Just so you know: Naomi Jackson is totally worth 40 Hrs on a Megabus

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Royalty with her constituents.

I recently completed my four in-house Master Fiction classes with Naomi Jackson at Catapult in NYC (with two more to go remotely). This required that I board a Megabus in my small central Pennsylvania town on Thursday morning, careen across the pasture lands for 5 hours, plus at least an hour of stop-and-go New Jersey traffic and Lincoln Tunnel nausea, rush down Fashion Ave. to our class at 7pm, eat dinner with friends, sleep, and then board another Megabus Friday morning for the reverse journey back home.

All in all, I spent 40 hours (at least) in travel time for only 8 hours of actual class.

And you know what? It was totally worth it.

Why? Because of Naomi. Because of my classmates. Because of Catapult.

As a writer whose professional training is in another field (in my case, development psychology), I find that professional writers whose training encompasses years of building their craft in intensive programs (Naomi went to Iowa) simply view words, language, and narrative differently. Taking a class with Naomi allowed me to benefit from her capacity to take a piece and distill it down to its essential components. I work-shopped two short stories that I knew were strong, but just not fully realized yet. Naomi’s feedback revealed to me what was missing–elements that I would not have discovered on my own.

The best way I can describe this process is that Naomi’s perspective is like an x-ray of an entire work–she sees not just the flesh, but the bones of a story or novel, and that also means she can see what doesn’t belong, what has ruptured in the narrative, which characters or themes are too porous or weak. It’s a skill built from years of training and careful observation of the written word, and there is absolutely no shortcut to this endpoint. She has earned this skill, and her students can only benefit from it. I certainly did.

Notes and notes and notes…
Another important tool was the way Naomi constructed the feedback portions of the course. We each read the submitted pieces, brought detailed notes and a written letter for our fellow classmate, and then discussed the piece in our group class, but the discussions followed their own important narrative arc.

Naomi insisted we begin with Aboutness–What did we feel the piece was about? This allowed the author to see whether the themes they  thought they’d captured were actually realized in the reader’s experience with the work.
Secondly, we provided Warm feedback. What is working in the piece? What are its strengths.

Only then did we head into Cool feedback, describing to the author what we felt could be improved upon.

I know many writers, myself included, have felt gutted by workshops, where classmates take critique opportunities as a venue to attack another writer in order to make themselves appear more intelligent or talented to the instructor. Naomi does not allow this to happen, partly through the structure she institutes and partly through the atmosphere of respect and constructive discourse she embodies in her own feedback.

 

In other words, taking a workshop with Naomi will make you a better writer, but it also won’t make you cry, question your existence, or imagine writing angry e-mails to each of your fellow students.

Which brings me to my fellow classmates, who are all incredibly talented, generous, and people I now call my friends. A group is only as strong as its components, and alongside Naomi’s skillful leadership I am certain the time and attention each of my classmates gave to my work has helped me grow further as a writer. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading their work, and cannot wait to hold published books and stories in my hand, as I am sure I will have a chance to do for each of them in the near future.

I cannot recommend Naomi’s class enough–and I hope you get the chance I did to work with her. You’ll be a better writer for it, and isn’t that what we all want to become?

Write On: Serving the Armed Forces in Your Writing

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Jeff Messick is the author of the paranormal mystery, Knights of the Shield, and a forthcoming 4-part Fantasy series entitled MageHunter. He also served in the US Air Force for 9 years. Today, he shares his knowledge and recommendations for our readers who are writing about the military in their work. One watchword? Communication!

Knights of the Shield by [Messick, Jeff]

  1. The military continues to be a point of fascination for readers and writers. What is your favorite book that involves this context?

Red Storm Rising from Tom Clancy. Instead of his techno-thriller spy novels, this stand alone offered a good look at military techniques in modern warfare. Also, The Ten Thousand by Harold Coyle, if tanks are your thing.

  1. As a member of the US Air Force for 9 years, what were your responsibilities?

Air Traffic Control, tower control operator stationed at Kelly AFB in San Antonio, Texas. Sequencing and separation of aircraft in a terminal environment. I spent a few months in Saudi Arabia as well, in support of Operation: Desert Shield, doing the same thing, but with tons more aircraft and many more nationalities.

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  1. Discipline is a trait often associated with work in the US military. Do you feel like your training in the Air Force influenced your style or approach to writing?

Not especially. I was writing before I was in the military and what I was taught militarily, didn’t affect my writing too much that I can tell. However, I do hold a lot of respect for the men and women of our armed services. They do an incredible job which, for them, can seem like a thankless task. I thank every service member I see, even those just getting in.

  1. Your novel, Knights of the Shield, examines the Det. Luke Graham’s struggles to track a serial killer imperiling his city. Did you feel your military training helped you provided a detailed representation of the law enforcement process? Do you see connections between your own background and the stories you prefer to write?

Military training consists of breaking down the person you are and building up a person that follows orders and pays attention to detail. Along the way comes a heavy dose of learning to communicate. Knights of the Shield is a transformative story that attempts to tackle some of the avenues of communication between several character groupings. For the police procedures though, I contacted the San Antonio Public Affairs officer of the SAPD and asked them questions.  See?  Communication!

  1. For authors considering exploring characters or contexts related to the military, what recommendations would you have for them (e.g., important topics for research, pitfalls to avoid)?

Any and every author can use the advice a writing instructor once gave me.  “It’s not what you don’t know that will kill your writing. It’s what you THINK you know.” Apply that to all writing. As for the military, avoid what I call the NCIS effect, where the latest and greatest tech always saves the day. Tech doesn’t save people, people save people.

  1. What do you feel is the biggest misconception of the military, or specifically of the US Air Force, that you encounter in fiction?

The biggest misconception is the one usually portrayed on TV and in movies, done in one of two ways: Those military types that follow all orders and those that follow none. Military people are people like any civilian and as characters in a book, they should have all the associated color and background to make them effective and real, not the stereotype.

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  1. What was the best lesson for daily life that your military training taught you?

Communicate, effectively. In Air Traffic Control, you must communicate effectively, or things can get ugly in a hurry. Secondly, something life taught along with military training. Keep emotions under control. Use them to fuel your efforts to get a project completed. Uncontrolled emotions cloud judgment and break down communication.

  1. Any other tips for writers hoping to explore the military in their writing?

Keep in mind what these folks have volunteered to do. Respect the military in your writing, even if the antagonist of your story is of military background. Understand that a military person is still a person, susceptible to everything any civilian is. Avoid stereotypes, because, like I said before, what you THINK you know about your writing will kill your writing.