Think Before You Write. Or. Write Before You Think?

In reference to my title, when writing fiction, I’ve learned the hard way that I need both methods.

I used to “write before I thought” exclusively. This approach is similar to how I cook. I never have the ingredients prepared in little bowls ahead of time. I’m reading the recipe while crazily chopping and grabbing ingredients. I get the meal done, but if I’d slow down and take some time beforehand, the process would run more smoothly.

The same goes for my writing. Instead of throwing words on the page, a bit of mental preparation and forethought is key.

My next project is a short story involving Flannery O’Connor’s mother Regina. I’m not sure where I’m going with it yet. But I do want to use both approaches.

Short stories are more contained than a novel. It doesn’t take as long to write one, but in some ways, it’s more difficult to do well. The boundaries of the form ramp up the process. The conflict happens faster, the rising arc and denouement arrive sooner, and throughout, every sentence has to be exact.

First—think before I write, and for a short story, this part doesn’t have to be overdone.

Some simple questions could be:

What do Regina and Flannery both want or need?

What’s the location? That one’s easy. Their farm Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia.

What happens in the story?

Is there a theme?

What might be the climax, the breaking point, or in other words, the point of no return?

Will the ending be open and amorphous? All tied up?

What would be a good logline? A neat screenwriting technique in order to create a one sentence summary.  For instance, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” might be  A lonely, Southern woman is found dead and decaying in her home after being abandoned by her lover.

The above thought-out structure provides a container for creative freedom. Now I’m ready to “write before I think.” I can be free flowing with my thoughts. I can ease into not knowing and letting the subconscious come to the forefront. I can write what I want. It doesn’t matter. No reason to judge it.

The conscious mind can rein it in later when I reshape and mold the messy and chaotic parts of the story. And I might create a few jewels worth keeping.

One fun tool is “what if?” What if Flannery woke up one day and she could run? What if Regina fell in love with a New York intellectual? What if someone snuck on to the farm and stole the peacocks?

I better get thinking then writing, and for some inspiration, I’m going to pull out Chekhov, the master of short stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

When Writing Gets In the Way of Submitting

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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?

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!!

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.

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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