Fall Up

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
                   — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

You already know that Gotham offers excellent writing classes, as we’ve been doing since 1993, and that we have lots of classes starting up this fall.

A few other things you should know about…

Blog & Newsletter Writing
We have a new course that focuses on writing blogs and newsletters. It replaces our Blog Writing and Blog Basics courses, with totally up-to-date info on both blogs and newsletters (the latter being a hot thing in the writing world). With blogs and newsletters, you get to create your very own publication, how you want, when you want. The maiden voyage of this course begins Online on October 10.

Video Game Writing
Where can you find a course on writing for Video Games? Gotham is one of the only places. We have Video Game Writing, Part 1 starting Online October 17. Part 2 is coming soon. And—psssst—we allow teens to take this course.

The Razor
Gotham’s online literary magazine just released its October edition. Each month we present two flash stories—one fiction, one nonfiction, each with original artwork and a polished audio recording. We want you to be reading The Razor as well as submitting stories to it. If you get picked, we’ll even pay you. (And stay tuned for our new course in flash fiction and nonfiction.)

Gotham Literary/Commercial Fiction Conference
Coming up on Saturday November 18 and Sunday November 19, on Zoom, this is the place to be if you’re interested  in publishing a literary or commercial novel. Day 1 will feature panels and presentations, including my interview with Ann Napolitano, author of Hello Beautiful (the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club). Day 2 will be the pitching roundtables, where you get to pitch and discuss your book project at a table with two top literary agents and a handful of fellow writers. You can attend Day 1 or Day 2, or both.

Creative Writing Scholarship for Writers of Color
Every quarter we offer a new scholarship for writers of color. The current scholarship focuses on creative writing, in all its brilliantly-colored forms. You have until November 15 to apply.

Frightening First Line Contest
With a nod to Halloween, our Fall contest invites you to create a frightening first line for a story. You can use more than one sentence, as long as you don’t go over 31 words. Winner gets a free class.

I know, I know, it’s almost too much excitement. But on Sunday November 5, most of us change our clocks and we get an extra hour of sleep.

Alex Steele,


A Title That Works

Awhile back, I was working with a student whose memoir encompassed the AIDS epidemic, being (illegally) deported from American Samoa, taking a midnight tour of Algiers, lecturing Madeleine Albright on the United Nations’ failures during the AIDS crisis (while Albright was the UN Ambassador), and explaining a suitcase full of female condoms to curious customs inspectors in Tehran.

And the title Martina Clark was working with for this romp through international awkward encounters? My Accidental Life. 

“You may have to rethink that,” I said.

Martina liked it because her life and her story are just so full of surprises. But I kept tripping over “Accidental.” I mean, Martina puts the “active” in activist.

Ultimately, a few more surprises would determine the title for Martina’s memoir: My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19.

“My life…is, indeed, filled with many—many—unexpected events,” Martina says. “And I’ve bookended the memoir with COVID which, unfortunately, is also timely and relevant.”

In looking for her title in the surprises, adventures, and urgent social issues of her story, Martina did exactly what Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recommends.

Paulson-Nguyen is a professional title doctor (yes, that’s a thing!), and the No. 1 mistake she sees is authors choosing soft-focus titles.

“A vague title does a book a disservice,” she says. “I begin with the writer’s query letter and synopsis. They contain vivid imagery; action; and the specifics of your story’s world.”

OK, you’ve found imagery, action, and details. Now what?

Play, Paulson-Nguyen says. Try:

  • Reworking a significant snippet of dialogue;
  • Enlivening a phrase by adding a verb;
  • Linking two words you don’t usually see together, like Katherine Standefer’s book Lightning Flowers;
  • Making up a new word, like Samantha Montano’s Disasterology.

These are the moves Gotham Fiction teacher Divya Sood tries for her own books. With her first novel, a story about reincarnation manifested through shared dreams, Divya landed her title when she finally decided on the name for her protagonist: Maya,which means illusion in Sanskrit.

For her second novel, she realized her characters refer repeatedly to a line from the poem “Tonight I Write” by Pablo Neruda: “Through nights like this one I held her in my arms. I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.”

“The book—Nights Like These—is about love and loss,” Divya says. “So, I thought it apt.”

Once you have a good candidate for a title, you still have one more test to run, Paulson-Nguyen says. Read it to your friends. If they pause before gushing, “I love it!” it’s still not the right one.

When it’s right, they’ll react immediately, Paulson-Nguyen says. “We all recognize a title that works.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Sensory Soup

Yeah, so I found myself in Lake Charles, Louisiana about two weeks ago. Long story why, won’t go into that here. It’s not the most exciting town around, but they do have some good gumbo, like the bowl I ate (shown in pic) from KD’s Diner.

You don’t fall asleep while you’re eating gumbo. It’s alive with an intricate blend of taste sensations that’s a bit different wherever you go. There’s a kick, yes, but also a darkness (from the roux) that seems like it’s coming from somewhere deep underground.

We should make the most of our senses because it makes our lives spicier, and this goes double for the writers in the room, who are responsible for stirring the world around us into a soup of words. 

Here’s Fred Plotkin, author of books on opera and Italian cuisine:

Most humans have been given the remarkable gift of five senses, but few use them to their fullest potential. I try to activate all of them all the time and, in so doing, make myself open to sensations and memories most people miss. I listen rather than hear. I savor rather than eat or smell. I look rather than see. I feel rather than touch.

You can translate sensory experience in a simple manner, like this line from Rick Rojas’s NY Times article about the recent heat in Louisiana:

Cool air swirled through the devil-red metal box of a building.

Or you can get fancier with it, like this night-sky description from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses:

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

Sight is key, but cook with the other four senses as well, even blending them. My colleague Kelly Caldwell wrote about the sense of touch here.

Check out this from Elizabeth McCracken’s short story “It’s Not You”:

The Bloody Mary had some spice in it that sent a tickle through my palate into my nose. A prickle, a yearning, an itch: a gathering sneezish sensation.

Aren’t you feeling that?

And check out this from Tommy Orange’s novel There There:

I watch my shadow grow long then flatten on the highway as a car flies by without slowing or seeming to notice me. Not that I want slowing or notice. I kick a rock and hear it ding against a can or some hollow thing in the grass. I pick up my pace and as I do a hot gust of air and the smell of gas blow by with the passing of a big truck.

When you read this, you’re standing on that highway right beside this character. What did you experience, sensorially, today or yesterday? Write it up.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President