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?

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