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Friday, April 26, 2013

Kathleen Thompson on Spalding's MFA Workshop

Kathleen Thompson, M.F.A. continues her insights on her Paris trip and writing.
The structure of the Spalding MFA brief residency workshop is worth talking about. You may not ever attend a formal workshop but it’s easy to emulate the procedure in your critique groups. Alabama’s own Hudson Strode, first professor in the Southeast to have a novel accepted in lieu of a thesis used a similar model. You would simply do this on a smaller scale. Each workshop has one or two mentors, depending upon size of the group. Most critique groups have a facilitator.


Louella Bryant, author of several children’s books and more recently a creative nonfiction work, While in Darkness There is Light: Idealism and Tragedy on an Australian Commune, led our cross-genre workshop. I already hold an MFA in Fiction and have two poetry chapbooks published and one full-length poetry book, plus I’ve written two novels and a collection of short stories in manuscript form, so it was logical for me to study cnf, right? Well, what writer do you know who is logical? Of course, there was no logic in it, no more logic than you’d find in the colors of a tie-dyed shirt, except that I’ve had several personal essays published during the past year, and it suits me to write short true pieces.


A few weeks before the workshop, participants receive what is termed the worksheet. It consists of 20-25 pages of work from each participant. These pages may not be published work, nor should the work be brand new, but should be edited as well as the writer can manage on his own. Each participant is required to read and annotate the pages once, to read the pages a second and third time, and finally to write at least one-half page of comments or suggestions about each piece. This is the most thorough consideration of her work a writer could hope for, except for the one-on-one she will receive from her mentor during the remainder of the semester.


Sena Jeter Naslund is the Director of the Spalding writing program, and she sets the tone and philosophy of the workshop and teaching: be positive, be generous with praise, yet, be objective with suggestions for improvement if you think improvement is needed. On opening night of each residency she always says, “Your competition is not in this room. It’s over in the library.” It is a known fact that if you start a critique with a negative comment, the rest of what you say will not be heard. It’s human nature. So the student whose work is last in the worksheet is the first to start the critique and everyone chimes in with what they perceive as the strengths of the piece. Following that are suggestions for change. Finally, the author is allowed, not to argue his points, but to clarify any huge misunderstandings or ask questions of the group.


That final step in the one-hour critique is the weak point of most groups I’ve been a part of. Authors, if given half a chance, will defend what they’ve written and how they’ve written it until the group grows long in the tooth. That seems so strange to me. In this case group members have paid good money to be in the workshop so it behooves them to accept as much as they can and at least consider the suggestions. A mentor at Spalding said it well, “Trust the impulse, but question the suggestion.” As the author you are always free not to do what is suggested to improve the work, but as the author you would be smart to take a second look if more than one person is confused after reading the same portion of your manuscript. It is always the author, and only the author, who will know what kind of ointment to apply to the ailing lines. Sena told me once that you should think of revision not only as cutting away material but also as adding to the material. Clarification is good either way.


On the last meeting day of the workshop, each participant is asked to revise one page according to the suggestions given by the group. The digital world has changed everything. Ellie had us post our revised pages into Dropbox so that we could view them on our computers or iPhones with a code we were provided for Wi-Fi while in Reid Hall. It was amazing to see how the other seven students had incorporated our suggestions for change into their work, and what a striking difference it made.

Next week, Kathleen will share some of her writing and special techniques to make your writing pop.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Kathleen Thompson on Writing in Paris

What a pleasure it is to add Kathleen Thompson's post to our archives. I've divided Kathleen's beautiful piece into her insights into Paris, Spalding University, and her writing, so you will have the opportunity to enjoy her piece and absorb her ideas over several blogs.
Kathleen Thompson holds an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University. She has three published poetry books and a truckload of unpublished fiction. Her novel Remembering Fire is listed in the top ten of the Tarcher/Penguin Top Artist Awards. I encourage you to read more about Paris at her blog at or
Writing (or Not) in Paris
Kathleen Thompson
Hemingway could not write about Paris while he was there but wrote about Michigan. He wrote that he hoped to write about Paris when he got back to Michigan. I wrote very little while in Paris in July 2012 for twenty-one days. I intended to. I promised an on-going blog for WELD. I promised a blog about writing to Mahala. And I had hoped to expand on the twenty-page worksheet I’d sent to the Spalding U. MFA workshop. But there was too much living to be done in Paris. Too much eating (can you spell macaroons and glace?); too much to experience for the first time (putting love locks on a bridge over the Seine with a grandson); too many art museums, too much talking to do with my soul mates who also write—not to mention the writing workshop. Toujours perdrix! Too much of a good thing. Literally, always turkey. 
 Heavy sets of double doors intrigue me along the streets of Paris—another opportunity for me to hone my speculation skills for fiction writing. I saw a few doors open into courtyards of homes or flats, but the doors I got to know best in July, two black doors at 4 Rue Chevreuse on the left bank, opened into a sunny courtyard with a rectangular rose garden in the center. One could write a dissertation on doors and gardens alone. On either side of the open courtyard were classrooms belonging to Columbia University and known as Reid Hall. Spalding University’s MFA in Writing Program would be meeting there for their ten-day summer residency.
Our hotel, the Trianon Rive Gauche, was located on the Rue de Vaugirard near the Parthenon and several blocks away from St. Michele and the Seine River. The Seine runs northwest across France for 473 miles and empties into the English Channel. What always confused me about the left and right banks of Paris was looking at the map and having the river look like a large horseshoe. Why not the top and bottom banks, or the north and south banks? But, no, confuse this Southern girl and call them the left and right banks. So here it is for you who have a similar confusion: it is the way the river runs, northwest, that dictates the left and right banks; once you’ve figured that out it’s rather simple. I could write this whole blog about the river and its locks of loves on the bridges, the book stalls that line the river, and its boat tours—ah, but we’re about writing here.
To get to Reid Hall, you could walk down Vaugirard, turn right on Rue de St. (son as in song) Michele and walk all the way down Rue de Champs Notre Dame, or Montparnasse, parallel streets, and then weave your way toward Reid Hall between those two streets. Or you could take one of several walking paths through the Luxembourg Gardens. We had transportation passes for the bus or the metro, but the walk through the Gardens was not to be missed. It was dizzying with its shaded seating areas, its various fountains, including patron saint Saint Geneviève who saved Paris from Attila’s Huns and ponds, and the profuse flowers.
It was a hot walk if you left the shade of the trees. Have you ever seen rows of trees shaped/pruned like shrubs? That discussion would take me to the Eiffel Tower and then I’d never get around to discuss writing. Air conditioning is no big deal in Paris but the cool, rainy weather that we woke up to on our arrival changed to something like an Alabama heat wave by mid-residency. So we were happy for third floor windows in Reid Hall, and sometimes a floor fan for comfort.
Writing. No more digressions. (Will be in next week's post.)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Electronics is us

I've spent the last few weeks in a Wordpress class, and the eMails have been flying fast and furious. There's so much to learn, unlearn, and relearn. I look forward to this latest blast of technology helping me market my books going forward.

How much do you do online? Do you Facebook? Twitter? Blogs? Make a purchase? Even if you don't buy something online, chances are that you check out a product there. Electronics is us.

If a writer starts the story with a generic computer (pen and paper, and there are some who do), the scribbles are most certainly transferred to some software platform, sooner if not later. Many, if not most, agents and publishers now request submissions via eMail. If you're a writer who's been offered a contract (congratulations!), the manuscript may have to be sent via eMail to the publisher's editor. If you've made a decision to self-publish, I would advise you to acquire the services of a professional editor, and then, very often, the manuscript may be transmitted via some type of electronics...maybe a flashcard.

Marketing online is next. So, how does a writer get readers to buy the book, whether it's a hardcopy or an eBook? Writers have to define their target audience. Ideally, everyone would want to read your book, but we all know that's not going to happen. Writers have to know what they are writing—mystery, thriller, romance, memoir, police procedural, etc.—then ask themselves: What kind of reader would want to read/buy my novel? Female, male, teenager (boy or girl?), someone who wants a quick story to read on vacation? Important questions, and the answer is vital to marketing. Who the reader is determines how and where you market the story. It'd be rare that you'd be asked to talk about your teenaged-angst novel to a book club at the Senior Citizen Center. But there is one place that is universal. Online.

An online presence introduces a writer's name and work to potential readers. I took advantage of the online book retailers of Deadly Star by adding my profile to their author pages: Amazon, Facebook, Goodreads, and the publisher, Crimson Romance. There are others, of course. On your blog and bio, use key words, tags, and labels that appeal to your audience. When those potential readers/buyers do an online search, they search for books by genre, or title, or certain phrases. Those key words, tags, and labels are important triggers for the search engine, and up pops you or your work. If you haven't done it already, try it. Search your own name and be surprised at what you find.

As a writer, I am also a reader and want to pay it forward and do so with reviews. Online reviews go a long way toward increasing sales and readership. I suggest that when you've read a book, be sure to review it for the author on Goodreads, Amazon,, or wherever you purchased it. Good, bad, or indifferent, reviews are important.

ON to another topic...if you've got an interest in YA, here are some YA publishing industry notes that crossed my desk (I'm a member of SCBWI): Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing is launching a new YA imprint, Blink. The imprint is designed for the general trade but won't go as dark as some other YAs. They plan on five or six titles a year. Enslow Publishing is launching its new YA (grade 6 and up), Scarlet Voyage. They request queries and submissions be sent via their website   Also Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan Publishing Group) is launching a YA romance imprint, Swoon Reads. The website launches in 2013 and they plan to release the first novels, paperback and eBook, in 2014.

You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I'll try to do the same.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Stuff and Nonsense

Sadly, no one entered the March contest so no winner can be announced. And I made it so easy with green eggs and a mouse in the month that claims St. Patrick's Day and this year Easter.

Get your writing groove on and see what you can do with April's words: fool and boots.  Looking forward to reading your entries.