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Interview with author Hank Nuwer

headshotnuwerLHank Nuwer is best known for his four young adult and adult books on the topic of hazing in society-including High School Hazing. He teaches journalism at Franklin College, Indiana but speaks on hazing at schools such as Kenyon College, Maine, Toronto, Cornell, Chico State, Dartmouth, Oregon, Michigan and Stetson. He also teaches on the art of nonfiction storytelling at writer conferences. Nuwer also has written To the Young Writer, a book for young adults on the business of writing as seen through the eyes of well-known authors; it was a New York Public Library 2002 award winner for Best Books for Young Adult readers. Other books for youngsters include a biography of Jesse Owens and books on football, baseball, sports scandals, steroids, and recruiting in sports.  His journalism has appeared in Harper’s, Outside, Fraternal Law, The Nation, Toronto Globe & Mail, Montreal Standard and Boston Magazine.

MWW Social media intern, Madison R Jones interviewed Hank for this week’s E-pistle.

JONES: At MWW you will teach three different nonfiction workshops: two on the art of storytelling in nonfiction and another about writing memoir. What’s the most important rule for a nonfiction writer to follow when trying to balance facts and truth with telling a good story?

NUWER: Oh, man. that is an easy question. Selection of detail. Cultivating the value of ruthlessness with regard to story. Pare to the essentials. Develop the parts too sparsely described. If you were reading this aloud, you’d want the audience leaning in to catch your every word. Nothing left out, nothing superfluous. It isn’t easy, but it can be done, and it must be.

JONES: You have taught at Midwest Writers before. How does it feel to be coming back, and what do you enjoy most about this conference?

NUWER: The energy. From the first step in the door and getting a hug from like five old friends to the class itself and getting to discover new talent, the entire MWW conference is a rush. One of my students (Gary Eller) went on to write a book and get an MFA from the famous writers school at the University of Iowa. Getting together with writers who love and appreciate good writing? It’s better than a love-in or jam session. It’s creativity at work. I won’t sleep for a week after the conference–just write. Seriously. I’m in the middle of a book right now and it’s 2:45 a.m. and what’s better in life than writing at 2:45 a.m.?

JONES: How old were you when you first were published?

NUWER: Age sixteen with two essays-for-pay in the Buffalo News. One was an op-ed, the other a review of a bad baseball game broadcast by Dizzy Dean.

JONES: When did you take your first creative writing class, and where was it?

NUWER: Hamline University in July 2012. I had never had a creative writing class before that. My professor was the poet and essayist Lia Purpura–who was in the New Yorker two issues back with a piece.

JONES: You had never had a writing class before that?

NUWER: Never.

JONES: What do you emphasize in your sessions?

NUWER: Great storytelling. Bringing out the telling details. Knowing what to leave in and what to pare out.

JONES: You said in your 2012 CBS interview with Tracy Smith that you’ve been writing about hazing since 1975. That’s nearly 40 years. What is it about this issue that draws you to write about it?

NUWER: I came to young adulthood in the 1960s when the driving urge for many of us was to make a difference. As a graduate student at the University of Nevada-Reno, I knew many members of a fraternal club of mainly athletes called the Sundowner Club through my own associations as a onetime president of the Graduate Student Association and intramural sports. The Sundowners conducted their bare-chested drinking initiations in public, and I saw two of them (alcohol-fueled hazings), actually imploring one friendly member to walk a student for hours that I had found inert under a pool table and frothing at the mouth. Just before I quit the program to pursue a freelance writing career I had started years earlier, the Sundowners had a third initiation far from campus and killed John Davies and caused a second pledge to have brain damage.

I wrangled an assignment from Human Behavior magazine to write about hazing behaviors and interviewed giants in the field of behavior about such theories as groupthink and our human urge for camaraderie and acceptance. I came to the belief that my interviews with such experts might in time put together all the best science and knowledge to eradicate hazing. With all due humility, I’d like to think my four books and countless articles on hazing have made a difference for the better to try to put an end to the degradation and violence that occurs worldwide in hazing acts.

JONES: What would be your advice for the new/young nonfiction writer when it comes to finding that topic or issue to write about and finding their niche?

NUWER: From my own experience, I say this. 1) Sometimes a topic will find you. An online friend named Sheryl Hill started the ClearCause Foundation to highlight the dangers of too-little-planned school travel tips after her son Tyler perished in a horrific fall. I never would have written about hazing if the Nevada-Reno death hadn’t occurred. I had experienced hazing in Scouts and a fraternity, but not the kind that causes a death–more of  a timewaster and irritation than anything serious. The UNR death was serious. 2) Sometimes you find a topic. Some topics we choose on our own and pursue and through research and exploration and hard work we finally publish. Examples would be my biographies of Olympic legend Jesse Owens and (in-progress) Kurt Vonnegut. I went after those contracts hard before editors assigned them to me. Many hazing contracts are offered me. But outside of hazing, I get assignments through queries and proposals to editors.

JONES: What is the best gift you can give a student?

NUWER: Guarded enthusiasm and paying attention to find that writer’s singular voice.

JONES: Why is it that some people with real writing talent don’t go as far as they can?

NUWER: They have to develop a thick skin. One or a hundred rejections later and they give up. Or they don’t keep a daily writing routine. When you’re not writing it should be because you’re on a vacation to put something back into your mental fuel tank. And even then, keep a notebook handy and jot down ideas for stories or articles as they come to you. Real writers know the importance of developing a writing routine and regimen. And they stick to those.  Make a list of all the things you can cut out that can have an hour or two of daily writing put in its place. Then write instead of doing those other things. Put something, anything, down on a blank page. Don’t wait for inspiration. Just do it, as the commercial says. And sooner than you think, you’ll have done it.

JONES: Is there one quotation every aspiring writer attending MWW should commit to memory?

NUWER: Theodore Roosevelt said this: “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Now combine the advice and techniques you acquire at MWW with discipline and courage . . . and you’re ALL the way there–you’re a writer.

Hank’s Part II sessions, Friday and Saturday include:

  • Putting Storytelling into Your Nonfiction (session in two parts)
  • Writing Memoir

Interview with Barbara Shoup

Barb ShoupBarbara Shoup is the author of seven novels and the co-author of two books about the creative process. Her young adult novels, Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony were selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults. Vermeer’s Daughter was a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults. She is the recipient of numerous grants from the Indiana Arts Council, two creative renewal grants from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the 2006 PEN Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship, and the 2012 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Indiana Author Award. Currently, she is the executive director of the Writers’ Center of Indiana. Her most recent novel is An American Tune.

MWW social media intern Rachael Heffner interviewed Barb for this week’s E-pistle.

Rachael: Your intensive at MWW is called Writing YA: Think Like a Teenager. I know you don’t want to give too much away, but can you give one tip on how to “think like a teenager”?

Barbara: That teenage person is still there, inside every one of us. If you’re like me, you can’t help thinking like a teenager, at least some of the time. If you’ve forgotten how to think like a teenager, this workshop will take you right back to that time in your life and put you in touch with the emotional perspective you need to get a YA novel right.

Rachael: You write both YA and adult novels. What’s the biggest difference for you in terms of writing these types of books, or is there a difference?

Barbara: I don’t consciously choose to write one or the other. I write the novels that seem possible to write–some of them are made of ideas that reflect the complexity of adult life; others, the rawness and self-absorption of adolescence. They are equally interesting to me and equally challenging. In several cases, novels that started out as adult novels became YA novels in process when I realized that the strongest voices and most compelling stories were those of the younger characters.

Rachael: You are quite a busy woman. You are Executive Director at the Indiana Writers Center. You’ve just published a new novel called An American Tune. Most writers have to struggle to balance family, work, and writing. How do you do it?

Barbara: I’m extremely fortunate to love everything I do. Everything is of a piece to me and everything feeds my writing, one way or another. Still, it’s a constant struggle to keep everything in balance. Usually I write for a few hours early each morning. Sometimes I escape for a week or so to a quiet place and work nonstop, which is heaven. That said, there are plenty of times when I get overwhelmed and find my real life creeping into the time I need for fiction–which is not a good thing because when I don’t write, I’m just not okay. So I try to catch myself when I feel things getting out of whack. Years ago I read this in a women’s magazine–probably about dieting, but it seemed dead on in terms of everything: “Discipline is remembering what you want.” I want to be a writer, so I choose it whenever I can. Slowly, the pages pile up.

Barb’s Part II sessions (Friday and Saturday) include:

  • The Particular Problems of Critiquing and Revising the Novel. Whether you work with a critique partner or regularly submit your novel to a workshop group, the process of critiquing a novel is completely different from critiquing a short story. Novels take a long time to write, they change as you write them, it’s hard to hold them in your head. And when you finally finish that first draft, how in the world are you supposed to look at it? This class will provide practical strategies for getting the useful insights from your readers, identifying problems in your novel, and creating a list of very specific issues you need to address to bring it closer to the novel you want it to be.
  • Historical Fiction. Would you like to live in another time, by way of writing fiction?  This class will provide an overview of the practical considerations of writing historical fiction, addressing such questions as: Where do you start? How do you keep your research from overwhelming the story? How true to the historical facts must you remain? How can you create characters true to the standards and knowledge of their time? And more.
  • Publishing in a Brave New World Panel: Sarah LaPolla, Roxane Gay, Barb Shoup, Jane Friedman, D.E. Johnson

Erica O’Rourke’s Secret to Finding a Strong Voice

MWW Committee Member Cathy Day talks with faculty member Erica O’Rourke, who will teach a Part I Intensive entitled “YA Double Header: Strategies for Crafting Compelling Young Adult Novels,” as well as short sessions during Part II on critique partners, the life/work balance, and tricks of the trilogy.

O'RourkeErica is a former high school English teacher who has lived in the Chicago area her entire life. She is the 2010 winner of the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart® contest for Best Young Adult Manuscript.  Torn, the first book in the Torn Trilogy, was the launch title for Kensington Books’ KTeen line. When she’s not writing, Erica enjoys reading, watching Doctor Who, and keeping her three daughters and two cats in line – with the help of her exceedingly patient husband, who doesn’t like Doctor Who at all. She loves sushi but hates fish, and drinks far too much coffee. The second book in her trilogy, Tangled, was released in February 2012, and the third, Bound, will launch June 26, 2012.Bound bk cvr

 

Q: Your intensive will feature strategies related finding a strong, distinctive YA voice. What does that term, “voice,” mean to you, and why is it important?

One of the things that characterizes YA today is a strong narrative voice, whether you’re writing in first person or third. It requires that you get inside the skin of your character and perceive the world as they do. Everything that occurs in the story needs to be filtered through their experiences — if they come from a small village, they shouldn’t talk about the subway expertly, for example, but they might think in terms of nature metaphors. A character who’s an athlete might view everything as a competition; a character who’s a brilliant student might view every conflict as a test. (Those are gross oversimplifications, of course, but they provide a starting point — you’ll refine as you write, and even more in revision.)

Q: I like that that phrase, “filter through their experiences,” because I’ve noticed that many of my students write as if they are watching their characters, when instead they have to be their characters.  

Yes, deep point of view is really tricky, and truth be told, one of the reasons I prefer writing in first person.

Q: Can you give us one tip, one trick you use for getting inside characters and finding their voice that’s worked for you? How did you find Mo’s voice? I’ll even share one of my own tricks: I imagine my character posting Facebook status updates or tweeting to figure out her voice.

My favorite quick-and-dirty trick to get to know a character — or to build one — is to plan out his or her class schedule. By the time they’re juniors or seniors, kids have a fair amount of flexibility in their coursework: they can take a variety of core classes depending on their career goals, and their elective choices number in the billions. So, I typically download the course handbook from the sort of school my heroine is attending, whether it’s a Catholic all-girls school or one that’s small and rural. I decide what their post-high school plans are: prestigious university? work? backpacking across Europe? Once I know that, I fill in the classes I think they’d take, paying special attention to the electives. A student who takes a lot of speech and drama electives is going to have a more assured, confident voice. Someone who takes a lot of computer science electives is going to have a more logical voice. Again, these are broad strokes. You don’t want your protagonist sounding like Spock just because they’re taking a programming class, but knowing this about them gives you a filter, and you can decide how much you want the filter to apply. You can also use this to make your characters voice and situation more complex: If you have someone who’s taking Principles of Accounting AND Interpretive Dance, it’s pretty clear that something’s up on the home front. That tension should show up in the way she views the world, and herself, and her interactions with other people.

Do you have to stick to your schedule? Not at all. You can use this even if you’re writing a book set completely outside of a high school, if you want – if you’re writing a sci-fi book set in outer space, envision what they’d study: Fitness in Zero Gravity; Airlock Maintenance; AP Klingon History. The key is to use this schedule to understand your protagonist better, to really internalize how they view the world and then apply that to your writing.

Q: As soon as you signed on to teach at MWW, I ordered Torn and tore through it, and a few months later, read Tangled with just as much anticipation. I’m really looking forward to Bound and seeing how the trilogy resolves. Here’s the question I’ve wanted to ask you for awhile: on your website, you say you “write books about girls who make their own fate and fall for boys they shouldn’t,” and I think it’s really important that your books do both those things. Why is it important as a YA author to strike that balance, and how do you do it?

I think the balance is important in YA because to focus exclusively on either one risks making the characters stagnant or unrelatable. If the entire storyline is about the relationship between a protagonist and their love interest, with no thought to the repercussion it has on the rest of their life, you’re looking at a character that won’t really grow or change, because that relationship is only one aspect of their life. And it’s not realistic, because even though teenagers might feel that the relationship they’re in is The Most Important Thing In The World, they’re accustomed to pressure and conflict in all areas of their life: school, parents, friends, jobs, sports, etc. Similarly, a character who pursues a goal single-mindedly, who doesn’t care about the people and events around her, is neither sympathetic or realistic.

Q: That’s a really good way to put it: it’s more realistic for a character to care about both Life and Love. Mo isn’t just “torn” about which guy to choose. She’s also torn about what she wants out of life, right?

For me, the key was to make sure that each boy represented a potential future for Mo: either a life with the Arcs, and the dangers inherent in that, or a life in Chicago, negotiating a truce with the Mob. I don’t want to spoil Bound for you, but I’ll say this: Mo chooses which life she wants well before she chooses between the guys. That was always the crux of the story: Mo’s journey to determine who she wanted to be and what kind of life she wanted for herself. The boys, while great fun to write, were a way of representing those choices.

Register for Erica’s Thursday (July 26) Intensive Session, “YA Double Header: Strategies for Crafting Compelling Young Adult Novels.”

(Limited class size, so don’t wait!)

JT Dutton: Writing the YA Novel

2011 Midwest Writers Workshop – “Writing the Young Adult Novel for the Young Adult at Heart” – JT Dutton. Do you have a vampire in your closet? Werewolves at your door? Or a story to tell about what it feels like to be young and full of dreams? Some novels we read, some we live. Join this intensive workshop to learn how to craft believable teen characters and write the novel you’ve been imagining ever since you first felt swept away by Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The workshop will focus on honing the literary elements of Young Adult fiction with special emphasis on voice, character, narrative and pace. Our discussions will not be limited to specific sub-genres of Young Adult but cover the range from romance to edgy. Be prepared to learn lots of interesting new writing strategies.

Success story: Veronica Roth

MWW success story!

During our 2009 MWW, agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of the Nancy Coffey Literary Agency met with workshop participants for pitch sessions and signed three authors as clients. In fact, Joanne now represents MWW attendee Veronica Roth who writes YA and has contracted a 3-book deal with Harper Collins Children’s books.

Veronica’s first book, Divergent, has been on the New York Times Bestseller List at #6 for three weeks!