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If you’re interested in learning more about writing short stories –– choosing material, structuring narratives, adapting language, editing, and marketing –– there are a few spots left for my weekend short story workshop March 9th and 10th at Skrivarakademin, Stockholm.  Sign up through the link above.  Questions?  Send me a note.

Unfortunately my intro-level course Creative Writing and Narrative Theory is fully booked this term.  My Novel-Development Workshop has one spot left, though though the course started earlier this week.

PS: I’m fortunate enough to have been granted a writing residency this spring, a week in a house on an island near the sea. If all goes well, my latest book with Natur och Kultur (see post under this) will be on its way to press by then, and I’ll be working on other things.

 

About a month ago I delivered the final re-writes of a new collection of stories for ninth-graders to the Swedish publishers Natur och Kultur. This is the third book in this particular series I’ve worked on, and it’s been a demanding but rewarding commission.

As I’ve said before, writing for young people in short formats is not the most glamorous work an author can do.  Nonetheless, young people need tightly crafted stories that will help them learn about the world and their role in it –– while at the same time helping them develop as readers and people.  I believe young people have an even greater need than adults for skilfully written stories, so to me the format is far less important than doing work with the potential to help shape the next generation of thinkers.

In addition, I’ve also had a great time working with my editors on the project.  While it’s true that authors and editors sometimes have opposing interests, while working on six books for this publisher, I’ve come to understand that the editorial discussions we’ve had over structure, linguistics, and subjects have always produced stronger books.

The book goes to press in the spring of 2017, and its title sounds to me like a science-fiction novel: Wings 9.

For this year’s short story workshop at Skrivarakademin, I’ll be placing a special emphasis on finding and adapting stories for short literary formats.  How do you quickly and convincingly transport the reader into the world of the story?  How can we quickly create a connection between readers and characters?  What common story structures sell well, and why?  And what effects do various stylistic tools have on the story?

I’m shifting the date of the workshop back one weekend from the advertised date.  If you have any questions, please contact me here.

 

My publisher Natur och Kultur has booked me in to lecture at Swedish schools this year, and first up is Nyströmska skolan in Söderköping, where I’ll be discussing teaching the writing process based on conversation theory.  This is a method I developed a few years ago after years –– decades –– of trying to find a better way to teach academic writing, and in general a more unified theory for helping students understand the writing process.  I’d recently completed double a masters in education and English at the University of Stockholm, and had taken a course in linguistics that got me thinking about language and communication in new ways.

At the same time, I was teaching one group of students how to make speeches based on conversation theory, and another how to write.  I finally put the two together and realized I was teaching the same process, but calling it two different things.  A colleague was sick and I was asked to tae his English classes on short notice, so in desperation, not knowing what he’d already taught his students, I decided to teach them something I knew they wouldn’t have heard before ––– and I taught my first lesson on teaching essay writing based on the universal rules of structuring a conversation.

Since then I’ve refined the method, and I’ve found it helps students accept and understand various writing conventions much more easily –– because suddenly they learn that structuring our ideas on paper is the same as structuring arguments with our parents.  I used to introduce academic writing (logical structures) by saying, “This is boring but I unfortunately I have to teach you anyway.”  Nowadays I introduce it by saying, “Today I’m going to teach you how to win arguments with your parents.”

That usually gets their attention.

The method I developed is outlined in the back of my book Echo 6 Main Issues (fiction and instructional texts for high school students).

At my lectures this year, I’ll also be discussing why and how to teach creative writing in the classroom, as well as discussing simple guidelines for workshopping writing with students.  If you’ve booked me for a lecture, I’m looking forward to working with you.  If you still want to book me for a lecture, contact Natur och Kultur here.

Last summer I drove with my family across the US, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, visiting relatives, friends, and national parks –– and gathering story ideas.  Last Friday I rode my bike to the post office and picked up a box of full of books with those stories.

During the last few years I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction and non-fiction for Swedish publisher Natur och Kultur.  I’ve also had the pleasure of reading and analyzing these stories with my students.

When I wrote stories for the Echo-series, I was challenged by their short format.  The Wings-books allow me about half as many words per story, which I find twice as challenging.  But every time I get frustrated, I think about the excitement my students bring to each new story as they enter a new world and make new friends. Young people deserve well-written, psychologically engaging stories; and I’m proud to get the chance to write for them.

Some of the stories and dialogues I most enjoyed writing for this collection called Wings 8, 2015 are:  The Season’s Shows: NPS and Pottymouth (16-17), What Sells? And Where? (20-21), Confessions of an Exercise Addict (40-41), Mr. Hassler (52-53), Burgerville Letters (76-77), Pets Around the World (100-101), Dear Koala Care Clinic (105-107), Hi Brittany (130-131), Why Do First People Come Last (141), and Sugar, Not Such a Sweet Deal (144-145).

The non-fiction texts I wrote are: Reading Changes our Minds (22-23), The Unhealthy Ideal (44-45), Climate Change (68-69), Wangari Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement (74-75), Have Fun with Handicraft Recycling (78-79), Topsy the Elephant, 61 Days (110-111),  Declan Murphy (based on a phone interview with my friend Andreia’s violin student, 124-125), Becky Torres (based on a phone interview with someone my friend Jason knew through his wife, 126-127), An American Role Model: Mae Jemison (128-129), The United States of America (132-133), US Travel Guide (based on my travels last summer, 134-139), and A Mix of People (142-143).

The book also includes texts by other authors with different writing styles.  Hopefully the book’s wide variety of stories and ideas will inspire students to continue reading and writing –– the way the stories I read as a young person inspired me.

 

(Congratulations to the authors of Keyhole Stories, and thanks for a superbly well-organized and professional release party last night.  Well done to each and every one of you.)

Fifteen of my former students from Skrivarakademin in Stockholm are releasing their jointly written story cycle this Saturday the 7th of November downstairs at Folkuniversitetet between three and six p.m.   The project is called Keyhole Stories and is the result of nearly a year’s worth of hard work and fun.  The group has not only invented a common concept and chronotope; they’ve also created their 3d_book_cover_largeown publishing company, which has given them valuable experience in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day grind of the world of letters: communicating with authors, dealing with contracts and finances, editing and asking for re-writes, proofreading, negotiating with printers, nail-biting while waiting for delivery, etc.  I’ve led many groups through this process, but this time I took a step back and let them do most everything on their own.  And they did.

My ultimate goal in introducing these writers to this way of working was to plant the seeds of what I dream will someday become a small-press English-language publishing boom here in Stockholm, providing opportunities for local writers in English, and helping stories that need to be written and read find their way into the world.  I’m proud of everyone who’s been involved in this project.

The release party is free and open to the public.  Hope to see you there.

……………………………………………………..

From the press release: 

Keyhole Stories is the collaborative effort of fifteen writers. We come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but what we have in common is the experience of living in Stockholm, and an interest in writing fiction.

The setting of the stories take place in an old rental building on the island of Södermalm in central Stockholm. Catch a glimpse of a young boy at play in Sandra Jabre’s Viktor the Great, human trafficking and prostitution with Björn Rudberg, and the need for belonging with Jon Kahn. Spy on gangsters and villains from Andrés Miñarro and Vilhelm Gard, see what a smartphone will bring home with Avelino Benavides, and witness friendship and unrequited love with Emily Aisling Hall. There are elderly neighbours to watch over in two stories from Simon Linter and Matthew Corke, and the reflection of a suicide from Tove Backhammar. Witness finding a friend in food with Eva Wissting, dressing up with Claudia E. Bernal, Jay Wong’s playboy and morality adventure, and immigration and moving with the times from Andrew MacPherson and Tanis Bestland.

The question is… How well do you know your neighbour?

Konst i Hanige

About a year ago I wrote about how Haninge Kommun had commissioned me to write a short story based on a public sculpture in Jordbro, Sweden (just north of where I live, and where my novel Numera Negerkung takes place).  I get a lot of commission work, and have written short fiction based on topics as far-ranging as the life of a guard on the Indian-Pakistani border to a young Korean-English computer-game addict.

But this was one of my more challenging commissions, to write a story based on a sculpture created with the help of children in Jordbro, Sweden.  Another challenge was to incorporate not just visual elements but also bits of the personal narratives the kids –– many of them refugees –– wrote during the process. After meeting with the county department of parks and recreation at the cultural center in Haninge, Sweden, I visited the sculpture itself during a fairy-tale snowstorm.

On the commuter train from Jordbro I scribbled down a rough draft. Then I scribbled down a second, completely different draft. During the next few days I revised the two stories: I restructured, added elements from the children’s own narratives, and added sensory detail and surrealistic elements.  After my wife helped me with spelling and grammar (I wrote in Swedish), I sent the two drafts to the county and asked them to pick one.

Which they did. They chose the second story, which I also felt was stronger.  I made a final revision, they paid me for it, and I moved on to other projects.

Until just recently when I received a copy of the finished catalogue.  Surprise: they had paid me for one story, but printed both –– labelled as chapters one and two.  The Swedish Author’s Guild probably wouldn’t like me saying this, but I don’t actually care about the money: writing is a profession which involves waste, so I had counted on more or less throwing the other story away.  What did impress me was their understanding of the work –– of course these weren’t two separate stories, they were two parts of the same story.  The first one is weaker, because it is the introduction to the second one.

The stories are called “Juvelerna i Jordbro” (“The Jewels of Jordbro”) and are available through Haninge Kommun. (ISBN: 978-91-982495-1-4)  I might re-print the texts here, later.

This week I was reading through a book of stories with a group of young people.  They wanted to discuss a story about a musician whose older brother calls him ‘Idiot’, a name which the musician then uses as his stage name and persona.

One of the girls said, “I want to look up Idiot and listen to his music.”

Another girl said, “You can’t.  He’s made up.”

“No, he’s real.  He’s here in this book, there’s a picture and everything.”

“You don’t get it.”  The girl pointed at me.  “He’s ‘Idiot’.  Him.  He made this story up, his name is right here on the cover.”

“Oh, really?  That’s too bad, it sounded so real.  Almost like a real writer wrote it.”

Yesterday when I got home, I found an envelope in the mailbox.  I took a bread knife and slit it open: a royalty statement from my publisher, a month’s salary for a group of stories published for young people.  In all honesty, I’ve been so busy writing new ones, I’d forgotten all about them.

I started earning money for my writing when I was seventeen, selling work to Ohio newspapers.  I’ve been lucky.  On the other hand I’ve also been hard-working, sleep-deprived, chronically rejected, and in doubt about what I was doing with my life.

There are two ways to get paid as a writer: informal recognition, which leads to pride in knowing you’re doing important work; and formal recognition, such as numbers in an envelope you slit open with a bread knife –– numbers that pay the rent, put food on your table, and help you to justify the time you spend alone with your words.

There’ve been many times when I felt like an idiot.  This week I felt like a writer.

A Cave Filled with Books

A cave filled with forgotten books and people sifting through them, heads down, panning for lost treasure.  Sleet and snow filtering down through the sliver of sky visible through the walls.  Laptops and telephones lighting up faces.  The squeaking of wheels from a book trolley, an electric motor whining as it pushes open an elevator door.  Two explorers in light winter jackets –– darker skin than most of the rest of us –– walking in, talking.  Their voices echoing off the stone walls, creating a chorale, a canon of rhythmical chanting.  One lifting his arm, pointing out at the sliver of city visible through the wall, his voice an older brother’s.  The rest of us looking up from our treasure hunts, sighing to ourselves –– but since they don’t look like us we don’t want to hurt their feelings; we suffer in silence and shake our heads and imagine that where they come from, people don’t know how to behave in caves full of books.

Them looking my way.  Me putting my finger to my lips.  Them opening their eyes wide, whispering, showing me the palms of their hands, turning and leaving.

A Train Platform

Six men, darker and skinnier and younger than me, taking turns running and throwing themselves against a vending machine.  Shoulders drumming into the plexiglass-fronted monolith –– two guys tossing themselves into it at the same time.  The bubbling of a language between them.  The pigeons in their dusty winter coats walking past, bobbing their heads, ignoring them.  The rest of us winter pigeons –– faces framed by the glow of phones or lighters.  Watching. Thinking: where these guys come from, people obviously don’t know how to act on train platforms.

Me walking over and pointing to a phone number at the top of the machine, explaining that they should call and tell the company the code number on the machine, and the company will send a gift certificate to their phone.  One of them putting an arm across my shoulders and pointing at the guilty chocolate bar. A mix of English, Swedish, a language that might be Somali.  Me repeating myself, others watching.  Me shrugging, walking away, them slamming themselves against the machine again until as the train pulls up –– them erupting in a soccer-goal cheer, them dancing, one of their arms held high, the chocolate bar raised in salute to the Stockholm night.

On the Train Home

On the train home, sitting as usual revising the manuscript in my lap. The facing seats like the booths at a bar, people nurturing the day’s defeats, tucking their heartaches and unfulfilled desires into their phone cases and slipping them into their pockets.  A man like a tree stump growing out of the seats across the aisle.  Footsteps behind us, a young woman’s voice in Swedish, she stands in the aisle next to me, she looks like one of my students, blond hair and an upturned nose, too young to be selling homeless magazines on the train –– no, not selling magazines, staring straight ahead and asking in a monotone if anyone can help her with a place to stay for the night.  And every one of us thinking about our empty trips home from the station, empty guest rooms and sofas when we get home… every one of us silent, ignoring her, waiting for her to walk on past.

Her walking on past.

Under the Station

The train moulding the night with hands of steel, blowing life into streetlamps, houses, mud-and-snow landscapes in the woollen winter nighttime.  Whispering secrets with spinning wheels on rails, with generators and transformers and electrical motors whining, pulsing.  Wishing my town into being, just for me, just for tonight, me a stranger at home in this country, this language, these thoughts.

The train lurching, seizuring,  winding down and stopping, splitting its sides open and us spilling out, yanking open glass doors and tumbling night-drunk down flourescent-tile train station stairs, to the viaduct underneath where half a dozen cocoons, mothers and fathers and grandparents lay bundled on damp foam matresses and swaddled, mummified, in winter coats and hats and thick rag mittens, empty paper cups and plastic bags bulging with clothes standing sentinal at their feet… and them not asking for a place to stay the night, only begging to be ignored for being here, forgiven for being poor.