago Writers Conference

This week we turned our blog over to CWC2016 attendee Ellen T. McKnight, a fiction writer published in literary journals and currently at work on a novel. She teaches writing workshops and hosts a blog about writing called Connecting through Story. Follow her on Twitter @EllenTMcKnight.


Like many of you, I’d rather be closeted away with my writing than do just about anything else. But the kind of inner life that drives good writing isn’t always compatible with the extroversion required of writers these days. The idea of self-promotion makes us wince. We need help to understand how the inner and outer aspects of writing fit together. This year’s Chicago Writers Conference was a great reminder of the importance of putting ourselves out there.

For more of my guest post on the CWC blog, please click here.

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Tech Tips for Writers

My computer started to show its age recently, stiffening up like Tin Man in the rain. I enjoy writing longhand – pen on paper has its own special feel for writers – but I soon realized that I missed more than the quickness of keyboarding.

I’ve come to depend on how technology brings the world to my desk.

1. World building

The concept of world building is most often associated with science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction, but all novels benefit from a strong sense of place. Visiting the locations in which we set our scenes helps us discover the details that make them distinctive. An in-person visit is ideal, but not always practical. Two shortcuts that I find especially useful are exploring “Street View” with the yellow Pegman on Google Maps and searching under “Images” on Google.

If you’re not acquainted with Pegman, he’s in the lower right corner of the Google Maps screen. Just drag and drop him to the spot you want to see. You can use the arrows on the side to rotate your view and arrows on the image itself to move forward, sometimes even inside. For my recent novel, I needed to find an isolated location in Idaho. After a couple of hours with Pegman, I came up with my setting and language: “An open sky and railway tracks, a Phillips 66 gas station, a string of power lines, some low concrete buildings, scrubby trees in the distance, a horizon so flat you could see nothing for miles. Desolate, like something in an old Hitchcock movie. A trap that didn’t need walls.” None of that came to me until I saw that place on the screen.

A search under “Images” unlocks a gold mine of photos from all over the planet. I wanted to see how Munich looked at night for a short story: no problem. I found hundreds of photos with just a few clicks. An exclusive nightclub in Chicago? I couldn’t have gotten past the bouncer in person, but countless partiers had helpfully uploaded their selfies with plenty of background content. The images on Street View are static, but the photos here can show a whole range of situations (different times of day, number of people, and so forth).

2. Capturing character

Years ago, a writing teacher advised me to keep a collection of faces from magazines for character studies and story prompts. I soon discovered that magazines take far too narrow a view of who merits a  photo. Smart phones can help us collect faces from life. As long as you’re simply using them to inform your writing, and not for publication or commercial purposes, you’re allowed to take pictures of strangers in public. I’d advise discretion, but smart phones are good for that: you don’t stand out like someone with a 35 mm camera and telephoto lens.

In addition, you can use the video feature on your smart phone to catch conversations in public, such as on a bus where people might reasonably expect to be overheard. Transcribing how people actually speak to one another can help writers get a better feel for dialogue. Of course, in the end, you’ll want to use your own words. We’re talking about ways to inspire and grow your writing, not replace it.

Searching under “Images” can also help with finding characters and describing facial expressions. Not sure what happens to a woman’s face when she’s bored? Search “bored woman” under “Images” and you’ll see. You’ll still need to come up with original words to describe it, but at least you’ll have a concrete place to start.

3. Researching on the fly

All of us rely on our computers and smart phones for research these days. When was the last time you tackled the card catalogue at the library to read up on a topic for your book? Jonathan Franzen is known for working away from his computer, but many writers intersperse writing with quick searches, on everything from what is really meant by a panic attack to the right synonym for an overused word. My advice here is to open up a new window for research. Don’t be tempted by having tabs open to email or social media on the same screen. At the end of each session, you can save your research tabs as a group, by right-clicking one of the tabs and scrolling down to “Bookmark all tabs.” I’d also suggest turning off the push notifications for your email and other apps, so they don’t distract you. The trick, as always, is how to take advantage of technology without letting it undermine you.

Which brings me to a final caution: sometimes we all need to put convenience aside and unplug. To experience places in person, study faces with our own eyes, listen hard with nothing but our ears. How these things make us feel can be lost if we limit ourselves to a digital version of life. Technology may be able to bring the world to us, but we count on perceptive writers to step into the world.

Watchman: Cynicism or Hope

9780062409850Publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has set off controversy on two levels. For writers, the book may represent the industry at its most cynical: publishing an inferior book by a cherished author who may no longer be competent to decide her own literary legacy. Articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker have raised issues about possible manipulation, as well as about the book’s provenance. For readers, the book presents the unsettling picture that Atticus may be fundamentally racist. As writers and readers, do we greet Watchman with depressing cynicism, or is there room for hope?

Whether or not we like to hear them, Watchman tells us a few things about the business of writing. Lee is said to have written Watchman first, even though it’s set about 20 years later. An editor guided Lee to write a new book based on her flashbacks, which turned out to be excellent advice. To Kill a Mockingbird is the far stronger book. 9780060935467It was probably also a better fit for the market at that time. In other words, the editor knew what she was doing when she didn’t publish the original book. Lee’s first instincts were not without validity: her story of the disappointment of a young Southern woman in the racism of her otherwise honorable father is complex and worth telling (with some revision). But not every story worth telling is going to be supported to market. And the kind of editorial help which Lee received as an unpublished writer rarely happens anymore. Publication of Watchman also reveals that a weak book will get published if it can be turned into a publishing event. Publishing is less about art than it is about business. That’s the reality check.

At the same time, Watchman gives writers some grounds for hope. First, that they can improve – that rejection doesn’t mean they should give up. Lee went back to work and wrote an amazingly stronger book, with better drawn characters, greater tension, more compelling action, smarter dialogue and bigger heart. That editor performed a huge service in sending Lee back to her desk. But I’d like to think that Lee would have improved even without that intervention. Like many writers, she leaves clues for herself on the page – my second basis for hope. The flashback scenes in Watchman are indeed the most vivid, and in time I believe Lee would have recognized that. She has Jean Louise/Scout ask herself: “What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?” (p. 225) Writers should pay heed to the messages left by themselves. Finally, writers often start with something they need to puzzle out from their own lives, but art benefits from distance and detachment. To me, Watchman reads like an autobiographical story. Truman Capote once asserted with respect to Lee’s depiction of Boo Radley in Mockingbird, that “Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.” Watchman includes long tracks of lecture – the kind of thing real people may have to learn from, but which is boring for readers. Mockingbird is more consciously crafted. Scout learns as a result of acute observation and the events of the story, and we as readers grow in tandem with her.

The building of Scout’s conscience is where the two books come together. She, not Atticus, becomes the watchman, and she’s set on his conscience. As she herself claims, somehow she got raised right. Atticus may disappoint us in Watchman, but like other children who end up seeing more clearly than their parents, Jean Louise gives us hope. Watchman is a flawed book, especially in its ending that at times seems to undermine her stand against prejudice, and I think a younger Lee chose not to publish it on purpose. But the world we have is the world we have. My advice is to write your own story as well as you possibly can, to keep learning from others as well as from yourself, and not to give up on publishing, even as tough as it is. What if Harper Lee had given up, instead of trying harder with Mockingbird? We would all be less.