What I’ve learned from Kentucky writers

Our state has phenomenal writers. Is it the beautiful landscape which inspires our stories? Or is it really something in the water? Some will tell you it’s the supportive literary community found here in Kentucky. Whatever the reason, Kentucky has a number of writers topping the bestseller lists and winning national awards.

I’ve been fortunate to learn from several of them through readings, workshops, and conferences at the Carnegie Center where I work. I’ve gained an education on how to be a better writer, and thought I’d share some of my favorite writing advice with you.

At the Books-in-Progress Conference last year, Pulitzer Prize Finalist Barbara Kingsolver said that the first draft of a novel is always “crap.”  Revision is “making it less crappy.”  Do you know how much better I felt hearing this woman who can write such eloquent and well-crafted words share her honest opinion of her own drafts? There’s hope for us all if we revise, revise, revise!

New York Times Bestselling thriller writer Will Lavender teaches intense workshops on how to start your novel. For many writers, finding where the story really begins and how to begin it is one of the most difficult parts of writing. He recommends studying how successful writers begin their stories. None of them did an information dump or included pages of back story. Often, the first sentences alone provide the hook that makes the reader want to discover what happens next in the story. (Just pull out a novel by former Kentucky Poet Laureate Sena Jeter Naslund; her first sentences always strike me as perfect).

I’ve seen more than a couple of published authors use national award-winning author George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem to inspire workshop attendees to write and write well. The trick is to add specific details that both tell the reader what kind of person your character is and what the character’s life is like. It’s a list poem that tells a story, and teaches us that details add spice to our writing.

Affrilachian poet Crystal Wilkinson knows about characterization. She says if you don’t know what your character would eat for breakfast, then you don’t yet know your character, even if you think your novel is finished. For ideas on building characters, she suggests we take note of the people we see while we’re sitting in rush hour traffic, standing in a crowded room, or passing someone on the sidewalk.  The little details that stick about the people we meet “are the details that were meant to be stuck,” she says. And those details are what breathe life into a character.

At any stage of our writing and writing careers, there is always something to be learned about the craft. Sign up for the Kentucky Literary Newsletter to learn about literary opportunities across the state. As many published writers have said, make time to hone your craft, and no matter what, keep writing!

Jennifer Hester Mattox, Carnegie Center development director & coordinator of the Kentucky Great Writers Series

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