Archive for writing advice

When the finish line is the start line

I finished a draft of a novel last week. I should be more excited about this than I am, but 297 pages in and all I can see is the work ahead of me. It took me probably six weeks to write the last twenty pages, partly because I didn’t quite know where I was heading, but mainly because I knew once I finished I’d have to start all over again. I do not get excited when the reward for finishing a job is more work.

While I was procrastinating those pages I wallpapered my bathroom, made a bunch of food to freeze for busy nights, made pillowcases and a cat pillow for a friend, shopped for accessories for the new bathroom, started a finance class, did ceramics with my daughter, and painted our new shed. You know what all these things have in common? Once they’re done, they’re done. I buy a soap dispenser and the soap dispenser remains bought. I wallpaper the bathroom and (god willing) the wallpaper stays up. Granted, I make a shit-ton of burritos and we eventually eat them and I have to make more, but every time I make them, at least they turn out.

I’ve long thought it’s important to have things to make in your life that you’re not perfect at but that you’re pleased by. I tried this kind of fancy border thing on the cat pillow and the corners are super weird, but you know what? Still looks cute and will be fine for the cats. You might want to squint when looking at the top corners in my bathroom, but I don’t care because I take pride in the fact I did these tasks, and with projects I like to keep in mind my friend’s mantra: ninety-four is still an A.

I need to remember, even if the novel draft isn’t very good (yet!), I should be pleased that I made it to the end. And I need to shift my thinking to remember that the writing itself is its own kind of reward, and to stop putting pressure on the task. Write breathe revise, and be pleased.

It’s the house that matters

After Barry moved in, he put his previous house on the market. My soon-to-be-husband’s soon-to-be-ex house is a great house: craftsman style, lots of oak flooring and touches, a renovated kitchen, big workspace in the basement. It’s also an older house, and even though it’s in a great neighborhood with wonderful schools, it took about a year to sell. The biggest thing we heard from potential buyers was that they were disappointed it didn’t have a garage, and the second most cited disappointment? The master bedroom was too small to accommodate a current bedroom set.

I admit, this baffled me: the idea  you wouldn’t buy something as huge and permanent as a house you love because it couldn’t fit your dresser. But a few years ago in a hail-Mary the day before a Thanksgiving we were hosting, Barry and I had to run to Sears to buy a dishwasher and ended up getting white to match the current, dying appliances. Since then we’ve made plans to renovate the kitchen in a few years, so when the fridge went kaput a month ago there was much debate between white to match the dishwasher or stainless steel. I figured since we’d already bought the dishwasher we should get white to match, and I was disappointed to think I’d have to get white then when we did the renovation. And then it struck me: oh my cripes, was I really debating changing my mind on a super-huge renovation project to match our $500 dishwasher?

And then it really struck me: this is so much like revision. All too often, I’ll spend hours trying to get around cutting one sentence I love or trying to reason my way into a plot point making sense, and always, it would be easier to just cut my losses (or paragraphs) and start fresh. I need to keep in mind the big picture–the story overall, or the house I love, or the version of the kitchen I want despite the money or time investment that’s already happened. There’s always a cousin who might need that old bedroom furniture or a dishwasher, or a charity that would love the donation, or that file marked “deletes” that you think you’ll go back to someday but never do but that somehow makes you feel better in the middle of the night.

Always remember: serve the story. Do what has to be done. Better to have lost that time and those words than lose more before you inevitably do what needs to be done.

Keep checking back around 2018 for news about a great deal on a dishwasher.

And then the dog said

My husband and I have a running joke about talking dogs. There are some things people need to talk about, like dreams, that, no matter how much you love someone, you don’t necessarily want to hear about. It’s not that it’s difficult, but for the love of god, it’s just so boring, and that’s why we need therapists. You hire a therapist so you can talk to them about your dreams, the ones that were so intense and where the dog talked, but that no one in your real life probably gives two shits about.

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Also in this category of things no one wants to hear about: how hard it is to write. I think most writers (although not all) go through phases where the writing is hard. For me, this talking dog reared it’s mouthy head last year. I didn’t want to work on stories or a novel; I didn’t enjoy even the thought of writing; I talked endlessly to my poor husband about how the dog just wouldn’t shut up. I had recently (ten years late to the party I didn’t want to go to in the first place) joined social media which had sent me into a tizzy about how I was fairing in the publishing world and worrying about this stupid thing called my career rather than what really matters: the writing.

What finally helped me break through was deciding it was okay not to write fiction for awhile. To keep me still in the game as far as working on something and engaged with the literary world, I turned to book reviews. I set a soft deadline to get the first one done, then a soft deadline for the second, and soon I realized the reviews themselves were getting easier and I was really, really enjoying writing them. I felt more up on contemporary short stories and, while I’d been reading stories all along, it had become rare that I’d sit down and read a collection start to finish in a few days. I started actively looking for books to review, excited at the prospect of engaging.

About this time I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which is wonderful on many levels, but was particularly touching for me in that the main character Cath is lit on fire with the love of writing. She does it in all her spare time, not because she should, but because she wants to. She struggles a bit with what to write–what she wants, versus what’s expected–but that pure love of writing was good for me to read. Eventually I wrote a short essay. Eventually I revisited a draft of an earlier story. Eventually the dog mumbled that maybe I should pick up that novel again, the one that couldn’t possibly suck as much as I remembered. Everything I wrote, I did without pressure. “Don’t worry about the end goal,” the dog told me. “Just enjoy creating something then eventually making it better.” And that’s what I did.

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I think we all go through periods where we lose track of the real goal, or concentrate on the wrong aspect. We don’t want to exercise, forgetting how nice it is to be outside. We dread doing homework, forgetting how curious we are about the world. For me it was worrying too much about the publication side of things, forgetting how much fun it is to put word in motion.

“Don’t worry about the end goal,” I tell myself. “Write because you love it.” And for now, that’s just what I’m doing. Woof.

I’m a big believer in causation in stories. Something happens and something happens as a result. If you have causation in motion in a story and a character who is willing to make things happen, what you have is a story that is much easier to write. For example, if you have a story that opens with a teenage girl arguing with her parents because they won’t let her go to a Kanye West concert, your story is going to be much easier to write if you have a character who is willing to make things happen. For instance, if she folds her arms and sits on her bed saying “shoot!” about not getting to go, that’s going to be a hard (and possibly boring) story to write because your character isn’t willing to get things moving. If you have a girl who flips her parents off behind their backs then sneaks out, what do you have? The next scene. You’ve got to figure out how to get her to the concert (she’s probably going to need a friend to drive because her parents would hear if she just started her car) which will give you more characters to work with along with a destination, and at some point, you’ve got to get her back home, hopefully to parents who have already called the police, which would make sense for them, wouldn’t it? Overreacting the way they did to a little misogynistic rap.

But what I started this post to say was how causation sometimes gets misinterpreted, when a writer has something happen and then says it causes something else to happen. For instance:

He kicked the tub causing him to cry out in pain.
He diced onion after onion causing his eyes to well with tears.
The sun rose above the trees causing her to squint. He hit a tree with his car, resulting in a broken leg.

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I don’t know why this drives me crazy, but it does. When it’s written out that an action causes a reaction it causes me to grow crazy. I think it’s because I’m such a believer in an active reader who wants to work, and that fiction is about the reader making connections through the writing and not the writer making connections for the reader. When an author tells me point-blank that a stubbed toe causes a character to cry out in pain I think, no shit. Just show me the toe stubbing and then show me the character crying out. I swear, I’ll get the connection.

Did I ever do this in my own fiction? Oh, I’m sure I did. I’m guessing it’s some kind of shadow self of annoyance that makes me pick these things out. I remember a few years into writing when I realized how many extraneous “thats” I had in my stories, to the point I had to do a search and delete. I never did that with “causing” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to at some point.

What about you? What tics do you see in your work and others?

Reading like a writer who is reading like a reader

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Tim Parks, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, has some great advice about how to get the most out of reading and examples of how he reads. I assigned these articles recently in my Advanced Fiction Writing class and thought they were very helpful in thinking about how we prepare for workshops. Some highlights:

“Always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. . . . We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue.”

“But if writers are to entice us into their vision, let us make them work for it.”

“As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel?”

“I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to [these qualities].”

“Getting a sense of the values around which the story is organizing itself isn’t always easy; I might chnage my mind two or three times. But let’s say that the mere attempt to do that gives me something to look for. After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these [qualities].”

Students had interesting responses to these articles. While they recognized they didn’t want to be “passive consumers,” they were concerned that reading a book too critically would suck the fun out of it. I get this, I do, and have talked about it briefly here, but these articles brings me to two conclusions: the books like the ones you want to write are the ones you need to read most closely and critically, and that reading critically brings its own kind of pleasure.

1) So many of my students want to write popular genre work because they love to read it, and I think that’s great, but the problem here is that these works are the ones they need to read the most closely. They know they need to read Jane Eyre critically, but if what they love is Dean Koontz and they’re not willing to read this critically, are they understanding how it’s really put together? Which is a better model for them? Charlotte or Dean?

And while I understand that they don’t want to lose that excitement of gobbling up a novel, isn’t it a different kind of pleasure to read critically? Think of a child shoving in tater tots versus an adult with a more sophisticated palette enjoying a meal bite by bite. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they provide a different kind of pleasure.

That said, sometimes I want to shove tater tots blindly into my mouth until my pants don’t fit and my eyes are glazed by carbs. Go for it, I say, but just make sure it isn’t the only thing you’re eating.

How to motivate adults: stickers and kittens

When my friend Sarah was working on her dissertation, she kept a calendar for writing and gave herself a sticker for every thirty minutes she dissertated. Many years and articles later, it still proves a helpful motivator for her, and a few years ago I adopted a similar system. Here’s my calendar for this January:

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It helps me to look back and see how much I’m generating rather than that vague feeling I did not-enough or less-than-planned. This month I can see I wrote 20 of the 31 days, generated 50 new (and mostly bad) pages on a project, and wrote and submitted a book review. That’s more than I would have guessed had you asked me, and it’s good to see how much I can accomplish in just forty-or-so minutes at a time.

If you try this method, three things: stickers might be goofy, but they’re motivating, trust me. I don’t think it’s enough to just write down what you did. The joy of pushing that sticker onto the calendar at the end of a writing session is mind boggling. I recommend you get a calendar just for writing rather than adding this to your regular calendar. That way looking at your writing won’t get muddied by other obligations or accomplishments, but at a quick glance is understood as a “yes, I wrote” or “no, I didn’t.” I also recommend you get a calendar with pictures of baby animals. I don’t say this ironically, at least I don’t think I do. These baby kittens make me very happy, as did the puppies in the years I had them. (The horses were kind of a bust but I think it’s because they were adults.) February’s kitten is sleeping!

How about you? How do you set goals and what do you use to motivate yourself?

The single most helpful thing

Some time ago I had a tough workshop. Individually I really liked all the people in there, but  together, we ended up with a pack mentality where they didn’t go after the weakest member but the weakest part of every story. No matter how many positive things there were to discuss, each story was like chum in the water.

I’ve always had the policy, as many writing teachers do, that we’d start with what we really thought was working in a story and then move to the points in the story where the writer might want to look again, but no matter how many times I said it, I always braced after the first comment in this workshop, usually negative, or that “token” nice thing someone says while the others sharpen their knives. I talked to some of the students individually and each agreed they were being a little on the harsh side, and I truly do believe it’s because they wanted to help the writer make the stories better. In class I tried to put the kibosh on hyperbolic comments like “There’s not one scene where X” or “You always use interiority” and talked about how couching those comments in softer terms might be more effective.

Eventually I decided to change the kinds of written responses I was getting in hopes that students would think in a more structured ways about the kinds of comments they were making and why, to think beyond “good” or “bad” to what they saw as the author’s intention based on how the story is put together. I decided to required responses in three parts based on, I think, Peter Turchi’s writing responses (and by god, I cannot find that link anywhere – sorry!) where, before we look at anything in terms of positives and/or negatives, we look at the story’s construction. I ask each student to describe the story to me in terms of craft–point-of-view, characterization, tense, scenes, etc, and I started doing this myself. What I found was that I paid more attention to the overall whole of the story as well as the individual parts. As I read, I jotted notes about what happened in each scene, and then when I typed those up for the students, I thought about them again in context to the whole. The climax scene only lasts two paragraphs, I’d realize, or we spend six pages in the opening scene, but no scene after that is over two pages. A major plot point is introduced on the first page and helps to set the tone. We don’t meet the protagonist until halfway through.

For each student story now I do a breakdown of scenes that looks something like this:

pgs 1-2: background, meet Victoria and Lacey – going on a trip. They have tension in their relationship.
Pgs 3-7: hotel is old, charming but V doesn’t like it. L gets to her room, loud noise, hears a noise while in shower. Talk to V who upgraded her room.
Pgs 8-10: back at hotel, separate, in room L takes pill, lights dim, kills a spider but it’s gone in morning.
Pgs 10-11: bonds w V at end of conference
Pgs 11-14: back at room, shower on, kid laughing. Calls front desk, sleeps, calls from desk again, gets back to sleep.
Pgs 14-15: next morning bumps into something and spills coffee. Glad to be leaving but decides hotel is a good setting for a story.

It’s just a quick sketch of the action, but is incredibly helpful. From here I look at what Les Edgerton calls the “surface problem” and the “story-worthy problem,” ie, the action/plot and why that action matters. Scene by scene I can look at how a story is coming together, whether scenes are moving too quickly or too slowly, pinpoint the climax (or lack there of), etc, and it moves us away from the “good” or “bad” in a story, which makes for a more helpful for discussion.

What’s the single most helpful thing you’ve done in workshops (or to prepare for them), or that you’ve had a teacher do?

Olive Kitteridge exercises – part 2

As I wrote about here, Olive Kitteridge is both a wonderful book and a kick-ass instructional guide for fiction writers. I’ll continue here with a few more exercises based on things I think Strout does like a boss:

Two stories in one: In “Tulips,” we learn the story of the Larkin family as well as what happens to Henry Kitteridge after his stroke. How does the blending of two stories strengthen both narrative lines, and how does the larger (public) story help to shape the smaller (private) one? Write a story where you take a larger event–of national importance, or local importance–that affects many people and tell it beside a personal story that is unrelated but happening simultaneously. How does the public story help to shape the private one, or how does the private story inform the understanding of the public story for the character?

Character understanding: Oftentimes when we’re telling a story, we’re telling it to try and figure out just what it means or because there is mystery inside of it somewhere. In “Tulips,” on pages 145 and 157, Olive is trying to understand why her son doesn’t seem to like her very much, and while telling the story, the reader begins to understand even though she can’t see through to the truth. How can you lead the reader to understand what a character cannot?
Write a scene where the reader understands something the character telling the story doesn’t–a child telling their parent about an incident at school, a man telling a friend why his spouse has left him, a person fired from a job for no apparent reason.

Assumptions: People often aren’t what they seem, and not in the secret I’m-a-serial-killer way they (delightfully) would have us believe on Criminal Minds, but in that we are more multi-faceted than we give each other credit for. Strout constantly is turning characters on their ears in a way that is believable and in-sync to who they are but a surprise to those who know them. Look at the portrayal of Mary acting out of character on pg 160, or Marlene not just being a sweet, daft woman on pages 176-77.
Write a scene where someone upsets another person’s expectations, where they do something that isn’t out of character, but that reveals another facet of that character.

I hope these have been helpful, or if nothing else, will lead you back to read Olive Kitteridge again. Even writing these up, I’m tempted to take another look and discover all I’ve missed. If you have exercises of your own based on specific works by Strout or by other writers, let me know in the comments!

Olive Kitteridge exercises

I’ve long been a fan of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for about anyone who loves to read, and each time I read it, I’m struck once again by its wonderfulness. I’ve taught it a lot too–in short story writing classes, in novel writing classes. If I taught straight up lit classes more often, I’d use it there too. As such, I’ve put together quite a few fiction writing exercises around this book that I thought might be useful to others.

(I’m referencing the trade paperback edition.)

1) Inference: Look at pages 18 (longest paragraph), 31 (first paragraph, second section), and 100 (second half of page). Much is revealed, but little is actually said about what has happened, rather it is implied. This is a practice in suspense and subtlety. Write a scene where something has happened but that something isn’t actually said: a character lost a job, is putting a marriage back together after an infidelity, cheated on an exam, etc. How can you imply the action so it is understood by the reader without actually saying it, and what does the not saying reveal about the character?

2) Setting: Look at page 39 and the top of 40. In this scene, Strout uses the setting to further the conversation both by addressing it and using it as backdrop to mirror the current emotions. Write a scene where setting is used to deepen the meaning of a conversation between two characters.

3) Triangles in fiction: Read pages 116-118. Pay attention to how Olive’s allegiance changes throughout the scene from her husband to the boy. How does this happen? Why do triangles work so well in fiction? Write a scene with three people where two are aligned and there is an outsider that comes in and changes that alliance: A couple and a child, three friends but two are closer, two co-workers and their superior, etc.

4) Ambiguity: Strout does a lot of “telling” in her stories and does it brilliantly, but sometimes she relies wholly on action and leaves it to the reader to interpret. Students sometimes have a hard time with this, but I think she has some great examples for discussing the difference between ambiguity versus vagueness. With ambiguity you have different interpretations of the same action, while with vagueness, you’re left with no real interpretations and have to fill in the blanks about what has actually happened. Page 122 has a great example of a solid action left up to interpretation. Olive’s body doesn’t work the same anymore but does that mean she’s changed, she can’t return to “normal,” that the physical pain is a manifestation of the emotional? I don’t know for sure, but I know what’s happening to her body and can suggest evidence for all the readings. In this exercise, try writing a scene with solid action that can be interpreted multiple ways. What types of textual evidence do you need to supply? Do any of the readings contradict the others? In many ways, this is just “showing versus telling” taken up a notch.

I’ll have a second post soon with a few more.

Breadcrumbs

Sometimes I think my love of carbs is interfering with other areas of my life, and other times I think it can make an apt metaphor for writing. I’ve been talking a lot about breadcrumbs in my fiction writing classes lately, those details we drop into a story as we’re going, not knowing where they’re leading, but aware we might need some direction later on. Maybe not only to return home, but to figure out where we’re going.

The other day I was working on a first draft of a story and left the following crumbs in the first two pages:

1) cottonwoods and elms surrounding a farm
2) a character who can’t eat spicy foods
3) a notepad next to a phone with a phone number written on it
4) a weird aunt that might be psychic
5) a character who sleeps in a nightgown

Are any of these crumbs worth anything? I don’t know, but until I write further, I won’t. I’ve already come back to the notepad next to the phone, and my guess is the landscape is important, if only so I can more fully imagine the scenes taking place there. But the real proof will be in the pudding (maybe I’m just obsessed with food?), when I get stuck and have to go back and carefully read what’s come before, wondering what I’ve put in the map.

Ron Carlson says we need to fully imagine scenes in order to build from them, that “details aren’t the icing on the cake, but the table that the cake stands on.” (Seriously, now I’m talking about cake?)

What breadcrumbs do you leave when you’re starting a story? What draws you back in a way you hadn’t expected?