Interview with September Feature September Williams

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Today we have an in-depth interview with the first speaker in the launch of our speaker series: physician-writer, bioethicist, and filmmaker September Williams, M.D. She seeks a better understanding of and between ourselves and her work offers resilience for those who are suffering. She’s the author of The Elephant in the Room: Bioethical Issues in Human Milk Banking, which is representative of her nonfiction works covering health disparities, bioethics, and film, and a fiction writer as well. Chasing Mercury is a romance-suspense-memoir about families committed to human and environmental rights, and the first book of the “Chasing Mercury Toxic Trilogy.” The upcoming sequels are Weighing Lead and Mining Gold

September is also a member of the National Writers Union (AFL-CIO/UAW 1981), the International Federation of Journalists, and the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. All of these organizations maximize the breadth of her work by informing, provoking thoughtful action, frequent tears and the greatest tool of all, laughter.         

For more information see:

 Interview with Author September Williams

How do you stay intelligible to average readers without ‘dumbing down’ science or medicine? 

I think of complex  information in scenes of a novel as film script. You can’t just have a white screen showing with words — there has to be something pictured. That  something has to be understood by others than myself — an actor, cameraman, special effects person, reader. I have to make the reader a participant in the scene. I establish a line that serves as a slug line in my head— Where they are and time of day.  Then only the dialog drives the visuals after that. Then I write the science information, and I usually allow the reader to be touched emotionally by laughter, sadness or love — so the scene and the science stick with them. 

The issue is that the details have to become visual for the reader just as they would for a patient or a medical student — and the “teacher” in the exchange get’s feed back from the learner and vice versa.  I also make sure there is more than one purpose for the exchange of didactic information — so if science really bores you then you stick with it to hear the end of the part of the scene that interest you. In the example in the shot  here the interlocutors are clearly flirting. But the scene is here as an explanation of the Seldinger technique—which is used to draw water samples to test for mercury. The purpose of the scene is for Sicily to understand how arduous and monotonous is. 

Do you ever take liberties with facts to tell a better story? If so, how and where do you draw the line and make those decisions?

I do take liberties but I have rules.

  1. I never take liberties with scientific facts.
  2. I do take liberties with historic details that are not scientific because that would defeat the purpose of incorporating science into fiction.
  3. I never take liberties with facts around real people who are depicted in a scene who were really in that situation in that place even if their names. 

In the novel Chasing Mercury the lovers meet in the Montreal Airport en route to a World Youth Festival in 1973 Berlin. I changed the dates of the festival. I did that because though based in fact the story is fiction. I wanted anyone who had been there to know that the story was fiction. I also did it because the timeline was set so that the main character would be 18 years old before the festival ended because she began having sex with a 26 year old man before the end of the  festival. I needed her to do that on her 18th Birthday because of key things elsewhere in the story. Anyone who was in Berlin would know the dates were wrong. 

All of the material related to The Queens Ballet in the book is accurate except for the name of the principal male dancer —this is because I couldn’t reach his estate and he has died. So I changed his name. However, I kept Rudy’s name because I know he would have wanted me to. 

The farm the main characters visit in Grunwald was actually modeled after one in Karlmarkstad. But you can’t see the Berlin Wall from there—so the Horse couldn’t take Sicily to the water and it would be too cumbersome to explain the journey to Karlmarkstad. Fictional story based in fact but a work of fiction. But anyone who was there would also know many things happened in the city about which they were unaware. 

Though I will own that the female protagonist Sicily is modeled after me, the male protagonist is modeled after many First Nation Brothers I was close to at the festival but with whom I did not perform. Though I did perform with a Canadian who was studying in Berlin before 30,000 people it was a reading of poetry and he translated and played the guitar for me. 

I never took liberties with facts about people who have popular exposure and  are real. For instance Angela Davis, or the sole survivor of the Massacre of Mali. Who were both at the  World Youth Festival and the events surrounding them happened as reported not with a fictitious person but in fact with me—so the content was accurate.

Does the research you do ever end up inspiring new stories, or new plot points?

Constantly— I love the research and I still don’t understand how it makes me do what I do with it.  I don’t write by outline but plot points which I recognize when I write them. In Chasing Mercury the Character Sicily has epilepsy not because I have epilepsy ( I do) but  because seizures or Cat Dance disease was the key symptom in recognizing Minamata disease in Japan. I wanted one of the characters to have a visceral affinity with a diagnosed child or children in the story.  Neurological damage to the body that looks more like cerebral palsy could have been a more visually recognizable option but I needed to link one of the main characters directly to the affliction that was being described. I did want to also have a child with a lesser manifestation of mercury poisoning to illustrate the subtlety sometimes as happens with lead poisoning.

Learning that  private citizens contacted the Minamata Disease researchers in Japan for help in 1972 inspired me to write the story because it showed the same unity that resulted in the Minamata Convention on Mercury being signed into Law began 30 years before.

In fact while writing Chasing Mercury I also  was a writer-bioethics consultant on a children’s book called Toxic Water Minamata Japan.  One of the photos I chose for the book was of a woman who is one of the longest survivors of Minamata disease. In Geneva she told me that I had a selected a photo of he, in her first demonstration as a child. She inspired the character Sophie in Chasing Mercury just based on the photo. 

How do you incorporate background information on a topic for your readers without taking them out of the story? Are you usually able to present all the knowledge readers need to understand a story within the narrative? 

I definitely can’t provide all of the information. I try to figure out  two things: 1) an over arching paradigm that connects the dots and 2) things in the near past that foreshadow things in the near future. 

The over arching paradigm in Chasing Mercury’s themes are the attributes of the god himself. This created the characters in the book. Greed and commerce, medicine, moving around the world, duplicity.

Writing about things in the near past—I know what’s important because I’ve been following the science for 30 years and if I’m writing about something that was toxic 30 years ago I can bring the readers up to speed by bringing them back to the past. In Chasing Mercury the epilogue explains why the book exists. But the epilog is about events that happened the year I started writing it. The story starts in 1973—but it was stimulated by the events of both 1956 and 2017.

Don’t get me wrong I lived and breathed mercury for three years. I made friends with people all over the world dealing with mercury from artisanal gold miners to UN diplomats. That’s how I picked the time period of the main story. Picking the time period is important for how much information you have to deliver in the book. Weighing Lead required that I go back to a point when the first water-borne lead toxicity was being dismissed.

Does it require any sort of mind-shift for you to get out of ‘facts mode’ into ‘storytelling, imagination mode?’ How do you make the transition? 

Definitely it is hard to get out of the fact-spewing mode. The facts are easy. They are in the literature and in my history in science and medicine. I read and research a lot because the science has to be accurate for the time period. I am kicking myself for not having kept 30 year old textbooks. So in a week I may absorb 100 pages of new data on a heavy metal. I’ve absorbed it but I have not massaged and learned it enough to condense it. That’s why it is good to have characters of different temperaments. I  channel them. I let them tell me when to shift gears. I use those characters to get me out of didactics. The frictions in their relationships can shut down a boring diatribe in a heart beat. The Whistleblower Journalist protagonist is really more tied to facts than to his emotions—that is—he masks his emotions with lame humor. The ballerina drags him back to feelings forcibly.

In fact there is a scene in Zurich where the powwow dancer is going on and on about Algae growth in the Limmat River and the guy who discovered the cause. The ballerina takes a break by retreating into her own thoughts which are pretty funny including jealousy directed at the river.  But I needed the water connection in the scene. I set the scene in Zurich to make that ecological concern the Powwow dancer expresses.

As for fiction inspired by science, what do you think are emerging new areas of science that will, or could inspire stories? 

Of course the next direct hit on fiction and science is going to be CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)  a family of DNA sequences found derived from DNA fragments of viruses used to detect and destroy DNA from similar viruses.

I think we will see stories first about therapeutic uses and then cosmetic uses of CRISPR. We will see stories of CRISPR insertions to black babies from getting sickle cell anemia, and removing hereditary diseases like muscular dystrophy. The bioethics will be a large sub theme because the risk is to further marginalize those who are “different” by assuming that they should be  genetically altered. But beyond science fiction the stories and possible stories related to this technology will be told in espionage, in love, in heist tales etc. But if I write it it will start with Linus Pauling determining the genetic sequence of Sickle Cell Anemia Hb and working forward. Or the irradiation of malaria—and the bioethical battle related to doing that by erasing female mosquitoes from the earth without know what else they do beyond malaria. Yep it gonna be the new genetic fiction. 

Next will be the environmental fiction—as a version of post apocalypse stories. 

Any of these will be open for romance-suspense, espionage corporate and international, and mysteries. 

I think we will also see bioethical stories about loss of speciation and it’s side effects but not in a science ficiton model but a domestic model. 

Meet September Williams at our next meeting THIS SUNDAY Sept 15th

Don’t miss our speaker series kick-off!

Full Schedule of Events


12:00 pm Setup
12:30 Doors open & member services
1:00 Featured Member: GARK Mavigan
1:15 Keynote Speaker: September Williams
2:00 Announcements & Networking
3:00 Marketing Group*
4:00 Craft Group*
5:00 The End

$5 for members, $10 for non-members*

  • Coffee is provided, bring cookies and treats to share!
  • Admission includes 1 free raffle ticket

PLEASE PLAN TO PURCHASE A RAFFLE TICKET! Only $1 each or 6 for $5, every ticket supports the club’s equity program. You can win a book written by our club authors!

* Support groups are members-only but guests may audit
* Empty pockets? Ask about our sponsored guest program at the door. We are writers helping writers, a welcoming community.

1204 Preservation Park Way, Oakland, CA 94612

Our meetings are right off 980 in downtown Oakland, at beautiful Preservation Park. Just off 12th Street, naturally you can get there from the 12th St. BART station. Those with limited ability can use the parking lot off of MLK Way; otherwise there should be plenty of FREE parking within the park and on surrounding streets.

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Check for support groups and more member events on our Calendar.

Setting That Works: an Interview with John Byrne Barry

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John Byrne Barry, presenter of our Setting that Works workshop

John Byrne Barry, presenter of our Setting that Works workshop

Tonight at six we welcome novelist John Byrne Barry to lead us in a workshop, “Setting that Works,” at WeWork in Oakland. Today Cristina Deptula of Authors Large & Small asked us a few questions about setting in anticipation of his workshop. 

John Byrne Barry writes novels, designs websites and book covers, and leads bicycle tours in San Francisco. He is author of two “page-turners with a conscience”Wasted: Murder in the Recycle Berkeley Yard, and Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, which won the 2015 Best Book award from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). His third novel, coming in 2019, is an assisted-suicide family thriller, tentatively titled Why I Killed My Father. 

Last chance to get discount tickets for the Setting That Works workshop TONIGHT 

Interview with John Byrne Barry

How do you know how much setting to include? What does it mean for setting to ‘work?’

There’s no one answer to how much setting to include, but my leaning is to use as little as possible. Only what’s necessary. Even the most elegantly written setting can slow the story down. As for what I mean by “setting that works,” the best and most memorable setting is not just a pretty, or gritty description, it’s also doing other “jobs,” like advancing the story, setting mood, echoing theme, and more. Its primary role, of course, is helping the reader visualize the scene. Smell it and feel it, too. But if that’s all it’s doing, it’s a missed opportunity. At the workshop, we’ll be going over eight of the jobs setting can do. Defining or revealing character is one of the more common, and useful, jobs that setting does.

In most novels, there’s one or more point-of-view characters, and the camera usually sits on that character’s shoulder. The reader sees what the character sees. If I were a character walking in my neighborhood in Tam Valley, I might notice how happy the trees are, with all this rain, how many flowers and blossoms and weeds are everywhere. Another character might notice all the Teslas and BMWs and Mercedes. What the character notices tells the reader who he or she is. I might note the expensive cars too, not because I care about cars, but it reminds me that I’m living in a community where most people have more money than I do. That’s revealing as well.

What books, and which authors, would you say provide good examples of setting done well?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day comes to mind because the setting there is so much about describing a culture, a tradition, more than a place. It’s a brilliant book, and the setting is only one of its many strengths. The story follows Stevens, a middle-aged butler in the 1950s. Most of the novel is his reminiscence of the time between the wars, when he presided over a large staff at Darlington Hall, a Downton Abbey–like estate. The setting is not so much Darlington Hall or the West Country as much as the devotion to “dignity” that limits Stevens’ life. It’s sad and somber.

Then there’s Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver, which is set in the fecund forests of Appalachia, and follows Deanna, a wildlife biologist who is studying a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region, and who falls in love with a young man who had come to the mountains to hunt the coyotes. The setting here is the opposite of The Remains of the Day — it’s humid and lush and bursting with procreating plants and animals. It’s messy and rowdy nature at its sexiest, and it rubs off on Deanna and her complicated relationship with the hunter. I read it a long time ago, and I still remember the feeling of the natural environment and the way it seeped into everyone’s story. It was the birds and bees writ large.

I also want to mention my “green noir” mystery, Wasted, set in the recycling world of Berkeley. Two decades ago, I had done a lot of reporting and had written a long cover story for the East Bay Express called “The End of Garbage.” I had visited landfills and transfer stations and recycling centers, even the harbor in Oakland where bales of aluminum were loaded onto ships. I was intrigued with the idea of setting a mystery in this garbage and recycling universe, which is rich with themes of reinvention and discarding that which no longer serves us. The setting wasn’t just the recycling world, but Berkeley, where I lived for more than 25 years. I saw it as a colorful, creative place that also was ripe for ridicule. Like, for example, what I call “Berkeley-itis,” which is the idea that anyone on the street knows as much about anything as educated experts. I was very happy that one review of Wasted said I nailed the “vibe” of Berkeley. I think that’s what the best setting does. It’s not like painting a backdrop for a play. It’s more about capturing a feeling, a zeitgeist.

How important is setting to a story? What do you think of books, such as Wuthering Heights and Faulkner’s novels, where critics say that the ‘setting has become a character?’ Is it possible for that to be literally true? Can setting go through a character arc of its own?

Not sure setting can go through a character arc, though consider The Perfect Storm, a true story about the crew of a fishing boat caught in one of the most vicious Atlantic storms ever. The storm escalated in the same way a character might, and the storm was often described using some of the same adjectives as people — angry, fierce, relentless. Severe weather, because it changes, can be like a character. There are plenty of books where the cities they’re set in are characters of sorts. Think 1980s New York City in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, with its go-go greed-is-good bond traders and its polarizing racial tensions. But character arc for a setting is a bit of a stretch. Not that cities don’t have their own character and don’t change. Just look at what’s happening with San Francisco now with the tech boom. But that arc happens over generations. It’s hard to depict in a book, unless you’re writing an epic saga that unfolds over decades or centuries.

How integral should the setting be to the story? Should a story be grounded in a place or able to happen anywhere? (or does it depend on the book?)

I don’t know that it matters if the story takes place in some recognizable place, but most stories play out in a variety of settings, some of which are enclosed spaces, like bars or kitchens or prison cells. You may not need more than a sentence or two to capture those settings. Again, it’s more about the feeling than the colors of the walls. I’m in several writing critique groups and I also read a lot of novels, from literary to trash, and I find that many books, even ones that have won prizes and sold millions, have too much setting for my taste. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Elmore Leonard, who said something like, “You know those parts in books that you skip over? Leave them out.” Often, it’s setting that readers skip over.

How should you research (or imagine!) the setting of your book before you begin to write? How familiar should you be with a place before you start to write a draft?

I wouldn’t say should because everyone has their own way, but for me, what has come first was finding the right setting for my story. As I just said, Wasted started with the setting, and I then I built the characters and story on top of it. The same was true of my other novel. In 2004, I knocked on doors for John Kerry in Milwaukee. It was tedious work, phone banking even more so, but I got excited about the idea of setting a story against the backdrop of a presidential campaign. There’s the ticking clock, there’s the high stakes, there’s the adrenaline and dirty tricks and moral gray areas. But I grew up in Chicago and Milwaukee did not seem like a colorful enough place, for me, to set a book. (Sorry, Milwaukee. It’s not you, it’s me.) So in 2008 I got myself to another swing state, colorful and quirky New Mexico, where I set my novel, Bones in the Wash. The novel unfolds during the presidential race, as my two protagonists, campaign operatives for Obama and McCain respectively, fight for the state’s five electoral votes.

As I knocked on doors in Albuquerque, I kept my eyes open. I had been asked by a colleague to post a blog every night. As with Wasted, the setting came first. I attended a panel on setting at the San Francisco Writers Conference a few years ago, and the first two panelists insisted that you had to be physically present to research setting, but the third presenter, who ran a writers conference in Santa Barbara, said not any more. You want to find out what it’s like to ride in the canals of Venice? You can find that on YouTube, he said. Certainly, it is more possible than ever to see what places look like without being there. But that zeitgeist I talked about, you’re not likely to find that in a video.

See you at our Setting that Works workshop TONIGHT

Join us for Barry’s Barry’s hands-on workshop, where we’ll review the different ways setting can strengthen your narrative, and lead a writing exercise putting what we learn into action.

The best setting is more than a pretty, or gritty description. It’s lean and strong, because it’s working two or more jobs—pushing your story along, helping us get to know your protagonist better. Whether you write fiction, memoir, or nonfiction, join us for “Setting That Works” on June 5th at WeWork in Oakland. Price goes up at the door so get your tickets now

Topics Covered at Tonight’s Workshop

  • Studying the different ways setting can strengthen your story.
  • Do writing exercises putting what we learned into action.
  • Capturing the essence of a place in a few short sentences—a strategic snapshot, not a Wikipedia entry.
  • Drip-feeding description into your story so it doesn’t slow the momentum.




Ticket Info for this Workshop

Advance tickets $30; $40 at door.

CWC Members (50% discount): Advance tickets $15; $20 at door

There will be a member list at the door. Information about membership benefits and costs can be found at 

On Being a Working Writer: an Interview with Peggy Dougherty

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Peggy Dougherty

Peggy Dougherty, one of three panelists this Sunday speaking on THE WORKING WRITER

This Sunday, we’re hosting a panel on the working writer, to engage our members in conversation about finding balance and inspiration with our writing careers. In celebration of our final event in this year’s speaker series, we have asked some questions of panelist Peggy Dougherty.

Peggy is an award-winning playwright whose plays have had had thirty-eight productions. Her plays (all comedies) have been performed in New York City, San Diego, Los Angeles, Boca Raton, Houston, San Francisco, Great Britain, Toronto, and elsewhere. Peggy is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., and The Drama Association of Rossmoor. She published her first novel, Age Matters, in 2018.

But she also had a day job for many years as a clinical psychologist In 2013 Peggy published a self-help book, The Ten Minute Cognitive Workout: Manage Your Mood and Change Your Life in Ten Minutes a Day (authored by Peggy Dougherty Snyder, Ph.D.). The book won the 2013 San Diego Book Award for Best Self-Help.

At our Sunday meeting, Peggy will share how she juggled her professional career as a clinical psychologist with her passion for writing. She will discuss how her profession informed her writing and how being self-employed helped her carve out a viable writing schedule. She’ll also share the boundaries she established between her psychology practice and her devotion to her writing passion.Age Matters book cover Peggy Dougherty

1. How do you balance the different ‘hats’ that you wear, as a writer, salesperson, employee, etc? What helps you to get back into the writing headspace after you’ve shifted out of it?

One way I balanced them when I was working is I used different surnames. Peggy Snyder is a psychologist. Peggy Dougherty is a playwright/author. My first play, From Bed to Worse, was a comedy about a psychologist. I didn’t want my clients to hear about the play and think I was poking fun at psychotherapy. (I was poking fun at the psychologist.) So I authored the play and all my subsequent fiction writing as Peggy Dougherty. I had writing days and psychology days (because I didn’t see clients every weekday.) On writing days I introduced myself as Peggy Dougherty. On workdays, I was Peggy Snyder.

Peggy Dougherty's nonfiction book

Peggy Dougherty’s nonfiction book

2. What avenues do you suggest for writers who need more income?

Free-lance writing and/or copywriting. I tried my hand at both with little success, but when I wasn’t working I wanted to work on my current playwriting project–which I started longer ago than I care to admit. Another idea is to get a gig writing a newslettter for an organization.

3. Do you personally prefer day-jobs that involve writing, or that let you do something completely different and take a break from writing?

I prefer a day job that does not involve writing. I have spoken with several writers whose jobs involved several hours each day on the computer. They all said it was difficult to sit down at the computer when they returned home in the evening.

4. What are some tips for time management that have worked for you?

Where do you sneak away downtime to write? I am pretty good about sticking to a writing schedule. At least I was before moving to Rossmoor in August of 2017. In Rossmoor there is a revolving calendar of interesting and exciting events all day/every day. It is like living on a cruise ship without the non-stop buffets or sea sickness. (I especially like my Zumba class, taught by a CWC author!) However, currently I try to devote the mid portion of my day from 11:00 to 5:00-6:00 to writing. This has been a difficult adjustment because I write best in the morning. On writing days in San Diego, where fitness classes started at 7:30 a.m., I was usually at my computer by 9:00- 9:30 and wrote until 5:00. Prior to retirement I seldom tried to write on a psychology day. It was too heart-rending. I really kept a strong boundary between work and writing.

Meet Peggy Dougherty and Discuss Matters Important to Working Writers THIS SUNDAY

Peggy will be joined by fellow professional writers “the Answer Man” Thaddeus Howze and Paul Corman-Roberts, co-founder of the Beast Crawl festival. Watch for an interview with our other two panelists, and plan to attend this exciting panel on May 19th. This will be the final installment in the 2018-2019 speaker program!

Working Writer Panel May 19th



Three Questions for Political Writer Kacey Carpenter

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Kacey Carpenter is a community organizer, volunteer, technology innovator, parent, author, and our April Featured Member.

Carpenter published his first book, My Journey with Bernie and is working on his second book, Ready, Set, Go Playbook for Candidates, Campaigns, and Causes.

He says, “Bernie’s 2016 campaign changed my life and inspired me to volunteer as a community-based organizer for grassroots groups focused on progressive candidates, campaigns and causes.”

His journey began organizing 300 volunteers from 30 states to go to Iowa for the 2016 Democratic Party caucus.

“This was the first step in my journey organizing and mobilizing grassroots volunteers and traveling around the country to get out the vote,” he says.

He hosted Bernie Sanders campaign staff and volunteers in his home prior to the California primary and was elected and served as a Bernie delegate at the DNC convention in Philadelphia. This experience inspired him to run for local City Council, helped pass a local measure for rent control, and be elected as a delegate to the California Democratic Party, all documented in his book, My Journey with Bernie.

Prior to his activism, Carpenter had a three-decade professional career, managing global teams, and launching successful, award-winning digital campaigns, to lead initiatives for healthcare, justice, and “smart community” transformation around the world.

He has a passion for life, family, friends and loves the outdoors. In addition to writing and volunteering, Kacey Carpenter enjoys biking, hiking, kayaking, and traveling. Learn more about Kacey at his website,

Q & A with Featured Member Kacey Carpenter

What’s the most important piece of writing advice that you could give to other writers?

Create a routine to write every single day. You can write for an hour or ten minutes but create a habit to start writing. I like to take a walk after writing in the morning and think about ideas and reflect on my thoughts. I write in coffee shops, in public libraries, outdoors in parks and gardens, and indoors at home.

Each day, I find a quiet place to write or listen to music on my headphones to help me focus and find my creative writing zone.

What other writers inspire you?

I am inspired by both fiction and non-fiction writers including Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Robert Reich, Bill McKibben, and so many others.

How long have you been part of CWC, and what does membership mean to you?

I joined the CWC last summer and am so excited to be part of this incredible group that inspires me to focus on my writing and publishing my books.

Kacey will read a passage from his book at this Sunday’s meeting

Kacey is seeking to be a mentor and to find mentorship from other writers, in particular other political writers. He’s also interested in working with other authors to promote our works, such as through writing guest blogs. If that’s of interest to you, please say hello to Kacey at our meeting April 21st. Yes, we know it is Easter…but we think every third Sunday is a holiday, wherein you celebrate your writing career. Commit to your writing this Sunday!

Planning your Novel: an Interview with Beth Barany

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Today we have an interview with our April Keynote Speaker, Beth Barany.

An award-winning novelist, Master NLP Practitioner, and certified creativity coach for writers, Beth Barany specializes in helping genre fiction writers experience clarity so they can write, revise, and proudly publish their novels to the delight of their readers. Her courses are packed with useful hands-on information that you can implement right away. She runs Barany School of Fiction, an online school for fiction writers, which includes a 12-month group coaching program to help you get published. Beth is also the editor of the Writer’s Fun Zone blog, for and by creative writers, where you can download her free reports on book marketing and novel writing. She’s also the author of books for writers, including The Writer’s Adventure Guide, Overcome Writer’s Block, Twitter for Authors, and Plan Your Novel Like A Pro: And Have Fun Doing It! Ready to embark on the next step in your writer’s adventure? Sign up for her free 5-day Writer’s Discovery Mini-course here:

Questions provided by CWC member Cristina Deptula of Authors Large and Small.

Five Questions on Plot for Beth Barany

Do most novels benefit from planning? What would you say to someone who writes by the seat of their pants and thinks that outlines stifle their creativity?

Honestly, I think every novelist needs to decide whether or not they want to plan their books. If you work best by allowing inspiration to strike you, then go with that. If you love outlines, go with that. Or if you like to do some planning and some off-the-cuff writing, then go with that. The point about the planning process I teach is to help you find the best process for you. If you’re stuck not knowing where to go with your story, then having a roadmap will help you get going. I have seen this time and time again with people who have taken our “Plan Your Novel” course. Essentially, there is no one right way to write a book; there is only the way that works for you.

What’s your own writing process like? Do you do a full on outline before writing?

I don’t like the word outlining. Ha! That is why the book PLAN YOUR NOVEL LIKE A PRO is about planning, not outlining. For those who want to outline we suggest some tips, but the book is for people who also find outlining boring or hard. I don’t like knowing every single detail about the story before I write it. I like to be surprised as I go, but I also want to have a general direction and understand what my story is about before I start.

Usually I start with a sense of what my genre is and who my main characters are. From there I develop the conflicts of the story. I often go back-and-forth between what kind of story I’m writing, the genre, who my main characters are, and the theme of the story in my planning process. In my writing process I just go. In my editing process I go back-and-forth between being and story and characters and genre and finding the connections between everything.

Is it different when you’re writing YA novels than other types of books? How much does genre influence how you plan a novel?

My planning process has evolved, and it is different with every set of books I’ve written. I wrote my young adult fantasy novels (3-book series) using primarily the hero’s journey as my guide (from the book, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.) When I wrote my romances (5-book series) I was using my planning process that I teach. I’m currently working on a science fiction mystery series now and also used my planning process to brainstorm this 4-book series. Those books are more plot driven than anything I’ve written so far. I would say genre influences how I plan and write my novels tremendously. Genre provides the boundaries of what does and does not go into the story. In terms of characters, action, and conflict.

What do you do if you’ve got a novel planned and then a character seems to want to do something completely different? Have you changed plans midstream, and do you redo your outline in that case?

As I said, I don’t do outlines. I do a plan that is essentially a scene-by-scene structure. Usually by the time I’m writing, I have a pretty good sense of who my characters are and where the story wants to go. If characters want to go off in some other direction that I didn’t plan for, I let them. That’s the fun of writing my first drafts. I really can’t judge whether or not a plot works better than what I planned so I just follow my intuition. I follow the plan if it seems to make sense or if it doesn’t seem to make sense, I write it differently. I do not revise my outline. That’s way too much work. When I’m writing, my focus is solely on writing. When I get to the editing process, I tend to do a lot of character and the world exploration. But I don’t revise an outline. I’m only revising the prose.

How do you plan without having your plan show through in the book and having your writing look formulaic?

The plan is like a roadmap. When you’re actually on your trip it looks nothing like the map itself. So when you’re writing, that’s going to take on a life of its own and look tremendously different than any outline or planning notes you have. In terms of being concerned about being formulaic, don’t be. Every story has a structure. You can’t get away from that. Humans deeply understand story because we have been telling a story for many millennia. You could say that every story is based on formula. Of course, the story structures change over time and are even different depending on what culture you’re from. This notion that stories are bad if they’re formulaic ignores the fact that every story has structure—a formula of sorts.

On April 21st we welcome Beth Barany to guide us in planning our novels.

Join us April 21st for story plotting tips and exercises with Beth Barany. We will also have support groups for craft and book marketing, as well as a reading from our featured member, Kacey Carpenter.

Interview with Victoria Zackheim, Author of The Bone Weaver and This Sunday’s Guest Speaker

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Victoria Zackheim

Victoria Zackheim, our keynote speaker for Sunday’s meeting.

Victoria Zackheim wrote The Bone Weaver, and edited six anthologies, including the bestselling The Other Woman, and her most recent: FAITH: Essays from Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics. She teaches creative nonfiction in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and is a frequent speaker and instructor at writers’ conferences and organizational events in the US, France, Mexico and Canada.
She will be our keynote speaker at this Sunday’s meeting, on the topic of adapting your work to stage and screen. So you may wonder, what does she know on this topic? Well, she adapted her first anthology, The Other Woman, to a play that enjoyed a simultaneous reading at more than twenty theaters nationwide. Her newest play, Entangled, adapted from the memoir by Lois Goodwill and Don Asher, is now under development, with readings in California theaters. She adapted Caroline Leavitt’s novel, Meeting Rozzie Halfway, to a screenplay, as she did with Anne Perry’s international bestseller Southampton Row. Victoria’s screenplay, Maidstone, is in development with Anderimage, in collaboration with SJ Murray. Victoria wrote the documentary film, Where Birds Never Sang: the Story of Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camps, which aired on PBS nationwide. We look forward to her sharing her expertise on adaptations.
She is interviewed by Cristina Deptula of Authors Large and Small.

Intereview with Victoria Zackheim

How do you know when your book is something that could be adapted for film or theater?

When you’re writing, do you SEE the action? Can you visualize the characters moving about, sitting on trains, crossing the meadow? Is it a story that moves through a classic arc for characters and story? Can it be adapted with minimal dialogue and maximum action?

What has to be different in a screenplay/script versus a novel? And what do you do with your lovely descriptions of setting?

In a screenplay, the audience can see the action, facial expressions, body language, sunsets and hurricanes. In a novel, these must be described. As for those lovely settings…show them! That’s what cinematographers do so well.

How did you decide to edit anthologies? Did that experience help or inform your play writing?

I created one anthology almost by accident, The Other Woman, and discovered something magical. As the essays arrived from the twenty authors, I began to see a play unfold, a conversation between five women, verbatim, taken from five essays. That experience WAS my playwriting. The second book-to-play was done as the request of a theater director…also an act of love.

You’ve turned an anthology into a play? How did that work? I think of the Vagina Monologues with speakers representing a variety of characters, was it something like that?

Eve Ensler wrote all the parts in The Vagina Monologues, whereas I used the essays of five women represented in the anthology. The process I used is, I realize, unusual and unique…and I’m happy to discuss this during our event!

Where and how do you learn to write for film and stage, and where do you go to get your novel or memoir adapted and produced?

My screenwriting began quite by accident: I overheard a story and absolutely had to turn it into a film…which is happening now. Today, it’s nearly impossible to get any book published without an agent. My agent has sold all of my anthologies, now numbering seven. As for a writer getting a memoir or novel adapted to film…I honestly don’t know! I come to…me!

Join Victoria Zackheim at our Sunday meeting, where she will speak on taking your work from print to performance.

She will be joined by featured member Leena Prasad. As always, members should come at noon to participate in the craft and marketing workshops. Click the link above for further details.

A Few Words about Haiku Poet Leena Prasad

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Leena's Photo

Leena Prasad writes to find comfort in her foibles and her triumphs, to take snapshots of her thoughts and emotions, to explore the beauty and the ugliness of the world, to leave a legacy… and, most of all, to connect by finding resonance with her readers.

Leena will be our featured reader on Sunday before Keynote speaker Victoria Zackheim. Here’s a little bit about her:

Born in India, Leena grew up in Louisiana, lived in San Francisco for 15 years now lives in El Cerrito with her husband and soon-to-be-born daughter! She has a full-time professional career in Computer Science which feeds her intellectual life and has allowed her to live the life she wants. She enjoys writing and art as a way to explore her creative spirit. Leena has written a book on urban art, a neuroscience column, scripts for short films, profiles, blogs, and much more. She likes to explore all genres of writing from facts to fiction to poetry.

Leena says, “We are all poets. We just need to remind ourselves and practice practice practice to fine-tune how we express our poetry.”

CWC members, Leena is interested in:

  • Getting together to send out submissions
  • Critique groups, and
  • Promoting each others’ works

Check out Leena’s writing portfolio, and buy haiku book, not exactly haiku.

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