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.

Advertisements

Conniption over Description

 

img_9135

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!

When Writing Gets In the Way of Submitting

img_7375

Jenny reflecting on this strange state of things, with a little selfie taken at Chicago’s bean.

Well, I didn’t see this coming.

Here I am, so eager to write new chapters for a new book that I don’t want to stop and make time to submit. No forcing myself to put butt in seat. No beating myself up because I skipped out on my commitment to write for a couple of hours. I’m doing it.  Just plugging away, cheerfully, eager to see what the next 2,000 words may hold.

Am I on a creative roll? Have I finally grown up as a writer?

Or have I taken submission procrastination to a whole new level? Am I so desperate to avoid submitting that–shock–I’ll even write to get out of doing it.

Maybe it’s both. Even with more confidence, the ease of using Submittable, and my improved ability to shrug off rejection, I find submitting to be hard hard work.

I’ve let weeks go by without submitting a thing. Not part of the Year of Submission plan! I’m determined to send something, anything, out this week. Of course, I was determined to do that last week, too.

Meanwhile, I can honestly report that I #amwriting. (I believe that calls for a rousing “believe me.”) How about that?

Getting the Work Done

“When I feel difficulty coming on, I switch to another book I’m writing. When I get back to the problem, my unconscious has solved it.”

IMG_6375 (2)If you asked Caroline, she’d tell you that’s the sort of harebrained approach she’d expect me to take. And when you look at my projects spread across a table, it’s hard to deny.

But it just so happens that those words belong to Isaac Asimov, not me.

It’s one of many quotes you’ll find in the book The Write Type. I can’t remember what inspired me to request it from the library.

The premise is this: There’s no one correct way to get your writing done, despite what people tell you. The best thing you can do, this book says, is figure out your natural inclinations and make the most of them.

Perhaps the Universe does send you gifts when you’re ready to receive them–or possibly when you don’t need them quite so much as you used to–or maybe those two are the same thing. Caroline and I spent the first six months of this year looking for better ways to get our work done. Now, it feels like we’re finding our way.

Still, this books has plenty of positive reinforcement and some ideas for taking what I’m doing and making even more of it. The author, Karen Peterson, is perhaps the perfect combo–a psychologist and a writing instructor.

Three things that stuck with me:

  1. Most of us have a conflict going between our adult side and our child side. When we try to strong arm our child side into doing something, the child rebels. That makes it  even harder to find the will to get work done. Better to appease your child and trick/coax/bribe it into doing the adult thing.
  2. There are plenty of ways to work on your writing that don’t require sitting down to a blank page and inventing scenes. Peterson provides a list of six categories of work that you can keep on your desk to remind yourself of ways to keep going.
  3. It can help to challenge some of your beliefs. Of course, if you’re going to challenge them you also have to realize you have them.  Peterson gives you a structure for doing all of that.

Now true, a lot of this I already know and practice. But as I’ve said before, even when I know how to solve problems, it helps to be reminded that I do.

Some of the things this book might help you figure out include what is your best time of day for writing, whether you’re a schedule or deadline writer,  whether you prefer one project at a time or thrive on the chaos of multiple projects, and how much solitude you need to get your work done.

When it was time to return this book to the library, I realized I’d like to keep it around. So it received my ultimate endorsement: I bought it.

Who would listen to this guy?

IMG_6072Seems like everywhere I’ve turned in recent days, I’ve not only encountered Donald Trump but also essays and articles about how we should stop listening to the mean-spirited negative voices in our heads, the ones that tell us we can’t.

One example, this Brain Pickings post that showed up on my Twitter feed. Here are a few of the opening lines:

I found myself contemplating anew this fine but firm line between critical thinking and cynical complaint. To cross it is to exile ourselves from the land of active reason and enter a limbo of resigned inaction. 

But cross it we do, perhaps nowhere more readily than in our capacity for merciless self-criticism. We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.

Writers on this topic often ask how you’d respond if your friends spoke as harshly to you as you speak to yourself. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests you give the inner critic a face.

After getting a generic rejection email this week, it first occurred to me that there was something hugely, irreparably wrong with me and my work. Yes, I recognize the silliness of my reaction, but I also felt the sting. (Maybe I hadn’t had enough coffee. Or maybe I’m just a typical human being.)

Then it occurred to me that the political season has presented the perfect orange “face” for my inner critic. Because, really, he’s great at saying nasty things. And would I give anything he said a moment’s credit?  More likely, I’d be inclined to respond with a Southern “bless your heart.” We’ll see how it works!

Interior Monologue

Processed with VSCOcam with a5 preset

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!

Is submitting a mindset?

dweck_mindsetThis morning, in my successful mission to procrastinate about writing and submitting, I found myself scrolling through a lengthy Brain Pickings post. It provides yet another look at how we feel about ourselves, failure–and how that influences the risks we take.

I can’t say there are any revolutionary ideas in the post, though Maria Popova points out that this book by Carol Dweck provides research to back up your basic self-help fodder.

Was there anything I can use here, so that it wasn’t a total waste of (#amwriting) time?

Possibly.

From Dweck’s book, which looks at what it means to have a fixed vs. growth mindset:

“In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

And also:

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected?”

It seems that by opening yourself up to being your bumbling striving rejected self, you actually make yourself more successful. You move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. And that makes rejection the door to possibilities!

Though I sort of hate to call it a mindset, this shift is what Caroline and I are trying to achieve with our Year of Submission. Perhaps a new mindset CAN be powerful. Perhaps there is even RESEARCH to back that up. Perhaps (according to the post on Brain Pickings), if we can move to a growth mindset about our writing, we might even improve our RELATIONSHIPS.

Wow. Will keep you posted on how that last thing works out.

Meanwhile, I wonder if Dweck had to change her mindset in order to write and publish her book. And if you’d like to read the full Brain Pickings piece, find it here.

IMG_5101

Time to start the weekend with risking failure on a 5 mile run–and braids that definitely say “growth mindset”

P.S.: In the interest of embracing failure to further success, I just submitted a manuscript at the worst possible time, I’m sure–late afternoon on the Friday of a holiday weekend.

Yay me and my growth mindset. JM

Character Motivation

Matthew Limpede, the editor helping me structure my novel, talks a lot about character motivation. He pushes me to think about who the character is as a person— what the character is feeling—and why the character is doing what he/she is doing.

I seem to resist this aspect of novel writing. Instead, I want to write only dialogue and action and keep things light and cheery and funny. But if my readers are going to connect with my characters, I need to delve into the reasons my characters say and do certain things.

IMG_1232For instance, I’m currently writing the middle section of my novel, and the main character, Teddy, and a woman named Lucinda have just arrived at a Greyhound Bus station in a gritty section of Nashville, Tennessee.

Teddy needs to go to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and I want Lucinda to go with him. But why would Lucinda, a thirty-year old woman, want to go to a bar with a thirteen-year old boy she’d met only the day before?

By having done a character sketch on Lucinda, I know she’s an orphan, and she’s now standing at a bus station with a boy whom she thinks is also an orphan. But what next?

I went searching for some resources to help.

I thought this post was helpful.

I could use the first sheet on the left to find some reasons. In fact, for Lucinda in this scene, I’d pick loyalty, self-preservation, past trauma, and repaying a debt as motivations.

And the new-age part of myself loved this interesting post using Enneagrams as a way to find character motivation.

Here’s what I’ve come up with for now…Lucinda would like to ditch Teddy, but something tugs on her to stay. She can’t bring herself to leave a kid with no money wandering the streets of Nashville, because it brings up abandonment issues she felt every time she left one foster family to go to yet another one.

I shall see if the scene stays like that!