Thursday, June 23, 2011

Robin Stratton: On Air and advice for aspiring writers

HALLIE: I met Robin Stratton when we were judging a contest for Minuteman High School. She's a writing coach (author of The Revision Process) who teaches writing workshops and publishes Boston Literary Magazine.

Robin recently published her first novel, ON AIR. It's about an aging, once hot Boston radio personality, whose mother's illness and deathbed revelation throws him headlong into midlife crisis.

Welcome to Jungle Red! And congratulations on your new novel. Tell us about the unheroic hero of your book, Eric Storm.

ROBIN: On Air is a coming of age story about a fifty-year old pop-culture baby boomer on a downward spiral: divorced, jobless, obsessed with a woman who's 30 years younger, and ill equipped for his new role as caretaker for his dying mother. Like so many people at this mid point, he can't believe that his life is so different from what he planned. The characters in that new show Men of a Certain Age always remind me of my character, Eric Storm... and what an odd phrase to describe a time when so many of us are anything but "certain!"

HALLIE: Ha! Good point. Maybe it should be Men of an Uncertain Age.

Why a radio disc jockey?

ROBIN: I wanted Eric's fall to be from a high, glamorous place, and I remember as a teenager admiring DJs - they got paid to play music! So I wanted him to love his job as a hot shot DJ, then become a casualty of changing times and find himself left behind.. suddenly part of the older generation having trouble adjusting to the new ways. I felt that rock and roll was the best way to exemplify the clash of then and now because it's sort of the eternal definition of the division of "us" and "them" and I've always been fascinated by the way so many of us migrate from one side to the other as we age. I don't think any other profession would have shown that so clearly.

HALLIE: As a writing coach, do you find you have to turn your inner critic on or off in order to write your own work?

ROBIN: When I'm critiquing my own work I turn the volume up to 11 !!

HALLIE: That's so interesting. I agree with you -- when I'm critiquing my work, I turn the volume WAY up. My problem is turning it down low enough to get that always-lousy first draft written. What's some unique advice you give writers in your book, "The Revision Process?"

ROBIN: One thing I tell clients to do that I've never heard anywhere is to read every word out loud. It's tedious, but forces you to be mindful... hearing your writing is so different from seeing your writing, and you can pick up on a lot of weaknesses and typos. No one ever wants to do it, but it's really so helpful!

HALLIE: Tell us abut the Boston Literary Magazine - what kinds of work do you publish?

ROBIN: Boston Literary Magazine comes out four times a year, and we try to keep material seasonal; in other words don't send us a poem about a snow storm in May when we're collecting for our summer issue.

I love character-driven material; I love watching people engage in ordinary dynamics and activities that we can all relate to - going back to the boyfriend who abused you, or getting revenge on a boss who fired you, or sharing final loving moments with a dying friend - and seeing something powerful (and therefore extraordinary) come out of it. I'm not interested in descriptive pieces, even if they're beautifully crafted. I'm not saying they're not good, I'm just saying that's not what I like.

We accept poetry, very short fiction (we have a strict 250-word limit), dribbles (exactly 50 words), drabbles (exactly 100 words) and haiku. The best way to have a piece accepted by BLM is to review our Submission Guidelines page on the website,

HALLIE: Robin will be checking back in all day, so chime in with comments or questions about the revision process, about characters who are tragically aged out, and any memories you might have of an aging disc jockey.


  1. Hey , Robin! Your book sounds terrific...thanks for being here.

    I love the revision process--and I think your cover is so perfect--it's a joy to me when I can delete the words I don't need, and I'm left with the essence of the story.

    Maybe after all these years as a reporter, I've learned to embrace the editing process.

    So, say you have 5000 words. And have to cut it in half. How would you start? What questions would you ask?

  2. Lovely interview. I especially love the advice about reading aloud--that's how my writers group presents (we each read our piece aloud), and it works so well! Do you stop to do this by chapter, or simply when the mood strikes?

  3. Hi, Hank - I remember seeing you on the news many times! Great to hear from you, and thanks for the question.

    As an outside pair of eyes I can look at a manuscript and know right away what doesn't belong, but for clients who have been living with their novel for a few years, it can be a difficult process. So I go section by section (or scene by scene) and ask, "What purpose does this serve? Do we absolutely need to know this? Does it move the plot forward? Does it add to our understanding of a character?" If clients can't convince me that the scene should stay, I suggest taking it out, and seeing if it impacts the rest of the book in a negative way. Clients looking to trim their writing are always amazed at how much material they've included that doesn't contribute anything (and in fact, makes writing weaker - these are often the "boring parts" writers agonize over.) Years ago I realized that one of my main characters in a novel literally served NO purpose... she was there because I liked her. Not good enough! She was asked to leave.

    In terms of a 5000-word piece that needs to be cut in half (ouch!) the same technique applies... you can do it by word, by sentence, by paragraph.

    It's always so much fun when a client e mails to say "I took out a hundred words right away! It didn't hurt a bit!"

  4. Hi, Lexie's Mom! What a great idea to have the members in your group read their material out loud... I am going to start giving that advice to clients who belong to a group.

    When doing it alone, try to read as much of the book at one sitting as you can... one of the things you can pick up on is repeating words... I tend to have characters sigh a lot... and when I read out loud and someone sighs, it's an auditory trigger - Wait... didn't someone just sigh two pages ago? If you read in short spurts, you won't have that.

  5. I love the idea of reading my work aloud to 'hear' what's wrong with it -- you certainly don't want to hear its parts clunk when you read at the book launch.

    Having said that, I think there are those of us who can 'sell' a passage and make even bad writing SOUND good. I would not want my writing group to only hear it read aloud... because ultimately the book has to stand on its own in a reader's head.

    Having said that... again... I still like the idea. Have to think about it more.

  6. Thanks for being here, Robin. I love the premise of your book, and the fact that you made your protagonist an aging disc jockey. That's a hard come down from being the coolest of cool.

    And all good advice on the revisions. I tend to edit and cut as I go--over and over and over. But my problem with reading my book aloud is that all my characters have British accents and I don't, so they never sound right!

  7. Oh, that's exactly how I do it:
    I say--why do I need this? Is this the very best strongest word? What's the point of the scene, the paragraph, the sentence?

    Word by word, sentence by sentence.It's illuminating on so many levels!

    (On, and thanks for watching me on TV!)

  8. Hallie... that's an interesting, point... because it's true, writing always sounds better when it's read by the writer... perhaps unfairly so... but for me it's still the best way to "hear" potential problems... Deborah - On Air used to feature song lyrics, and so when I read the book outloud I had to sit there and sing, and always felt so silly! Hank: Sounds like you're ready to write your novel!

  9. I'm enjoying the interesting discussion, as I'm a total advocate of reading aloud, but measuredly. That is, I think it's essential for a writer to read her/his drafts aloud to catch errors, glitches, repetitions, etc. However, in general I think it's too time-consuming to read all the material aloud in a writing group, but that depends on the group's structure. If several chapters are being discussed in one meeting, better not to read it all aloud. It would probably work better for the author to select certain passages that she wants to discuss and read those aloud.

    Also, I'm intrigued by Deborah's comment about her characters' British accents never sounding right. I'd think that makes it all the more important to read their speech aloud in order to refine/correct/revise their dialogue. Surely you wouldn't want to publish until their accents sound authentic.
    I know it's a challenge though, as I've been laboring with a novel set in Jamaica, an island with many different accents based on level of literacy, region of birth, and school attended by each character. One of my writing gurus used to advise that the dialogue of characters only needs to reveal the flavor of their accents. 'Nuf said.
    Rebecca Leo
    (Contributor to "The Revision Process")

  10. Rebecca, I hear the accents and dialects in my head. I just can't replicate them properly with my, um, slightly Texas twang. It's very frustrating, and for that reason I don't like doing readings at book signings because I don't think I do the work justice.

    Now, if I could just get Gerard Doyle, who narrates some of my books on audio, to do the draft readings for me . . .

  11. Deborah - Can you??

    Rebecca - I always thought you nailed the Jamaican accent !!