Thoughts on Creative Writing

I was invited to speak to a group of high school students about fiction writing.

Here’s what I plan to say.

At my first ever writing retreat in Ashland, Virginia, two voices shot out of my head and I could barely keep up with the back and forth dialogue they were having.

The two people were a mentally slow young woman and her domineering Southern mother. The young woman had taken a baby girl from someone and brought the child home on a local bus. Horrified, the mother was yelling at her to take the baby back to the parents.

I had no idea where these two people had come from. Much less the weird premise. But as they snapped at each other, I realized I had a knack for dialogue.

However, once I got home from the retreat, I soon found out, that’s all I had. I knew nothing about the craft of writing fiction.

Over the past years, I’ve become a better writer, and after several tries at short stories and another novel, I’ve almost finished a young adult novel. I also want to add that at a certain point, I kept running off into tangents and not sticking to a storyline so I hired an editor to help me with this current novel.  After working with him, I now understand how to structure a novel, and I think next time around, I’ll be able to do it myself.

Here are some tidbits that have helped me along the way.

Writing is hard for everyone. Except maybe Joyce Carol Oates.

Main characters are everything. Think Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter or Jane Eyre or Jo March in Little Women. A reader wants to feel something about the characters. We root for certain characters. We despise a character. We fall in love with a character.

But creating that memorable character takes lots of trial and error.

I often struggle with my characters starting off as caricatures. I tend to exaggerate their quirks and mannerisms. In order to get to know my characters better, I write a backstory about them. Even if I don’t use most of it, I’ll feel more confident about what they say and do.

Here are just a few of many ideas for character development. What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?

What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?

Setting is important. It helps the reader feel grounded in the story.  It can also establish the atmosphere or mood of the novel or story.

An example of setting. “A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud.” From Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Vivid imagery brings a story to life.  Here’s a great example. “Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.”  From The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

I once interviewed Michael Curtis the fiction editor of The Atlantic magazine, and I remember he said he liked stories with forward motion. That he liked things to happen. And I agree with that.

I try to keep sentences varied. Short. Long. Medium. Short. It helps with the reading flow.

And the same goes for dialogue, description and action. Write a bit of one, then a bit of the other.

I try not to use adverbs. They weaken rather than strengthen one’s writing.

A lot of writing boils down to making decisions. Do I put this sentence here or there?

With dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. You’ll be able to tell if it rings true or not. Also, sit in a coffee shop and listen to people talking. It’s usually not a straightforward conversation. People don’t always mean what they say. And even sneak a peek at their body language for some additional information.

It’s super intimidating to think the whole world is going to read what you write. So scale it down. I like to pretend I’m telling my story to a good friend.

Cover up the computer screen. That way you can’t self-edit as you go along, and it will help with the self-critic we all have inside of us.

I’m not good about this one. But it’s important to put your work away. Then come back to it a few days or a week later and observe it after some time apart from it.

I’ll close with the words of Eudora Welty. “A writer needs to sit down and write. Then inspiration will follow. No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do.

The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune’s smile the informed mind and the experienced heart — are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address.”

A few great resources for fiction writers:

War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

On Writing by Stephen King

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

www.JaneFriedman.com

 

 

Missteps

 

I spent three days on a chapter that didn’t work out.

I had three characters in a dining room wrapping blue pottery bowls in newspaper to take to a craft fair at Centennial Park in Nashville.

I didn’t want to be in the dining room with pottery bowls stacked every which way, and the characters didn’t want to be in the dining room with the pottery bowls stacked liked leaning towers of Pisa. I felt claustrophobic. They felt claustrophobic. But for three days, I couldn’t see a way out of the dining room.

I finally printed out the chapter. Once I read it on paper, I knew the setting was not working out.

So I changed it.

Instead of the three characters wrapping the bowls, I jumped ahead, and I had them unwrap the bowls at the Craft Fair. They had a purpose in setting up the craft fair booth. They could breathe better in the fresh air. I could breathe better. We all felt better!

I was also able to transfer the dialogue from the dining room chapter, so all was not lost.

It reminded me of some self-help talk I read once. You have to go through it not around it. I’m not going to beat myself up about spending three days on material that didn’t work out. I learned something and I found a solution.

Terrible Minds is always a trip with his advice on how to unstick a story and this article gives good advice on fixing plot problems as well.

Progress not seen by the naked eye?

A photo Jenny took while walking around downtown Dallas, where she was attending the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four instead of writing. (Research!)

Well, you won’t see my original blog post because that just evaporated into thin air. Do other writers feel this way? Nothing annoys me more than losing something I’ve written and having to write it again. Which makes you wonder why I’m not more careful about hitting the save button, wherever they’ve managed to hide that on this updated version of WordPress.

Caroline and I have neglected this blog, though we’ve been successful at getting work on our books done. Still, that progress seems to come in surges, and we both worry that we’re not as far along as we should be. (I’m not sure who determines “should.”)

So we met last week for a check-in. Caroline points out that we’re more focused on our projects and getting close to the finish. It’s true, and a clear benefit of our Year of Submission. Now, to get to that submitting part. It’s only weeks away. I swear.

Meanwhile, WordPress–why’d you have to go changing? I guess this is what happens when you don’t post for a few weeks. Okay, months. Dang. Cross your fingers that this one sticks!

The Hero’s Journey

img_0095Jenny and I get together every few weeks to encourage each other and set writing goals.

This past time when we met, I told her that I sometimes become so involved in the nitty gritty details of writing each chapter that I often forget to step back and think about the overarching theme of the novel.

She then mentioned the idea of the Hero’s Journey, which in turn, made me think about the theory that there are only two plots in the world—a stranger comes to town and someone goes on a journey.

My novel’s plot definitely falls into the latter journey category. So I decided to find out a little more about the Hero’s Journey.

I was familiar with Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces concerning the journey of the archetypal hero in world mythologies and that Campbell made famous the term  “monomyth.”

Interestingly enough, I learned that Campbell borrowed the term “monomyth” from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

I then found out that Christopher Vogler had distilled Campbell’s ideas into a book titled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

Vogler took Campbell’s  Hero’s Journey and broke  it down into the following twelve stages.

The Ordinary World – The hero is in his or her ordinary surroundings

The Call to Adventure – The inciting incident

Refusal of the Call – Maybe from fear or some other reason

Meeting with the Mentor

Crossing the Threshold – Hero leaves the Ordinary World

Test, Allies and Enemies – Lots of trials and struggles

Approach to Inmost Cave – Preparing for a significant challenge

The Ordeal – Hero confronts his greatest fear – Midpoint of the novel

The Reward – Seizing the Sword

The Road Back – Maybe a few more trials along the way

The Resurrection or Atonement – The climax – The hero is transformed

Return with Elixir – The hero returns home

During the writing of my first draft, I’m glad I didn’t know about these twelve stages. I think I would’ve felt too hemmed in by this formula, and I would have chafed at feeling the need to hit each mark along the way.

But it’s interesting to note that without even realizing it, I used about half of them. In fact, I think it’s pretty much impossible to avoid the Hero’s Journey entirely. It’s probably ingrained in our psyche from Odysseus onward.

The Hero’s Journey can even be applied to movies. Here’s a fun illustration to show how.

And lastly, a few books that follow the Hero’s Journey:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Conniption over Description

 

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When I write dialogue for my YA novel, I love thinking up what characters will say.

And as for action, I could create scenes all day. (Well, maybe not all day.)

But description? I seem to avoid it like the plague. Because for me, it’s the hardest thing to get right. How much should I add? How little? Too much is boring. Not enough and the reader can’t be there with the characters in the scene.

It also feels as though the pressure is on to create the best descriptive sentence I can.

Or to try and make up the best simile. Such as….“Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.” — Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

When I see lots of descriptive prose in a novel, (also called “narrative lumps” – I thought that phrase was funny), I tend to skim or skip onward to the dialogue and action, because I like forward movement, and I want things to happen.

For this particular novel, the description needs to come from the mind of a thirteen–year-old boy. What would he notice? How would he describe his surroundings?

Off to the internet for help.

Some tactics I picked up:

I need to fit the description to the type of story. Luckily, my novel is action-oriented and too much description would get in the way of the pacing.

I should use bits of description in combination with the action. That way, I’ll blend it into the story.

Here’s some good advice on how to describe people from Carve Magazine.

I should keep in mind the five senses. Most writers rely on sight and sound. I should also describe smell and touch and taste

I like to study how the masters do it. A few examples…

“Off in the west a humpbacked moon lay stranded, colorless as a jellyfish. The air, utterly still, carried a fragrance of wood smoke mixed with the sweetness of mown grass that rose from the lawn.” Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird

“Behind a scarred littered table a man with a fierce roach of iron gray hair peered at us over steel spectacles.” William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“In our bedroom there are about twenty small glass prisms hung with fishing line from one of the exposed beams; they catch the morning light and we stare at them like a cat eyeing catnip help above its head.” Ann Beattie, “The Burning House”

And lastly, I loved every single thing about Elmore Leonard’s writing tips. Especially, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

The above is photo from a recent trip to Argentina. I should try and describe it here, but I don’t want to!

Big Sur Writing Workshop Notes

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Trudging up the path to the conference center at Big Sur Lodge

It’s been ten days since I walked (okay, drove) out of the woods at the Big Sur Writing Workshop, and I’ve had a lot to think about–and work on. I got good feedback on two projects and left with a clear idea of which one to work on first and what to do with it.

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Andrea Brown organizes these workshops. Here she’s introducing writer Eric Adams, who gave a great talk on theme, plot, and character.

That, I believe, is called progress!

Here’s what I liked about this workshop:

  1. Critique groups were small and you got specific feedback on your work that you could use for an immediate rewrite.
  2. Because one of my group leaders was an agent (with good, sharp insights, btw), I also got to see how an agent thinks about submissions–what seems marketable and what is off-putting.
  3. Because my other group leader was an author and screenwriter, I got another kind of feedback that was every bit as helpful in a different way.
  4. I heard other works in progress that I really liked, and that made me value the writer-to-writer feedback I got even more.
  5. The faculty was smart and accessible, eager to talk to you even when you might have felt a little shy about imposing on them.
  6. Everyone attending was friendly–and I didn’t meet a single person who felt the need to show off.
  7. I left challenged to improve my novels and encouraged that they have a future.
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Nice people attending, including Nadine (front, right) who wound up sitting with me maybe more than she might have liked.

Despite years of attending work events and mingling with people, I still find that activity exhausting. One of the nice things about the Big Sur group is that lots of other people seemed to feel the same way, so people were sociable but not too. There was enough down time to write and regroup. Maybe not enough time to sleep. But I caught up on that later.

I emailed Caroline after it was over, letting her know it had been good for me to attend. Here’s what she wrote back: “That is so exciting about the coach’s feedback. Think of how far we’ve come since you got us started last January!”

That really made me smile. With just a couple of weeks left in this year, I can see we are getting somewhere, both of us, because we’re making a focused effort to do it, helping each other keep going, and being just a little more aggressive.

The workshop, in case you want to know more, is organized by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and The Henry Miller Library. It lasts for one weekend. The focus is children’s literature. You can find more details here.

First Draft Freedom

img_2323Whoop! My first draft is almost done. It’s messy, choppy, filled with dialogue and sparse on description, but that’s ok, because I’ve made it all the way through.

The plot is in place, and my characters are coming to life, and I know what happens from the beginning to the end.

For me, the hardest part is over.

No more struggling to answer, “What happens next?” “Would Teddy say this?” “Would Helen do that?” I don’t have to pace around closing my eyes trying to visualize scene after scene. They are all there on the pages.

I’m now actually excited to go back to the beginning.

But before I head into the revision, I first need to back away from the novel. I need to take a week or so off to gain some distance from what I wrote in order to later see it with fresh eyes.

Once I feel ready, I’ll print out a fresh copy. I’ll do a read-through in several sittings. I won’t stop to make changes. I’ll just pretend to be reading it for the first time.

I could then do all this but I might be too exhausted by the end!

So instead, I’ll next go through and analyze the manuscript. This time making marks, jotting down ideas, thoughts…I’ll ponder…

Does my story make sense?

Is the plot compelling? Any plot holes?

Does the story flow?

Do my lead characters come to life?

Are the stakes high enough?

Are there any unbelievable leaps of logic?

Is the pacing. Too fast? Too slow?

Then I’ll start making the actual editing changes. And once to the end (maybe two months from now) time for the next revision! I’ll have to do another post about that one when the time comes.

 

The Sagging Middle

IMG_1218I’ve reached the middle section of my YA novel.  As a writer, I’m a pantser, meaning I write by the seat of my pants. I love writing this way. Never knowing what will happen next and then being delighted when I find out.

That worked fine for the first section, because beginnings are exciting and new and fresh.

But a novel is for the long haul, and the middle section is the biggest part, and it was starting to feel arduous and unending.  So I went to the internet for help. Here’s what I found out.

I need to think more about structure and pacing and plot lines, because without some set guidelines, I’ll run in circles and never get to the end.

Instead of a novel in thirds. Split the middle section into two parts and have a four part novel. I like this idea. It makes the middle seem more manageable. I found this idea at Terrible Minds.  The writer somehow ties faking an orgasm to fiction writing. Worth a read just for that.

Stories are about problems that need to be solved. In the middle part, the hero must face some tests. He might even need to face his greatest fear.

Every scene should keep the story moving forward. Every chapter should start with a compelling inciting incident. A problem arises. Something throws the main character for a loop. Keeps him constantly thrown off kilter. This article has more good info on inciting incidents.

Look for places where the protagonist is forced to abandon his original plan and move in a new direction to meet an added challenge.

I could bring in a new character. That always adds spice and variety.

In certain parts, I could ramp up the action and force the pace to quicken.

It’s always nice to add some comic relief here and there to allow a break in the action and low points.

And lastly, when I get stuck. I can do some character prompting. I’ll put the character’s full name at the top of the page. Then start a dialogue.  I’ll ask Teddy about the situation he’s in. What does he feel about it? Ask him how he thinks he’ll solve his current problem? And hope that he gives me some really good answers!

(The above photo is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville where a major scene in my novel takes place.)

Also: writing update. I got my first rejection on a short story. I’ll just send it out again for the year of submission!!

Interior Monologue

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Of the four novel writing components, action, dialogue, description and interior monologue, the first two—I love—the second two—not so much.

So when Matthew, the editor helping me outline my YA novel, suggested that my main character Teddy needed more inner thoughts and feelings, I did not jump with joy. I know it seems simple enough. Just get in the character’s head and allow the reader to see what my character is thinking. But for some reason I resist doing it.

I know I should show Teddy’s loves, fears and insecurities so that the reader can find moments of recognition and identify with him, but whenever I attempt it, the thoughts seem simplistic and clichéd.

So I went looking for ideas and advice.

First, I perused a few novels in search of inner monologue. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl had none as far as I could tell. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman had a little bit. I found a good amount in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Such as this excerpt: “I wish I had known that I wasn’t going to see Mr. Black again when we shook hands that afternoon. I wouldn’t have let go…but I didn’t know, just like I didn’t know it was the last time Dad would ever tuck me in, because you never know.”

And finally, I hit the jackpot on internal monologue with The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. The author does a great job of interspersing the main character’s thoughts and feelings throughout the novel. Such as: “It felt like everything was rising up in me, like I was drowning in this weirdly painful joy, but I couldn’t say it back. I couldn’t say anything back.”

This article on Interior Monologue is a long one but a good one.

Another neat thing I discovered is that a character can share thoughts with the reader they’re incapable of sharing with other characters. Therefore, the reader feels an attachment to the character by witnessing his or her internal battles.

And this piece was very informative and to the point.

I think the best fit for me will be to sprinkle bits of interior monologue at the right places to add layers of depth and emotion to the story but still keep the action moving along at a clipped pace. The dialogue and action will quicken the pace. The description and interior monologue can slow it down when needed. Ah. I feel better now!

P.S. That photo has nothing to do with the topic. But I do wonder what my wild child hero Peggy Guggenheim was thinking in her bikini outside her Venetian palazzo with her dogs.  Probably, to hell with interior monologue, let’s have some fun!

Pep Talk from Michael Strahan

FullSizeRenderMichael Strahan  gave the commencement address at my son’s high school graduation.

He was addressing the senior class, but much of what he said I needed to hear.

Words matter. Words project confidence or defeatism.

Michael told the senior class, don’t say “If” because “If” breeds self-doubt.

Instead, say “When.”

Michael’s father would say to him, “When you play football.” “When you go to the NFL.” “When” projects conviction. “When” projects the next sure thing.

Don’t say “Hope.” “I hope to do this.” “I hope to do that.” “I hope” is rife with vacillation and hesitancy.

Instead say, “I expect.”

Michael admitted he was scared to be addressing the crowd. But he encouraged everyone to work scared. Play scared. Do whatever scared.

Attitude matters. It’s the only thing we can control.

Take a risk. Try a new thing. Stay open. If someone offers you a job, an opportunity, and it feels right, take it, even if you’re not completely prepared. Then make sure you learn the ropes fast.

So following some of Michael’s advice, here I go.

When my first novel is published, I expect to be overjoyed at its completion. When my first novel is published, I will be content, knowing the book is in another person’s hands and life. When my first novel is published, I expect to connect with new people in a myriad of ways. When my first novel is published, I expect to be well into writing my second one.

I now expect all of these pronouncements to come true. 🙂

If you’d like your own pep talk from Michael, try this:

As an aside, I found this article titled “Your Words Matter” and that there’s such a thing as words matter week!