“Writing a book is a long process of trial and error and thinking and rethinking, until pieces click into place and you have something that feels right.” -Chaitali Sen
Chaitali Sen is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky and the story collection A New Race of Men from Heaven, chosen by Danielle Evans as the winner of the 2021 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories and essays have been published by American Short Fiction, Boulevard, Catapult, Colorado Review, Ecotone, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, and many other publications. She holds an MFA from Hunter College – City University of New York, and currently lives in Central Texas.
On Saturday, January 27th, Chaitali Sen is teaching a class for the WLT called “Beginnings Bootcamp: Start Your Story, Hook Your Reader.” In this class, you’ll examine the various choices that go into beginning a manuscript, identify common pitfalls, and learn how to find the right beginning. This class is the first installment of “The Narrative Arc” class package, which will cover beginnings, middles, and endings.
Here’s what Chaitali had to share with us:
Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?
Chaitali Sen: I started writing in order to understand or cope with things I was experiencing when I was growing up, but after a while I realized how much I enjoyed writing. It became one of my favorite things to do even though it was so difficult. There are a lot of hard things I see other people do and I think – that’s really not for me – but somehow writing books is the hard thing that I do.
Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?
CS: Sometimes I just have to go do something else, something not so cerebral like take a walk or bake a cake. But most often I overcome these challenges by reading and getting inspired by what other writers do. In terms of habits, I recently started meeting with some friends from my MFA program over zoom and writing with them a few times a week. Since I’m not so self-motivated in my old age, this has been a great intervention.
Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?
CS: I think writing is unlike other crafts in that every time you start a new project, you have to teach yourself how to do this all over again. Maybe every kind of composing is like that – I don’t know, but I think with stories, it’s not exactly a matter of accumulated skills and successes. A lot of times I really don’t know what I’m doing, but I know that I can figure it out, because I’ve done that before. But I think in writing, rookie mistakes will be part of the writing life whether you’re one year or twenty years in.
Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?
CS: Give yourself room to explore and try different things. Don’t get too locked in to your initial conception of a story, because that initial conception might be holding you back from really writing a great story.
Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?
CS: In both a novel and memoir, you need to give your characters room – to grow, change, act, make mistakes, learn or not learn, and reveal themselves. That space has to be made in the beginning of your manuscript.
Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from “The Narrative Arc” class package?
CS: Drawing from my experience as a writer, editor, and reader, and from the many different and sometimes contradictory craft advice on narrative arc, in these classes I will boil each part down to the essential elements of story that you can apply to the process of writing your manuscript. Despite what all the pundits and book doctors say, there are no magic bullets to speed write your book. Writing a book is a long process of trial and error and thinking and rethinking, until pieces click into place and you have something that feels right. What vexing problems should you be working through at each stage? That’s what this narrative arc course is about.