Sunday, October 13, 2013

What I Avoid

In my last post I created a couple of simple surveys listing elements in both fiction and non-fiction writing that most writers must deal with at some point. Some of these we feel comfortable about. Others we dread like the plague. We may even go out of our way to avoid them.

An example for me is writing sex scenes. I feel silly writing them. I always fear I'm either going to fall into silliness like, "She felt his hard manhood against her, wanting, seeking, thrusting." Or my scene is going to come off as hardcore pornography (or softcore for that matter) when I am not interested in titillation but in furthering my story. As a result, I avoid them for the most part. I start the lovers off then do a hasty fadeout before things go too far. Once in awhile I do a full scene if I feel I absolutely must, but I don't like doing it.

Maybe it's my Catholic school education.

Here are my answers to the little quizzes I created.

Fiction Elements

                                                           Like              Indifferent     Dislike or Dread


Love scenes                                           X

Sex scenes                                                                                                X

Violent scenes                                                                                          X

Dialogue w Characters                          X

Interior dialogue                                     X

Description                                                                                               X

Back story                                                                             X

Narrative                                                X

Time shifts                                                                             X

POV Shifts                                            X

Depicting emotions                                X

Nonfiction Elements

                                                            Like              Indifferent     Dislike or Dread

Technical Writing                                                                                      X

Proposals                                                                         X

Biographical Data                                                            X

Publicity/Advertising Copy                    X

Directions/how-tos                                                                                     X

Autobiography/Resume                                                   X

Specifications                                                                                             X

Tests/quizzes/surveys                             X

Explanations                                           X

Newsletters                                                                      X

Presentations/Speeches                            X

So what's the point of all this? Why analyze what we enjoy writing and what we don't? After all, we write what we write. And if we're lucky enough to get to choose, we can pretty much decide to stick with the elements we feel good about.

But it's the same reason we do any inventory--we get better if we understand what's going on.

We know intuitively that the kinds of writing we like are the kinds we're good at, and vice-versa: we enjoy doing what comes easily.

What we may not realize clearly is that avoidance dooms us to staying stuck. If we don't  force ourselves to practice a skill we will never acquire it. If we don't practice we won't get better. And sometimes avoidance just isn't possible. Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we have to write something we don't enjoy writing.

Much as I hate violent scenes, for example, there are times when I should write one, when  a violent incident has to be shown because it impacts the character and therefore, the story. I could choose to work around it--much as any person with a disability finds alternative ways to do certain things--but it's to my own detriment. More importantly, it's a detriment to the story.

Believe me, I've taken the path of least resistance many times. But here's the problem: the more I avoid writing certain types of things, the more unbalanced my writing becomes because while I continue to strengthen in some areas, in others I remain mediocre.

What about you? Are there skills and techniques you should improve but avoid instead?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Other Forms of Art as Inspiration

It can be challenging to come up with ideas for stories.

My experience has been that the more I write, the more easily ideas come to me. It is when I've been busy with other things, when my mind has been otherwise occupied, that I have to wrack my brain to come up with a story idea.

It's as if I've primed the pump allowing ideas to flow readily.

Where do the ideas come from?

One of the first short stories I ever wrote was inspired by watching the movie Rear Window.

I was taking a writing class at the time and was looking for an idea. Otherwise, I may never have paid the kind of close attention to the movie that led to my idea. As I watched the James Stewart character, I was intrigued by two questions:

  • Why is he so indifferent to Grace Kelly's character, a woman who is breathtakingly beautiful, smart, classy and undeniably in love with him? 
  • Why is he so intrigued with watching his neighbors through binoculars that he refuses to leave the window even go to bed at night?
The murder, of course, is interesting. Stewart's efforts to unmask Raymond's Burr's character as the murderer are riveting.

Even so, what I walked away from the movie with was a fascination with someone whose life is so out of balance that he prefers to live through the lives of others rather than to fully engage in his own life.

It inspired a story about a woman who believes she sees something take place as she's sitting on a park bench. Outraged by what she believes she has seen, she acts on her suspicions. She is wrong, of course, and brings about devastation in the lives of three innocent people. I read the story to my writing class. Then I entered it into a national contest where it received Honorable Mention.

I mention this because I always find the work of other artists inspiring. So much so that their "take" on an element of the human comedy often elicits a response in me to deliver my own "take" on a similar situation. Often my angle of vision is quite different from theirs.

So it's not just life that can inspire us. We can be inspired by art as well, and this includes the visual and performing arts. 

I know a talented painter whose paintings are inspired by novels she has read and loved. I know musicians whose music grows out of an appreciation of a special poem. Choreographers tell stories all the time, some of them based on famous novels.

For me, it is often movies that set my creative juices flowing, but I also use music to set and establish the right mood as I write, and sometimes I look at  a painting that conveys an emotion I am trying to capture.

What about you? Do other forms of art inform your work or inspire it? Where do you get your story ideas?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What About Critique Groups?

Just how valuable are critique groups?

Budding writers are usually encouraged to join at least one. And most of us like the idea of other writers reading our work and giving us suggestions and encouragement. After all, we are all hungry to have somebody read our work, and in the beginning, at least, there are few people we can turn to outside family and friends. So a critique group, made up of other writers some of whom are more experienced and savvy than we are, can seem like a very positive step toward becoming a "real" writer.

Of course we all know people who are too shy or self-conscious or insecure about their work to let anyone read it. But there's not much point in writing if no one is ever going to see it. Words are nothing if not a mode of communication. So these writers usually get over their reluctance if they're serious about their work. Or they quit. Or they settle for writing as a form of self-expression only and see their efforts as journaling.

It can be exciting to read our work for the very first time to a group of other writers. It can also be terrifying. I know the first time I did it, my heart was beating out of my chest and my hands were trembling so much I could barely hold the paper. And when I was through, when I lay the paper down and dared to look up at the faces around the table, it felt like an ultimate judgment was about to be rendered, as if everything I had done or would ever do was about to be validated as great writing or condemned as trash.

And perhaps that's the problem, at least for naive writers. We don't yet have the discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff in our critique groups. It takes experience to realize that sometimes the people commenting on our work are dead wrong, or at least only partly right. It takes time to figure out which members of our group we should listen to and which we should ignore. It takes a degree of wisdom to realize that writers are only other human beings and have their own sets of motivations, insecurities, needs, blind spots and desires.

The most important thing we can do when listening  to critiques of our work is to "consider the source." But it takes experience and understanding before we are able to do that.

Here are some advantages of joining a critique group:

  • A readymade audience for your work.
  • Sharing information about agents, publishers, contests, conferences, etc.
  • Sharpening your skills both by receiving critiques and by analyzing the work of others.
  • Hearing your work by reading it aloud. (A particular advantage for improving dialogue).
  • Giving and receiving encouragement and suggestions.
  • Forming a support group of fellow writers who understand your struggles and triumphs.
Here are some disadvantages:
  • Dealing with the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the members.
  • The difficulty of leaving your ego at the door so that you can really "hear" critiques.
  • The difficulty of giving critiques without your own ulterior motives interfering. 
  • The challenge of figuring out what is valid criticism and what isn't.
  • Listening to work you don't really like, would never read if left to your own devices.
  • Spending time on other people's work you could be spending on your own work.
In my own writing life, I spent quite a few years belonging to critique groups. Sometimes I found the experience very valuable. Other times I found it debilitating.

At this point, I do not belong to a critique group and haven't for several years. Why? Because I've reached a point in my writing when I no longer believe I can benefit from it. Not that I don't seek out the opinions of others. I always use beta readers for my work because, once I've finished a couple of drafts of a novel, I know I'm too close to it to see it clearly. I need the feedback of others.

But I don't struggle through my first draft with the help of a group. I'd rather use my own instincts as a writer to carve out my story.

What about you? Have you joined a critique group? Has it been a positive experience? Negative? Or mixed? Does it still work for you?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Who Are You Writing For?

It can be enlightening to analyze not only why you write, but for whom you write. Your imagined audience says a great deal about what kind of work you produce, both now and in the future.

In my own case, my audience has changed over the years. The people I used to hope to impress don't matter so much any more.

There are a number of audiences we might be writing for. Following are a few I've thought of. You might think of others.

You might imagine a particular someone reading your work. A parent. A favorite teacher. An old lover. A significant other. Your old schoolmates.

  • If you write with one of these people in mind, you probably write with the hope of making them proud of you, or proving that you're smarter, more creative, more worthwhile than they gave you credit for. 
  • You are writing in hopes of being praised or being recognized. 
  • The downside of this approach is that you are coming at your task from a position of weakness. You see yourself as needing the approval of your target audience. You come at the work from a deficit.

You might write with a type of reader in mind. Young adult. Professional women. Literary types. Other writers. Ex-military. Street-smart hipsters.

  • If you write with a demographic in mind you need to know a great deal about their lifestyle, their preferences, and their biases.
  • Sometimes having a specific target audience will lead you toward genre writing (e.g., romances for housewives).
  • It can be helpful to have a particular groove that fits your writing. On the other hand, it can limit your imagination and lead to flat writing. You may find yourself writing the same story with slight variations over and over again.
You might write for people just like you. If you're a young middle-class woman, you write for young, middle-class women. If you're a middle-aged professional, you write for other middle-aged professionals. You're writing for people who see things pretty much the way you do.
  • You already know your audience very well. This can be an advantage because you don't have to guess at how they will react to situations in your stories.
  • However, you may limit yourself by not taking a wider view.
You might write for yourself. You write what interests you with no thought as to whether anyone else cares about your subject matter.
  • The obvious disadvantage of this approach is that your writing might bore everyone but yourself.
  • On the other hand, you have the freedom to explore anything and everything without worrying about how someone else might react.
  • You can also try out unconventional techniques. James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness method came out of wanting to achieve a certain effect. He didn't care whether the audience would stay with him.
In own writing life, I have tried all of these audiences with the possible exception of choosing a demographic.

I started out wanting to prove to my parents, teachers, friends and acquaintances that I was a good writer. I wanted to wow them. I wanted them to say, "I never knew Lee was such a talented person."

I moved on to writing for people who were like me. My audience was my peer group.

Now I write for myself, for better or for worse. I follow my nose and my interests. No story is like any other story. That's both a blessing and a curse because my work can't be pigeonholed. Readers don't know what to expect from me. It's hard to build a readership that way.

Who do you write for? Is there an audience I've left out?