The Piper Writers Blog is a platform for some of the esteemed friends of the Piper Center to write about something that inspires them as a writer, or about a technique that has helped them work past a particularly irksome impasse, or to share a fruitful writing prompt they swear by, or to share something else entirely—it is a place where writers invite you behind the curtains of their craft. If you are a writer, this blog is literally for you. If you are not a writer, this blog is less literally for you but still absolutely valuable to you.

Category Archives: Writers Blog

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Writing Reviews is Good for Your Writing

I’m writing a novel. Hold your applause, please: After six months and 35,000 words or so I’m not sure if this first draft is a novel so much as a large lump of clay that, with a lot of time and effort might, if I’m lucky, eventually acquire a novel-like shape. “The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,” Randall Jarrell famously said. I’ll be grateful for the day when this project of mine has only the single thing wrong with it that Jarrell’s quip implies…

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When is a Poem Done?

Many poets have read that William Stafford finished one poem each day for most of his adult life: more than 22,000 total.   The good news for procrastinators is, he didn’t; but as his son Kim Stafford notes, he followed the same daily practice, always entering the date, as an “open sesame,” an invitation to write; then a brief prose piece that might be a memory, a dream recounted, or simply a few thoughts, which served as a way forward; then an aphorism or single line, a reconfigured cliché, or private joke, or twist on a familiar piece of wisdom, that might be a beginning, an end, a line, or the title of a poem; and finally, each day, some consecutive lines, which might or might not become a poem…

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The Unencumbered Traveler

From the very beginning, a great deal of my writing has been stimulated and informed by my travels.  As someone who grew up highly organized in pretty much everything he did, I thought I could use the same approach when seeking writing inspiration from traveling.  What I discovered was that you can indeed do so, but that the inspiration becomes constipated by all the preparation.

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A Dozen Things That Debut Authors Have Taught Me

In the middle of this summer, I sat down to tally the books that have been represented by EMLA, Erin Murphy Literary Agency, a boutique agency focused on books for children and teens, in the fifteen years since I opened its doors. There were 272 of them published by that date.

And 57 of them—over 20 percent!—were debuts.

While I’m often in a teaching role with my debut clients, it’s natural I learn a lot from them, as well. Here are twelve of the most important things they have taught me…

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Inside Out

Insomnia taught me how to create believable characters for fiction. Even at age seven, I never readily fell asleep after my enforced bed time. Without adult definitions of “good” vs. “bad,” it never occurred to me that not sleeping was a problem. Which is how my earliest fictional characters were born.

I grew up in British colonial Hong Kong in an English-speaking, mixed-race Asian family and never felt completely at home among the majority Cantonese-Chinese population. What I longed for was to grow up and leave. Insomnia became Exit. Nocturnal wanderings of the mind led to a town in a mythic America, peopled with friends from around the world who spoke English instead of Cantonese, with whom I silently conversed. When I began to write fiction, these characters erupted. Although the setting was not necessarily America – my earliest stories around age ten occurred in space or under the ocean – the characters emerged from this mythic town because I knew how they behaved, what they wanted, how they befriended the protagonist (usually some identifiable version of me). By the time fiction became my life’s work, I was an adult living in the real America, mostly in New York City. My stories and novels featured many Asian women in international life (also with identifiable strains of me).

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Scheherazade’s Call

Once upon a time is the gate to the entire world.

The Velveteen Rabbit was one of those magic stories that saved my life. I remember the line drawings of the Bunny all alone on the hill, splashes of muted pastel colors behind him. The Bunny was so loved by the Boy that his fur was rubbed away and he was no longer new and pretty, but it didn’t matter because the Boy loved him. But then the Boy got sick and he was taken away and the Bunny was left alone.

This was the part of the story that began to take root inside of me. My dad contracted polio in the 1940s when he was the same age as the Boy, and even though the diseases were different, the story helped awaken empathy in me for the experiences of another. How scared my dad must have been to have suddenly found himself so sick! What treasured toys of his were taken away? I empathized with both the Boy and the Bunny, and I wanted more than anything for the Bunny to become real—to become loved alive—and if that could happen, maybe—even though my father’s right leg was shorter than his left leg, and even though his gaze often rested on distant things I couldn’t see—I could love my dad back alive too.

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On Being a Dictator

If you see a person walking along engaged in a vigorous conversation with no one else around, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s escaped from the nearest asylum.  It could be me talking to myself.  But don’t be concerned, don’t interrupt me, don’t bother me at all — I’m writing. Yes, writing.

It’s been more than twenty years since I gave up the keyboard and took up a recorder for my first drafts.  Since that time, I’ve dictated over a hundred novels that way on an innumerable number of microcassettes, then later as MP3 files on a digital recorder, speaking the words aloud, rather than typing them into my word processor. In other the words, telling the story. The way storytellers always used to do…

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The Health of Self-Forgetfulness

“As with most first-book poets, the farther Franco gets from himself, the better his work tends to be.”

That’s a sentence from David Orr’s review (mixed) in July’s New York Times Book Review of James Franco’s (yes, the movie actor’s) new book of poems. I’m not sure if it’s true or not (I mean of first-book poets in general), and my high-school teacher would have said Orr should have written “further”—but the idea of getting farther from yourself by writing poetry is interesting to me…

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Writing the Mundane in Flash

When we study fiction writing, we talk about conflict as a means to plot and we talk about tension being integral to scene and dialogue. So in workshop stories, we see a lot of breakups, a lot of arguments, even the occasional war story. We watch characters deal with death and loss and illness and pasts that – I noticed in my own work, too – I would never want to experience myself. And haven’t.

Over the past few years, I’ve been working on two things in my writing: flash fiction, and how to generate interesting fiction out of my own fairly mundane life.

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When Can a Writer Lie?

When does a writer tell stories that repudiate his or her closely held convictions?

For any writer, authenticity looms large. Write what I believe, I tell myself. Write to promote admirable aspirations, or to alert readers to perils they ought to avoid (we might call these counter-aspirations). Write to express myself as honestly and sincerely as I can. In a world without fixed meanings, in a universe indifferent to my own strivings and sufferings, what lodestar can serve a writer better than sincerity and honesty in expression?

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