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!

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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!

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!

Distractions

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I told Jenny I needed help focusing.

She sagely suggested I write a blog post about it since other people probably struggle with focusing too.

“You can’t start concentrating until you’ve stopped being distracted.”  From a quote I found on the internet, but I was too distracted to write down the author’s name for attribution!

When I try to focus on writing my novel, my main distractions tend to be:

  • Getting up and doing something else, like searching for food. Hence, the carbs photo.
  • Scrolling through Instagram.
  • Hitting Google Chrome. I start highbrow and eventually go lowbrow. The New York Times leads to the New York Post, and before I know it, thirty minutes are gone.

I needed some helpful ideas. The following are a few I might try.

Turn off my phone. Not just vibrate. Or lower the volume. Turn it completely off. Move it far away from me.

Turn off the internet on my computer. Or even certain websites. This one for Mac users looks like a good one.

Use a typewriter instead of the computer. No internet distractions on that old school device.

This blog post got my attention. The idea that we are addicted to wasting time.  I think there’s some truth to it.

I could try Write or Die.  That program would for sure scare me into focusing.

Or maybe RescueTime.  An app that breaks down how I spend my time online. That would probably be a reality jolt.

Set a timer for 10 minutes. This one I’ve tried, and it works. I tell myself, ok Caroline, for ten minutes, you can focus. Once ten minutes are up, I’m usually into the writing, and I set the timer for another ten minutes and so on.

Pump myself up with some self-talk.  Act like my muse works for me, and not the other way around. Think of my muse as a defiant employee and give it deadlines. Even tell the muse to show up at a fixed time every day and make that sucker get to work and into the flow.

Speaking of flow. That’s what we’re all after. To enter another world and lose track of time so that we can then create for the reader what John Gardner called in The Art of Fiction “a vivid and continuous dream.”

Why the mind struggles with sitting down and doing the work, I wish I knew! That might call for another post titled “Resistance.” This is a great book about that.

Feedback

FullSizeRenderNone of my readers liked the main character in my story.  In fact, I don’t even like Wilson.

Here is the feedback I got from Tom.

“I do have these random thoughts.

Wilson reminds me a little of J. Alfred Prufrock in the first half of the story, wondering about himself, introverted and introspective.

I don’t like Wilson and would not want to be friends with him.

Both women are mean to him and he spends his life helping women.

How did he get to this point of desperation in his life where he can neither act, nor not act, and he is vilified for doing either by himself and others.

All in all, I think you had a good time writing this, I hope it wasn’t too painful, and I would be honored to read your next undertaking.”

I thought Tom’s painful comment was funny and ironic, because now it is going to be painful since I’m at a loss as to how to help the story henceforth!

I think it’s ok to have an unlikable character, but the reader must still care about that character. And that’s where I failed. I made Wilson into a caricature rather than a well-rounded character. He’s too persnickety, too prissy, too judging. I went overboard.

I jumped into writing the story without thinking more about it ahead of time. It’s a weakness of mine. I need to back up and write a character sketch about Wilson. Because the more I know about him, the easier it will be to make him seem real and relatable.

Here are some thoughts to help kick-start the sketch.

Where did Wilson grow up? What were his parents like?

Pick two or three childhood events. How does Wilson feel about them?

Go into his young adulthood. Dredge up a few memories.

Write down Wilson’s physical description—his eyes, hair, skin, teeth…

How about Wilson’s style of dress? His way of speech? Does he have a personal motto?

Describe Wilson’s mannerisms, his quirks, his bad habits, his likes and dislikes.

Does Wilson have any redeeming qualities?

I’ll construct Wilson and his life history, and I’ll try to make him more human and then maybe the readers, even if they still don’t like him, will be able to empathize with him. Back to work!

Revision Decisions

IMG_0262Last February 2015, I wrote a short story at a three-day writing retreat at the Faber Academy an offshoot of Faber & Faber in London. Marcel Theroux led the retreat.

Marcel was an instructive teacher, funny and charming as he pushed us to complete our stories. For three days, we wrote—with occasional breaks for sessions on craft. On the last day, we read our very different stories aloud.

I came home with a story about a repressed married man who, one night after work, gives a stranger a ride home.

One year later, I got back to the story for revisions. For me, writing is the fun part while revising feels tedious and tiresome. No matter, it must be done! That’s what 2016—The Year of Submission means for me and Jenny. Finishing our work and sending it out.

Here is part of my revising checklist.

Spend much time and angst over the opening sentence, so hard to get right, but so important in hooking the reader into continuing. The following are great first lines.

“I’m spending the afternoon auditioning men.” Aimee Bender, “Call My Name”

“They shoot the white girl first…” Toni Morrison, Paradise

Take out extraneous words. If the word doesn’t add anything to the sentence, remove it.

Use strong verbs. He walked should become, he stomped…he puttered…he skipped…depending on the context.

Adverbs? “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Stephen King feels strongl—oops, I mean Stephen King does not like adverbs. But I’ve decided I’m ok with a few, here and there.

Construct paragraphs with varying degrees of sentence length—short, long, medium—which makes it more enjoyable for the reader. Here’s an example by Lorrie Moore in her short story “Referential.”

“All this had to be accepted. Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game.”

Read and reread every sentence hunting for typos, clunky transitions…

Whew! Done. Now it’s time to find readers for advice and suggestions before I submit the story. This time, I’ve found three people, a Lutheran priest who writes plays as well as a couple, who are both professors. Stay tuned for what they say…

Anxiety, Finishing & Submitting

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Deckle Edge festival water, in case this anxiety workshop causes Jenny’s mouth to feel dry

I’m now back at home, calmly cooking bacon on this Sunday morning. But a few hours ago, I was waking up early, dressing myself in real clothes (as opposed to fake “athleisure” wear), and attending a writing workshop that I only signed up for late yesterday afternoon.

The workshop title? Overcoming Creative Anxiety: 5 Steps to Jumpstart Your Writing & Remain Calm

The instructor: Cassie Premo Steele, a writer who runs regular programs to help people (especially female people) push through all the reasons they cook up to avoid finishing and submitting their work.

I arrived five minutes before class time, which I thought would eliminate any anxiety that could be caused by rushing.

I was wrong.

The location had been changed, though I didn’t know it. A noisy Presbyterian congregation was gathering in what I’d thought to be our classroom space. I bumped into a classmate, another last-minute enrollee who hadn’t gotten the message. Her anxiety level was extra-high as she scurried down the block ten steps ahead of me, out of breath and fretting that she would be late for class.

I began to feel anxious about being so calm. Maybe I wasn’t anxiety-ridden enough for this workshop.

Just as my classmate had feared, we were late–but our soothing, confident instructor folded us into the mix with ease. She presented five stages of writing, from idea to submission, touching on the way anxiety plays into each.

It was helpful, not in a zap-aha-breakthrough way but in a why-of-course-I-know-that kind of way, which is better and much less anxiety-inducing. (Me to myself: See Maxwell, you haven’t been doing it all wrong!)

Three ideas I’ll be using right away:

1. When you’re stuck, set a two minute time limit and do something.  I teach this approach all the time in my writing classes, just used it in a comics class I took.  So why am I not using it to do things like find three agents or tackle that query letter or write that last scene of my book?  I have no idea.  But now that I’m reminded of how well it works, I’m using it more often.

2. Know your purpose and take a “servant of your message” attitude.  That second part doesn’t come from Cassie’s words, exactly. They’re the words we use at The Buckley School to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. It makes perfect sense that it can work for your writing, too.

The idea is to put the focus on how your work is serving an audience rather than worrying about yourself and what people think of you. You take your big, fat ego out of the equation.  At The Buckley School when we introduce this idea, people say, “but if my ego were bigger, wouldn’t I feel more confident?” But it’s your ego–your worry about self–that gets in the way. As someone who’s had to overcome a fear of public speaking in order to teach it, I know that taking a servant-of-your-message approach has been a huge help. I’m not sure why I haven’t applied the same approach to my writing.

Cassie explained her thoughts about purpose using examples. Here’s one: You lose sleep to care for a sick child and it’s a good thing, because you know your purpose. You lose sleep because of insomnia and it’s a bad thing, because you have no purpose and instead dwell on “what’s wrong with me.”

3. Think of submitting as getting the help you need to fulfill your work’s purpose.  This is a new idea for me. I like it. Cassie suggests you think of submitting as a 50-50 proposition: I’ve done my very best work. Now I need the help of agents, editors and publishers to find and serve the readers.  That puts it on a different footing, yes? You are not asking for rejection. You are looking for the right partner to help.

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Cassie Premo Steele (left) speaking with students after our workshop

Cassie’s workshop was part of this weekend’s  Deckle Edge Literary Festival, organized by the people behind Jasper magazine.  Cassie writes about and teaches this subject full time, and you can find out more about those classes and her work here.

Taskmaster Needed

Caroline texting

When Caroline felt lost about what to do next with her novel, she called for help. Look closely at the reflection in her glasses. Is that a text from her editor? And if it is, will she follow his advice? The plot thickens…

Matthew Limpede is helping me with my novel. Matthew is the executive editor at Carve Magazine. I initially picked him by his bio on Carve, mainly because I liked the same authors he did. Matthew is insightful, easy-going, direct but not pushy, and most importantly, he has a sense of humor.

He’d read my first novel draft a year ago, and he gave me great feedback about many aspects of the story. The biggest one being that one of my main characters, Luther, needed to go. In my heart, I knew Matthew was right, because I’d carried Luther over from a different novel.

He also wanted me to back up and make a play-by-play of every single scene in the novel, as well as work on each character’s personality, backstory…

For 10 months, I reworked the novel without Luther. I finished the plot. I polished the first half. But plot fragments made up the latter half. I felt lost. I couldn’t see an end in sight. I needed another set of eyes.

I contacted Matthew. He read the new draft. Our first phone call went something like this.

“Did you do ever get around to that outline we spoke about?”

“Um, not really,” I said.

“What about those character sketches?”

“I kind of avoided those too.”

All of which was obvious by my divergent plot twists and extraneous scenes distracting from the forward motion of the novel.

We both decided, before I wrote another word, I needed an outline. But I didn’t have the self-discipline or interest to write one.

So we’ve made a plan. Matthew will compile what I’ve written into an outline. He’s not telling me what to write. He’s not deciding the plot. He is simply the architect building the structure, and I will then keep decorating the rooms.

He will also be a taskmaster. Saying. Here is a scene. You can’t leave this scene until you’ve finished it. Here is the next scene… I’m actually looking forward to being bossed around. Boundaries are beautiful things!