Abby Sher is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her essays and articles have also appeared in Modern Love: Tales of Love and Obsession, Behind the Bedroom Door, The New York Times, The L.A. Times, Self, Jane, Elle, Elle UK, Marie Claire, Psychology Today, The Medium, xoJane, The Frisky, Largehearted Boy, HeeB, and Redbook. Her memoir, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying was published by Scribner in October, 2009. It got a nod from Oprah and won ELLE Readers’ Prize, Chicago Tribune’s Best of 2009, and Moment Magazine’s Emerging Writers Award. Abby also wrote two young adult books, Kissing Snowflakes in 2007, and Breaking Free in 2014. She continues to perform at different theaters in New York (usually in a moustache), and is writing for TV and film.
We’re very privileged to host her as an instructor at the Pad starting late September. She will be teaching a 6 week online class on crafting the perfect personal essay starting Tuesday evening, September 30.
Abby took time out of her busy schedule to share some tips about publishing for the first time and what to expect in her upcoming class.
1. You have performed improv for Second City and ImprovOlympic and were also featured on NPR. Do you feel that a background in storytelling or improv is important in writing a riveting personal essay?
I think a background in improv is important in life, period. It helps me toss out ideas and take myself less seriously (hopefully). Even if it’s just playing some improv games or saying “Yes, and” more often. Getting to play onstage definitely changed my brain, in a good way. I definitely love crafting an essay on the page, but when I get on stage, I try to never look at anything written. I just know my beginning and my end points, and the moments in between that make me laugh. Whatever happens next is really a mystery.
2. What was your inspiration to write Breaking Free, your new book about survivors of sex-trafficking?
Honestly, I wanted to write something about anyone beside myself. I read a few survivors’ stories that blew me away, and Barron’s was looking for new topics for YA non-fiction, so I said what about trafficking survivors? Young adult non-fiction is a pretty untapped genre. So it was a real exploration – finding these incredible women, hoping they would trust me, and writing their stories in a way that young adults could really hear them. And feel not just the horrors that they had been through, but also the hope of their survival.
3. As a published memoirist for Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying, what is something you learned about publishing your experiences?
Well, it sure saves time when you’re making friends. You can just say, Yeah, I have issues. You can read about it in my book. Also, I think it’s helped me start from where I am, as opposed to rehashing the past. I already wrote it, so I can evolve from there. And it was fascinating to hear from complete strangers who’ve dealt with OCD or loss and see how we are so connected.
4. What are the most common rookie mistakes that you see new writers make?
Self-censorship! Please, please if there’s one thing I want all my students, friends, Romans and countrypeople to know it’s that the most freeing thing about writing is writing it all. Every nonsense thought, brain fart, half-dream. Write it all down. it will make sense later. The only way to push through to the real meat of a moment is to write and write and sometimes it looks like blah blah blah. I hope it does. It will become the most riveting piece if you can get to that raw blah.
5. Can you recommend any great personal essays that readers can use for inspiration?
A few of my favorites are:
“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard
“The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison
“Dentists without Borders” by David Sedaris
and then one on the art of personal essays that’s great: “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” by Phillip Lopate
6. What is something that most people don’t know about publishing articles or essays?
Hmmm, I don’t know what most people know or don’t know, but I guess one thing I didn’t know and am still learning is that it’s so important to read. That may sound ridiculous, but I always want to read and then save it for my reward at the end of the day and then fall asleep by the second paragraph. Not only is it so helpful to know what publications you want to write for and who’s saying something completely new, but it also teaches you so much about what kind of voice resonates for you.
7. What is the most valuable piece of wisdom that you wish an experienced journalist would have shared with you when you were first getting started?
There’s no right way to do this.
8. You will be teaching a 6 week online workshop on writing the personal essay from September 30 to November 4. What can we expect from your online personal essay class?
An amazing, fun, scary, wild dive into your psyche. A chance to dig into your brain, your heart, your guts and say something you’ve never said before. And at least one essay ready to be published. :)
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Abby! Catch her online class on Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay this September from the comfort of your computer!
By Cait Mylchreest
If you’re looking to craft concise, exciting, and grounded short stories, look no further than the incomparable Jim Gavin, a long-time SoCal resident and author of the new short story collection “Middle Men” (Simon & Schuster). His fiction has also appeared in a variety of well-known publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Esquire, Slice, The Mississippi Review, and ZYZZYVA. Check out his 5-week class The Real Story: A Short Story Workshop beginning October 19th or his 1-day Short Story Workshop on October 5th.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Jim to find out more about his writing process and why he thinks short stories are so cool!
1.) When did you first know writing was your passion?
I wasn’t precocious as a reader or a writer. At some point in college I stumbled on a copy of The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I took it down from a shelf because I liked the title and the cover. I didn’t know anything about Pynchon, but I stood there in the bookstore for about an hour, mesmerized by the way he captured the particular emptiness of a Sunday afternoon in Southern California. That’s when I started to pursue books on my own and my passion for reading led eventually to writing.
2.) What’s your writing process or routine like? How do you deal with writers’ block?
I wish I could say that I have a solid process and set routine, but it’s never worked like that for me. I write at weird hours, night and day, and I usually get the most work done when I’m short on time. Some weeks I’ll do more in an hour than I have in all the days combined. I don’t wait for inspiration. I sit down every day and play around with sentences, revising, trying to write a new sentence or two, but at the same time, if I’m not feeling it, I don’t force myself to write ten pages that I’m going to end up hating. A little every day is the best I can hope for.
3.) You were born right here in Southern California, so Los Angeles always plays a major role in your stories. What’s it like writing about and transforming your childhood home?
For better or worse one of my goals as a writer is to write about Southern California in such a way that all the locals I knew growing up would say, “Yeah, you got it.” I worked at a gas station for a long time and I spent many hours standing around the pumps with my fellow knuckleheads, telling stories about all the people we knew, and in some ways I’m always trying to capture that kind of voice. Los Angeles is a great place to be a writer and I feel lucky that I live here.
4.) What are some of your favorite books that have influenced your work?
Besides Pynchon, I tend to gravitate towards writers who make me laugh. Not ha ha laughs, but deep profound laughter about what it means to be human. I’m always reading Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce. I’m also inspired by a lot of great stuff that’s coming out right now. Writers like Rachel Kushner, Suzanne Rivecca, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Fountain are doing amazing things and setting the bar very high.
5.) You just published your first short story collection Middle Men. Why do you feel drawn to short stories as opposed to novels?
There’s a particular chill that goes up my spine when I come to the end of a great short story. You sit down and a half hour later the world feels like it has spun off its axis; you see the world a little differently. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that a novel can win by TKO, but a short story has to win by knockout. That gut punch is what will always draw me to short stories.
6.) What do you consider to be the most important element for a short story? Can you give us a preview of some of the things you will cover in your class?
Clarity. Clarity. Clarity. Over time I’ve found important this is paramount – if a reader is doing work on the first page, you’ve lost them. You want mystery, not confusion, and in class we will talk a lot about the importance of clarity and immediately establishing voice and authority. We will also talk about texture – writing sentences that appeal to the senses and make the reader see and feel the world you are creating.
By Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie
Eric Beetner, having published 10 crime novels and more than 60 short stories, is a veritable mystery expert. When he’s not dreaming up high-stakes, fast-paced scenarios for his characters, you can probably find him watching noir films. He’ll be teaching two classes, Writing The Suspenseful Novel (5 Wk) in Westwood and a live online class, Crime Scene Confidential: Private Eyes and Procedurals (1 Day), this Fall at Writing Pad to help you add some suspense to whatever stories you write.
We had the privilege of asking Eric a few questions about his craft.
1. How did you discover that hard-boiled detective stories were what you wanted to write? Are those the kind of books you read growing up?
Growing up, I read all over the map. Mostly stuff I borrowed from my older sister. It was through my love of film and film noir that led me to the literary heritage behind it. From there it is a short leap to Cain, Chandler and Hammett. Since then I’ve dug deeper and found writers I like even better like Cornell Woolrich, William P. McGivern, Lionel White, W.R. Burnett. I’m more drawn to noir stories about average guys and losers vs. detectives and heroes. I like my stories down in the gutter. Making unheroic characters sympathetic is really challenging, yet really rewarding as both a writer and a reader.
2. Who is your favorite crime fiction writer and why?
So unfair! Rather than call out a favorite I’ll point out the writer who I own more of than anyone else – Joe R. Lansdale. I have 33 Lansdale books (and that’s not even all of them). 31 of them are signed by Joe. He genre-hops a bit into horror and the outright bizarre, but his writing is always so evocative, so unpredictable and the voice of whatever character he is writing is so strong and singular I get lost in it. His work ethic is admirable and the sheer imagination behind his work is staggering.
3. You’ve published over 60 short stories and 10 novels. Which do you like writing better and why?
Novels are very satisfying to spend time and develop character over time, but short stories are the daily workout of the writer. Novels are the marathon. I admire brevity and an economy of words in writing, especially crime writing. Shorts give a writer a good excuse to cut away anything extraneous. Plus, shorts are a great creative palette cleanser between longer projects. It gets the juices flowing by cranking out short ideas, seeing them through to the end. Work begets work and once ideas start flowing, it’s hard to stop them.
4. What advice would you give to people trying to write their crime or detective story?
Keep the story constantly propelling forward. Don’t go off on tangents. Show, don’t tell. And be aware that your reader will be trying to second guess you more than a regular fiction reader will. Be aware that everything your character does is leading toward the next clue or next action. Readers are working hard to be one step ahead of you and if they realize you led them down a dead end with no payoff, you’ve lost their trust and you’ve lost their attention.
5. Your most recent book, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, was published as an eBook. How do you feel about eBooks as opposed to traditionally printed ones, and what is your hope for the future of publishing?
I’m fine with ebooks. I don’t read very many myself. Not that I don’t have about 100 on my iPad waiting for me. I think however people want to read I’m all for it, and I think the lower price point is a good thing.
I don’t think print books will go away. I never understand why publishers don’t give the option, especially now with print on demand. I guess I do understand from a business standpoint of not wanting to split profits with a 3rd party, but I wish publishers would start their own POD services. Seems shortsighted to me that they don’t. But I digress…
The book is one of those perfect inventions like a bicycle or a fork. You can’t really improve the basic design, but there is room for interpretation. Books will survive, even as a niche market like vinyl records today. And writers will always write. Maybe not for millions in profit anymore, but the impulse to tell a story will never vanish.
6. Which part of the writing process do you find more challenging, generating new material or editing?
Editing. Ugh. I don’t care for it. My first drafts are very clean, tightly plotted and require very little revision. (my editor at Dutton for The Devil Doesn’t Want Me said it was “the cleanest manuscript I’ve ever gotten.”) I plan ahead. I outline. I don’t rewrite, only revise slightly.
7.Can you tell us about your creative process?
I don’t recommend it to anyone else, but it works for me. I tend to think of an idea, then not write it down. If it is still with me a few days later, I think I might be onto something. Maybe I’ll jot down the basics. Then I let it stew for a few weeks, months sometimes until the characters gel and start to become clearly defined. Only then do I sit down and outline.
I keep it simple and very skeletal, but I know where my story is going. Any potential pitfalls I work out in outline, not in prose. Writing the scenes is the fun part, but I enjoy crafting the story almost as much.
8. What are the classic rookie mistakes that you see new writers make when writing mysteries?
Relying on tired tropes (the alcoholic detective, the mysterious past) and over-writing. Telling us too much all at once and not keeping the suspense, which comes from withholding information. Also if writing a detective, either amateur or pro, it’s easy to make them too passive since they are gathering information from other sources. Characters are defined by their actions so they need to DO something. They can’t be casual observers in their own story.
9. You’ll be teaching a class on how to add elements of mystery to short stories. What can students expect to learn in your class?
We’ll go over how to tell an effective story and keep the reader compelled. We will work on planning your story, outlining and plotting effectively. We’ll work on revealing character through action and setting, adding depth through character to balance the action. And we’ll work on building suspense, writing great action and writing compelling anti-heroes. Thrills, chills and kills, baby!
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Eric! Catch his classes Writing The Suspenseful Novel (5 Wk) and Crime Scene Confidential: Private Eyes and Procedurals (1 Day Online) this Fall at the Pad.
Few journalists have reported first-hand on the destruction of a democratic government in the middle of a violent military coup and lived to tell the tale. Meet award-winning writer Marc Cooper. In his early 20′s, he served as President Salvador Allende’s translator for publication and press attache. Marc narrowly escaped execution by firing squad in Chile in 1973. Since then, he’s written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Playboy, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. He’s also published three non-fiction books and his memoir on Chile, Pinochet and Me (Verso 2001), was a Los Angeles Times Best-Seller. Currently, Marc is a contributing editor for The Nation magazine, Director of Annenberg Digital News, and is a member of the full time faculty of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
We’re very privileged to host him a guest instructor at the Pad this July. He’s teaching a trio of workshops Freelance Journalism on Sunday night, July 13, a Pitch Letter Clinic on Monday night, July 14, and a Review and Interview Writing class on Sunday night, July 20!
Marc took time out of his busy schedule to share his tips for delving into a journalistic career and his views on the state of journalism today.
1. As a journalist, how do you walk the line between making a statement in your article and keeping a neutral tone for your story? Or rather, do you find that a neutral tone isn’t necessary for journalists?
The myth of neutrality is one of the great weaknesses of American legacy journalism. The objective of journalism is to be truthful, not neutral; and the truth is almost never truthful. Media theorist Jay Rosen calls the cult of neutrality “The View From Nowhere.” I much prefer journalists who are passionately engaged with their subject matter and are burning with a desire to tell their stories. This in no way obviates accuracy or attention to facts. Indeed, it sharpens it. Waterboarding, for example, is truthfully torture. To refer to it in a “he said/she said” manner is, in fact, an obfuscation of fact and a dis-service to the public.
2. You run a website called Marc Cooper’s Tweet Daily, where you share tweets written by various twitter users regarding society, politics, education, etc. How did this idea for a website come about? Additionally, how has it furthered your career as a journalist and blogger?
I have had a personal blog 2004. I find it an indispensable necessity for any working writer. The Web has turned journalism into an ongoing national, in fact global, conversation. It is vital to participate in that conversation and to create and nurture one’s voice and brand. Your brand is the only thing you have as a journalist that can never be taken away from you.
3. You’ve had an extensive career in media production. You’ve served as a documentary producer and reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, PBS Frontline and CBS News and been executive producer and host of the weekly, syndicated Radio Nation. Do you find that a background in media or audio production is important for an aspiring journalist?
Not necessarily. The conventional wisdom nowadays is that new journalists have to be a “one man band.” Certainly, the ability to work on different platforms is a plus — but not an imperative. It’s more important to have a deep seated passion for telling stories in whatever way is most comfortable for you.
4. During the 2008 presidential campaign you served as Editorial Director for the Huffington Post’s Off The Bus Project — which was a citizen journalism reporting project for the presidential campaign. For writers who don’t want to report on politics, what other venues could allow them to participate in journalism?
Back to Jay Rosen and the phrase he coined a decade ago: “those formerly known as the audience.” Millions of people everyday already participate in myriad forms of journalism without ever thinking about it. Leaving a review on Yelp or TripAdvisor, tweeting a concert, Instagramming a beach trip, or whatever, is a form of sharing information and reporting. The opportunities to generate content and to spread that content through social networks is unlimited. Have an iPhone? What sort of journalism can you NOT do with it?
5. What was the most memorable story you reported on?
Probably the 1980′s wars in Central America, principally in El Salvador and Nicaragua. I know very few reporters who worked there who did not leave with deep, lasting impressions on their psyche. Those conflicts brought you into the midst of the very best and very worst of human behavior and then, at night, you drove back to your hotel. It was surreal.
6. As an USC Annenberg School for Communication Journalism Professor of News Writing and Reporting, what do you stress to your students about the practice of journalism?
We live in a period of revolutionary transformation of journalism and media in general. It’s quite exciting. It’s like experiencing the birth of the printing press in the 15th century and imagining all the things that will be done with it in the decades to come. I stress to them that journalists no longer have a monopoly on the means of communication and that they are now shared with non professionals and citizens of all sorts. Journalism in a networked world is now a horizontal, not vertical, activity. This is a historical moment of great democratization of the media and studying journalism provides you a front row seat.
7. Not many journalists have had career experiences like you have; at age 20 you worked for the Presidential Press and Information Office in Santiago, Chile and served as translator to former Chilean president Salvador Allende until you left after the 1973 military coup. What have you learned from those experiences about the practice of journalism? What advice would you give to reporters who want to have a career abroad?
To work abroad, you must go abroad. You must learn the language, culture and history of the areas you want to report from. Indeed, this principle applies across the board when it comes to journalism. Knowing the substance of what you are reporting is much much more important than perfecting the means.
8. You’ll be teaching a query letter clinic, a freelance journalism workshop, and a class on writing interviews and reviews. What can we expect from your workshops?
You can expect me to draw on 40 years of experience, much of it is as a freelancer, to teach the most effective ways to get the attention of an editor and convince him or her to commission you to produce the story you are burning to tell. It’s half art and half science, and we will cover both ends. Interviewing? Well, I used to do Playboy interviews back when that was the premier venue for such work (5-10,000 word interviews that were based on a dozen or so hours of conversation). Here’s the teaser: great interviewing is also about the art of seduction. :)
Bob Carlson is an award winning audio producer, musician and broadcaster. He’s the host and producer of UnFictional, a weekly program of unusual stories and compelling personal documentaries airing on KCRW radio, and podcast on KCRW.com. During his long career at KCRW, he served as director of production and shaped the station’s unique sound as a music engineer, DJ and radio drama creator. His work has also been heard on NPR, the BBC and many other places. We’re very privileged to have Bob teaching “Radio Storytelling: A Recorded Storytelling Workshop” at the Pad starting July 14nd!
Bob took time out to talk to us about his roots, his work, his criteria for great broadcast storytelling, and his most memorable aired stories.
1. How did you get your start in audio producing?
I actually studied radio in college (Emerson College in Boston). After that I worked at some commercial radio stations as a DJ. At one time I worked at one of those radio stations that look like a shack in the middle of the desert. During that time I was always drawn to the production aspect of the job; working in the studio, making programs and commercials. Eventually I started at KCRW, first as a volunteer, then as a recording engineer and finally Director of Production.
2. You produce the show UnFictional, a program of real-life stories and documentaries told by talented independent writers and performers. What do you look for in a story when you are choosing what to air on your show?
I look for stories that have a viscerally interesting topic, like crime, secrets, mysteries, obsessions, or life changing situations. I also like characters that live in a world that I’ve always wondered about, like bathroom attendants, mariachis, or nuclear missile launch officers. I like stories that have twists and surprises, that don’t go in the direction you’re expecting.
Funny stories are great, of course, but I particularly like stories that feel human. They humor AND emotion. I like the listener to feel like they’ve been through something significant with the character, like a good novel or a short story.
3. What is the difference between broadcast and performed storytelling?
It depends on the storyteller, but the main difference is probably the dynamics of the performance. When you’re on stage, you’re standing in front of a group of people and you have to project enough energy to command attention. Big is better, big laughs and big moments. On stage you’re trying to create a communal experience for the audience, and the energy you create in the room is part of the experience.
A story on the radio is more like telling someone a story over dinner, or even whispering in their ear. People are often listening to the radio or a podcast when they’re alone, or at least isolated from the world by wearing headphones. Performances can be more understated and subtle. Rather than creating a group experience, you’re practically being a voice in someone’s head, so you can tap more directly into their emotions and personal memories and experiences.
4. You also host UnFictional, and have had various on-air broadcasting experiences. How do you think these hosting experiences have influenced your career as a radio producer?
There is a ton of interesting audio work that goes on at KCRW, and I’ve done it all. I mixed live performances for the music shows, recorded and edited hundreds of talk shows. Having all that practice of listening to voices and hearing people tell stories gave me a good sense of what works and what doesn’t.
Also, at one time KCRW even produced radio dramas and story series’. That’s how I realized that often the most compelling type of storytelling on the radio is simply a single talented person telling a great story.
5. How did you come up with the idea for UnFictional?
One of my closest colleagues over my many years at KCRW has been Jennifer Ferro, who is now general manager. She and I were longtime fans of the work of independent radio producers. So in 2010 she asked me to put together an outlet to highlight great work, and create new stuff.
6. Before working on UnFictional, you served as KCRW’s Director of Production. What creative direction did you take the radio station to and how did you determine that?
The biggest thing that happened while I was Production Director was the explosion of digital technologies for production. As a producer, all of a sudden you had incredible flexibility and capabilities. Now, one person could create intricately produced work that wasn’t even possible before.
Because of this, my contribution was to add an emphasis on craft and quality. We outfitted the studios with new equipment and used advanced techniques. The result was that our live music performances now often sound as good as studio recordings. Plus we were able to craft our interviews more, keep the good stuff and get rid of the boring stuff. All done more quickly and effectively. Plus we were able to start producing sophisticated documentary work, which ended up as an important step toward the kind of work I’m doing on UnFictional.
7. What advice would you give to DJs and hosts hoping to break into the field of radio producing?
No breaking-in necessary, just go and do it! The tools you need to do audio work are so cheap now, that if you have a passion for it, the cost of entry is low. It’s also vital to listen to a lot of the great work being done on the radio and podcasts nowadays. Once you’ve developed a style and you have work you want to share, there are many ways to distribute your work online.
8. What was the most memorable story that aired on UnFictional?
I get so deeply entrenched in the details of producing the stories for my program that I barely forget any of them. That said, one of my most memorable moments happened when I was first developing the show. At the time I had a vague idea of what the tone of the show should be, but I probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate it.
A friend of mine invited my wife and I to a literary reading. While I was there I saw a writer named Dave White read a story he’d written. He was direct and matter of fact, almost a little scary. At the same time though, he projected a vulnerability that made it clear he had suffered plenty of psychological wounds in his life. Most importantly he was freaking hilarious. Immediately I could see the tone of my show defined right in front of me. And in fact, Dave White was on an early episode of my show, and several others since.
9. Can you give us a preview of the special techniques for selecting and producing stories that participants will learn in your class?
A good story will have something at stake, and say something that people can identify with on some level. It shouldn’t be a one-joke story, mean spirited or silly. Even a simple or funny story can say something profound.
Writing for radio should sound more like talking than writing. A listener can’t go back and re-read if they missed something. Radio writing should use clear, short declarative sentences, complicated sentence structures are for print.
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Bob! Catch his class, “Radio Storytelling: A Recorded Storytelling Workshop” at the Pad starting July 14nd!