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The Power of Fiction to Change Beliefs: An Interview with Omar El Akkad

omar interviewSeveral years ago, I got into an argument with a friend who tried to convince me climate change was a hoax, based, in part, on his reading of Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear, a 2004 thriller with a climate change denier as the main character. My friend tried to make a case against climate science based on a work of fiction Publishers Weekly called “half anti-global warming screed and half adventure yarn.”

I think that was the moment I realized how powerful fiction can be in shaping beliefs and attitudes. Fiction invites us to see through someone else’s eyes and live convincingly in their world. The emotions writers invoke can change our minds and hearts.

Fiction has power. How we chose to wield that power matters.


The Power of Writerly Kindness

Pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea, and get comfy. I’d like to talk about kindness in the writing community. I don’t mean retweeting to give each other a boost or following a stranger back to be courteous. I’m talking about profound kindness that settles in your chest and warms you on cold, lonely days.

As writers, we are accustomed to hearing stories of crushed hopes, long shots, and tales of glorious success. We lean in to listen to them all. Stories of rejection make us feel less alone. We warm our hands over the heat generated by other writers’ victories. Each story reminds us we are part of something bigger than ourselves.


Maybe No One Will Notice

Do you ever get the feeling that a scene you’re writing, just isn’t going to work? That no one would ever act this way? That no one would ever believe this outcome?

Do you ever leave the questionable scene in any way because you need this event to happen for plot reasons? Do you jump through mental hoops to convince yourself, well, maybe this is believable?

Maybe no one will notice.


Why, Why, Why? Interrogating Characters About Their Motivations

Do you remember that news clip of US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s long, drawn-out “Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy? Whyyyyy?” after a hired assailant bashed her across the knee right before the US Figure Skating Championship that would determine the 1994 Olympic team?

Media outlets played the wailing clip over and over and over. Before the Olympics, during the Olympics, and after the Olympics. Like Nancy, we all wanted to know why, why, whywould someone attack her like that?

Facts started emerging. The who, what, where, and when came to light within days. The ex-husband of rival skater Tonya Harding had hired two men to injure Nancy. We knew whathappened. But don’t all athletes want to win? What made this particular rivalry so intense it resulted in violence?

We needed to know why, why, why.


Novel-Writing Intensives: An Alternative to the MFA

Wouldn’t it be great if writing a novel could be like playing team sport? How great would it be to have teammates jumping up and down on the sidelines cheering for you, or running to your side if you got hurt? For most novelists—especially first-time or unestablished writers—reality looks much different. Instead of a throng of cheering fans, we are lucky if we have a dog sitting at our feet while we write.

When I started working on my first novel, I craved the camaraderie of a team. I wanted a coach and drills and discipline. I needed someone to care when I finished that first draft or finally nailed that tricky scene. Someone other than my dogs, that is.


Putting Words On Trial

Why are you here? What is your purpose? Would anyone notice or care if you disappeared forever? If you fail to make a compelling case for your existence, you will be exterminated. on trial

This is not the first scene of a dystopian novel. These were my opening statements when I put every chapter, sentence, and word of my novel manuscript on trial. If my words could not defend their space on the page, I handed down the maximum penalty: I deleted them.

To be fair, I stole this revision strategy (or a version of it) from author Chris Castellani (Leading Men, Viking 2019). Chris borrowed it from Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, where she attributes the advice to put “every word on trial for its life” to an unidentified friend. Good advice, it seems, is meant to be passed on.


Finding Second Life in Cast-Off Words

recylced owrds

I have an obsession with metamorphosis, the transformation of an identifiable object or idea into something different and new.

On my farm, mountains of manure transform into rich, dark soil, which I spread on the fields and pastures. Have you ever smelled composting manure? Have you ever breathed in the aroma of rich, organic soil? The difference between the raw material and the final product is enough to make anyone believe in magic.


It’s Time to Call Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction) a Genre

DP5G8TMV4AEL0CYDeep down, I wanted to label my novel Climate Fiction, but I wasn’t sure my book fit the criteria. Although I’d read a lot of climate-themed literature, I didn’t quite understand the scope of the genre. Is it even a real genre? Is a microgenre? I had some homework to do.

The term Cli-Fi was coined in 2007 by journalist Dan Bloom. Since then, it has been simmering quietly, but never making enough noise to become its own stand-alone genre in bookstores or on Amazon (although it has garnered buzz in publications such as Scientific American, Chicago Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Guardian.) Like all good books, Climate Fiction novels must tell a compelling story, but beyond the story, they must stir an awareness, an awakening in the reader. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

Chronicling a Non-Chronological Story: Writing a Dual Timeline Novel

dual-timeline-graphWhen I conjure up an image of the word “time,” I visualize a long snake that winds and crosses over itself in random places. It’s a loopy mess. Completely illogical. I think that’s why I had so much trouble with time in my first novel. Time did not seem linear, so how could I tell a linear story?


Is Your Book Movie Material?


Do you ever get a feeling when you read a novel or memoir that this story is destined for the big screen? Maybe it’s a sweeping landscape like in Unforgiven, or an untold slice of history as in Unbroken. Or something…undefinable. You just feel it.

Like many novelists, I secretly dream about my words becoming a movie. (Don’t pretend you don’t do it too.) There’s no check list, no rule, for what kind of books successfully translate to film, but I’ve often wondered if there was some elusive quality that catapults a story from the page to the screen.

I set out on a quest to answer a single question: What makes a book a great candidate for film adaptation?


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How to Get Insider Feedback Before Querying Your Book

Every querying writer knows (or should know) that once a literary agent rejects a query or a manuscript, that agent’s door closes. Often, the door to the entire agency slams shut. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes agents will reconsider heavily revised work, but as a general rule, if an agent passes on a query or pages, the final answer for that particular manuscript is No.

So how can you find out if your work is ready to submit without sending the pages out too early and blowing it with that perfect agent? You need to know if it’s query ready before you query.


‘Just be Patient,’ and Other Questionable Advice for Writers on Submission

I’ve always tried hard to make things happen for myself. As a writer, I enter contests, apply for fellowships and residencies, and submit to journals. I seek out feedback wherever I can get it. I take writing classes, attend conferences, and I revise relentlessly. I am committed to giving my writing everything I have. If I fail, I will never look back and wish I had tried harder.

As I revised my first novel manuscript, I entered, submitted, applied to anything and everything that I thought might help me as a writer. I was in constant motion. Always looking for the next thing. Obsessively polishing my query, sharpening my book.

But when I started querying agents and later submitting to publishers, I found myself paralyzed by the anxiety of waiting. Working on my book seemed like a bad idea. What if the agent or editor liked it the way it was? What if they wanted to take it in a different direction? The pages were out of my hands, and I hated the feeling of not having control.


An Interview with Julia Fine, Author of What Should Be Wild

WSBWJulia Fine’s debut novel What Should Be Wild, (Harper, 2018) is a modern gothic fairy tale, animated with toppled tropes and dark, unexpected secrets. The novel follows Maisie, a young girl cursed with the power to give and take life with a touch. As Maisie comes of age, she must search within herself, dig into her family’s dark history, and venture into the mysterious forest behind her home to understand the nature of her curse and who she is.

Fine reclaims the classic fairy tale forest and populates it with bold female characters, all of whom add to the evolving conversation of what it means to be a woman and a feminist. My absolute favorite character in this lyrical book is the forest itself. The woods terrified, comforted, and called to me. I now find myself meditating on What Should Be Wild as I walk in the forest near my own home and wonder who is hiding among the trees watching me.


To Thine Own (Writerly) Self Be True

writingsnowday.jpgSometimes I drive myself crazy. I procrastinate. I suffer from imposter syndrome. And to be perfectly honest, I’m a little lazy. But over the years, I’ve monitored my writing habits and learned techniques to leverage my weaknesses, as well as my strengths. The key, I’ve discovered, is to understand what works for me. Not what works for other writers. Below are some of my self-reflective observations and the ways I’ve manipulated my shortcomings to work in my favor. I don’t expect my tricks to work for everyone, but maybe it will inspire you to harness your own failings and put them to work.

  1. I’m a coffee zombie. My daughter once wrote a Shel Silverstein-esque poem called ‘The Thwomplenock’ about a creature with “barbed-wire hair” that always thinks it’s right and rips the covers off cold, sleeping children in the morning. The last two lines of the poem are:

“The Thwomplenock is very mean.
It is my mom before caffeine.”

The key word here is “before.” I’m quite charming after my morning coffee. Know your weaknesses, right? I make coffee as soon as I wake up now. I’m a better mother, partner, and writer. I’m kinder to my family, myself, and my characters.


Confessions of an Obituary Writer

obit writer.jpgI love writing. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, blog posts—anything, really. I compose unnecessarily long emails. Even my text messages are wordy. I can’t help it. I love writing.

But my skill set sometimes feels frivolous, a bit impractical, when it comes to helping other people, my friends, in particular.

I’m fortunate that I found a group of women who have walked beside me while I raised my four children, women who are strong and loyal and smart and fun. Together, we are fighters, protesters, advocates, parents. But individually, we are very different from each other.


Note to Selves


As the result of a glitch in the new privacy settings on my email account, I inadvertently discovered a portal through which I can email my past and future selves. It turns out I am my own best therapist. Who knew?

If you want to try it before they patch the glitch and close the portal, go into your email settings and choose Privacy. Then select Past and Future. Click on Super-Secret Self Therapy Portal. Below are a few snippets of my correspondences with my selves:

Dear Future Julie,

Please tell me this book will be published one day. Please tell me I haven’t wasted thousands of hours researching, writing, editing, pitching, and revising this book for nothing. You don’t have to tell me what the reviews say or if it sells well. I just need to know it will make its way into print. Please send me a sign.


Homegrown Books: Reading from my Local Literature Shed

book treeMy high school best friend, Jen, and I were discussing books recently. She started telling me, with great enthusiasm, about a novel she had just read that she thought I would like. But she stopped mid-sentence and said, “Oh, never mind. You won’t read it anyway.”

I was taken aback because she has a pretty good sense of what kinds of books I like. We discuss books almost every time we talk on the phone. (She lives in Seattle. I live in Boston.) We share book recommendations all the time, and she obviously loved this book. Why didn’t she think I would read it?


It’s Not the End of the World: Rethinking How We Tell Stories About Climate Change

Intersectional Climate JusticeApocalyptic stories of rising sea levels and choking dust storms come to mind when most people think about climate fiction, the emerging genre often referred to as cli-fi. Dystopian anarchy where nations battle over water resources appear in books and films that imagine our environment in the not-so-distant future.

But maybe it’s time to expand what we consider climate fiction and how we choose tell these stories.


What NOT to Say When You Get “The Call”

facepalmAs writers, we expect rejection. We are told we should embrace it, that we aren’t really writers until someone slams a door in our face. Rejection seasons us, toughens our skin. I think I may have internalized this advice a little too much.

Ever since I submitted my first poem to a magazine when I was eleven, I have conditioned myself to assume everything will end in rejection. If I’m prepared, it won’t hurt as much, right?

Writers have plenty of strategies for deflecting the sting of rejection. That query rejection? I wrote that agent off weeks ago. No big deal. I didn’t get a fellowship? I forgot I even applied for it. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

Writing Awe

shooting-starIn April I hiked through Zion National Park. I stood gape-mouthed, staring at the burnt orange, gold, and greens in the walls of a canyon so deep it made me dizzy. Layers of sedimentary rock rose up in swirling stripes of compressed time around me. It felt as if I could actually see time trapped in the striations.

I experienced awe. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

The Novel Pitcher’s Playbook

pitcherBaseball pitchers rarely rely on a single pitch. They mix things up with fast balls, changeups, curve balls, knuckle balls, sliders, sinkers, and cutters. They consider who they are pitching to, how many strikes they have, how many outs, how many base runners, and the score.

Pitching a novel isn’t so different. You need to master the logline, elevator pitch, Twitter pitch, short summary, query letter, and synopsis. You must know which pitch to throw, when to throw it, and how fast. And, most importantly, you must be ready switch it up without getting flustered. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

In Pursuit of the Perfect Logline

LOGLINE: A novelist must distill her story into a one-sentence logline, or she will fail to sell her book and will end up alone in a padded room.  logline

Anyone pitching a book can relate to the angst of writing a logline, the single short sentence that captures the essence of your story. In one breath, you must command the attention of an agent, editor, or producer. You have five seconds (maybe ten) and you likely won’t get a second chance. But, no pressure. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

Bonding with my Protagonist over a Dirty Secret

MuddyHands I love the time of year when my fingernails are always dirty. Really dirty. Deep under my nails, crusted in my cuticles, embedded in every crease on my knuckles. I love dirt. To be more precise, I love soil.

In the summer I run an organic farm where I grow a variety of vegetables and fruit. It’s a one-woman operation. I have help preparing the soil in the spring, and I usually can bribe some friends to help me plant, but after that, it’s all me.

It’s dirty work and I love it. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

The Big Pitch: Gratitude Over Fear

brainIt’s writers conference season and literary hopefuls all over the country are polishing their pitches, fine tuning their queries. Is the hook sharp enough? Are the stakes high enough? What if I freeze up when I finally meet my dream agent?

Fear hangs like a cloud over writers’ conferences. You can smell it. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

Choose Your Super Power

superheroIf you could have any super power, what would you choose? Would you fly? Read minds? As a child, I would have opted for invisibility. But on inauguration day 2017 I changed my mind.

I now choose the power of story.


What are Your Intentions?

roadtohell-wJust as the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the path to my recycle bin is littered with fuzzy intentions. One of these scenarios tells a complete story. The other is just a pile of garbage. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

Killing my Patronus

black-bear3If I had a patronus it would definitely be a bear.

I know this because a bear I conjured up in mind—and wrote into my novel—crawled off the page and intervened in my real life. But yesterday, that bear died. More accurately, I killed her.

Before you judge me too harshly, I need to tell you the whole story. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

Through the Eyes of an Antagonist

My farm is a novel that writes itself over and over, year after year, always with a similar story arc: I plant, I tend, things go wrong, bugs invade. I fend off crows and raccoons. I pray for rain. I pray for the rain to stop. I harvest. Some years I am victorious, others years I stand defeated, but I always learn something. Each passing season leaves me changed.beetle

I often wonder, however, if I am the protagonist or the antagonist in this story. One of my favorite quotes about writing is John Rogers’ little gem, “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”

As I began editing my novel, this idea really bothered me. My antagonist thinks he is the good guy? But if everyone thinks they are the protagonist, who, really, is the champion? We can’t all be the hero. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

Posts from GrubStreet’s Daily Grub


Creative Crying: The Upside of Getting Emotional While Writing

I sat alone in my local coffee shop, like I do so often. Large latte, 2% milk. A table near an outlet for my laptop. Twenty minutes in, tears streamed down my cheeks. If someone looked my way, I faked a sneeze, pretending I had a cold.creative crying

I had just killed someone I loved, and I couldn’t contain my guilt—or my grief.

Just to be clear, the deceased was a character in my novel. And I didn’t kill her because I wanted to. I had to. Her laugh, her ferocious loyalty, and the way she chewed on her hair as a girl were precious to me. Saying goodbye felt cruel, but necessary. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

A Visit from the Gift Fairy: Birthing that Tricky First Draft

After 12 hours of relatively uneventful, drug-free labor, I gave birth to my fourth child, my first son, 10 years ago. The nurse placed him in my arms then flopped dramatically into the chair by my bed, exhausted. giftfairy
“Wow,” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone take pain like that, so calmly, without any drugs. That must be your gift,” she continued, but I didn’t hear anything else she said.
My gift? Are you kidding me? If I only got one gift, I sure as hell didn’t want it to be childbirth. I wanted to be a gifted writer. I would also accept singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument. But childbirth? No way. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

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