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

 

 

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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

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!