Breaking Through with Your Final Draft

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There are a lot of online classes for writing fiction. Many of the best–or most popular, at least–are aimed at new writers. Final Draft, my online writing class for LitReactor, starting May 22, has a different target audience: writers who’ve honed their craft, worked hard, and perhaps even put in their ten thousand hours, but have yet to break through with their first book deal.

MFA-havers, MFA refugees, or MFA avoiders. Those who’ve dedicated so much time to what is beginning to feel like a fruitless pursuit that they’ve begun to question their life choices. Those whose friends and family have been questioning those life choices for years.

Those who really are this close to landing their first major publication.

I created this class because I’ve been that writer, and I know how hard it can be, to feel stuck in this limbo between apprenticeship and authorship.

I’ve also been the person on the other side of the slush pile, as a reader for journals like Tin House and Alligator Juniper, the director of the Doug Fir Fiction Award, and, most recently, a member of the editorial committee for Forest Avenue Press.

I make my living (aside from my writing) as a freelance editor and book coach. So I know that most of the writers who think they’re ready to publish really are not.

But some really are. And all those writers really need are some solid strategies, industry knowledge, and detailed editorial feedback on their first ten pages, through multiple drafts, to make it happen.

So that’s exactly what I’m offering with Final Draft, which one former student called, “a finishing school for writers distilled into just four weeks.”

Here are some other things students have said about the class:

“She covered not just how to take a so-so manuscript and sharpen it up into a more professional product, but also how to approach the publishing scene once you have that finished manuscript in hand, be it short story or novel-length work. Lessons consisted of more than just common sense tips, they contained truly actionable ideas to apply to any piece of fiction writing. I came into the class with what I thought was a pretty decent piece of writing, and it was completely transformed.”

—Andrea (TheScrivener)

“I really enjoyed Final Draft. Susan had insight into taking my novel’s opening to the next level. Although I had received feedback on my opening in the past, Susan was able to identify what I needed to connect with readers.”
—Heidi Timmons

Call me a fiction evangelist, a champion of the underdog. Call me the coach who knows you can win.

Call me crazy, but if you’ve put the time in with this craft and you’ve got something to say, I believe there’s a place for you in publishing.

>More information on Final Draft, a four-week online class, beginning May 22, at LitReactor.

The Story Behind the Story: To the Fire

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Friends, I’ve been sitting on this one. Until I had the space to really talk about it–the first fiction I have written about having had cancer.

The story is called “To the Fire,” and it’s featured in the current issue of High Desert Journal, alongside work from Rick Bass and Rachel Toor, two authors I admire. I also had the pleasure of being edited by Laura Pritchett, author of Blue Hour, a novel-in-stories set in Colorado that I absolutely loved.

This publication marks the second story from my collection-in-progress, Dream Studies, to have found a home. The first was “The Mind-Body Problem,” published in Forest Avenue Press’s City of Weird anthology. And just as City of Weird was the perfect home for that story, High Desert Journal was the perfect home for this one.

Readers of my novel, Hot Season, will recognize the town where this story is set: Prescott (aka, Crest Top), Arizona, where I lived for fourteen years. The protagonist is a woman who has been diagnosed with an unnamed cancer that will require a full hysterectomy, eliminating her chance to have biological children.

I had the same surgery for the same reason nearly three years ago and received a clean bill of health after surgery; there was no grueling course of treatment and no recurrence. I was lucky, and I know it, and for that reason, I have not spoken much about the experience–there are so many who have gone through so much worse.

But that does not change the fact that I found myself staring down the barrel of my own mortality at thirty-eight–considerably earlier than virtually anyone expects to. Certainly earlier than I expected to. And in those days between diagnosis and surgery, I was struck by the sensation of not knowing my own story. What if the story of my life turned, “at the last moment, laughably tragic”?

The protagonist of “To the Fire” is a poet, and poetry proved a touchstone for the experience again and again. Like me at thirty-eight, her ambitions as a writer are largely unfulfilled, leading her to imagine her life as being, potentially, “a fragment, such as we were given by Sappho: So we must learn in a world made as this one / a human being can never attain their greatest desire…”

As a writer of fiction, feeling like my own story was so completely and utterly out of my hands was sobering. What if I “had no choice but to break my husband’s heart, my parents”? What could possibly redeem such a narrative? What kind of legacy would I be able to leave behind?

These are surely the same questions asked by anyone who finds themselves possibly dying young. And yet I had ever read an account in fiction of a protagonist in this situation, exploring this territory I’d somehow wandered into. So after the storm had passed, so to speak, I knew I had to write it.

I hope you enjoy reading “To the Fire.” And if you’ve found yourself in the midst of such a passage, I hope this story helps you to make sense of it, as writing it did for me.

More than anything, I hope it helps you to feel the importance of your own story, and the majesty of your own life.

Original Sci Fi: Earth Day Edition

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“The world ended the way it always did (US dictator, WWIII), pretty much (clowns, Central Park), on a Tuesday.”

That’s the beginning of my story “Strange Loop,” which was featured last week over at Daily Science Fiction. I wrote this little piece after I found myself lying awake at night due to the fact that The Man Who Sold the World was threatening nuclear war with North Korea, bragging about his Big Button (that works!).

Such nuclear brinksmanship on the part of the US president, with millions of lives at stake, like so much high school hallway primate posturing is, needless to say, horrifying. But there’s also a surreal quality to living under such an existential threat, as well as a kind of gallows humor.

Of course, the existential threat posed by climate change is even larger–so large that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. The destruction of the atmosphere, the Arctic, the fertility of the world’s farmlands, its ecosystems–the dead seabirds with bellies stuffed full of plastic. Microplastics in bottled water. The great time of dying that is upon us, without our even seeming to realize it.

In the face of such a threat, perhaps it’s helpful to think of our historic moment, which feels so exceptional, as part of a larger cycle. Because just as human beings at many points in history have found themselves ruled by kings who were idiots–not to mention totally fucking bonkers–and survived it, then surely, in all the worlds that exist in a quantum universe, there are intelligent beings who’ve made it to the point of destroying both themselves and their planet and failed to do so.

And while it may feel like so much of this surreal time we’re living in has already been written–by what hand, who can say–I think it’s important to remember what margin of free will we actually have, and how it can make a difference, especially when we reach out in empathy.

On this Earth Day, friends, let’s work for change, keep the faith, and laugh any chance we get, even if it hurts.

“Strange Loop” is my first professional science fiction publication, and it was produced with the help of my Patreon sponsors. Want to support my voice and vision in the world? Become one of them.

Hollywood

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When I interviewed Sean Penn for Powell’s, I did not expect him to have read my book. But not long after I met the actor-turned-author, I discovered he had. He told me it had reminded him of Ed Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.

My hand flew to my heart, like somebody’s old Southern auntie. “Oh my goodness!” I said. “I feel so seen and heard right now.”

Thus began my personal acquaintance with a very public person, Sean Penn–two-time Academy Award winning actor, critically acclaimed director, former Ambassador-at-Large for Haiti, and daredevil leftist journalist.

Apparently, totally by coincidence, a friend had given him a copy of Hot Season last year and he’d loved it, so he’d picked my name off the bookstore’s list of Portland authors (all of whom are, presumably, more famous than I) as a potential conversational partner for the event.

No book was more on my mind than The Monkey Wrench Gang when I wrote Hot Season; Ed Abbey’s gleeful classic of environmental resistance is such a touchstone in the Southwest that even people who don’t read have read it, and even those who haven’t read it know of it.

Not so, I’ve found, in virtually any other region of the country, where no one even seems to recognize Abbey’s name.

Moreover, Hot Season might have sold well for a small-press debut, but almost certainly somewhere south of a thousand copies, most of them to residents of Oregon and Michigan (love you guys!). How a copy wound up in the hands of Sean Penn’s buddy in LA remains a mystery to me, but it is a case of kismet for which I am grateful. Because as it turned out, me and that dude get along like a house on fire.

In some ways, I hesitate to say that, because he is a controversial figure. The comments on the Powell’s posts regarding the event were full of left-wing, anticelebrity vitriol, and there’s that thing with Madonna. But I think it’s safe to say that, for better or worse, Sean Penn genuinely gives a shit about the world, and he’s done more in support of his ideals than the vast majority of us who give a shit about the world.

And it turned out to be a case of kismet twice over when I admitted during our event that perhaps my entire idea of what Hollywood was like was based on Charles Bukowsky’s novel of the same name.

Sean laughed. “I’m in that novel!”

I asked him if he had a name in that novel.

No, he explained, but his wife at the time did: Ramona. Apparently it sounded a lot like…well…

The dude then proceeded to charm the hell out of us by relating how he met the late, great underground author Charles Bukowsky in the 80s. I’ll include that story in a clip later this week.

In the meantime, here’s are the first two clips from our event “in conversation” at Powell’s, 4.6.18.

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