“This Angel on My Chest” by Leslie Pietrzyk

(Leslie was one of my mentors in Converse’s MFA program)


This Angel on My Chest by Leslie Pietrzyk is a collection of linked short stories is both difficult to read and hard to put down. It is difficult to read because it is based on Leslie’s own life–becoming a widow at a young age–and entering into the grief of each of these women is a hard thing. But also a wonderful thing as each story is told in a different format, with a different point of view.

Pietrzyk’s writing draws the reader into the small orbit of each woman’s struggle with the unexpected death of a loved one–how does one continue on when such a devastating event threatens to bury you as well? But each character does, in her own way and in her own time.

Pietrzyk’s book is the winner of the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was one of the Best Books in fiction of 2015, according to Kirkus Reviews.


Do Your Homework

posted by Nick Hinton

How do you make a character convincing? You give them realistic dreams, hopes, fears, and failings. You need to know their history, their present, and their future. If you fail to give a character a back story that feels true or a fear with no backing readers will know. If there are holes in your characters, your readers will find them. So what can you do? Flesh out your characters. Your protagonist may only take up twenty pages in a short story, but you need to have more information. Even if it doesn’t make it to the final draft, or even the second draft, you should know the details of your character’s life.

One way I like to go about filling out characters is to interview real people. If your character is a teacher, interview a local teacher. If you are writing about a bartender, go to a pub (during off hours), tip well, and ask for their story. Not everyone wants to be interviewed, but enough will that you can find someone. Ask them about their daily routine. Why do they prepare in the ways they do? What are the problems that are obvious to someone in that profession that aren’t clear to an outsider? You can get some great background information for your characters this way.

Your goal should be to create a character who is believable in their profession to both laypeople and experts. You want the computer programmer in your crime story to feel authentic to your grandmother and to the software engineers at Google. However, one pitfall of this engorgement of character information is putting too much of it into your story. It’s useful to know how the waiter in your story serves their customers and the shorthand they use for taking orders. But does that level of detail need to be visible in every story? No. Much of the information you come up with on your characters will serve to bring them into focus in your mind, and as a result they will be clearer to the reader. Think of all those small details as being marked ‘for your eyes only’. Your reader won’t know what they are, but they’ll know if those details are absent.

If You’ve Ever Dreamed of Becoming a Best-Selling Author-A Caution

then you may want to read Kevin Kaiser‘s article over at Writer’s Digest: The Dark Side of Being a Bestseller. Kevin says:

The thing is, there is a dark side to being a bestseller. There are secrets they don’t share publicly.


I know because I’ve worked inside the Publishing Machine for nearly a decade, advising multi-million dollar bestsellers and publishers on everything from creative development to grassroots marketing. I’ve been equal parts strategist, editor, and counselor.


Bestsellers carry secrets, and if they were to share a few it might be these.


Read the rest of the post; well worth it.

Kevin has a lot of good information in his weekly newsletters, and I look forward to reading them every week.

Find Kevin on Twitter

Kevin’s blog

Check out Kevin’s webpage and especially his podcasts.

Thinking of an MFA? Think Converse

But think quick–the deadline for applying is Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.

Converse MFA in Creative Writing


How to Apply

Why I Love The Converse Low-Residency MFA Program-blog post at Work-In-Progress, a blog by faculty mentor Leslie Pietrzyk.

Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard

I was recently on a plane for the better part of a day, and, finding myself with a roomy three square feet of free space, I decided to return to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It is a nonfiction work that “…attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.” Diamond writing is clear and engaging, and I found the subject fascinating. However, it took me over a year to finish.

I initially read at a brisk pace, but I didn’t make it far into the book before I stopped reading. I was distracted by work, social obligations, all the usual stuff.  There were always errands to run or one more email to send. Dinner was on the stove, and I didn’t want to start reading only to stop twenty minutes later. A day without reading it turned to a week and into months.

I enjoyed Diamond’s exploration of the history of civilization. So why couldn’t I sit down and finish the book? It would be too easy to say that I was too busy, that every single thing I did was too important to be replaced with reading. That wouldn’t be true though. I could’ve gone to bed with Guns, Germs, and Steel instead of my smart phone, or I could’ve read it in lieu of browsing the internet. I could have made the time. But these other forms of entertainment were easier. Turning on the TV only takes one button and then the light and sound can wash over you. With smart phones and computers almost everywhere, you have nearly unlimited entertainment at your fingertips. I would be lying if I said after dinner I’ll crack open War and Peace, and I know I’m not the only one who will take the easy road. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I know I’m depriving myself of great literature, stories, and ideas by avoiding the ‘harder’ works. There’s a feeling of fulfillment you get when completing a long, difficult story that doesn’t come with finishing the latest two hundred page pop fiction novel.

I’m not claiming that a longer story is inherently better. Some of the best works I’ve read were short. But in avoiding long fiction (and nonfiction, as in the case of Guns, Germs, and Steel) you do yourself a disservice. You would never read Infinite Jest or The Count of Monte Cristo (two of my favorites).

I plan to devote more time to tackling involved works of fiction and nonfiction. When the reading gets tough, when I have to look up yet another word, I’ll keep going. The remote may be nearby, but ten more pages first.

“A Big Empty”-short story by contributor Rhonda Browning White

Rhonda’s short story, “A Big Empty,” is up over at Bellevue Literary Review.

We hadn’t talked since we left our West Virginia homeplace over two hours ago, both of us teary-eyed, too afraid to put words into the space already overfull of emotion. Every now and then, I’d hear Romie sniffle in the seat beside me, and she’d squeeze my knee, or I’d squeeze hers. It was the only way to say what we felt. It surprises me then that she speaks when we’re partway through East River Mountain Tunnel.

“Look at them cracks,” she says. “You think it’s even safe to drive through here?”

– See more at: http://blr.med.nyu.edu/content/archive/2014/fall/bigempty#sthash.Jrb1wcEx.dpuf

An invitation from Ruminate magazine to the Why the Writing Works community

Call for Submissions:

RUMINATE Magazine is currently accepting submissions for our 2014 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize with final judge Larry Woiwode. Along with publication in our Spring 2015 issue, the winner and runner-up will be awarded $1500 and $200, respectively. There is a $20 entry fee, which includes a complimentary copy of the Spring 2015 issue. The deadline for submissions is October 27th, 2014. To read the complete contest guidelines and to submit, please visit our website (http://www.ruminatemagazine.com/submit/contests/fiction/).

Character Complexity in Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

by Matthew McEver

Before the rise of the post-Vietnam Western, the fictional Western was considered light entertainment, with coloring book characterizations–black hats and white hats. Ron Hansen, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (1983), tells the story of how Jesse James was assassinated by a member of his own gang. In writing the novel, Hansen had to contend with over a century of folklore, where Jesse James is revered as an antihero, a Confederate sympathizer continuing the Civil War, and Bob Ford is a spineless traitor. Hansen, though, pushes back against the folklore and challenges the oversimplifications by rendering emotionally complex characters.

The core of Assassination is how Robert Ford idolizes the mythic outlaw Jesse James, yet kills him. Hansen’s Bob Ford is a self-described nobody who believes that he is destined to be a legendary gunslinger. Bob becomes James’ protege, but eventually realizes that if he were the man who killed Jesse James, then “America will know who Bob Ford is” (153).

What further complicates matters is the complexity of Jesse James, a villainous yet complicated soul. Jesse is a one-man show, and his robberies often involve understated hijinks. Following the Blue Cut train robbery, Jesse leaves the engineer a dollar “so you can drink to the health of Jesse James tomorrow” (27). After robbing an Iron Mountain Railroad train, Jesse hands the conductor an envelope containing “an exact account” of the robbery so that the newspapers may report the incident accurately (48).

Repeatedly, Hansen offsets Jesse James’ violent nature against his more redemptive qualities. In one chapter, Jesse dresses as Santa Claus for children. In another, he shoots a man in the head. In another, he’s a Methodist choir director.

Not to oversimplify, the emotional power of the novel is grounded in, namely, two methods. One, Hansen’s telling is colored by another narrative, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus, which lends an emotional component to the text and renders Jesse James as messianic. Second, Hansen creates a moral dilemma for the reader. Hansen recreates an experience for us somewhat analogous to that of Jesse James’ contemporaries. Like them, we are simultaneously taken in and appalled by this false-messiah. Like them, we are enamored with psychopaths.

Where your own writing is concerned, here’s a helpful anecdote and appropriate conclusion. When researching and writing the novel, Ron Hansen determined that “no hard facts, however inconvenient” would be dismissed and “no crucial scenes, however wished for,” would be turned to ends more pleasing to the modern reader (Afterward to Assassination 11). Characters don’t march in line and do our bidding. No matter what we wish for them, they must be who they are. They must, as ugly as this may be, tell the truth not only about themselves, but also about us.

Hansen, Ron. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. New York: Harper, 1983.