Monday, April 14, 2014

Wordcraft -- Who’s writing here? And why?

Surrounded by tens of thousands of publications at the Dallas Public Library’s central branch, in the middle of last Saturday’s Dallas International Bookfair, it seemed appropriate for a group of Dallas writers to gather to talk about why they write. Robert Wilonsky, managing editor for the digital version of The Dallas Morning News, guided the conversation with panel members Harry Hunsicker, Karen Blumenthal and Laura (L.A.) Starks.

Of the three, only Blumenthal originally had a career in writing, as a financial journalist. In a twist stranger than fiction, and egged on by her history-reading daughter, she parlayed her financial expertise into a children’s nonfiction book about the stock market crash of 1929. Hunsicker was (and still is) a commercial real estate appraiser, a job that leads him to many of the settings he uses in his alternate life as writer of mysteries and thrillers, including his latest novel, The Contractors, out this year. And Starks said that her original career as a chemical engineer involved “the same looking at risk” as in her thriller fiction, except that “in fiction, it’s not what can go wrong, but what will go wrong.”

Given all this, Wilonsky wondered, where did they get the chutzpah to begin a book? How did they force themselves to face the daunting blank screen of a computer?

“I had this kid who became fascinated with the New Deal,” Blumenthal said. “She was nine.” While searching for reading material for her daughter, she discovered a dearth of high-quality nonfiction for children, a need that prompted her to write her own book. “All my colleagues said, why would you do that? Who would read it? I won an award which,” she said wryly, “doesn’t make you any money, but you get to write another book.”

She had since written children’s nonfiction about computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs, Prohibition, and is currently at work on a children’s book about the evolution of machine guns. And the difference between writing nonfiction for adults versus for children? While nonfiction for adults “goes off in all sorts of tangents, when you write for children, you strip that down to the essence.”

“I tried to write the great American novel as my first book,” Hunsicker said. “I wrote about seventy pages. And they were really bad. Once I clued in the genre that I read, the blank screen was not that intimidating.”

“I would have this scene and then another and another,” Starks said. “I had about 50,000 words and I thought, this must be a book. I was so wrong.” She credited Suzanne Frank, program director for SMU’s continuing education creative writing classes for teaching her what a book really was. “She said, you need to make it larger in scope, and she was so right. The book would go on to become the thriller 13 Days.

Hunsicker, too, credited SMU’s creative writing classes for helping him develop his story-writing skills.

“Two of you talk about taking classes at SMU,” Wilonsky said. “Is it possible to teach someone to write?”

“That’s a can of worms,” Hunsicker said. “You can teach people to write a paragraph or a scene but you can’t teach them to write a story.”

Blumenthal disagreed--at least to a point. Writing, she said “is hard. It’s painful. It’s ugly. People who are willing to do that can learn to be better writers.”

(For more about the writers involved in this discussion, see their websites,,, and For more about SMU’s continuing education creative writing program, see And next Monday, I’ll discuss local resources, from free to pricey, for writers.)

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