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?

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