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?



Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why I Keep Writing

Last week I wrote about how hard it is to stay motivated to keep on writing.There are a thousand reasons to quit:

  • Writing is hard. It takes years to develop skill and even once we have developed all the tools of our craft, we must still struggle to express our ideas in a compelling manner.
  • Our first efforts are usually less than memorable to put it kindly.
  • No one really cares much whether our stories get told or not. After all, a novel, short story, poem or essay will not end hunger or bring about world peace.
  • If we're honest we have to concede that most people forget a book, movie or story very soon after seeing it. No matter how good it is.
  • To get anyone to pay attention to our work we have to be excellent marketers and/or salespeople. Many, if not most of us are not.
  • Most of us are never going to get rich and famous from our writing. We're more likely to win the lottery.
So why write? Why not take up something more satisfying like knitting or playing the guitar?

I promised to list the reasons I keep writing. Here they are in no particular order.
  • Imaginary people live in my head. All kinds of crazy things happen to them and they insist on telling me about them. They won't leave me alone until I write down their stories.
  • There are techniques I'm not good at. I get frequent urges to practice these even when the results are less than thrilling. Experience has taught me that eventually I'll get better. The exhilaration of conquering a technique that has until now eluded me is incomparable.
  • Sometimes an atmosphere, an emotion, a vision, or a circumstance stirs my imagination. In the hands of someone else, these would be transformed into poems. In my case, I am driven to create a story in which to contain them.
  • I love words. I love the sound of them, the feel of them in my mouth. I love to look at them,  tiny black soldiers marching left to right across a white expanse to create a world, a universe, that never existed before. I love selecting the right ones and placing them in the best possible order  so that the reader can see, feel, hear exactly what I do. I paint with words.
  • I love the surprise of writing. I never know how a story is going to turn out until I write it. I often go into it believing I know how it will go only to discover that the characters take matters into their own hands and carry the story to places I never imagined.
  • I am intrigued by the task of how to put events in the right order so that the reader gets just the information he needs at any given point and no more and yet the story proceeds in a coherent fashion. 

Notice that every reason I have listed is about the process of writing, not the outcome.

I think that's the lesson here. At least for me. We have to love to write. We have to look forward to sitting down at the keyboard every morning and meeting that day's challenges and opportunities. For me it has to be about the story and how to tell it simply, beautifully, convincingly. It has to come down to choosing each word and each scene so I can paint a complete portrait of my imagined world.

If thoughts break in about whether a publisher will like it or whether my story is "commercial", I can't do my job. I'm thinking about the wrong things. I'm worrying about results over which I have very little control.

What I can control--at least to the limit of my talent and skill--is whether I have written my story well.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What Keeps You Writing?

Notice, I didn't entitle this post, "What made you start writing?" Beginning is fairly simple. Keeping at it is the tough part.

We begin writing for a number of reasons. Here are the most common I can think of. Maybe you can think of others.

  • We're good at it. It has always come naturally to us.
  • We believe we have a unique story to tell and we're eager to share it with the world.
  • Someone else has written about our experience(s) but didn't do the story justice. We know we can tell it as it deserves to be told.
  • People seem impressed if we says we're writers. We feel special to be among the few with a gift for language.
  • We believe it's a route to becoming rich or famous or both.
When we begin, we may believe that writing is our destiny, that we are uniquely suited to the solitary but glamorous (in our minds)  life of a writer.

Unfortunately, none of these beliefs and attitudes about ourselves and the writing process stand up once we begin.
  • Experience shows us that facility with language is a far cry from effective writing. We quickly discover that our skills need serious development and honing.
  • Our unique story, it turns out, is not so unique after all. There are only a few stories in the world and they have all been told by others long before we took up writing. The only thing unique about our story is that it happened to us.
  • Writing is difficult. Those who came before us may have failed to do our story justice, but we find that, in our hands, it fares no better at first. A long apprenticeship is required before our story comes to life.
  • While people may be impressed when we say we're writers, they become far less enthused when we don't produce anything worth reading for years. And eventually we stop proclaiming our specialness.
  • Almost no one becomes either rich or famous from writing. For every J.K. Rowling, there are a million unknown, unsung writers who are talented, skillful and deserving of an audience.
So why continue? 

WRITING IS HARD. AND USUALLY NO ONE IS STANDING NEXT TO US CHEERING US ON AS WE STRUGGLE TO LEARN OUR CRAFT.

There is nothing glamorous, or even very interesting about sitting in front of a keyboard for hours, alone and bleary-eyed, trying to get a scene right. 

And once we finish and send our efforts out into the world--no doubt dreaming of quick publication and TV interviews--we are in for a terrible letdown. Because the rejections begin pouring in, usually in the form of form letters, but sometimes with comments or suggestions which prove that the agent or publisher barely looked at our work. Or didn't read it at all.

And once we realize we will not be published any time soon, we may decide to take matters into our own hands and self-publish. Take it directly to the people. Let the readers have access to our work without the clumsiness of a middle man.

And that's when we learn that not only do we have to be good writers, we also have to learn how to market our work. We have to advertise it, beat the drums for it, sell it.

MANY OF US ARE LOUSY MARKETERS AND SALESPEOPLE.

So, back to my original question: what is it that keeps us writing?

I have my own set of answers that I've developed over time. I'll share these with you next week. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what motivates you to stay focused and committed.

LET ME KNOW!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Setting the Stage

We all learned it in school:

SETTING IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF A SHORT STORY OR NOVEL

What is setting exactly? It's the place(s), time(s) and circumstances in which the story takes place. Setting includes

  • the year(s) during which the action takes place.
  • The country, city, province where the characters live.
  • The rural, urban or suburban setting.
  • The rooms they inhabit.
  • The fields, pastures, mountains, deserts, seashores where they travel.
  • The circumstances in which they exist 
    • Is it wartime or  or peacetime?
    • Is it a time of  famine or prosperity?
    • Do they experience personal wealth or poverty?
Setting is just about the last thing I think about when I'm writing.

I don't mean I don't place my stories carefully: Catch the Sun couldn't take place anywhere but Los Angeles. Bear Medicine had to unfold on the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Lakota tribe lives. And my latest book, Down on Ten Toes needed the big bad city vibe of New York in the seventies.

What I mean is, my settings are driven by the story I want to tell, not the other way around.

You could do it the other way. You could be inspired by a place and/or a time, and create characters and a story tailored to that setting. In that case, the setting becomes a character in the drama, maybe the main character.

I wonder if Thomas Hardy wrote that way. So much of his work begins with pages of detailed descriptions of a place, and, almost as if by accident, a character wanders into the scene, a small dot on the landscape, a mere feature of the setting.

Of course, modern readers find Hardy unbearably tedious--for good reason. But if you want to show how a place, an atmosphere can create character and action, you can still do it. Woody Allen did it recently in the movies with Midnight in Paris which is nothing if not a love letter to the City of Lights.

Here's how I do it, I think. (The process happens organically and almost all at once so it's hard to separate the elements).
  • First I'm inspired by a character or characters who intrigue me, who work on my imagination and don't let go.
  • Next I imagine how these characters will behave given a certain set of circumstances. Sometimes even dull people can become interesting due to the effect of circumstances on their psyches.
    • Will they grow and learn? 
    • Will they give in to their most selfish impulses?
    • Will they be destroyed by the circumstances?
  • After that, I create their actions--what they  think, say, and do to affect their world and the other characters This becomes the plot.
  • Finally, I place them in the setting or settings that seem most appropriate for the development of their story.
You can do this any way you want. Like I said, the setting can inspire you first and everything else can come out of it.

Or you can have a plot you want to explore first and let the characters and setting evolve out of that.

What  doesn't work is to shortchange one of  these three elements. And the element that is the easiest to shortchange is the setting.

And here's the important thing: you must attend to the setting in every scene. It isn't enough just to establish the overall setting, for example London, 1943 during the blitzkrieg

Every time your characters appear on the page, we need to know where they are, what they're doing, where they're going, if they're coming back from somewhere. Are they smoking a cigarette? Reading a book? Staring out the window? Walking?

Have you ever read a story in which two characters are having a conversation and you have no idea where they are, what time of day it is, whether they're sitting, standing or walking? A conversation which seems to exist nowhere at all? It's a strange sensation. It creates frustration in the reader. It makes the story dull and lifeless.

I don't mean we need to know about every item in the room or exactly what the characters are wearing--unless it's important. I'm certainly not advocating long. tedious descriptive passages. A word or two will do.

BUT YOU MUST ATTACH YOUR CHARACTERS TO THEIR WORLD OR THEY WILL NOT COME TO LIFE.

What do you think? How do you work with setting in your work?


Monday, July 8, 2013

Am I Foolish to Worry?

I have a new novel in mind. Actually, it's a story that's been nagging me for years.

It's the story about the relationship between my parents.

It's not a pretty story. It's not inspirational, uplifting or full of tenderness.

It is a love story, though, for my parents loved each other passionately. They also did their utmost to destroy one another.

It's an interesting story because my father was an extreme example of the domineering male while my mother was so passive as to be almost immobilized.

Except that she was beautiful so people wanted to look at her. And she was brilliant so people wanted to converse with her.

My father, too, was brilliant, making a name for himself as a talented trial lawyer. He appeared in newspaper columns as a rising young star, the criminal lawyer who never lost a case.

He believed he could get what he wanted, and he controlled everything in his world  right down to the furniture and draperies in the Gatsby-esque house he bought with his newly acquired wealth.

He thought he could control his wife too, improve her, help her overcome her shyness, bring her out of her shell. She tried to be what he wanted--she loved him with every fiber of her being-- and he must have believed that she would become the perfect wife in time. His perfect partner.

But he couldn't control her drinking. And there came a time when she lost everything except this one, powerful, devastating weapon. She could not give up her drinking and my father couldn't make her.

I have letters--achingly sad, longing letters my father wrote my mother begging her to "take care of her health"for the sake of the family he wanted them to raise together--a family of strong, vibrant children able to take on the world because their parents were wise, smart, loving and stable.

My father's career nosedived--carelessness or arrogance played a part, I suspect--but he never wavered in his belief that he could make it all work again. Never stopped pressing my mother to be what he wanted her to be.

In the end, they divorced and my mother died of alcoholism when she was only thirty-eight years old. My father moved, remarried and rebuilt his career. He also became increasingly angry, embittered and cynical. In the end he withdrew from the world he had tried to conquer. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in bed, glued to an endless series of sports shows, unwilling to speak about much of anything at all, least of all, the past.

Here's the thing: for years people have encouraged me to write their story. For years I have felt a deep reluctance. 

For a long time I held back because the people involved were still around--notably my father, but also aunts, uncles, family friends. But they are virtually all gone now, so I no longer have that excuse. No one can be hurt by telling their story.

So now I worry that maybe I don't have all the facts.

Of course I don't, I was a child during most of the drama.

Furthermore, I  don't even want to write a biography. I'm not motivated to write factually. I don't want to dig out dates, times and events from old newspaper files or the memories of old acquaintances. I'm pretty sure that mode of inquiry will not get me to my parents' motives, thoughts and emotions.
But will making the story a novel serve my parents in the end? Will distorting the facts of the narrative allow access to their emotions? Can turning my parents into characters help me tell the truth about them?

I don't know. I do know their story exerts a powerful pull on me--after all, who they were has a lot to do with who I am.

But there is still the reluctance, the sense that I might be invading holy ground where I have no right to tread.

What do you think? How do you handle stories of people close to you? Or your own, for that matter?

Monday, June 24, 2013

I'm Back!

It's been weeks since I've written anything for my blog. This, in spite of the fact that my home page says, "Published most Sundays."

Even now, it isn't Sunday, it's Monday. That's how discombobulated I've become.

I have a reason: I've just moved. I've moved before, of course, but the last few moves have been within the familiar environment of the Central Coast of California. Not that any move is easy. But this one has been particularly difficult because Rufus and I have moved to Sacramento, a part of the state we are totally unfamiliar with.

I call it "the move from hell."

Not only did we move to a completely unknown area where we know no one except my daughter and her family, but everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.

Here is a partial list of the issues we have confronted:

  • The water heater was leaking and had to be replaced. Hence, no hot water for several days.
  • The washer/dryer were not hooked up. When we got them hooked up, they didn't work properly. We couldn't wash our clothes for two weeks.
  • The closet pole collapsed when I tried to hang up my clothes.
  • There was no jack anywhere in the house for a landline.
  • There was no phone line either.
  • The city could not produce a recycle can for the first two weeks we were here. No recyclables can be collected without a recycle can.
  • The dogs were stressed to the max and decided to poop in the upstairs hallway to express their uneasiness.

These are all small problems taken by themselves. But add to them the fact that we had a house full of unpacked boxes and miscellaneous furniture needing a home, and that we had to feel our way around town to to buy supplies, and you can imagine the stress and confusion we felt.

Needless to say, writing blog posts has not been part of the picture.

BUT, we're starting to return to normal at last. Everything is pretty much put away, set up, and configured to our liking. Pictures are on the walls, books are on the shelves, dishes are in the cabinets. It's starting to feel like home. We've met the neighbors, learned where to go to get what we need, and figured out where we can take the dogs for exercise.

So, now it's back to business.

I guess.

My mind is blank.

Or rather, it's still full of the practical problems around creating a new home.

Maybe Sunday!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Critiquing Other Writers

For the last few weeks, I have blogged about being on the receiving end of judgments of our work. Of course, that's not the whole story. Whether you belong to a critique group, are taking a writing class, attending a workshop or just reading a friend's work, you will be called upon to give your commentary on someone else's work.

Look on this as part of giving back. Your job as a reviewer is to help the writer get better.

"But," you may say, "I'm not experienced enough, good enough, technical enough to say anything helpful."

Not so. Even inexperienced writers have good reading skills. We must have, or we couldn't be writers. You know whether you responded to the story or the chapter. You know whether you were bored or interested, touched or left cold, wanted to read more or were glad when it was over. Voicing those reactions can be very helpful.

You may not know techniques the writer can use to to turn the story from a yawn into a page-turner, but letting him know how the story affected you is valuable information.

The other side of the coin are experienced writers and critiquers. You can't wait to critique the piece to show off your great knowledge and insight. You mentally rub your hands together, thinking, "When will it be my turn to tell it like it is? The POV is all over the place. There's too much description, the characters are poorly drawn and the time shift halfway through is so confusing, I lost the thread."

Is your motive to be helpful? Or to show off your superior knowledge?

Here are the eight most important things to remember when giving a critique:

  • This is not an opportunity to get back at the writer for a lousy critique she gave you! Tempting, I know. But remember your intention must be to provide helpful feedback. It's what we owe each other as writers.
  • It's not about you! Whether you think you have nothing to say, or believe you are the biggest badass in the room, leave your ego at the door.
  • Avoid  mob mentality.  Sometimes a critique group as a whole takes on a certain attitude or approach. Usually this is because one admired or influential group member has set a specific tone. If the tone is a positive, helpful one, this can be good. But often the tone can be bitchy, sneering, sarcastic, etc. Don't join in! (Better yet, join another critique group.)
  • Be truthful. Never tell a kind lie. Never exaggerate a fault. Say what you really think.
  • Be kind. I don't mean you should sugarcoat. But I do mean you should speak your truth gently.
  • Say what worked for you as well as what didn't. This isn't just to be nice or make the writer feel better about your criticisms. Writers need to know what strengths they can build on as well as what weaknesses to overcome.
  • Be specific. Telling the writer he's wordy won't help at all if he doesn't see how he's wordy. Point out specific sentences or paragraphs and suggest how to tighten the language. 
  • Speak to the author's intention, not your own preferences. Never criticize someone's choice of genre, setting, type of characters or outcome. These things may not be to your liking, but what you like is irrelevant. See Rule #1.
More about this last point because it's important. It's very difficult to keep your own preferences out of your critiques. But it has to be done if you want to give a fair review. The key is to understand your own biases and be able to set them aside for the moment.

If the piece is a romance and you hate romances, ask yourself whether the story has accomplished what the author intended. If it has, it's a success. Similarly, if you hate doom and gloom and believe every story should have a happy ending, you won't like one that ends with a suicide. Again, did the author achieve the effect she was after? Does the story hang together? Is the writing forceful? Then the author has succeeded.


So that's it! Have I left anything out? Tell me if I have. I need feedback too!

Happy critiquing!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Dealing with Criticism

For the last two weeks, I have been blogging about contests and other arenas in which we put ourselves out there to be judged. I talked about my hopes and fears in regard to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and how disappointed I was when I didn't make it to the semi-final round.

I also talked about how we can shoot ourselves in the foot by taking failure to mean that either the judges are crazy, stupid or ignorant or that our writing is lousy. Either of these reactions places us in a position in which we are helpless to change anything. We believe we can't succeed either because the deck is stacked against us or because we have no talent.

The better response is to learn from the failure and try again, to use the judge's/agent's/publisher's comments as a springboard to improvement.

What I didn't talk about was the comments we receive from critique groups, writing seminars, workshops, and conferences. Or from friends to whom we have given our work for feedback. Not all the comments we get from these sources will help us grow as writers.

NOT EVERYBODY IS GOING TO GIVE US HELPFUL FEEDBACK.

There are a number of things to keep in mind when evaluating feedback.
  • Is the person a writer? If so, does he have an axe to grind?
  • Is the person a reader? Is she a sophisticated reader? Does she read the kind of stories you like to write?
  • Is the person superior in his own eyes? Does he see himself as the last word in discernment? Is he ready to tell you whose work is great and whose is trash? In other words, is his critique all about proving how great he is?
  • Have you respected what the person has had to say about other people's writing?
I had quite an experience years ago.  

I went to a writer's conference where there were scheduled sessions during the day, but "Pirate" sessions late at night. Starting around eleven p. m., the "cool" people gathered in an auditorium and awaited the "great man." This was a teacher whose short stories had appeared many years before but who was no longer active as a writer. He did, however, teach at this particular conference every year. He would wander in around midnight and take his seat on the stage.

He would then ask those who wished to be critiqued to rush the stage to take a number. People pushed, pulled and tripped each other to get to the stage to get a low number. Only a few could be read and critiqued in a single session--though we stayed there until four a. m. some nights--and there were no holdovers. If you didn't get to read that night, the whole process started over the next night. 

So, from the get-go, the critique session was not only competitive, it was cutthroat.

It got worse from there. When someone took to the stage to read their piece, listeners tried to outdo each other  to rip it to shreds. The "great man" held his peace until the bloodletting was over. Then he might say, "I might have liked your story until_________ said___________. But I see he was right." 

The person mentioned was usually the most vicious critic.  The writer was not allowed to defend her point-of-view, and would leave the stage feeling humiliated.

Why did I attend? Because someone I respected told me that these pirate sessions were the best way to drop my ego involvement with my work and to grow a thick skin. To be a writer, I was told, I had to forget about sensitivity and hurt feelings.

When it was finally my turn on night three or four, I read my piece and waited. There was silence for a long time. After awhile, the great man, nodded and murmured that the piece might be quite good. He invited others to weigh in. A hand shot up. It was a young girl, maybe fourteen years old. She'd been given a scholarship to the conference because her high school teacher believed she had great promise and the conference leaders agreed. She proceeded to pick the story apart, using terms and words learned from the older participants  over the course of the week. As far as I could tell, her comments showed little understanding of what I was trying to do with the story. When she finished, others joined her. (Some attacked her critique, but not to defend me, only to claim a superior ground from which to criticize my piece.) Finally, the great man shrugged. "I guess I was wrong," he said. "Your colleagues have spoken."

These pirate sessions, of course, were an abuse of the critique process. I (and countless others) would have done better to stick to the day sessions. But, for some reason, I wanted a stamp of approval, an imprimatur, from these prestigious extra night sessions and the great man who ran them. It's probably something to do with needing approval from a critical father or something stupid like that.

To this day, I have never figured out why the great man ran his sessions the way he did or what he thought anyone gained from them.

Which brings me back to my point:

NOT EVERYBODY IS GOING TO GIVE US HELPFUL FEEDBACK.

Above I suggested several factors to take into account when evaluating a critique. They all boil down to this:

CONSIDER THE SOURCE.

If you have reason to respect the person's opinion, by all means use the critique to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your piece and improve it.

Respecting the person opinion means:

  • You know his motive is to be helpful.
  • You are reasonably sure she knows good writing when she sees it.
  • You believe he knows how to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.
There is no substitute for testing our work with other writers and/or readers. We all know how difficult it is to see our work clearly when we are close to it. 

But, for God's sake, choose your readers carefully!

What about you? Have you been unfairly critiqued?



Sunday, April 21, 2013

Failure

Last week I wrote about waiting to be validated as a writer. The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semi-finalists hadn't been announced yet, and I wrote about the importance I was placing on the results, and whether validation would change anything about my writing.

Well, the results are in.  I am not on the list of semi-finalists.

It took me a day or two to get over it.

The other day I read a blog post about failure. I think the author was trying to be funny when she listed the top ten reasons why being a failure is a good thing. She proudly proclaimed herself a failure and noted that failing gave her the kind of freedom winning never could. Since no one could possibly expect anything of her, she could do whatever suited her without anyone taking notice of her.

Perhaps. But I didn't really believe her.

Failure stings. Losing hurts.

Nobody enjoys pain, so we look for ways to mitigate the loss, deny it or wish it away. But if we're honest, the disappointment of losing still hurts.

Some of the things I've heard writers say in the throes of disappointment are destructive.

  • "Those judges/critics don't know what they're talking about. My work is great. They're the fools for not seeing it.
  • "I was judged unfairly because my story is not a carbon copy of  _________." (Name it: whatever the fashionable genre, style, or subject matter is at the moment.) 
  • "My work is too avant-garde." (or too realistic, too dark, too optimistic, too uplifting, too humorous.)
  • "I guess my work really stinks after all. I should just give up."
  • "I knew I'd never win. Why did I even bother to enter? It's a waste of time to even try."
In these examples, the writer either blames somebody else or himself for his failure. 

If it's somebody else, it's either the judges who are too stupid to know genius when they see it, or it's the zeitgeist that is all wrong. Either way, the writer is helpless to change the situation.

If it's himself he blames, he sees it as something intrinsically wrong with him, his writing, or even his luck. Again, he is helpless to change the situation.

But there are other responses to losing that are more empowering. 

Notice, I didn't say they take away the sting, only that they leave us with a sense that we are, to some degree,  in charge of our own outcomes.

When successful writers lose( or fail), they are likely to say one or more of the following:

  • "Out of ten thousand entries only twenty-five made it to the semi-finals. Those are tough odds for anyone. I did well making it to the quarter-finals."
  • "I'm going to read the reviews of my work to see if I can learn something from them."
  • "I'm going to read the winning entries to see if I can learn something from them."
  • "If the judges/critics misunderstood what I was getting at, maybe I wasn't clear enough. I'll take a look and see if the story got muddled somewhere."

You get the idea. 

In these examples, the writer does two things that will help her improve as a writer:
  • She takes responsibility for her work without going down the rabbit hole of self-flagellation.
  • She treats her work as something outside herself--a product, if you will--not as a part of her heart and soul.
In other words, she treats the loss as a problem she can solve rather than as a blow to her self-esteem.

May we all learn from our experiences.

Have you ever had a failure or a loss? How did you handle it?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Waiting for Godot

Friday was April 12th, the day the list of semi-finalists for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award was supposed to be announced.

All day I was on tenterhooks. I had been named a quarter-finalist for Catch the Sun. Would I make it to the next round? Would I be a semi-finalist? I kept checking my email. I probably checked it every five or ten minutes all day long. By mid-afternoon I decided I probably hadn't gotten an email from the contest because I hadn't made it. Probably they just let the successful entrants know by email. The rest of us shlubs were expected to just check the list of semi-finalists on the website to discover we were not on it. Which didn't make much sense since the emails I had gotten after the first two rounds of the contest simply announced that the list was available on the website for us to peruse. And that meant those who were on the list as well as those who were not must have gotten the same email.

Finally, around ten o'clock that night, I went to the website only to discover that the list was not there yet.

What a relief! I wasn't a loser! At least not yet. 

And that got me thinking: just why should my peace of mind, my sense of myself, my confidence in my writing be dependent on awaiting the outcome of a contest? Why do I need to wait for the verdict of anonymous readers to know how to feel about my writing?

What would change if I became a semi-finalist? Or, more unbelievably, a winner?

The answer is NOTHING. I would write my novels and stories just the same, either way. Of course, being a contest winner helps a writer get noticed by agents and publishers. And that's no small thing. We all want to be read. To be read, we must be published. And we need people to find out about our books. But sometimes I think we writers are too focused on achieving recognition and not focused enough on getting better.

I've had many conversations with writers over the years about this. "When will I get noticed?" most of us ask. "How can I keep writing if no one thinks well enough of my writing to give me an award or a contract or an advance?"

We all need encouragement. And none of us can exist very long in a vacuum. But I've been at this long enough to know that I will write no matter what. It's what I do. It's how I express myself.

I've heard writers declare they will wait for only so long, and if nothing happens, they'll give up. They'll stop writing. They'll do something else that gives them a sense of accomplishment, achievement.

But what about writers like Emily Dickinson who never achieved success during their lifetime?

The truth is that the process of writing and the results of writing are two very different things.

The process is about being in the moment and existing in the world created by the imagination. It's about trying to achieve an effect, or a mood. It's about testing our skill against the intransigence of language, about expressing what is sometimes inexpressible, about bringing a whole world to life that has no real existence.

The results are about how others view what we have done. If they like it, we get paid for our efforts. Perhaps we even become well-known. Our readers may think of us as better or worse than we are because they judge us through our work. If we write about lovable people, our readers see us as lovable. If we write about scoundrels, they may think we are unpleasant people.

The point is that the results have no connection to the work as we experience it!

Waiting to be validated is exactly the wrong approach to take.

Still. I wonder if the Amazon Breakthrough Award semi-finalists will be announced tomorrow.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Liebster Award Continued: Thoughts on Blogging

Last week I wrote about how honored I was to receive the Liebster Award for worthwhile blogs with fewer than 200 followers.

This week I have chosen bloggers I am nominating for the Liebster Award. They are all blogs by writers. They all have interesting points-of-view and are well worth getting to know.

In no particular order, they are:
As I said last week, there are responsibilities attached to this award. Each honored blogger must:

  • Thank the one who nominated him/her and leave a link to the nominator's blog.
  • Display the Liebster Award button on their website.
  • Answer 11 questions which I will pose.
  • List 11 random facts about themselves.
  • Nominate 11 deserving bloggers with fewer than 200 followers.
  • Inform the winners on their blog without leaving a link to his/her own blog.
Here are the questions I want each winner to answer:
  1. Why did you begin blogging?
  2. How long have you been a writer?
  3. What is your favorite blog besides your own?
  4. Where do you do your best thinking?
  5. Where do you do your best writing?
  6. How do you handle writer's block?
  7. Can people be taught to write?
  8. How much outlining do you do before beginning to write?
  9. Do you prefer reading fiction or nonfiction?
  10. Who (or what) are your greatest influences?
  11. If you could interview anyone, who would it be?
WHAT MAKES A GOOD BLOG?
  • Interesting, informative content.
  • Writing that is clear, precise and economical.
  • Consciousness of what readers want/need to know.
  • Thought-provoking questions.
I've noticed something as I've searched for blogs to honor. Many writers create blogs  that are so personal and idiosyncratic, they are more journal than blog. 

Do they really believe their personal thoughts and feelings are that interesting?

In general, our personal struggles are only interesting if  others see themselves in them. 

Struggling writers find the struggles of other writers interesting only when they are relevant to them!

Frankly, I don't care if you had a bad day and couldn't get anything done. Or if your dog ate your manuscript. Or if your kids missed the school bus. Those kinds of things happen to me too. To all of us, in fact.

You can make me care by making me laugh at your plight--and by extension my own--or if you tell me how you got out of your difficulties so I can apply the same wisdom to my own situation, or if you got up the next day and started all over again so I can see that perseverance  pays off.

But, in general bemoaning difficulties does not engender interesting blog posts.

Do you disagree? Have you found personal blogs that you love? What are they? What do you love about them?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Liebster Award


I just received the Liebster Award from Ryshia Kennie who writes a blog about writing entitled Once Upon a Time.

The award is given to interesting and valuable blogs with under 200 followers. I am honored to be a recipient. So thanks Ryshia for thinking of me. You can find Ryshia's wonderful blog at http://ryshia.blogspot.ca. Check it out.

Check it out.

As a Liebster Award Winner, I get to display the Liebster Award button on my blog.

But that's not all. Being a Liebster Award winner also entails certain obligations. I have to answer eleven questions Ryshia sent me. I also have to list eleven random facts about myself. So here goes, starting with Ryshia's questions.

1)  If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
      Right here in San Luis Obispo, CA, I think. Unimaginative, I know, but I really love it here.

2)  What are you reading right now?
      Adyashanti's Emptiness Dancing. I am also reading Small Kindnesses by Fiona Robyn.

3)  What do you love about blogging?
      I love the opportunity to explore my thoughts about the writing process. I love getting comments.

4)  What would you rather have, a dog or a cat?
      A dog. I have three!

5)  Have you ever been lost?
     When I was a child I got lost all the time. I have a fear of getting lost.

6)  What's your favourite colour?
      Aquamaraine blue

7)  Coke or pepsi?
     It used to be Pepsi. Now it's Coke. Don't know why my taste changed.

8)  How long have you been blogging?
      Since July, 2012.

9)  What's the worst thing a stylist has ever done to your hair?
     Cut it so short I had to cover my head with a scarf.

10) Would you ever jump from a plane?
       Absolutely not! Do I look insane?

11) There's a storm coming in - which would you prefer, rain or snow?
       Snow for the silence of it and because it transforms the world.



Now for eleven random facts about myself:

  1. I exercise every day to stay in shape.
  2. I meditate every day to improve my spiritual connection.
  3. Fall is my favorite season.
  4. I love shopping.
  5. I worry too much.
  6. I watch reality shows on TV.
  7. If I could, I'd eat sweets all day long.
  8. I read incessantly and have since I was a child.
  9. I love Paris.
  10. My favorite movie is Sunset Boulevard.
  11. I had a crush on Frank Sinatra when I was a kid.
There is one other "catch" for recipients of the Liebster Award: we must find eleven deserving blogs to nominate. Since Ryshia has  provided only one criterion--that the blog must have fewer than 200 followers--I'm on my own to develop the criteria I will use to select great blogs. So here is the list I came up with. To be nominated for a Liebster, blogs must:

  • Be well-written and entertaining.
  • Discuss writing and the writing process.
  • Offer a distinct point-of-view and have a distinct voice.
  • Provide useful insights, information, tips or suggestions.
  • Avoid too much self-promotion.
Here are some "nice-to-haves":
  • Humor
  • Personal anecdotes
  • Plenty of "white space" making the blog easy to read.
If you think your blog meets these criteria or know of a blog that does, send me the link. I will be actively searching for blogs to nominates for at least the next week.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Our Writing Says About Us

When we write we expose ourselves.

Writers who write "confessionals" or autobiographies already know this. They consciously choose to present themselves to the world. Of course, when they write directly about themselves, they get to pick and choose what they reveal. They get to manage the readers' impressions of them.

But even we fiction writers tell readers a lot  about ourselves whether we mean to or not. It's in
  • What we choose to write about.
  • How our characters think, feel, and behave.
  • Whether the ending is happy, sad, horrifying or depressing.
  • Whether the world we present is a good or a bad place to live in.
This is, perhaps, obvious when it comes to general or literary fiction. When we don't work within a genre we get to create a fictional world that operates however we want it to. Our characters can be good, evil, or a mixture of both. They can be motivated by fear, love, envy, hatred, lust, ambition or greed. The environment in which they move can be dangerous, threatening, boring, peaceful, competitive, energizing, joyful or stressful. The problems we give them to wrestle with can be easy to solve, challenging to deal with, or impossible to overcome. And, of course, our plot can take any form at all. We are limited only by the breadth of our imagination.

You might argue that novels by great writers achieve a universality that makes the personality, concerns, quirks and interests of the author irrelevant. This is true, of course. 

It really doesn't matter what Tolstoy cared about when we read War and Peace. What matters is that we are swept away, inspired. 

It is completely unimportant what personal demons Mark Twain may have had to wrestle with when we read Huckleberry Finn, What matters is the humanity of the characters and how we empathize with them.

Nevertheless, the novels tell us that Tolstoy was deeply concerned with philosophical and spiritual issues about how to live a good life and that Mark Twain was heavily invested in exposing the hypocrisies and social mores of his time.

The themes we choose and the way we handle them say a great deal about us.

But what about genre writers? Don't they follow a formula laid down for them long before they ever begin to write? And isn't that formula completely irrelevant to who they are as people?

Yes and no. I believe the very act of choosing the genre tells us a great deal about the writer. 

EVEN IF SHE THINKS SHE'S CHOOSING IT BECAUSE IT'S POPULAR WITH READERS!

A romance--and I would argue that Fifty Shades of Grey and it's sequels is a romance dressed up for modern readers--demands a feisty heroine, and a dangerous, dark stranger who both attracts and  scares the heroine with a love which she first resists but ultimately surrenders to, and, in so doing, finds lasting happiness. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: YOU CAN'T WRITE A SUCCESSFUL ROMANCE UNLESS YOU BELIEVE IN ITS PREMISES.

The so-called cozy mystery is another example.  These are mysteries, often English and often set in small villages, where the writer exposes the personality quirks of the characters in the process of solving a murder mystery. Although the murder is a horrifying event, the characters are understandable and mostly sympathetic. The world of the cozy mystery is benign, and the author's goal is to expose the variations and complexities of human nature. Evil may be present but it is overcome.  Louise Penny's novels are examples. I believe that writers of cozy mysteries believe in the benevolent universe of these novels. If they didn't, they would write something else.

So think about your own writing. What draws you? What kind of people populate your stories? Is the world of your story a good place or a bad place?

Who knows: maybe you can learn as much about yourself from looking at the stories you write as you could ever learn by keeping a journal!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Transformations

This weekend I went on a spiritual retreat. We spent much of our time in meditation when we weren't receiving teachings. The retreat was restorative for a number of reasons. For one thing, it brought me back to a peaceful space I haven't experienced in some time. For another, it inspired me to return to practices that I once followed daily but which I have let slide for the last couple of years.

Most importantly, though, the weekend brought me back to the most fundamental of all spiritual "knowings", and that is the sacredness of existence in all its forms and permutations. For at the heart of all existence is a compassionate awareness which some call God, others call Buddha nature, and still others call atman. And, no matter how life may beat us down, turn us ugly, or make us callous, that shining, sacred, unchangeable heart of love and compassion can be aroused under the right circumstances.

Coincidentally, Rufus and I had adopted a rescue dog the day before, a Siberian husky named Spike.

Spike is two years old, the same age as Sunny and Storm, our existing Siberian huskies. He had lived his whole life chained to a post in his owner's yard. He had never been inside a house, never received any training or socialization, never been groomed. He had lived without companionship, for his owners mostly ignored him while they went about their lives.

We took him with the understanding that we could return him if he couldn't adapt to our household.

Almost immediately, Spike showed himself willing and able to adapt. He understood right away that eliminating in the house was inappropriate. He followed the other boys out to the yard to find an acceptable bathroom. He also adapted enthusiastically to indoor living--so much so that he showed himself unwilling to spend any time outside. He'd had enough of that! Best of all, he bonded with Sunny and Storm and with us. We were amazed at how affectionate and sweet-tempered he turned out to be.

The most astonishing to me, though, was how easily he learned to walk on a leash without pulling. The day after we got him, he was already walking with the pack as if he'd always done it.

We changed his name to Chance. He's not a Spike, an aggressive, threatening powerhouse. He is a wonderful dog that had never had a chance at life.

But now he does.
Chance in his new home


Here's the point:  the label Chance carried in his old home had no bearing on who he really is. He was not a fierce dog who needed to be chained so that animals and humans would be safe. Instead, he is an easy, companionable dog willing to learn the rules, desperate to follow and to please anyone who would take the time to teach him how to live with humans.

Maybe we can learn something from Chance. Maybe the labels we put on others are projections of our own fears and biasses. Maybe if we remove the labels we will experience what they really are underneath.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Where Writers Write

Ever since Virginia Woolf published A Room of One's Own, (and quite possibly before) women writers, as well as men, have been on the lookout for an ideal place to write. Woolf believed that a private sanctuary was a necessity for women because, without it, they were at the beck and call of husbands, children, and everyday household duties. She believed that women needed a private place where no one could intrude in order to fulfill their highest potential as writers.

It isn't just about rooms. It is also a question of whether the best writing takes place in a geographical location isolated from the hurly-burly of ordinary life. After all, writing is a solitary pursuit. Surely we need peace, serenity, quiet. Perhaps writing is at it's best when it reflects "emotion recollected in tranquillity" as William Wordsworth put it.

Against this view is another, quite opposite ideal--the notion that "real life," life in the raw, is what inspires writers. Some writers are convinced that their best work requires the energy, the vibrancy, even the chaos, of living in the city with intensity, even if it's on the margins of society. For these writers, being in the midst of life, messy, noisy, and crazy as it often is, stimulates the mind and emotions, gets the creative juices flowing. For these writers, too much quiet dulls the senses and the imagination.

I have to confess that I have vacillated between these two views for years.

On the one hand, I have envisioned myself in an idyllic setting, surrounded by trees, water, perhaps mountains. I write to the accompaniment of birdsong and a gurgling stream. No one disturbs my peace or my concentration. There is no telephone, no television set. I am free to create whatever comes to mind.

On the other hand, I have often imagined myself living in the heart of a big city where honking horns and screeching brakes are my accompaniment. A life lived with the intensity of people coming in and out of my space has sometimes seemed to me the best stimulator of creativity.

The truth is, I have never spent much time in either type of environment. My adult life has been lived in small college cities--Syracuse, New York, Madison, Wisconsin, San Luis Obispo, California.

Over Valentine's Day, my guy, Rufus, and I went to Catalina Island. Catalina is one of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. It once belonged to the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame. It boasts the lovely and tiny town of Avalon where no one drives cars, only golf carts. The whole rest of the island is unspoiled, mountainous land owned by a land conservancy. No houses. No developments. It is beautiful and very quiet.


We were charmed by the island. Here is a picture of us standing by the water. 

I immediately began to fantasize about finding a peaceful retreat on the island where I could write.

Rufus thought it would be an ideal place to paint.

The thing is, within twenty-four hours, we realized the town was TOO quiet. What would we do for movies? For shopping? For concerts and other kinds of entertainment? Beautiful it might be, but we're used to a certain amount of stimulation.

Here's the truth about finding the perfect place to write:  THERE IS NO SUCH THING!

Reality is, if we want to write, we will write wherever we find ourselves. Looking for the perfect environment is just a way to procrastinate.

We live where we have found work or where our families have settled or where we went to school. If we're writers, we'll write. If we're only fantasizing about being writers, we'll find a million excuses for not writing.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

More on Head, Heart, Gut

I know many experts tell writers to write from their deepest places, to be "authentic,"to be "real." They tell us we can't find our voice unless we have the courage to explore our innermost selves and expose our vulnerabilities on the page.

I don't believe that's true. I believe where we write from depends on our intention, our purpose, what we want to convey to the reader.

Last week, I talked about the fact that fiction can be written from the head, heart, or gut.

If our intention is to stimulate our readers to analyze, solve a puzzle, or see the characters as unsympathetic, we write from our rational mind so as to engage the reader's mind. If we want the reader to feel inspired, compassionate, elated or filled with joy, sorrow or pain, we write from our heart to appeal to the reader's sense of shared humanity. If our intention is to create a visceral experience that is as physical as it is emotional, we write from our gut to engage the reader's most primitive instincts.

Let's look at some examples of how this works.

  Here are three different treatments of the same situation.
  • "I saw Emily the other day. She looked a little pale, but not really all that different from her normal self, though I guess you could say she seemed distracted. We had lunch at that little place downtown she always liked. She didn't want to talk about Henry--even though I brought up their breakup a couple of times. She kept changing the subject. Wanted to talk about her work, the kids, the vacation she was planning this summer. I tried to tell her it would do her good to talk about Henry, but she wouldn't go there. Oh well, what can you do? Of course she and I were never that close. I can't imagine what happened. It was an accident, wasn't it? Must have been. How is Henry taking it, anyway?"
  • Emily walked to the train station more depressed than ever. She'd been wrong to come into town today. She wasn't ready to face people. And meeting Karen for lunch had been a terrible mistake. The woman had spent the whole time pumping her for information about her divorce. Talking about it would have been like ripping a bandage off a fresh wound. And even though she changed the subject every time Karen brought it up, she'd had to swallow tears more than once. Would she ever get over Henry? Would she ever forget his touch, the look in his eyes, his voice when he spoke love to her? The tears came, blinding her. She would never get over this. Never. What sense did life make any more? How could she get through another day? She just wanted to stop feeling, just wanted to go numb. But this pain wouldn't leave her alone for even a minute.
  • She stands on the platform, knees weak, heart pounding. The food from lunch rises into her throat, and she swallows it. She looks down to see her hands shaking as they hold onto her packages. She is mildly surprised at how her body is afraid even though she isn't. The animal in her is not ready yet. Maybe it's not supposed to be. Maybe the instinct for survival is more powerful even than despair. She glances at the huge wall clock across the platform. Two more minutes. Only the briefest time left before she'll be at peace. God damn it, why is she so terrified, then? Why can't these last few moments be a prelude to peace? Why can't she already feel the tranquillity of death? If the damn train isn't here momentarily, she'll lose her nerve for sure. A roar fills the station, fills her head. Steam spews out from the long-awaited and now fast-approaching train. Thank God, thank God! Emily steps to the edge of the platform. She only needs to take one more step into empty space and it will be over. Her heart is bursting as she steps into the void in front of the locomotive. And then there is nothing.
In the first example, we are detached from Emily. We see her through the eyes of an acquaintance who is only interested in the potential for gossip that Emily's situation represents. We don't like Karen, the acquaintance who is speaking, and we may feel a little sorry that Emily had to endure lunch with her, but we don't feel any sense of personal loss at Emily's death. Instead, we are curious to know what happened and why.

In the second example, we feel Emily's sorrow over the loss of her marriage. We are privy to her thoughts and feelings. We feel what she feels-- resentment at Karen's insensitivity and a desire for  Emily to feel better. Emily's plight arouses our compassion.

In the third example, we are standing on the platform with Emily as she waits to throw herself in front of a train. The scene is immediate and is narrated in the present tense. Emily's terror is palpable. Our own heart may begin to pound in sympathy. As the train approaches, our fear may grow with hers. We want Emily to listen to her instincts and step back, out of harm's way. When she doesn't, we are horrified. A deep silence seems to follow her death. We have been to the brink with her.

So which of the three examples above is written from the author's "authentic self?" Does that question even make any sense?

I don't think it does.