Learn how to deepen your story by channeling the senses on the page with the author of ten critically acclaimed literary novels, Bernice L. McFadden.
“Even though it was frustrating, I didn’t feel like I was going to give up. I knew I had to get better. I knew I had to continue honing my craft. I knew I had to continue reading. And I did that.”BERNICE L. MCFADDEN
What’s in Store:
- Write descriptive scenes employing the senses
- Render emotions on the page by describing physical sensations or images
Prompt #1: Senses
Write a story that opens with a heart-stopping first sentence, followed by a descriptive paragraph that employs the five basic senses:
Prompt #2: Emotions
Write three short paragraphs. Base the first on “fear,” the second on “anger” and the last on “pleasure” without using these words. Try to render these emotions by describing physical sensations or images. Try to make your language precise and fresh.
Q&A with Bernice L. McFadden
- Do you do self-imposed deadlines? Are you beholden to these deadlines when you’re writing the first draft or the second draft?
- I do not put deadlines on myself. The only deadlines that I adhere to are the ones that my publisher gives me. So if I’m not under contract, I just write at my own pace.
Let me say this also, because I know a lot of you have been told that writers write every day. And for me, I think that’s the worst type of advice. I do not write every day. I know the story’s always with me. I’m thinking about the story every day. But I am not physically sitting in front of my computer and writing every day, and I have 15 novels.
I think that when aspiring writers are given that information, it throws up a block. Because then you feel like, well, I must not be a real writer because I’m not writing every day. I hope that helps.
- When you develop the beginning of the story and then you have the end, how do you get through the middle part if you don’t know what to do in between?
- Let me tell you, everyone has a different process. I may know the end of the story. I don’t always know the end of the story, but I have to start someplace. I don’t write in a linear fashion. I write all over the place. So what I do is at the end, when I know I’ve reached the end of this particular journey, I then have to sit down and piece everything together. I think the easiest way for you to fill in the middle is to sit down and really just listen to what your characters are asking you to do and try not to impose your own will onto the story. That’s one way. Some people outline. I feel like it’s a useful tool just to keep you on track. You don’t have to adhere to everything you’ve put down on that page. You just need something to map you all the way from the beginning to the end. And if things change along the way, that’s fine.
- Based on your experience, would you say it is nearly impossible to get published without an agent?
- No, that’s not true. There are a lot of boutique publishing houses that are willing to look at unagented submissions. Akashic Books, the publishing house I’ve been with since 2010—they are one of the best, in my opinion—and they are open to reading queries from writers who do not have agents.
- What inspires you to write? How do you get started? Do you have techniques for cultivating ideas?
- I really love history, so whenever I come across some historical content that interests me, I usually pursue it. With The Book of Harlan that was published in 2016, back in 2004, I went to a reading where I learned that black people were in the death camps in Germany, and that was something that I wasn’t aware of. It made perfect sense, but I had not been taught that in my history class. So that was an inspiration.
How do you get started? Getting started is difficult, even, you know, twenty years later. You sit down and you create your space and just tell yourself, I’m not going to get up from the chair.
- How often did you write when you were writing your novel and how did you keep yourself motivated?
- When I was writing Sugar, I probably wrote five evenings out of the week, and I would only write at night because my daughter was very young and I worked all day. So I’d come home, take a nap and deal with her. And then I’d write until, like, one or two in the morning. How did I keep myself motivated? I wanted it, and I knew that this was the life that was meant for me. And that’s how I remained motivated.
- Have you ever been afraid to start writing at all? If so, how did you get through it?
- Not afraid. Not afraid, but sometimes just lazy! Sometimes I’m just lazy, because it takes a lot out of you.
- I’m interested in pursuing creative writing in college, but I’m kind of on the fence about it. I was wondering, how did studying writing in college help you as a writer?
- I am self-taught. I learned how to write by reading. I took two years of creative writing at Fordham, and I was in my mid-twenties when I did that. And what did that do for me? I think it expanded upon what I was reading. Up until that point, I was just reading novels written by Black women. Dr. Margaret Lang was a white woman, and so she introduced me to these other writers. And that helped to expand my knowledge, and it helped to– there’s so many different genres out there, and so it helped me kind of to climb out of the box that I had been writing.
I know that creative writing programs are a big thing, and clearly I teach creative writing. But I don’t want aspiring writers to feel like they have to go to college in order to become successfully published. You don’t.
- How did you know this was what you wanted to do with your life?
- I always say that, you know, writing chose me. From the age of nine. I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
- Do you have a limit to the number of characters in the story? I get lost when there are too many.
- I do not. The Book of Harlan is filled with so many characters. I think that if the author writes well, then you’re not going to get lost. And sometimes, if you’re not really interested in the story, you might get lost. But no, I don’t limit myself. Whoever shows up, I put them down on the page.
- How do you balance writing with schoolwork if you’re not a full-time writer?
- I was a full-time writer up into 2016 before I started teaching, and I’m still trying to find that balance. What I have to do now is I get up at about four, four-thirty in the morning, and I write, because after teaching all day, I’m not going to have anything left for myself. So I make time very early in the morning to write.
- How did you decide on your genre? I feel as though I have too many interests.
- Why do you have to make a decision? Why can’t you write in every genre you’re interested in? I write fiction. I write nonfiction. There’s a famous quote that I’m not going to get it all together right now, but is something about defining yourself. Is it Audre Lorde? You have to define yourself. Don’t let anyone define you for yourself. So if you’re interested in writing about music, you should write about music.
- Do you ever write something, but then five minutes later, you cringe, or have a “What was I thinking?” moment? I have ideas and writings, but after a while I realize it’s not what I want or it sounds bad. How do you deal with those moments?
- I have published pieces that I go back and read and cringe. I think that’s just, you know, you’re a human being and we are our own worst critics. So, yes. Yes. And I’ve tossed a lot of stuff, and I’m sorry that I’ve tossed a lot of stuff because I think it’s better just to, you know, put it on a shelf, put it in a drawer and go back to it. I have a story that’s coming out in September in a collection called Nicotine Chronicles. And I took that story from a piece that I wrote, a novel, actually, that I wrote fifteen years ago. And I was like, eh, this is not working. But I kept it. And so years later, it’s paying off for me.
- What should you focus on when editing your own work?
- Well, that’s a lot. That’s like a loaded question. Well, obviously grammar. But for me, I’m all about imagery, visuals and setting. I would say you do your best edit, the best you can, but find a professional editor to sit down with. You know, you’re going to have to pay them, but you want your best writing to shine through.
- Can you give any advice to someone who is terrified to show her writing to anyone but very much wants to move forward as a writer?
- I don’t know how to tell you to shake that fear. This is what my mother and grandmother always told me. People are going to talk about you even if you don’t give them anything to talk about. When you walk out of your apartment every day and you go to work, someone is criticizing you. This is just the way of the world. And you have to decide if your fear outweighs your desire to be published. That’s all I got for you.
This event was originally recorded on August 13th, 2021.
Bernice L. McFadden is the author of 10 critically acclaimed literary novels including Praise Song for the Butterflies, which was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and The Book of Harlan, winner of the 2017 American Book Award and the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. Bernice’s work has been featured in anthologies including What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate, Cutting Edge edited by Joyce Carol Oates and the upcoming Nicotine Chronicles edited by Lee Child. Under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, Bernice has also written five romance novels.
For 25 years, Girls Write Now has been breaking down barriers of gender, race, age and poverty to mentor the next generation of writers and leaders who are impacting businesses, shaping culture and creating change. Thank you for joining our movement.