Monday, December 26, 2011

Unraveling the Tapestry - The Trouble With Endings

For the past two weeks, I've been working on the ending arc in revisions for my novel THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART.  It used to be an ending, but the old ending no longer fit. So it devolved into a hodge-podge of thematic ideas, key scenes, and placeholders strung together with notes.  Then, last week, with the freedom of winter break, I managed to come up with a collection of finished chapters.  But they didn't feel right.  I couldn't put my finger on the problem.

Lucky for me, my critique group met in spite of it being Christmas Eve, and I got some great input about the order of events and other key issues.  I left feeling wonderfully inspired.  Christmas was a non-writing day.  Even I knew there was no point tackling anything then.  But this morning, I was back at it and worked my way through the feedback from my group.  The result?  I've completely unraveled what I had and I'm back to a collection of scenes, notes, and thematic elements with missing links and placeholders.  Aaargh!  My intellect recognizes this was a necessary step to achieve my greater goal.  Some other part of me hates this feeling of going backward to move forward.

This process got me thinking about Penelope, Odysseus' long-suffering wife in Homer's ODYSSEY.  To put off the hordes of suitors clamoring to snatch her up, Penelope promises to remarry when she finishes the tapestry she's working on.  But she doesn't want to remarry.  Supposedly, she is so faithful, she believes Odysseus is alive and will return.  So, every night, she unravels the tapestry that she wove during the day.

I've always accepted this tale on face value - a clever way to get around her own vow, extracted under duress, while remaining faithful to her husband.  But today, I find myself contemplating Penelope the Artist.  She's been working on this damn tapestry for twenty years, but she willingly puts off its completion. Some part of her must have rebelled at the intentional destruction of her own artistic creation.  How did that feel?  Was she ever tempted to say "the hell with it - I just want to finish the damn thing"?

A writer's relationship with the completion of a novel has some similarities.  We know that once we finish, we have to say goodbye to the story and the characters that have been our faithful companions.  There's some grief and loss connected to that.  So, sometimes, we actually sabotage our own efforts at an ending, unraveling things just to put off the inevitable.  On the other hand, there are times when the unraveling is simply a necessary evil in the process of getting the right ending.  We don't want to end up with one of those annoying, if conveniently present, suitors that keep banging at the door demanding we just draw things to a conclusion.  No.  We want to remain faithful to the spirit of our novel, to our future readers, to the deeper themes of our work.  We want the right ending, even if it means unraveling our work night after night.

Tonight, I'll drink a toast to Penelope the Artist.  And then, tomorrow, I'll get back to work reweaving the tapestry of my ending, until I get it right.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hooray for Fellow Margin-Scribblers

The other day, there was an essay in THE OREGONIAN by Douglas Yocum decrying the tendency to write in books and insisting people should cease and desist, that it ruined the books for future owners and for sales.  I felt sad when I read it.  I disagreed.  Today, I rejoice because it is clear I was not alone.  Three letters to the editor and two columns in the Sunday book section (one by writer Natalie Berber and the other by teacher-writer Tim Gillespie) all responded to that essay, and all with variations on my own feelings.

Notes in the margins are a way to take part in the great cross-spatial, cross-temporal conversation that is the written word.  When you write and highlight and underline in your books, you are interacting with the text, giving it the kind of life it was meant to have.  For no written text can fully exist without a reader, any more than a play can fully exist without an audience.  The only exception to this "go-ahead-and scribble", of course, is books that don't belong to you - school textbooks, library books, books borrowed from a friend.

If someone else wrote in a book I now own, it gives that book life and history.  It widens the conversation.  It connects me, in a mysterious and particular way, to that unseen hand that scribbled the notes or highlighted the words.

I remember in high school coming upon a copy of a small collection of Persian tales that had belonged to my father.  All sorts of notes, reactions and responses were furiously scribbled in the margins and the pages and the inside cover.  It gave me a special kind of insight into my father's inner world, a gift I wouldn't trade for a million pristine copies of that same book.

I've just begun rereading WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  Some of the earliest clues to the real story of Cathy and Heathcliff are uncovered by the narrator through Cathy's scribblings inside her books. The narrator's relationship with Cathy's old books invites us, the reader, to interact with his tale as well.

I rejoice in knowing that there are so many book lovers like me, folks who understand the literary equivalent of the story of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT.  If I ever manage to get one of my books published, I hope it will be as well-loved as the Skin Horse in that tale, dog-eared, with coffee-stains and bookmarks and scribblings inside.  I must confess, I doubt that digital texts, no matter what their affordability or convenience, will ever receive that same kind of love.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Change Over Time Part 2 - Rereading Jane Austen

A while back I wrote about the different lens through which we view stories depending on the time of life in which we read them.  I mentioned rereading OLIVER TWIST at that time and promised to take on Jane Austen next.  Well, as predicted, Ms. Austen's work makes a lot more sense to me now, at age 45, than it did when I was in high school.  Not exactly a big surprise.

Specifically, I am rereading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.  Now, I must confess, the beautifully spot-on adaptation featuring Colin Firth, which my husband and I have watched several times, has perhaps enabled me to catch some of the nuances in the book that might still have escaped me even now.  However, I honestly believe the bulk of my increased appreciation of the humor and social commentary in the story comes from the heightened perceptions and insight that only age can provide.

This leads me to wonder why on earth we persist in assigning such books to read when people are too young to really appreciate them.  In fairness, perhaps there are many of you who became ardent admirers of Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy or D.H. Lawrence or Herman Melville at the tender age of 15.  I wonder, however, if that came about after reading them as assignments or after finding them on your own.

Even in college, so much of what I read became a massive swirling mishmash of ideas, whereas the same sorts of classic literature, explored on my own at my own pace with my own personal purposes AFTER college, resulted in deep insights and a lifetime love of those authors.  That is how I fell in love with Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, e.e.cummings, and many more.

Are there works of classic literature that, like fine wines, should not be served before their time?

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Writer's Thanksgiving

I am thankful for ...

  • my supportive husband, who encourages and honors my writing time.
  • my terrific critique group, which holds me accountable in productivity and quality.
  • friends who read my work and give me honest feedback.
  • small independent publishers and booksellers, who are willing to take risks.
  • the many incredible authors whose works have inspired, entertained and challenged me throughout the years.
  • computers and writing software, because quill penstypewriters and scotch tape are charmingly old-school but exhausting.
  • the new opportunities made possible by e-publishing.
  • the many people who will always return to printed books anyway.
  • reading the classics on my iPad at the gym.
  • print books, which survive falls, beach trips, coffee spills and power outages.
  • handprinted notes from another reader in the margins of a used book.
  • used book stores
  • living in a literary town like Portland, Oregon, where a bookstore is a happening place on a Saturday night, a literary lecture series packs the house, literary magazines and writing conferences pop up and thrive, and nationally recognized authors find refuge and inspiration.
  • coffee shops that welcome writers to linger and discuss.
  • the stories and characters that keep finding their way into my head and onto the page.
  • the human capacity to spin tales, which makes life so much more interesting and bearable.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Voices In Your Head: Are Writers Crazy?

I've been working with my third and fourth graders on using periods correctly in connected text.  "Listen to the voice in your head," I said one day.  "If it stops, then you probably need a period."  Not a rule, but a good guideline when the trickier nuances of grammar elude you.  So, I'm teaching children to listen to the voices inside their heads.

Isn't that what we writers do all the time?  Listen to the voices in our heads, follow the craziest, darkest impulses and hallucinations, enter waking dreams, talk to ourselves, project alter egos and multiple personalities that take on lives of their own and tell us what to do.  And we can't seem to stop.  It's pathological.

Some people even believe that you can't be a truly gifted writer, or gifted in any creative field, unless you're mentally ill.  They point to the long, long list of creative geniuses who struggled with mental illness, and, in so many cases, succumbed and committed suicide.  "If they'd had access to prozac, maybe they never would have created such great works."

People don't seem to apply quite the same argument to brilliant scientists.  And I can't think of many examples of great scientists who killed themselves.  Why?  Is the scientific mind less vulnerable to the destructive influence of creativity?  Or is scientific genius simply not viewed with the same mistrust as artistic genius?  Maybe I'm just less aware of the struggles great scientists have had with mental illness.  Perhaps the stigma is greater for a scientist who is insane because their mental illness could discredit their work, while the world may still embrace the works of an artist who is insane.

My husband and I watched the German silent film of FAUST last night.  I was struck by the similarities between Faust and Shakespeare's Prospero.  Magicians, working strange wonders with their mystical books.  Early alchemists blurred the lines between science and the mystical imagination all the time.  And people feared them, saw them as dabblers in dark magic making deals with the devil, or madmen attempting to play God, as in FRANKENSTEIN and so many similar tales (written by us creative types).

Personally, I like the mystical interpretation of creativity better than the psychological one.  Maybe, after all, every human being, in one way or another, has a link to the divine, to the spiritual world.  For some, it speaks through stories, for others through music, for others through science, for others through their hands or their children.  But I guess when your link to the divine seems alien or strange to the rest of the world, they reinterpret it as demonic or crazy.

Or maybe these are just the delusional ramblings of a madwoman.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Writer's Role in Social Change

Tonight, one minute after midnight, the city of Portland plans to evict Portland's component of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Occupy Portland.  I don't know if this will happen peacefully or with violence.  Two sides of the 99% - the Portland Police and the protesters - may well end up pitted against one another.

Thinking about this impending event and what it means has lead me to think about the writer's role in social change movements.  We have a duty to bear witness, to ask difficult questions, to generate conversation, perhaps even controversy.  Sometimes, we come down on one side, sometimes another, but often the writer's role is to explore the complicated world of the in-between.

John Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH is a powerful example of the writer bearing witness in an era of social change.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, with her work THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, gave voice to the earliest frustrations of feminism on the most intimate, personal level.  On the nonfiction side, I think of Howard Zinn's radical, perspective-altering PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.  Emile Zola, too, comes to mind.  Virginia Woolf's essay A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN is a stirring call to every woman to fight unceasingly for change.  One could argue that almost any writing has the potential to be a voice of change.  At a minimum, we have a duty to examine whether we are playing that role.

Perhaps the role of the writer in social change is clearest for writers of nonfiction - journalists, for example, or essayists.  For fiction writers, it may be more complicated.  Sometimes, the writer's position ends up being unpopular with both sides of the issue, because it is our duty to explore both sides.  The worst of social change literature is that which caricatures one side and therefore fails to speak to anyone but those who already embrace the author's viewpoint.  The best of social change literature casts light upon the dark corners and spurs action or powerful discussion.

In 1935, writer Archibald Macleish wrote a verse drama about the stock market crash entitled PANIC.  It features a chorus of the unemployed, and a group of bankers, and includes a scene in which angry radicals storm the board room of the bankers.  It gives heartfelt, beautiful poetic voice to the pain of the average person during an economic crisis.  It expresses the revolutionary anger such a crisis can engender.  And it commits the crime of humanizing even the bankers.  It ends with the declaration "Man's fate is a drum!"  It took me a while to understand this sentence, which seemed to be the culmination of the entire piece.  A drum must be beaten to make noise.  It requires a human hand and human action.  Macleish's simple statement is a call to action, but the action is left up to us.  Does any of this decades-old piece sound familiar?

Another well-known writer whose work came to mind as I thought about tonight's impending events and the Occupy Movement?  Dr. Seuss.  Specifically, HORTON HEARS A WHO, the story of a whole world so small the great oafs of the jungle couldn't, or wouldn't, recognize its existence until the entire community banded together and shouted "We are here!  We are here!  We are here!  We are here!"  It wasn't until the last, smallest member of the community spoke up - "because every voice counts" - that their presence became palpable to those in power.

In the wake of whatever happens tonight at Occupy Portland, and whatever happens in the other Occupy sites throughout the country as evictions loom, we writers must ask ourselves, what is our role?  How do we bear witness, spark action, generate discussion?

Postscript on November 19, 2011:  For an insightful and informative up-close perspective on Occupy Portland, check out David Loftus' series of blogposts at

Saturday, November 05, 2011

You Can't Win If You Don't Play

When it comes to all the schmoozing and self-promotion aspects of writing, I'm a big wimp and colossal whiner.  But at least I've learned one cardinal rule since I became a grown-up.  You can't get published if you don't put yourself out there.  Overnight success is more myth than reality.  It certainly isn't the norm.  And if you're like me and you hate self-promotion, the whole process of building a digital platform can be enough to send you into the fetal position.  So, what do you do?

Okay, there's no way to avoid self-promotion.  But there is a different way to come at it.  My critique group today pointed out that digital presence is more than just blog stats.  (Yes, my grasp on this stuff really is that simplistic).  It's all the many ways that you register on the radar, all the little blips, that can pave the way for the time when you push for something bigger.

Write stuff and submit it, over and over.  Doesn't have to be novels.  Make it whatever you can manage.  Because you can't win if you don't play the game, and you can't get published if you don't stick your neck out and submit your writing.   

Obvious advice, right?  But I remember a time when the thought of showing ANYONE my writing was beyond terrifying.  Over time, I've sent in a script here, a short story there, a novel that wasn't ready yet, an article, an audio theater piece, a picture book.  These days, while I'm plugging away at the exhausting and protracted process of revising the novels, I'm submitting short stories.  It gets a little less terrifying and a little more run-of-the-mill with each step.  And then I keep writing so I don't obsess over the waiting game.  I try not to let too much time go by without something being out there in the universe.  Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I slip.  It's one step at a time.

If you're feeling discouraged or hiding your work in a drawer somewhere, this post is for you.  Rip the bandaid off.  Show somebody.  Write something small and put it out there - a poem, a short story, a letter to the editor, a skit.  Something, anything.  Write it.  Put it out there.  Write something else.  Put it out there.  In the end, the fact that other people read what you write is what matters the most.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shaking It Up with Short Stories

Whenever I hit a wall on my big projects, THE NOVELS (they demand to be all in capitals), I find myself clearing my palate with a project of a more manageable scope. With my third graders, we take brain and body breaks throughout the day. Maybe this is my creative brain's version of the same thing. After all, that part of my brain doesn't like to just turn off. It never goes away (thank goodness). But sometimes, it needs a change of pace.

When I finished what I foolishly thought was the final draft of Novel #2, I was fried. But I wanted to keep up my writing routine. Lucky for me, my husband Sam needed a script for an audio theater project. A complete change of writing muscles - different genre, a deadline, a lighter topic, a veritable sorbet for my brain.

This week, in the throes of parent-teacher conferences at school, I slammed smack into a tangle of structural uncertainties and missing backstory on my revisions of Novel #1 (which I had also, foolishly, thought was finished). But, miraculously, instead of bemoaning my inability to get any writing done, my brain started fiddling with an old short story idea. Next thing I know, I'm playing with point of view and reviving this old piece into something with some real legs on it.

In fact, I have a lot of short stories that came about in much the same way. I wanted to keep my writing going, but I needed to catch my breath on the big stuff.

The moral of the blog? When you're writing brain gets tired, maybe it just needs a change of pace. Try a new genre. Try something of a more manageable size. Play a little!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Endings: Happily Ever After - Or Not

After my weekly writing group today, a couple of us got into a long discussion about the challenge of endings. They seem so elusive. Somehow, you know when it feels wrong or feels right, but you can't articulate it and, until you hit on it, it seems almost impossible to see how you'll get there.

Let's face it. Endings are hard. They can torture you, drive you to drink, send you into endless bouts of insomnia. We put them off. We impose them. We rush them. We drag them out. We want to satisfy the reader and ourselves. We want to get the damn thing finished and we never want to say goodbye, because the ending means leaving behind characters and a world that we've grown to know and love.

Lucy Calkins says endings should have important action, memorable images, something that reminds your reader of the heart of your story. Tricky concepts for my 3rd and 4th graders, who are still learning how to move beyond "That's all I have to say!" or "I hope you like my story." So, I give them helpful sentence frames as a scaffold: "I will always remember _____." "I will never forget ________." "At that moment, I knew ___." "Now I know ______." "From that day on ________." If only it were that simple for grown-up writers!

But maybe it is. Folktales have handed down a collection of stock endings to us. Maybe those stock endings are just the master storytellers giving us scaffolding. We just have to figure out which kind of story we're telling and what our story's version of the stock ending would be.

"They lived happily ever after." Are you setting your reader up for a happy ending? If so, you have to deliver. What would it take to make your protagonist, and therefore your reader, happy and satisfied? Know this and you know how your story must end. Think how furious we would have been if Harry Potter hadn't defeated Voldemort in the end.

"They were never heard from again." If your story is a tragedy, you need to leave the reader with a mix of loss and devastation, and the lingering sense that it all might have been prevented, if only ... I think I'd put THELMA AND LOUISE in this category.

"You can still hear his voice echoing through the night." Expand your vision of a horror story to include anything that leaves a haunting image to cap off a cautionary tale. I think of MOBY DICK, whose final image - the boat sinking below the waves with its drowned crew - still lingers in my mind more than 20 years later.

"There goes a mouse!" I've always thought of this as the Grimm's folktale version of my 3rd graders' "That's all I have to say" - kind of a cop-out. But really, perhaps it's more like Bugs Bunny's "That's all folks!" The comedic sign-off has it's place, when delivered with the proper light tone and humorous nonsequitur. Think of MONTY PYTHON'S HOLY GRAIL, perhaps. Or BBETLEJUICE.

What flavor does your story have? Can you think of other classic, stock endings that might point the way in your own struggle to bring your tale to a satisfying conclusion?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Give me a Break: Recess is Not Procrastination

My third and fourth graders have an incredible arsenal of work avoidance tactics. Finding a pencil. Sharpening a pencil. Getting a drink of water. Going to the bathroom. Not having the paper, book or other supply they need. Finding the perfect place to sit. Setting up a screen to block out distractions. Taking the long way back to their desk and visiting friends en route. Helping a buddy in need. Working on another assignment first.

Sound familiar? Writers are just as good at these tactics. We call it procrastination. And sometimes that's exactly what it is. But sometimes, a break is necessary. Sometimes, the brain returns refreshed and renewed. We humans are not designed to work nonstop 8 hours a day.

As a writer, I'm terrified that if I take a break from a piece, I might never finish it. If I deviate from my routine, I might never get back to it. It takes courage to trust myself enough to step away and take a breather. When I do, I often have a breakthrough. I come back with a new perspective. I can see the value in the things I thought were hopeless crap. I can let go of unnecessary scenes to which I clung for old times' sake. Structural solutions that had been mired in the swamp reveal themselves with absolute clarity.

I took two years away from my current project. I actually never intended to come back to it. I finished a second project and started a third one. Then, I needed a break from that third one and found myself looking back at this piece, THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART. I saw it with new eyes and realized I didn't want to let it go and that I could, in fact, fix what I thought was unfixable.

Everybody needs recess. Even writers. Sleep in. Work on a different story. Read a new kind of book. Go for a walk. Work out. Spend time with a friend or loved one. Go to a movie. Take a nap. Step away from the work for 10 minutes, an afternoon, a day, even a week. You may be surprised at what you find when you return.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing, Day Jobs and Life: The Balancing Act

How do you find the time to write? For any of us who work full-time doing something else, that question is the number one challenge to defining ourselves as writers. If, like me, you have a day job that doesn't end when you walk out the door, it's an even greater challenge.

I have a day job that I love. I'm a teacher. Like writing, it's a passion. When I walk out the door of my classroom, my brain is still buzzing with a million and one school-related things. It's hard to turn them off. That's why, for me, writing time has to be in the morning, before school, when I can give myself over to the story. The challenge? I have to be at school at 7:00 AM.

As a teacher, I have the great bonus of summers and other vacation times when I can give myself over to big chunks of writing. But it makes the re-entry into the school year that much harder, when I have to let go of that freedom and limit myself to 20-30 minutes of writing per day. All summer, I can dance between a variety of writing projects, plus engaging in the blogosphere as part of building my digital platform. Then the school year arrives. Something has to be cut back. I feel sad about losing that full immersion in writing.

Finding a balance I can live with is a struggle. I give up the snooze alarm and buy myself an extra 15-30 minutes in the morning to write. I don't wear make-up. My hair doesn't always look it's best. But I get my writing time.

For self-care purposes, I give myself permission to take the occasional day off from writing, as long as it doesn't become a habit. My weekly critique group helps me stay accountable for a certain level of productivity. I block out some time on the weekend.

I let go of non-essential writing-related activities. While school is in session, building my digital platform will have to wait. I might not be able to attend all those conferences. Writing every day and participating in critique groups may be all I can manage. For me, balance means self-care, sustaining my writing muscles, sustaining forward momentum on my highest priority projects, and maintaining connections with other writers.

If you're faced with overload and have to cut back, ask yourself what is essential, what is the lifeblood of your writer identity? What can you let go?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Conferencing With Yourself - Intentional Writing Practices

The other day, Suzanne LaGrande, one of the members of my weekly critique group, was talking to me about intentional practice - practicing the writing craft the way an athlete practices. If I'm lucky, maybe she'll do a guest post about this topic.
Athletes don't just play their sport during practice; they focus on specific elements and skills. I paddle with a dragon boat team (Go, Mighty Women!). Our goal is to finish the race first, or at least to beat our best time. But to accomplish that, we work on our technique.

So, when I sit down to write, my goal might be "to write 1000 words" or "to write for one hour" or "to finish this scene." But that's not enough. I need to think about what element of the craft I am working on.

When I conference with my third and fourth grade students, I always start with the question, "What are you working on today as a writer?" At first, they just tell me about their story. Then, I say, "What are you trying to do with that story?" or "What are your goals with that story?" Like so many of us, they often say, "To finish it" or perhaps "To make it really long" or even "To make it really good." It takes a while, but eventually they learn how to identify what element of craft they are working on. "I'm looking at dialogue." Or "I'm adding sensory details." Or "I'm trying to write a great lead."

Next time you sit down to write, conference with yourself. Move beyond, "I'm going to write this many words or pages or minutes." Ask yourself, "What are you working on as a writer today?" Identify what aspect of craft you're focused on for that writing session. Practice with intentionality.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How Many Pages Does It Take To Get To The Center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?

I'm about to start racking up overdue fines again. I placed a hold on Adam Levin's THE INSTRUCTIONS at the beginning of the summer, back when I would have had time to read all 1,030 pages of teeny-tiny print. But it didn't arrive at the library for me until 2 weeks ago. School was gearing back up and my time for reading was shrinking. I went to pick up the book and had quite a shock. It was over 3 inches thick. My hand barely reached from the back cover to the front. A brick pile of a book.

I started reading. Great voice, creative use of language, intriguing opening and premise - kind of a unibomber meets CATCHER IN THE RYE. But 1,000 pages? Really? Are you absolutely sure you couldn't tell this story in less than that? Where was this guy's editor? How in the world did this get published? Looking at the name of the publisher (McSweeney's Rectangulars) and Levin's bio, I'm guessing his short story successes opened the door for publishing THE INSTRUCTIONS. It seems well written (granted, I'm only 20 pages in), but I really don't believe you need that many pages to tell a good story. Honestly, it's like a dare to the reader.

Yes, yes, I know. Proust was 3-4,000 pages long, at least, depending on the edition. And there are actually people who've read the whole thing. You think he'd get it published today?

I really have no business judging if I don't finish the book. But returning it after 20 pages isn't likely to keep me up at nights - because, so far, the book isn't keeping me up at nights. I think the last book I read that was a similar length was probably MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It kept me up at night. I'd show up at work bleary-eyed because I couldn't stop reading. So far, that hasn't been the case for THE INSTRUCTIONS.

Anyway, I guess I'll never know if Levin's massive tome is worth it. Time's up, late fines are mounting and school's in session, which means my reading material can no longer include a 1,000 page experiment. I'll have to take the reviewer's word for it that this book was a "must-read." As in, someone has to tell you that you must read it or you'd never crack that huge block of paper.

Anybody else out there read THE INSTRUCTIONS? Am I being too snarky and cynical? Should I try again next summer when I have more time? Did it really need to be that long? Have I simply succumbed to the shortened attention span of the new millenium?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Dialogue Tags - Staring At Strangers

Look to the left!
Look to the right!
Stand up!
Sit down!
Fight, fight, fight!

Good dialogue isn't just about what's said, because conversation isn't just about what's said. It's about what happens between the words - the nonverbal cues, the tone of voice, the facial expressions, the rhythms, the pauses. Capturing and conveying that effectively in the written word is easier said than done. Dialogue tags do a lot of that work, letting us know not only who is speaking but how.

I keep hearing that "said" and "asked" are invisible dialogue tags and everything else ("she screeched" "he gasped" "they hissed" "I murmured") draws too much attention to itself. Then I keep hearing that adverbs should be avoided or at least used sparingly (Oops! There goes one, now!). What tools does that leave for creating rhythm and pause in dialogue, identifying speakers, conveying underlying emotion from a non-point-of-view character, and still preventing repetitive injury (he said, she said, he said, she said, ad nauseum)?

Ever since I learned the above pearls of wisdom, I've become obsessed with my non-verbal dialogue tags, and woefully conscious of my limited palette in that arena.

"He looked at her. She looked at him. They glanced at eachother. I looked away. We turned to eachother. They eyed one another. He looked down. She stood up. I sat down. We turned away."

Lord save me! But if I tried to avoid that overused collection, I ran into tortured descriptions like "His lips twisted sidewise" or "Her mouth slanted downward." My characters were a group of twitching, tortured, spastic puppets.

In desperation, I found myself staring at strangers - in bars, at bus stops, in meetings - anywhere two or more were gathered in the name of human interaction. If I couldn't hear what they were saying, so much the better. This was an investigation into show-don't-tell. Could I interpret their non-verbals? How would I describe them?

I started to notice the power of props. As someone with a theater background, a former props mistress in fact, I can't believe I overlooked this fact. The cigarette, the drinking glass, the strand of hair, the wristwatch, the bracelet, the purse strap, the sleeve cuff, the teddy bear. We humans have an endless array of props through which we express ourselves in conversations. Set a scene somewhere that gives your characters access to a few props and you throw the world of dialogue tags wide open.

I also started thinking about the whole body. Forget eye contact. Get beyond the character's face. What's their body doing? Their shoulders, their back, their legs or butt or hips or feet? Sometimes I have to get up out of my chair while I'm writing and physically inhabit the character to figure out what they're body does in this moment with this emotion. Makes me a pretty amusing sight at the local coffee shop.

What are your favorite overused dialogue tags? How about delightful discoveries you've added to your dialogue palette?

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Three Tricks to Strengthen Your Word Choices

Here are a few nuggets I learned from Wordstock's Teacher as Writer workshop. You may already know these tricks of line editing and revision, but they raised the bar for me.

Verbs of awareness: "Saw", "heard", "thought", "felt", "tasted", and similar words are verbs of awareness. They point out the presence of the protagonist as separate from the reader and thereby distance your reader from the action. They draw attention to the process of noticing. When we see something, we don't think in our heads, "I see that." Instead, we register the thing itself. Often, writers use verbs of awareness in order to avoid what many of us see as one of the seven deadly sins of writing - the verb "to be." Teacher as Writer instructor Joanna Rose radically suggested we should embrace the verb "to be" as a means of removing verbs of awareness and making the sensory experiences of our characters more immediate. For example:

"I saw the monster rise up out of the lake. I heard its horrible groans. As I turned and ran down the path, I felt the brambles scrape my cheeks."
"The monster rose up out of the lake. It let out a horrible groan. I ran. Brambles scraped my cheeks."

For those of us who are teachers, verbs of awareness are a great scaffold while we are helping students build their skills at incorporating sensory details. But the language is even stronger when the scaffolding eventually goes away and there's nothing left between the reader and the sensory experience itself.

Redundancy: Look for places where you state the obvious. For example, if you've placed your characters inside a truck, you don't need to say, "I leaned against the truck window." "Window" alone will suffice. When you start getting good at the infamous skill of "show don't tell," you'll find redundancies popping up all over the place. If you show us the character speaking in an uncertain manner, for example, you no longer have to tell us they said something "uncertainly." Once you start looking for these, its amazing how many you'll find. It helps to have another pair of eyes looking, too.

Latin language vs. Saxon language: This was both the trickiest and most transformative concept for many of us at the workshop. Words with Latin roots, often multi-syllabic words, tend to create emotional distance. When a scene calls for emotional weight and gut-level power, the simple, usually mono-syllabic, punch of saxon-derived words has a stronger impact. For example:

"Humanity imbues astrological bodies with narrative."
"We tell stories about the stars."

Feel the difference? For all the juicy fun of high-blown academic language, sometimes simple, blunt words are the strongest.

The distance provided by latinate words can come in handy for humor or irony. The cutting, sardonic tone of writers such as Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen often comes from the juxtaposition of latinate commentary against ugly, base truth. However, if you find that a scene you're writing just isn't having the emotional impact it should, maybe there are some latinate words getting in the way.

These three tricks have given me some new tools for fine-tuning my writing. What are some of your favorite, straight-forward revision or editing strategies that bring out the emotional punch by polishing your writing craft?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Breaking Up the Logjam of Mid-story Writer's Block

In the old days, breaking up a logjam was incredibly tricky and dangerous. Loggers carefully removed one or more “key logs” (a little like reverse jenga, I guess) and if it was a really bad jam, they had to use dynamite. These days, they use a machine to haul out big chunks until the logs start moving.

I've been working on revisions for my YA novel, THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART. It was my first novel, and it's been through more rewrites than I can count, including a complete point of view shift from third person to first person, but I keep coming back to it because I still love the protagonist and he just won't let me give up on him.

Recently I hit a logjam. I'm trying to rewrite a pivotal scene that introduces an important character, the protagonist's Aunt Megan, a complete stranger to him until this moment. My critique group demanded a better description of Aunt Megan and her house, as well as a restructuring of the scene to raise the tension and conflict. I kept coming at the scene and stalling. Over and over and over. Finally, I realized I really didn't know enough about this aunt of his. So I sat down and started working on the backstory.

Now, I'd worked out a backstory for Aunt Megan before, but it really was surface stuff, more about plot logistics as they affected my protagonist than about Aunt Megan herself. I realized I didn't even have a clue how to get inside her head yet. So I started with the timeline, her age when certain key events took place. I pieced together the ways those events affected her and her life. Then I wrote my problem scene in first person from Aunt Megan's point of view. Mind you, I have no plans to rewrite the novel in her point of view. This was an exercise to help me find my way into the scene.

I wish I could say the words flew from my finger tips, but they didn't. With each key log I thought I'd removed, new ones took its place, new questions about who Aunt Megan was. I wrote scenes that had nothing to do with my protagonist. I followed lines of thought well beyond the necessary conclusion. I got out my sketchpad and drew a complete floor plan of her house. It was a little terrifying to make such a commitment to the interior world of a character who isn't my protagonist. Why was I spending all this time on stuff that wouldn't even make it into my final draft?

But it was worth it. Bit by bit, the logs began to break free. Aunt Megan came into focus. Critical motives and subtexts revealed themselves. It's taken me a good week or so, and a lot of words that won't end up in the novel itself, but the logs are floating downriver again.

Mine was definitely a case of removing key logs one at a time, gradual and painstaking. But I've also had those dynamite situations - just sit down and power through it with some insane, off-the-wall notion. I've even used the chunks at a time method - cut this chunk, move this chunk, and soon it makes sense again.

When you've faced writer's block, how did you break up your logjam? Chunk-chomping machine? Key logs? Or dynamite?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life in a Literary City - Portlandia is for Writers

First, confession time. I've only watched the TV show PORTLANDIA once or twice. I didn't care for it. Why? There was no affection for the place they were mocking. I mention this because the overly-quirky, accept-the-fringe, coffee-loving atmosphere PORTLANDIA mocks is the same atmosphere that has fostered an incredibly literary city that I am proud to call home.

When I first moved to Portland, Oregon, I was blown away by two facts. First, something called Portland Arts and Lectures, featuring literary speakers and expensive tickets, was routinely sold out. Second, on a Saturday night in Portland, the Anne Hughes Coffee Shop at Powell's Books was packed with literary geeks like me until late into the night. "I have found my tribe!" I thought.

Portland has a thriving writer's community that's given birth to all sorts of literary events, including Wordstock and the Willamette Writers Conference, not to mention Haystack and the Pacific Northwest Children's Book Conference. Portland is also home to such literary talents as Ursula LeGuin. And recently, not one, but two Portland-based writers were selected for inclusion in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. Other selections were previously published in two nationally-recognized Portland-based magazines, TIN HOUSE and GLIMMER TRAIN.

Maybe its the nine months of rain. What else is there to do but hunker down inside with a good book, or write your own? With all that gray, drizzly weather, we lean on coffee just to keep our spirits up, but maybe that thriving coffee shop culture fuels good literature. Maybe it's the afore-mentioned quirky, fringe vibe, which leaves so much room for artists of all sorts. Maybe it's the low cost of living. Yes, we have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, but it takes less money to get by in Portland, so folks who quit the day job to work on their novel can make it on less money.

Whatever the reason, Portland is a literary city, a city of writers and readers, a city that values words, and I feel lucky to be here.

Where do you call home? Would you say it's a literary city? Where have you found your community of writers, live or online? What do you think fosters a literary climate? Which cities would you cite as writer-friendly and why?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Following Karen Russell Beyond Swamplandia!

I recently read Karen Russell's novel SWAMPLANDIA! and I can't quite stop thinking about it. Much like HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, it makes me want to re-read it from my writer's brain. The two books are so different, but both examples of great writing. HUNGER GAMES keeps pulling you forward with in-your-face stakes from the get-go. SWAMPLANDIA! draws you in with its rich, strange images. It keeps growing on me over time. After HUNGER GAMES, I had to read the rest of the trilogy. After SWAMPLANDIA! I wanted to get my hands on Russell's short story collection, ST. LUCY'S HOME FOR GIRLS RAISED BY WOLVES, which I've just started reading.

There's something liberating about Russell's writing. The places are so fully realized and so wildly other at the same time. It reminds me of the worlds my brain would travel to as a child, though it is not children's literature. It leaves me believing that, like the protagonist in SWAMPLANDIA!, I can leap off the high-dive into a pit of alligators and swim safely to the other side. It makes me want to take risks in my own writing, to pursue the crazy, out-there images that float through my brain without fear and see where they lead. That's a trick worth celebrating. So, thank you, Ms. Russell!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Notice, Conjure, Give In, Resist - Using Imagery

Lately, I've been obsessed with imagery - sensory details and descriptive passages that carry the emotion and mood of a narrative. I used to think description was good if it put my reader physically in the moment - seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching what the character did. But descriptive passages and sensory details can and ought to do so much more.

I thought about this a lot as I was reading Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA! At first, the dense, thick, laden descriptions almost seemed too much, slowing down the narrative and making it hard to find my way in. But Russell knows what she's doing. The descriptions are absolutely essential to creating the semi-magical, otherworldly mood that makes the novel work, drawing us into the world of the Florida swamps and the possible supernatural experiences that lay within. I only accepted the strange pivotal events of the novel because all that mood work brought me so fully into the mindset of the main character - not through her thoughts but through Russell's descriptions of her environment.

I want to share an example of my own efforts to rewrite description in order to convey emotion. This is a brief excerpt from my novel THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART, which I am in the process of revising. The scene is the funeral of the protagonist's mother.

Early draft:
"The funeral home looked like some rich person's grandmother lived there. It had perfect green grass out front and tall white columns and a big glass door with a brass handle. Inside was a fireplace with candles on top, some fat armchairs, and a tall, polished table all covered in lace with a vase full of fake flowers on it. A big picture of Momma sat next to the vase, and there was a black guest book with a fancy pen so people could write stuff about Momma inside. Some double doors opened on a little room full of chairs with a table at the front and a big wreath of flowers and a wooden stand and a microphone."

Rewritten draft:
"The funeral home looked like some rich person's grandmother lived there. It had perfect green grass out front and tall white columns and a big glass door with a brass handle and polished tables with flimsy lace on top. Made me want to stick a wad of chewing gum somewhere. There was a fireplace with no fire in it, candles with no flames on top, and a vase full of flowers with no smell. One fat armchair stood in the hallway facing nothing, like anybody'd want to sit by themselves in a hallway staring at the wall. This long black book with a long black pen was spread open next to the flowers, waiting for somebody to come by and write something. In between the fake flowers and the empty book, Momma's picture smiled at me, flat and frozen."

Now, I know I still have work to do on the revised draft, but I think you can see the steps I've already taken to make the description carry more emotion and mood.

You can go too far with imagery, pouring it all over everything like Will Farrell ladling maple syrup on spaghetti in the movie ELF. So, how do you approach description without going off the deep end into a binge or tiptoing so carefully you miss opportunities? I think the sensory tango goes something like this:

1. Notice: Notice the world around you. Pay attention to your senses as you move through your own days. Constantly collect those observations and store them up in your mind so you have lots and lots to choose from when the time comes in your writing.

2. Conjure: When you sit down to write a scene, use words to conjure your stored up images. Choose the words carefully. Approach descriptive passages like poems. Wear the character's mindset and the mood of the scene as filters while you write.

3. Resist: Imagery is seductive. The juicy words and thick wealth of details will seek to pull you in at every moment. Play hard to get sometimes.

4. Give In: Hard-to-get is great, but occasionally you have to let imagery sweep you off your feet and carry you away. You can always dial it back later. A little wild abandon can lead to wonderful discoveries. That tension between resistance and giving in makes me call it a tango.

During the Teacher as Writer course I attended last week through Wordstock, instructor Joanna Rose gave us this exercise, which I believe she credited to author John Gardner:
A farmer has just lost his son in the war. Describe his barn. Without using the words "loss," "death," "tragedy," "son," or "war," convey the mood and emotional content of this moment.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Moving Target - Writing Over Time, or Bringing Up Baby

My last post was about how time affects the reader's view of a work of literature. Back when I wrote it, (a week ago), I was all gung-ho to do a follow-up post about how time affects the writer's relationship to their own work. I had the post half-written in my mind. I counted on my brief reference in my last post as sufficient to jog any memories that might need jogging with the mere flip of an ipad.

Now, here I am, a week or so later, and already my relationship to the material has changed. Between then and now, things have happened. Not earth-shattering things, just the ebb and flow of living. Still, that ebb and flow is enough to shift the sands. The thought that popped up so vividly then seems distant and foggy now. New blog posts and story ideas have been jostling for a place in line. And this is after little more than 7 days. This is with the succinct, manageable form of a blog post.

How, then, do we writers, changeable humans that we are, manage to sustain our connection to a novel, with its complex storylines and fully-realized characters whose truth and consistency must hold not only across the space of hundreds of pages but across the many years it takes to complete such a longer work? It's not like we stop changing and growing and evolving during that time. What do we do if we sit down one day and discover that the themes or characters that drove us to create a story in the first place are no longer the themes that resonate for us today?

Perhaps we need to be time travelers in our own minds, imaginative enough to go back and find the emotional truth that drew us to a story. But we're also responsible for creating characters vivid enough to have life and growth on their own, outside our minds. The skin and tissue of our characters must be consistent and strong, but also fluid, allowing them to grow. In the end, like parents, we must trust them, release them from our own control in the hope that they can stand, walk, run and live on their own.

How? Well, if my own mini-experiment in this blog post is any indicator, when you don't feel the connection anymore, write your way back in from a new angle. Maybe your story will be richer for it. Or maybe, as in my case, you'll at least feel you've given it the attention it deserved. And if you drop it, ignore it, give up on it? Maybe, like Frankenstein's monster, it will come to you at night in some terrifyingly powerful form and insist that you own it as yours.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Change Over Time - Experiencing Stories at Different Phases of Life

Back in high school, when I took calculus, I remember there was something called "change over time." I think we represented it with the Greek letter delta. I've forgotten an awful lot I learned in calculus, but lately I've been thinking about change over time - as it relates to writing, of course.

I've been re-reading Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST at the gym lately on my iPad (there's a sentence I'd never have expected to write). I first read it when I was about 12 or 13 years old. After watching a movie adaptation on Netflix, I found myself wondering how accurate my memories of the story truly were, and how my experience of it might be different at the age of 45 than it was 30 plus years ago. The adult me is infinitely better tuned to Dickens' wry tone and scathing condemnation of his society than the adolescent me. But beyond that, there were entire sections I had completely forgotten (or perhaps blocked out) and even characters I barely remembered or noticed the first time that stand out much more this time through. My impressions of other characters are completely changed. Fagin and the Artful Dodger, for example, seemed much more complex, almost sympathetic, on my first round, while their villainy and self-interested motives appear obvious now.

I remember my mother had a similar reaction to SILAS MARNER. In high school she thought it was boring and stupid. As an adult, she found it deeply moving. So, now I'm on a mission. The next on my list is Jane Austen, who left me utterly cold when I first read her stuff in high school. We'll see what I think of Mr. Darcy and the rest this time through.

The words don't change with time, but we do, and we, the readers, are co-creators with an author. We stage and interpret their work in our mind's eye, and as our minds change, our experience of the story changes.

Change over time affects us as writers, too, a fact that can prove especially challenging when you work on something over the course of many years. But that's a story for another blogpost, one I suspect will be entitled THE MOVING TARGET.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Genres and Misfits - Labels in Literature

The digital age demands categories and labels in order to sort the overwhelming quantity of data and information floating through cyber space. Search engines want to know where we fit and where our ideas fit. They want to know because there are people at the other end trying to sift through all this information to find what they seek. Genre labels can help your audience find you, and they can help you connect with the right people and places. Nevertheless, the process of labeling oneself tickles a disturbing place in the brain.

I recently checked out an online database for submissions called duotrope (my thanks to Pete Morin of the Fiction Writers Guild on Linked In for sharing this). It seemed like a great resource, but it forced me to parse things into multiple layers of categories. Duotrope's lists were not only sorted into 9 genres, but also into innumerable subgenres and each of those were sorted into styles. I struggled to determine which of my stories fit into which categories, or whether my stories were misfits.

Agents and publishers use genre labels, too. So often, the bio information for editors or agents at a conference or in a newsletter includes a list of genres they seek and those that "need not apply." Meanwhile, authors struggle to decode what each agent's definition of these terms might be. Do they interpret "horror" the way I interpret "horror"? How are they defining "magical realism"? What's their issue with "inspirational," or do they really mean "anything at all to do with religion"?

I suppose it's better than being back in high school, where people assigned labels and categories to human beings. Still, I can't help but notice that same, rebellious piece of my brain fighting against the boxes, whether it's "jock, brain, stoner and drama fag" or "horror, romance, mystery and thriller."

None of us like being pigeonholed. Maybe that's because so many voices coexist inside us. We are filled with selves - dark selves, humorous selves, adventurous selves, argumentative selves. Each self has it's own collection of stories, and those stories take many different forms. Perhaps that's the beauty of the whole genre and subgenre game. I'm not labeling myself. I'm just labeling one story. And I have an unlimited supply of stories inside of me, stories of many different stripes.

Classifying and categorizing is part of human nature. Even as young children, we sort our world into categories - people who look like our parents and people who don't; men with beards and men without; humans, animals and clowns (their own disturbing category). It's how we store memories and organize data in our brains. The danger comes when we exclude things from our world based purely on labels and categories, when we shrink our world to fit those categories, when the labels serve as boundaries to our vision of the possible. Narrowing the search shouldn't mean narrowing your mind.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Stumbling Into Genre

First, let's get the shameless self-promotion out of the way. My short story, DAEMIEL WATCHES, just won 2nd place in the Kay Snow Awards. External validation is a lovely thing. But here's the bloggable part. This is the 2nd short story I've written that has won an award, and both of them have been in the horror and suspense genre. "Big deal," you say. Well, since I've never particularly thought of myself as a horror and suspense writer - or even a horror and suspense reader - it is kind of a big deal. Or at least a mid-sized deal. It's left me asking myself what this means for me as a writer.

The realization that I have more than a few horror and suspense pieces to my credit had been gradually creeping up on me, enough so that I made a special page for them on my website. But this latest turn of events has put it all in a new light. Mind you, I don't plan on throwing my lot in with horror writers and ignoring everything else from here on, but I do plan on examining more closely the kind of writer I am and wish to be and the kinds of stories that draw my best work from me.

It got me thinking of the time I was browsing the shelves in Powell's Books and stumbled upon a copy of John Steinbeck's first novel, CUP OF GOLD, a swashbuckler based on the life of pirate Henry Morgan. It wasn't terrible, but it really wasn't Steinbeck. He so clearly had not yet found his true writing home, as if he was trying to live in someone else's skin.

I'm still not sure exactly what conclusions to draw about myself as a writer from all of this. At a minimum, it's a reminder not to pigeonhole myself, but rather to keep my mind open to stories of any genre, write the stories that demand I write them and attend to the characters who insist on attention. Still, I think I may have to take a look at some Stephen King.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Luddite Versus the Populist

Yes, folks, I'm going to continue to contemplate the questions of literature in the digital age. Let me say, first of all, that following this conversation in its many forms and facets, has led me to blogs and chatrooms all over cyberspace and into several different books, from HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by Victor Hugo to NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD by Margaret Atwood and beyond. The topic seems to engender debate that is lively to say the least.

In my own thoughts on e-publishing, I find two perspectives warring inside me - the luddite and the populist. The luddite approaches the entire concept with a healthy dose of paranoia and distrust. She always notices the latest posts warning that Facebook has changed its privacy settings to give it the ability to own her image, her words and all the private information she or any of her friends have ever posted anywhere in the cyber universe. She would rather remain unknown than click "yes" to anything giving some faceless cyber creature permission to do anything and believes her keychain is nobody's business but hers. She believes computers, television and cellphones have cut us off from one another and created a generation of children increasingly incapable of civil conversation. Her favorite books include George Orwell's 1984 and FEED by M.T. Anderson.

Then there's the populist. She honors the internet as one of the great heroes of all the latest revolutions throughout the world. She celebrates it as a tool of the masses, overthrowing the information elite and throwing open the doors of ideas to the people. She has a copy of Apple's famous METROPOLIS-inspired Superbowl ad saved on her iPhone and firmly believes that e-publishing is to the common man what the printing press once was. She believes humanity's desire for connection will always win out over the isolating aspects of the computer, and points to the explosion of social networking, skyping and shared gaming experiences as proof. She is an incurable optimist and she likes it that way.

Which one is winning? Honestly, I think I'll keep them both around, just to stay grounded. Whose winning in your head?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Continuing the Conversation on the Digital Revolution

My friend Jan Bear is fearless in her exploration of the digital realm as it relates to writers. I keep telling her she will become the first in a new breed that, for lack of a better word, I'm calling a digital agent. I look to her as Virgil to my Dante in the dark wood of the digital world. She has graciously decided to chime in on our conversation about the digital revolution at her blog:

Friday, July 08, 2011

Craftsmanship vs Mass Production: Literature in the Digital Age

Lately, I can't seem to stop thinking about this question of the digital revolution and its effects on writing, writers and literature. Most recently, I found myself wondering how the new age of blogs and e-publishing impacted the quality of written work.

It seems to me that the digital revolution is to the world of ideas and stories what the industrial revolution was to furniture and other such material goods. We are entering an age of mass-production of ideas. The printing press enabled mass-production of the concrete items that contained the ideas, the messengers, i.e. books. But now, the ideas themselves can flow forth at an unprecedented rate from anyone and everyone, with minimal effort, risk or sense of commitment.

When the industrial age allowed the mass production of items such as clothing and furniture, many would argue that a reduction in quality followed close behind and craftsmanship was lost. "They don't make 'em like they used to." Will we find this same thing to be true with stories and ideas in the digital age? Will craftsmanship fall by the wayside in favor of "increased traffic"? After all, we've all heard that the more frequently you post on your blog, the better your traffic.

Call me a luddite if you will. Or perhaps this is simply another in a series of warning signs that I am becoming an old curmudgeon. But maybe it's a call to arms, a reminder not to compromise quality in the face of quantity and the rush to deliver.

For an interesting conversation about this topic, from a different perspective, check out the post
"Tsunami of Crap" at The Newbie's Guide to Publishing.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Reading with Two Brains

One of the great joys of summer vacations, especially as a teacher or a student, is the time to read, and to truly lose yourself in a book. But ever since I've gotten serious about my writing, I find I read with two brains. One is the reader, who drops herself deep down into the world of the story, journeys with the characters, hopes and fears with them and, if the author does his or her job right, can't stop until the book is done. The other brain is the writer brain. She has a much tougher job, and she knows it. She's clinical, analytical, and sits way up high studying, taking notes. She often tries to muscle the reader out of the way so she can get a closer look at the machinery behind the magic. She's Toto to the reader-brain's Dorothy, pulling away that curtain so she can reveal the wizard's true self.

I'm always telling myself that the writer brain deserves to take a closer look. She deserves a chance to go for another ride on the book, to take her time and pick apart the language and the technique that swept the reader off her feet. But the reader, ever a bit flighty and always looking for the next magic moment, insists, "But I've already read that one! I want to try this one out! There are so many books, and so little time!"

My writer brain has gotten pretty good at catching things on-the-fly, identifying where a particular book or author has demonstrated special mastery. J.K. Rowling makes me want to turn the page the way Doritoes make me want to keep eating. Water for Elephants has an incredible opening scene. Lovely Bones demonstrates a brilliant and unusual use of point of view. Dickens creates unforgettable characters and writes fantastic dialogue. The Hobbit is a beautiful example of voice. I could go on and on.

"Yes, yes," says my writer brain. "That's WHAT they did. But HOW? HOW? That's the most valuable part! I must have the chance for further study!" I wonder, if I let her have her way, would she be strong enough to take charge and analyze the way she wants? Or would my reader brain once again win the struggle, caught up in the magic spell of words, story and character that won her over in the first place?

Once, long ago in college, I had to do exactly that - analyze, analyze, analyze. I did fine, but I'm not sure I ever did it with quite this purpose - as the sorcerer's apprentice, hoping to learn the master's spells and tricks well enough to apply them to my own magic.

Have you ever re-read a book purely to analyze the technique in-depth? What book? What did you learn?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Muse In the Machine: The Writer's Relationship with Technology

Thirty-thousand years ago, an early creative artist painted stories on the walls of Chauvet caves in France. The available technology affected the story. With no film or written language, the muse spoke through hand prints, animal paintings, tripled images to evoke movement, and the shape of the cave rock itself. Visual images necessitated the development of metaphor to reach for abstract concepts. Collaboration happened over hundreds, even thousands of years. The risk involved included the threat of maulings by bears or death by rock slides.

As spoken language evolved in complexity, the muse, no longer bound by visual images, could enter more and more abstract terrain. Ballads, epic poems, the shared memories of entire cultures - all became her playground. The oral tradition was a collaboration of the community, ever shifting and changing, and utterly ephemeral. There was no "final copy." There was rarely an "author." Intellectual property was a foreign concept. Plots and characters were shared freely from one creative artist to the next, albeit dressed in ever-changing robes. The audience was always a community, rarely if ever a solitary individual, and their reaction - love it or hate it - could be gauged immediately because the writer was the performer.

As civilization advanced, so did the writer's technology. Human beings could imprint stories onto stone tablets using written language. Lengthy tomes required a commitment we can only imagine. Yet, entire epic poems survived intact from this age. But written language had to be learned and taught. Enter the gatekeepers, determining which stories would survive to be shared with communities not yet born.

In the Middle Ages, the gatekeepers became protectors, guarding the efforts of past writers from the desecration of the small-minded and honoring the sacred side of the muse, copying works in the hope that the audience might grow.

The printing press. BAM!! The muse engages with the masses on a scale unheard of in the past. The power to preserve thought for the future is popularized as never before. The size of audience to be reached explodes. And the gatekeepers become those who own this new and powerful technology, for they can now determine how many copies exist, how soon they are made, what they look like, how much they cost.

And now the digital age. Like an A-list celebrity, the muse is being mobbed from all sides. Anyone and everyone has a forum. The communal creative energy of the oral tradition has combined with the preservative power of the written word and the popularizing capacity of mass production on an unprecedented level. Written, visual and oral storytelling can coexist and commingle in new ways. The role of the gatekeeper is transforming and mutating daily.

What will be the latest progeny in the tempestuous love affair of muse and machine, writer and technology? When everyone has a forum, can the audience hear anymore? When everyone is artist, performer, and gatekeeper, who is left? Will this new age foster interaction and creation or narcissism? What will survive to the future when all is said and done? What will the next age be?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Overfeeding the Hungry Muse

There's definitely no shortage of resources to feed my writing muse. Blogs, conferences, publications (both digital and otherwise), books on writing, books on publishing, books on revising, books on finding an agent, online data bases, online chat rooms, critique groups, workshops, lectures, newsletters ... and on and on and on. The real challenge is recognizing which resources will actually nourish my muse and when.

It's a little like shopping at Costco. I don't know about you, but my brain goes into overdrive and my eyes glass over when I spend too much time at Costco. Bulk everything. Piles and piles and piles of merchandise of every sort and kind. Free samples. Crowds and crowds of people. You better know what you're after or you'll end up with a year's supply of jalapeno-flavored cream cheese in a jumbo tub.

Writing conferences offer a great opportunity for inspiration and networking, plus a chance to get your foot in the door with editors or agents who don't normally accept unsolicited manuscripts but will do so for conference attendees. Conferences can be energizing, but they can also be overwhelming. You get out of them what you put into them. It's a good idea to balance workshops on the business of writing (getting an agent, getting published, marketing your book, writing your query letter) with those on the craft of writing, just to keep your sanity. It helps to have your own goals in mind so you don't get swept up in everyone else's goals. And you need to be prepared to answer, and ask, the question "What are you working on?" over and over and over.

Personally, I prefer the face-to-face, real-time interaction of conferences and workshops to the one-dimensional experience of blogs, newsletters, and similar formats. But when the intense energy, time and money required for a conference is in short supply, or I need guidance and inspiration in smaller doses spread throughout my year on my own timeline and my own schedule, then books on writing, and blogs and newsletters and similar resources, truly fit the bill.

Summer is my conference time. But just for this year, I've opted out of writing conferences. My hungry muse needs a different diet for a while.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writer's Wavelength: THE Call

The link below is a follow-up to my post about the need to be prepared for that day when you actually get the call from an agent or publisher.

THE Call

For the past few years, I've been striving to put my work out there, to get noticed, to find an agent, an editor, a publisher that will help bring my writing to a wider audience. But every so often, a tiny voice in my head says, "What if?" What if I actually got the call? Usually, the what-if game is fun to play. My wish-fulfillment side takes over, and my husband and I daydream about what life might be like. But the other day, I got a call. Not THE call. But A call. A call from someone in another state wanting to know what was involved in getting rights and permission to use one of my audio theater scripts for a project. What was my response? "That's a really good question." Honest, but not particularly savvy.

We managed to negotiate our way through the situation, and it all worked out fine, but it left me staring down that question as if it were a rat in the middle of a sterilized, white room. What if I got THE call? The call from an agent or a publisher saying they wanted to represent me or publish my stuff? I realized I was completely and utterly unprepared.

When I go to writing conferences, it always seems the height of hubris, or the depth of futility, to go to the workshops about the business aspects. I don't have an agent. Maybe I'll never have an agent. Why bother finding out about picking and choosing and examining all the minutia with a fine-tooth comb when I can't even get my foot in the door? But after that innocuous phone call, I realized I need to be prepared. I need to think like someone who WILL get that call one day. I need to know what to say, how to act, what questions to ask. I don't want to be a clueless rube, tail wagging, eager to please, and failing to stop and think and protect myself and my work.

What would you say if you got THE call? Or what DID you say?

Post Script: After a brief wander through cyberspace, I happened upon this highly relevant post from an agent, plus useful and relevant replies. Ask and you shall receive!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Overworking the Clay

On my latest project, I found myself worrying away at the same spot over and over, bringing the same chapters to my critique group, rewritten, revised, renewed and tweaked, week after week. Every week I'd say to myself, "That's good enough for this draft. Now it's time to move forward." My group would echo the sentiment, reminding me not to "overwork the clay." But every week, when I sat down to write, I found myself rereading and rewriting that same section. My logic brain told me I was caught in a quagmire and rereading those same sections was a trap, but some other slippery spirit in me kept insisting on going back.

I didn't really have this problem on the first two novels. Here I am on my third, thinking "I should be getting better at this. In fact, I should know better." I began to think the genre was what made the difference. The first two novels were realistic fiction. This one is magical realism, and the rules and process feel completely different, more metaphorical, less linear. I've written a full draft and about two-thirds of it is useless. I've written multiple synopses that seem to make perfect sense only to have the story hijack me into some other direction. Every rewrite seems to change the metaphorical elements or the psychological landscape just enough that I have to go back and alter imagery, scenes, characters. And each tiny change in choice or motivation has a potentially seismic impact on the physical landscape, the symbolic magical objects and the otherworldly characters.

Okay. Let's say this genre demands a spiraling approach to drafts and revision. Even so, at some point you overdo it. At some point you have to let go and move on or you risk "overworking the clay" - leaving your characters and story limp, exhausted and nearly lifeless from obsessive attention to one section. How much is too much? What signals tell you to move on? What if you go too far - can your story be rescued?

I am reminded of watching my third graders attempt watercolor painting using non-watercolor paper. They just don't understand the idea of exhausting or overworking the paper. I'll watch as they paint and paint and paint the same spot until the paper is coming up in little nubbins or falling apart in their hands or they've worn a hole right through their favorite section of the picture. Then they come to me in despair believing it's ruined. I tell them to let the paper rest and dry and then we will try to repair it by transferring what's usable onto a new, fresh, stronger piece of paper. Perhaps I need to heed my own advice.

Of course the best way to prevent the ruined watercolor situation is to use the right kind of paper to begin with. Proper watercolor paper can handle the kind of stress placed on it by diligent and overly enthusiastic third graders, or by techniques like watercolor wash that involve tons of moisture. It's strong, thick, heavy and durable.

So what's the metaphorical equivalent of "the right kind of paper" for a novel? Setting? Point of view? Pre-drafting strategies? Plot outline? General structure? It has to do with the foundation you lay before the intricate, in-depth work of drafting and revision begins.

What do you do to lay a good foundation before you dive into the serious drafting process?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What Should You Celebrate?

I recently encountered another one of those necessary demons of the writing life - the rejection letter. Mind you, it's not the first one and I doubt it will be the last. With each one, my skin gets a little tougher, but they still take the wind out of my sails. As I bemoaned this fact, a wise woman from my online critique group reminded me I still had something to celebrate. "You've actually finished something and sent it out. Some of us are still mired in the mess of our first-ever first draft." And I remembered a time, not so very long ago, when I "wanted" to write. I actually wrote even then - I wrote and wrote, but I never finished anything. I had sketches and scenes and half-formed notions, images and descriptions and little splurts of characters. My friend's words reminded I had much to celebrate. I had finished a novel - my second novel. And I had had the courage to send it out. In fact, I've been able to finish and send out quite a lot of work over the past few years. And my friend had reminded me that this fact was worth celebrating.

So what should you celebrate? Even rejections are worth celebrating because you had the courage to send something out and the world didn't end when they said no. Celebrate the personal rejection letter, because it's not a form letter. Celebrate the form letter because you ventured forth. Celebrate your decision to share your work with someone else. Celebrate your first paragraph or page or chapter, because you found the time to write. Celebrate putting pencil to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Celebrate the next word you write because you had the courage to do it.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Write Like a Third Grader

I've learned more about the craft of writing in the nine years since I became a teacher than I did at any time in college. Granted, I am thinking more like writer, and seeing myself as a writer, which helps. But in teaching my third graders the craft of writing, I have received an education myself. By teaching the process, I think about my own process. When I teach my students strategies for planning their writing, I discover my own strategies. When I talk with my students about revising by identifying whether they have a good balance of dialogue, action, internal story and sensory details, I must ask myself the same question. Have I oriented my reader to the setting? Introduced and described the characters? Am I writing in scenes, stringing together small moments, or just telling what happened? Have I chosen a story or topic that I care enough about to spend time with?

I have to give a great deal of the credit to the writing curriculum we use in our school, a curriculum developed by Lucy Culkins. Culkins' curriculum is designed to help children think and work like real writers. As a teacher when I conference with students I must hone in on what they're doing well and what they need to work on. In a conference, I ask them "What are you working on today as a writer?" "What are you trying to do with that story?" "Can you show me an example of where you did that?" I teach my students to be the boss of their own writing. When they sit down to write each day, they make a plan, asking themselves where they are in the writing process and deciding what they will work on that day. Are they generating ideas? Organizing their thoughts, perhaps with an outline or storyboard, a timeline or a story mountain? Maybe they're writing a discovery draft or rehearsing their story. How can I not become a better writer when I ask these questions day after day and hear eight-year-olds telling me, "I noticed I didn't have enough dialogue and I didn't orient my reader to the setting?" If my third graders can hone their craft, so can I.

Every third grader in my class, and most of the younger students in our school, also know Lucy's mantra "When you're done, you've just begun." I finished my novel and sent it out. Now what? "When you're done, you've just begun." Go back to your writer's notebook and start thinking about ideas for the next piece.

If you are not a teacher but you are a writer, I encourage you to find some of Lucy Culkins' work. THE ART OF TEACHING WRITING is a great place to start. You might even use it as a template for your critique group if you have one.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Epistolary Novel Reborn

A while back I posted on facebook about a blogged novel that a writer friend was working on called MURDERER'S MOM ( The writer, Jan Bear, is in my critique group. I'd watched her developing her ideas for this book over the past year or so, but when she decided to dive in and start writing it one blog entry at a time, online, it leapt off the screen with a life and immediacy that it never had before. The immediate past tense vision and the intimacy of the blog format were the perfect fit. When I posted about Jan's work, another friend, opera soprano Jennifer Wilson ( made the insightful comment that this form hearkened back to the old epistolary novels of bygone years (eighteenth century?).

Jennifer's comment set me to ruminating a bit on the blog form in general and the way in which it seems to have revived the voice of letter-writing, albeit with a twist. Blogs have the length, contemplative tone, humor and individuality that used to be part of the lost art of letter writing. The difference - we now write not for the highly specific audience of one, but as if our letters were already intended for posterity, cleansed of all mundane details of daily life (one hopes!) and raised to a higher level by drawing conclusions about our world, engaging in humorous observations and waxing vaguely philosophical.

Perhaps email and facebook and twitter have irreparably altered the epistle as a literary form. Or perhaps it has merely shape-shifted into a new guise.

I wonder ... are there any courses or books examining online content as literary form, the way we examine other genres? What defines it? What are its limitations, its strengths?

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