Authors Lab Makes Novel Dreams A Reality
Many of us have thought or even said aloud, “I should write a book.” Even people who aren’t writers say they have a book – a novel, a memoir – inside them. And if they only had the time, they’d just sit down and write it.
But it takes more than dedicated time – although it takes plenty of that, to be sure.
First-time novelist Meredith Ritchie has done what most of us only dream about. The banker and mother of grown triplets has written a novel, Poster Girls, that’s set in World War II Charlotte.
She wrote every morning before work, encouraged and guided by a Charlotte-based village of creatives, starting with Charlotte Center for Literary Arts’ Authors Lab, an intensive program designed to guide aspiring authors through the process of writing a full-length novel or memoir.
The “science” behind the “art” of writing
“Authors Lab helps you establish a strong personal writing practice (habits, discipline, word-count goals) and covers essential topics like revision, tech tools, building a writing community, giving and receiving feedback, and navigating the publishing world,” said Kathie Collins, co-founder of Charlotte Lit and an Authors Lab instructor.
“Strange as it may seem, most people who apply to Authors Lab have never published anything at all, or even tried,” said Paul Reali, co-founder of Charlotte Lit and an Authors Lab teacher.
“Many of them have had a story idea for a while – a couple months or a lifetime – but they don’t have the creative writing skills or understanding of the story development process necessary for turning that idea into a book,” he continued.
“We’ve had people show up at information sessions with completed first drafts; others with nothing more than back-of-the-napkin sketches. Most candidates, however, fall somewhere in-between.”
“That said, published writers, including prize-winning journalists and freelance writers, join the cohort each year,” he continued. “Three in our incoming class! The most common reason published writers give for applying to Authors Lab is that, despite years in the profession, they’ve found writing a novel or memoir to be a completely different kind of beast.”
“Among our current and past cohort members we also have several retired attorneys, engineers, corporate executives, marketing and medical professionals, teachers and entrepreneurs of all kinds.”
An idea is hatched
Ritchie is a career banker with an MBA – although she feels like being part of Authors Lab was akin to earning an MFA.
“I work for Wells Fargo and do a lot of business writing and training,” Ritchie explained. “In business writing, it’s like the greatest number of words wins. I had to learn that creative writing is more like – not poetry, exactly – but more on that spectrum.”
The idea for the book came to her because of her work
“I started thinking about women’s leadership and how women lead, and I couldn’t really answer that question because most of the women leaders I’ve encountered lead like men. I was like, Gosh, I wonder if there’s ever been a time when the men were gone.”
A look into its history revealed a setting for her novel — a lost-to-time munitions plant in Charlotte that had once employed one in ten Charlotteans.
“I just stumbled on the shell plant,” she said. “It had 10,000 employees at its peak, and Charlotte had about 100,000 people at the time. So, it literally employed one in 10 people … and it was a very dangerous place to work. You were surrounded by gunpowder while making these 40-millimeter shells that were shot off of naval ships – primarily to shoot down planes. Some estimates put the number of women working there at 90%.”
She used the public library’s Carolina Room and even the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to do her research. She built her story on five characters – all women – who are co-workers at the plant.
The book is set during World War II, but it is a product of its author’s era. “I had the idea right before the ‘Me, too’ movement hit,” Ritchie said. “And then, came the Black Lives Matter movement. I wrote it through part of the pandemic.”
“I was nervous about going from zero to three children in the year 2000,” she said. “I was really nervous about going from three to zero in the year 2018.”
Writing a novel was a way to ward off any empty-nester blues. But it was more than a whim or an escape.
A novelist is created
“Meredith came to Authors Lab with a solid idea and a strong work ethic,” Collins said. “She is an excellent researcher, and it showed. She had the story clearly imagined and mapped before she started. Not everyone has to build a scene-by-scene spreadsheet, as Meredith had done (much to the delight and chagrin of the other writers), but it is instructive in that Meredith will be the first of her cohort to publish her book.”
“Each author has unique strengths and struggles,” she continued. “With her work ethic and logical mind, Meredith didn’t need accountability so much as to learn how to integrate her research into well-crafted, engaging scenes. She learned that skill and emerged from the program not only with a book but as a novelist.”
Authors Lab cohort members find a guiding hand and accountability partners. “Working on a book requires sitting down at the keyboard, but what then?” asked Reali.
“Completing a full-length manuscript is a much more complex process than most people imagine,” he continued. You need writing skills, yes, but also an understanding of story elements – structure, scene, point of view, character development, dialogue, conflict, ‘B’ and ‘C’ stories.”
Collins added: “Our curriculum addresses these critical skills in a format that enables writers to practice them within their own manuscripts – in real time. Sharing the journey with other novelists and memoirists makes the travel easier and more fun, of course. Plus, you’re more likely to cross the finish line, and cross it sooner, with a team dedicated to holding your little winged feet to the earth.”
Ritchie joined Authors Lab intent on completing her manuscript. Most people do. “When people are honest with themselves, they generally admit a desire to get their writing in front of an audience,” Reali said. “They want to see their books in print, whether through a traditional press or self-publishing. That’s as it should be.”
Finding your story by telling it
“Except for personal journals, everything we write, from simple email to doctoral dissertation, has an intended audience,” he continued. “Even so, creative writing is different from other forms of writing in that it’s also an act of discovery. We only find our stories by telling them, so we must be pulled by the pleasure of that unfolding process. If your only goal is to be a published author, you won’t find the energy necessary to sustain the writing process. You have to really want the story for itself.”
“Writing a book is a years-long, multiple-draft process,” Collins said. “Authors Lab is a year-at-a-time program, designed to help writers through whatever draft they are on – or through multiple drafts. Most people enter while working on their first draft, and about half finish that draft within the first year, while another quarter finish it within two years. Some continue for multiple years and multiple drafts. As we like to say it, Authors Lab meets them where they are.”
Ritchie appreciated being part of the cohort. “I can be a very disciplined person, but it’s also nice to have that regimented class where you have to write a chapter a month, because you’re going to have to show it to 12 other people and they’re going to critique you while you’re in the room,” she said. “Everyone is assigned a coach. Mine was Paula Martinac, an English professor at UNC Charlotte. She’s a published author, and that was a great pairing.”
But most of the work of writing happens away from class. Ritchie set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day and averaged 800.
“I would wake up and read what I’d written the morning before,” Ritchie said. “I’d hate all of it and would make little tweaks. It was important just to get the words on paper – just put something down and then go back when you can and fix it. That’s how the story forms. I spent about two hours before work every morning revising and writing.”
During the 16 months Ritchie spent writing, she was almost singularly devoted to the novel: “I had little pads of paper all over the house because I would come up with an idea and would have to write it down.”
She said the book, in published form, represents perhaps its sixth iteration.
Charlotte is front and center
Not only is Poster Girls set in Charlotte, it’s entirely a product of Charlotte. Its author is a Charlotte native. It was edited by Charlotte-based professional editors, including Betsy Thorpe. It was published by Charlotte-based Warren Publishing. Charlotte author Kathy Izard (“The Hundred Story Home”) referred Ritchie to Charlotte Lit. Even the cover art was created by a Charlotte artist – Eva Crawford, whose studio is at Dilworth Artisan Station. The cover model was Joy Farley, a local Realtor and longtime friend of Crawford’s.
“I really wanted to use as many Charlotte resources as I could,” Ritchie said. “I did try to get a New York agent, and that was the most punishing process I’ve been through in a long time.”
Most of her research took place in Charlotte. She talked to two women – Ruth Helms and Marilyn Price – whose mothers worked in the plant. Their memories are incorporated into the book.
She also talked to Sally Robinson, after finding a 2013 article in Charlotte magazine in which she reminisced about growing up in Myers Park during the war years. “She told me about the Western Union car,” Ritchie said. “You didn’t want to see that in your driveway because that was bad news.”
The writing life
“What’s most surprising for everyone is just how difficult and involved the book-writing process is,” Collins said. “Even experienced writers can be flummoxed by how many things you have to know and pay attention to at once.”
“It’s a little like learning how to drive. You need basic mechanics for making the car move. You have to understand the rules of the road. Anticipate the actions of other drivers. Navigate in traffic. And you need to do all these at the same time.”
Ready to write? Read this first.
If you, like so many of us, have a book inside you that you’re eager to get out, Reali has this advice:
“If a good long nap doesn’t disabuse you of the notion, then read, read, read – everything you can find in the genre in which you want to write, plus a little from other genres, too. There’s no such thing as a writer who isn’t also an avid reader. After you’ve canceled your Netflix subscription and read several novels/memoirs, take a good creative writing class. Find out if you’re in love with your idea only, or whether you actually enjoy writing.”
Meredith Ritchie is already at work on her next novel. Learn more about Authors Lab at charlottelit.org.
BREAKING! Charlotte Lit announced yesterday that they are looking for a new home. The Midwood International & Cultural Center, their home since they formed in 2015, has been sold and will be closing. They need to relocate in 2022. It could cost $20,000 to move and upfit a new space. You can make a tax-deductible gift to Charlotte Lit here.
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