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

 

 

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!

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!

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!