Kickstart Your Writing Orange

October 2017



▪ Q&A: Rene Denfeld on darkness and hope
▪ Writing prompt: Scariest day ever
▪ Check out this blog post—later
▪ NaNoWriMo coming up
▪ Mark Robben’s stories declared finalists
▪ Markets: Stories out loud
▪ Nerdy words: Unusual fish
▪ Showcase: “The Date” by Kerry McPherson
▪ Subscribe to Kickstart for free!
Q&A: Rene Denfeld on darkness and hope
Writing prompt: Scariest day ever
Check out this blog post—later
NaNoWriMo coming up
Mark Robben’s stories declared finalists
Markets: Stories out loud
Nerdy words: Unusual fish
Showcase: “The Date” by Kerry McPherson
Subscribe to Kickstart for free!
Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld

Q&A: Rene Denfeld on darkness and hope

Joining us this month is Portland writer Rene Denfeld, author of the recently released literary thriller The Child Finder and the 2014 novel The Enchanted, which won the French Prix Award and an American Library Association Medal for Excellence in Fiction. She has authored four nonfiction books and been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Oregonian. She also is a licensed legal investigator who has worked on many death penalty cases and with sex trafficking victims and innocents in prison. She says it is in her novels that she finds “the greatest hope, the poetry and magic of life.”

In your novels you write about difficult things you’ve seen in your work, such as child abuse and prison conditions and corruption. Does writing about these topics influence how you experience them when you encounter them in real life?
Yes, I’ve found the experiences shape the novels, and the novels shape the experiences. I process a lot in writing. Many times it is the writing that reveals to me truths that I hadn’t recognized before, whether observations about mass incarceration or the systemic causes of child abuse, or the cycles of violence. The writing helps me see the hope, too. I can step back and see how resilient people are, how even when I am dealing with the worst cases there are so many people who want to help, from family members to volunteers. We hear so much about the harm of the world, but seldom do we hear about the strength and goodness that are threaded through it.

As a novelist, how much have you chosen your material, and how much has it chosen you?
Both my novels came to me in a voice. I hear the voice and it leads me to a character, and the character leads me to the story and the plot.

Your novels have a lot of dark characters and subject matter. Do you ever worry that that might turn your readers off?
I don’t see them as dark novels at all—I think they are shot through with magic and hope. Very few people have the privilege or luck to escape the trauma that inflicts most people in our country, whether through war, racism, segregation, incarceration, abuse, domestic violence, or just plain loneliness and grief. Rather than try to escape that, I want to lead readers through the darkness to a better place. I want to show how we can not only survive the hard times, we can thrive.

I know this is true from my own life. I lived through unspeakable horror as a child and was homeless as a teenager. I also know it is true from my children’s lives—I adopted them from foster care, and was honored to be the one to help them heal. And I also know it is true from my work. It’s easy to give up on humanity. But when we get in and do the work we discover the hope.

Would you recommend dark subject matter to other fiction writers?
I’d ask “What makes something dark, and what makes something light?” A book others might see as light could be seen by some as actually oppressive, by painting a utopian account of life. There is no room in those stories for someone like me, or my kids.

You value the truth. Why is it important that people know the truth? And how does truth telling differ in nonfiction writing and in novel writing?
I often tell witnesses that I believe justice happens when we tell the truth. I believe that with my heart and soul. The truth frees us. It lets us see our connections as humans, our frailties, our mistakes, our grievances, as well as our goodness and strength. I see fiction as a way to tell the complex truths in ways that don’t make readers feel as defensive. Fiction allows us to see the truth embodied in people, not behind a wall of argument.

You seem very motivated to help others. Do you view your writing and your investigative work as equally helpful to people? If not, which do you consider more helpful, and why?
My investigative work and parenting have been the chance to help real people. I’ve worked hundreds of cases, and adopted three kids from foster care as well as fostered others. That’s activism on a daily level, one person at a time. My novels have the ability to reach thousands more. I think both are effective, in different ways. I get so many letters from readers who tell me my novels changed their lives. Many are from trauma survivors who feel that someone finally understood, and gave them hope. My novels push back hard against societal messages of shame. They are about victims claiming their stories and their right to be happy and healed.

In your most recent novel, The Child Finder, Oregon’s natural environment is a strong presence. Did you grow up in Oregon and spend a lot of time out in nature? If so, what was that experience like for you, and how did it affect your writing? If not, how did you develop your sense of the natural world in Oregon?
I did grow up in Oregon. The novel was a great chance to showcase the beauty here. You can go from beach to snowy mountains to the desert here, all in one day. I love that. The wilderness and beauty of Oregon definitely shaped me as a writer. Even growing up poor in the city, it was impossible to escape the lush courage and wilderness, spouting from every abandoned ditch, filling the trees with bird song. It is a gorgeous state.

As an investigator and writer, you have spent a lot of time focusing on crime, violence, and pain. How do you keep it from getting you down?
Rather than get me down, it has made me more optimistic over time. When we are involved hands on with change, we feel much better about ourselves and our futures. Nothing is more depressing than doing nothing. Frankly, only people of privilege can afford do that. Pessimism is a luxury.

What advice do you have for writers who want to tackle subject matter that might be painful for them or their readers?
Write from your heart. Tell your truth and the truth of your world. Silence the inner critic that tells you it won’t sell or people won’t like it. What you write will be a salve for [people who have] been silenced, ignored, and shamed their entire lives. Treat victims with respect. Even fictional victims deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Never, ever, exploit victims or violence. Harm is not a plot device, or there for your or the reader’s entertainment. Hold true to the sanctity and joy of life—be real and be loving.

Writing prompt: Scariest day ever

What was the scariest day in your life? Write about that.

Check out this blog post—later

Don’t do it now, but sometime later you can go to the blog of Kickstart publisher Nancy Woods to catch a link to a Psychology Today article that identifies five common causes of procrastination: absence of structure, unpleasant tasks, delays in reward and punishment, anxiety, and lack of confidence.

The post will always be there, so no need to rush. If you do hurry to read the article, you might feel compelled to address any procrastination issues you might have about your writing. And we don’t want that.

NaNoWriMo coming up

Working on a novel? Want to work on a novel? If so, get ready. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is coming up. provides structure, community, and encouragement to help you write a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and November 30.

Once your draft is done, you can return to the site in January and February (the “Now What?” months) for support with the revision and publishing process.

Mark Robben at Annie Bloom s 3-23-17 3x

Mark Robben reads at Annie Bloom’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Nancy Woods.

Mark Robben's stories declared finalists

Two stories by Kickstart Your Writing student Mark Robben were honored as finalists by Liar’s League PDX.

Not familiar with Liars’ League PDX? Twice a year this organization selects four or five thought-provoking, emotionally engaging pieces of short fiction, then chooses a local actor to rehearse and read the pieces on performance night. Robben, a former fire fighter, submitted in July for the theme “fires and quakes.”

Robben didn’t follow all the Liars’ League PDX rules for his submissions. Both his pieces—“Stoking the Flames” and “A Sad Morning With a Very Blue Sky”—were nonfiction. One was shorter than the required word length and one longer. Yet both became finalists.

Way to go, Mark!

Markets: Stories out loud

Speaking of the Liars’ League, the organization’s next theme is “sacred and profane,” with a focus on the upcoming festive season. Offer your perspective—serious or comic—in 800 to 2,000 words by November 5.

Another market that will turn fiction into a story read out loud is Second Hand Stories. This weekly podcast accepts 1,500- to 5,000-word fiction of any genre. Response time is about 90 days.

Nerdy Words

Unusual fish

by Ann Sihler

A watery scene: A salmon quietly stashes a carton of cigarettes or bottle of whiskey behind an underwater boulder and flits away, without looking back. A pair of the big fish whisper together against the roar of a rapid, then hold in slower current, speaking to no one. Two more salmon slip up a side channel to spawn, in secret, staggering the timing of their return to the pool so no one suspects they were together. Nonchalance abounds. Nothing to see here!

That is the scene I imagined years ago when I read about “a discreet salmon population” in a watershed management document I was editing. The author didn’t know that “discreet” and “discrete”—two different words—have two different spellings. “Discreet” means careful and circumspect, as in not revealing information unnecessarily, while “discrete” means separate or distinct. Obviously my author was referring to individual salmon populations, so I changed the word to “discrete.”

That was long ago. But I keep hoping that one day, in the dark forest, high in the wild Cascades, I’ll find the other type of salmon.

If they are truly discreet, though, how will I ever know?

Student Showcase

“The Date”

by Kerry McPherson

Kerry McPherson writes short, dark fiction, even when it is not Halloween season. She knew she wanted to write starting in third grade but put it off until she was about 30, when she had a dream in which an older version of herself appeared—as a writer!

During her six years as a Kickstart student, Kerry has taken part in local readings, published her stories in several anthologies, and showcased her work on her website, where the scales of justice always tip. The following story appears in its entirety.

“Don’t leave me here,” he said. Almost crying.

He had dark rings for eyes.

“I just want to find that special person. So I can stop looking,” he said sadly. “But everybody ends up leaving. And I’m alone again.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” she replied. “I’m just not that person.”

He was so glum. She almost felt bad. But honestly, she never wanted to see him again.

“Someone else will come along,” she said. “There’s a ton of people out there making bad decisions every day.”

Darkness shrouded him. She wanted to pat his arm but she was afraid of touching him.

“I want you,” he said, sullenly. “We both like The Cure.”

He was right. The song "In Between Days" still blared from her car stereo:

“Go on, go on,

And disappear

Go on, go on,

Away from here”

The sun was setting. Shadows stretched out lazily on the side of the road.

He made her weary.

A siren screamed in the distance.

She began backing slowly away. “Hey, I’ll see you later, ok?” She desperately wanted to go home. “Now’s just not a good time for this,” she continued.

The emptiness in his eyes scared her and she didn’t like the way he gripped his pointy stick thing.

She looked at the wreckage and said, “I should have seen the signs.”

The siren grew louder.

A wave of fatigue swept over her.

He waited. Patiently.

The ambulance roared up to the scene.

He held out his bony fingers.

She thought he’d take her if she fell. She fought the urge to curl up on the side of the road and sleep.

She steadied herself as she began moving away.

“You’ll be sorry,” he whispered.

It was then that she saw the other car. There was another woman’s body laying lifeless, beside her own. This realization grew on her like a vine and quickly wrapped itself around and strangled the life out of her.

She watched as they zipped the tattered bodies up in the bags.

“Wait!” she reached out for him. But it was too late.

He enfolded his bony fingers around the other woman’s hand.

The song continued:

“Come back, come back,

Don’t walk away,

Come back, come back,

Come back today”

“But I like The Cure!” she yelled.

They faded away.

The sun dimmed. The road seemed endless before her.

All was still. She suddenly feared eternity.

“Don’t leave me here!” she cried.

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A Nancy Woods production

Thanks for reading Kickstart, which is a publication of Nancy Woods—author and writing coach. If you have any comments about the newsletter, feel free to email them to Nancy or her newsletter sidekick (aka editor), Ann Sihler.

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