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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Dialogue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a few days, I eavesdropped on and typed up these conversations at a local coffee shop, and honestly, they were better than anything I could think up.

“We have our farmhouse in Ohio. Was built in 1898. They’ll hear their name called. Slamming doors. Up the stairs. But very much alive. I can psych myself out.”

“The sun broke through. Hit the back of my neck. A big old ray. She died like ten years ago. I knew it was her. By the time I got over the bridge. Blue skies.”

I mean. You can’t beat that for some good dialogue!

This next conversation had a bit of enlivening disagreement between these two young men. A good thing in dialogue.

“Eating with my parents. I don’t want to. Nobody else does this. People are going to be watching the game.”

“Are your parents into the game?”

“They might be but I don’t want to watch with my parents.”

“Kind of cool to have dinner with them.”

“Don’t point out the positives.”

Elmore Leonard is the master of using dialogue to move a story forward or into a sudden pitch toward confrontation such as the following in Be Cool.

“You wear your shades at night,” Chili said, “so I’ll think you’re cool, but I can’t tell if you’re looking at me.”

Raji put his glasses down on his nose, down and up. “See? I’m looking the fuck right at you, man. You have something to say to me fuckin say it so we be done here.”

A few more things to think about with dialogue.

Set up two characters with conflicting goals. Such as one wants Waffle House. The other a Vegan restaurant. Then have them talk about it.

Keep dialogue tags unobtrusive. Just stick with “he said” and “she said.” It makes it easier for the reader.

Read all your dialogue aloud, with a friend if possible. It will quickly become evident which lines don’t ring true.

Make sure characters are really talking to each other and not just saying something for the reader’s benefit or that you’re not forcing them to reveal a bit of plot through dialogue.

Use silence as well as speech to convey meaning.

Or if you want to break all these rules, you can do your own thing like Cormac McCarthy and use no speech marks or apostrophes.

Here’s some dialogue from No Country For Old Men.

Could have been checkin the quality. Getting ready to trade.
They didnt trade. They shot each other.
Bell nodded.
There might not of even been no money.
That’s possible.
But you dont believe it.
Bell thought about it. No, he said. Probably I dont.

Lastly, lots of good advice on dialogue in 9 Rules for Writing Dialogue

 

 

 

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!

First Week, New Year

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Getting started over this coffee at Drip, one year ago

Just before Christmas, Caroline and I got together at our usual spot (thank you, Drip Coffee in Five Points for existing!).

How did we think our year of submission had gone?
Great.

Did we want to keep going?
Heck yeah.

Caroline and I have met for years to write together. But when we decided to push each other along, to ask what we could submit and why we weren’t submitting it, we changed the way we worked. We took more chances. We became bolder, braver, tougher. We looked for help from new places. Things started to happen.

A lot more still needs to happen–one of the best reasons to keep this going. And of course, committing to another year of submission means there’s also hope we’ll get a few more notifications like the one you see below. img_7528

Posting updates here is one way we’ve pushed ourselves to do what needs to be done. This blog is an odd little way we hold ourselves accountable. So if you’re reading this, we appreciate your help in that department. And when we get a comment, that keep us accountable, too–so thanks for those!

Big Sur Writing Workshop Notes

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Trudging up the path to the conference center at Big Sur Lodge

It’s been ten days since I walked (okay, drove) out of the woods at the Big Sur Writing Workshop, and I’ve had a lot to think about–and work on. I got good feedback on two projects and left with a clear idea of which one to work on first and what to do with it.

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Andrea Brown organizes these workshops. Here she’s introducing writer Eric Adams, who gave a great talk on theme, plot, and character.

That, I believe, is called progress!

Here’s what I liked about this workshop:

  1. Critique groups were small and you got specific feedback on your work that you could use for an immediate rewrite.
  2. Because one of my group leaders was an agent (with good, sharp insights, btw), I also got to see how an agent thinks about submissions–what seems marketable and what is off-putting.
  3. Because my other group leader was an author and screenwriter, I got another kind of feedback that was every bit as helpful in a different way.
  4. I heard other works in progress that I really liked, and that made me value the writer-to-writer feedback I got even more.
  5. The faculty was smart and accessible, eager to talk to you even when you might have felt a little shy about imposing on them.
  6. Everyone attending was friendly–and I didn’t meet a single person who felt the need to show off.
  7. I left challenged to improve my novels and encouraged that they have a future.
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Nice people attending, including Nadine (front, right) who wound up sitting with me maybe more than she might have liked.

Despite years of attending work events and mingling with people, I still find that activity exhausting. One of the nice things about the Big Sur group is that lots of other people seemed to feel the same way, so people were sociable but not too. There was enough down time to write and regroup. Maybe not enough time to sleep. But I caught up on that later.

I emailed Caroline after it was over, letting her know it had been good for me to attend. Here’s what she wrote back: “That is so exciting about the coach’s feedback. Think of how far we’ve come since you got us started last January!”

That really made me smile. With just a couple of weeks left in this year, I can see we are getting somewhere, both of us, because we’re making a focused effort to do it, helping each other keep going, and being just a little more aggressive.

The workshop, in case you want to know more, is organized by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and The Henry Miller Library. It lasts for one weekend. The focus is children’s literature. You can find more details here.

Blogging When I Should Be Packing

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My well-used Kami Kinard handouts, in their special orange file folder

In a few hours, I’ll be dashing off to the airport, so that I can attend the Big Sur Writing Workshop this weekend. Writing a blog post is the last thing I should be doing right now, but I had a couple of thoughts to jot out before I go.

First of all, wow, the impact that one 90-minute workshop can have on your writing life. Back in May of 2014, I registered for a little session led by writer Kami Kinard at the S.C. Book Festival. I still have the simple handouts, and they’ve made so many things possible. Because of Kami, I applied to and was accepted for the Rutgers One-on-One Conference, a great experience that gave me a huge boost in confidence. I also joined SCWBI and went to one of their conferences.

I’m going to the Big Sur workshop because of Kami’s class, as well. If it provides even half the help that Kami delivered, it will be fantastic. And it’s in Big Sur, so how can it not be, really?

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Caroline at The Gourmet Shop, where the table is much less cluttered than mine

Also on my mind is the help Caroline gave me as I stood at my dining room table this afternoon, wired on espresso, trying to settle on what pages to pack for my two critique sessions. I had ideas, but it helps so much to have her thoughtful take on things. As I’ve said so many times, the deliberate approach she takes to work is such a great counter to my many-things-at-once style. (BTW, she’s working on finalizing her novel, chapter by chapter, but I’ll let her write the update on that.)

So, here I go, hoping to move two middle grade novels a little closer to published status. One is a story I’ve been working on for a long time. The other is a draft I’ve just finished. And of course, there are others. But it looks as if they’ll have to stay at home this time and wait their turn.

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?

First Draft Freedom

img_2323Whoop! My first draft is almost done. It’s messy, choppy, filled with dialogue and sparse on description, but that’s ok, because I’ve made it all the way through.

The plot is in place, and my characters are coming to life, and I know what happens from the beginning to the end.

For me, the hardest part is over.

No more struggling to answer, “What happens next?” “Would Teddy say this?” “Would Helen do that?” I don’t have to pace around closing my eyes trying to visualize scene after scene. They are all there on the pages.

I’m now actually excited to go back to the beginning.

But before I head into the revision, I first need to back away from the novel. I need to take a week or so off to gain some distance from what I wrote in order to later see it with fresh eyes.

Once I feel ready, I’ll print out a fresh copy. I’ll do a read-through in several sittings. I won’t stop to make changes. I’ll just pretend to be reading it for the first time.

I could then do all this but I might be too exhausted by the end!

So instead, I’ll next go through and analyze the manuscript. This time making marks, jotting down ideas, thoughts…I’ll ponder…

Does my story make sense?

Is the plot compelling? Any plot holes?

Does the story flow?

Do my lead characters come to life?

Are the stakes high enough?

Are there any unbelievable leaps of logic?

Is the pacing. Too fast? Too slow?

Then I’ll start making the actual editing changes. And once to the end (maybe two months from now) time for the next revision! I’ll have to do another post about that one when the time comes.