The Right Write Life

Recently, a former student and I reconnected and I asked how his writing was going.

“Well, he said, “my writing has kind of stalled. I can’t quite figure out how to make the writing happen.” And then he asked if I had any advice.

I always have advice. As he learned in the ridiculously long email I sent him. But then I thought, why not pop that same advice into this blog, my dear neglected partner.

My guess is that you and I and every writer ever living has struggled with the question of when do I write? Where? How? And the most writers-block inducing one of all: Why?

So in this post, I want to explore what we’ve been told about our writing practice from three angles:

~ The Fallacy of the “Right” Writing Practice

~ Resources to Help You Regain or Establish a New Writing Practice

~ Ideas and Examples of How I Cobble my Creativity toward One Goal

The Fallacy of the “Right” Writing Practice

Chances are, you’ve been told or have read that “real” writers write every day, ideally at the same time and same place, in some cozily messy writing room dedicated solely to that pursuit, possibly some upstairs garret with a view of a mountain or a river or the ocean, with piles of toppling books surrounding them, and stacks of loose papers in every corner, and a jar of the exact right set of blue pens and black pens and pencils, and possibly a cat, curled up and snoozing on a window ledge while the sun shines/thunderclouds blast/rain blankets the landscape beyond- perhaps this is just the ideal space I imagine for myself. (Just a note, I’m currently in my basement, my laptop on top of a rickety card table, smelling the recent present left by my cat in the litter box because my “normal” writing space is a garage we loosely converted into an office because we have two kids and a small house, and it’s just too damn cold to be out there right now, faux-fireplace or no.)

That whole “write every day” shtick is not entirely bad advice, but when coupled with the idea that it is the one and only path to achieving one’s goals, it becomes problematic, especially when delivered by prolific writers we all generally admire and believe have figured things out (and they did! For themselves). Stephen King gives this advice in On Writing and Anne Lamott offers similar advice in Bird by Bird to write at the same time of day every day, or at least most of them. Hemingway said he wrote every morning. Vonnegut kept a strict schedule as well. However, if you’re like me (and most human beings), the ability to write every day at the same time and in a dedicated writing space is a rather lovely privilege that one associates with bygone eras of writers who made an actual living from their writing, who left the care of their children to their erstwhile wives (or their current, but neglectd ones), and who had the kind of entitlement afforded to them that writers today simply do not have.

To claim, then, that writing can only (or even usually) happen at a set time, at a set place, and when performed on a daily basis essentially puts you, me, and just about everyone else out of the running when it comes to being a “real” writer. Worse, good writers continue to fall by the wayside, their writing edged out by the demands of daily life, by struggling to find the right balance, and from believing that if they can’t do it everyday, for a meaningful length of time and in some inspiring, beatific location, why bother at all?

I struggled for years against strictures like these, while also understanding that within them lay a nugget of truth that I simply could not wrangle into a system or schedule that worked for me. When I wrote for a few days in a row, I was a triumph! When I found the creative energy had drained away, I was a bereft phony, revealed to myself as an imposter. (Imposter syndrome is a terribly real experience and worth a look if you have similar feelings.)

Then I took a workshop with writer Vanessa Veselka who said all that stuff about writing every day was bullshit. !! “I go for weeks, even months, without writing,” she told our little group. “Because I’m out there living.” Time spent away from the page allowed her to refresh herself and most importantly, gather lived, human experiences. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to hear a writer speak like this of schedules, or lack of them. To actively encourage all of us to throw aside the belief that only with a strict schedule can one succeed.

Since that time, I have embraced a perspective of gentleness and flexibility when it comes to my writing practice. I know the time of day I am most productive (very first thing in the morning) but my life doesn’t allow me space to write then – so I wait. I write once the kids are in school (or currently in the care of the nanny). I have three solid days I can write – the days when we have childcare. I try to write during the other ones; my wife makes time and space for me and we try. But when I don’t do it – when pancake breakfasts turn into a neighborhood walk and I arrive home to remember the bagels or bread needs baking or some cleaning task is asserting its need to be addressed or I just get sucked into the delicious sprawl of a day at home with my wife and girls…whatever it is that has come between me and my writing – I hold it gently. I say, ok, that happened. I often think I’ll try to write later, but usually I don’t. And that is ok too. This is life.

Resources

In January of 2020, I started The Artist’s Way, a self-paced 90-day workshop for creatives. Things derailed a little in March, I’ll admit, but that book was another revolution in understanding the process of creativity and the importance of allowing one’s self time and space and permission to creative or not, to use time away from the creative pursuit to refill the bucket. Time away from creativity, if well spent, can itself be part of the creative process! You’ll note that I underlined a phrase there: if we piddle our writing time in useless activities (say, rewatching the entire Downton Abbey series, for the fourth or fifth time – and hey, no judgments here) we’re not feeding our creativity. This is where Artist’s Dates come into play, or as I’ll share below, having some alternative activities ready at hand that you can engage with to keep your creativity fired up. You’ll understand when you start the process. But the other thing that workshop emphasizes is morning pages: 3 pages in a smallish notebook every morning. As a writer in my own writing group discovered, filling 3 pages of a legal pad was an overwhelming task, so choose a reasonably sized journal. If you can dedicate 90 days to this process, you may just find that your writing practice emerges organically from the experience.

And also, if you’re like me and you need a more formalized system to reengage with and create space in your life for sustained and scheduled creativity, I highly recommend The Artist’s Way.

Next, I find much inspiration and freedom in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is another book about the life of the creative. In particular, one of Gilbert’s ideas that particularly resonates here is that the muse, or whatever it is you believe delivers inspiration to you, can only come if we are sitting there waiting for it. Do we have to sit in the same place every day? Do we have to be there at the same time? No, but we do need to be there. So yes, there is benefit to finding a writing practice, albeit one that is personalized and tailored to you, your life, and what you can make work for yourself now – there is constant ebb and flow to this! When life goes back to normal, things may open up in surprising ways. You may have more time. You may even have less, as we all rush back into the life of the world and play the biggest game of catch up on record.

Tips, Ideas, Examples

And this leads me to the final section of today’s exploration: so now what?

First, if you can, gently untangle yourself from any notion that “real” writing happens at one time of day, in one place, or by doing it every single bloody day.

Some years ago, I took a 9-week novel-writing workshop in which the goal was to create 60,000 words in 9ish weeks. I achieved that goal. I wrote at the dining room table while my kids watched TV. I wrote in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. I wrote in almost every room of my house, as well as in the car, at coffee shops, on a bench in the park, and dictating into my phone while on a walk. By making myself write at different times of the day, in different locations, I learned that I wasn’t married to my desk in order to create. What a wonderful discovery! If you have struggled, as I did, with the idea that writing only occurs in that one space, then force yourself into other areas of your home. Even if you’re doing quite well at the moment with producing words, I still think it’s an exercise that can benefit you – just to know you can, a trump card in your back pocket. Should your normal writing space, if you’re fortunate to have one, becomes unusable for some reason, it’s good to know already that your writing practice is mobile.

The other thing that has done the most for me in terms of keeping my ego up when I’m feeling a little “stalled,” as my former student so aptly described it, is having a list of Writerly Activities near to hand. I’m not joking – that’s what it’s called at the top of the page. It reminds me there is more than one way to feed and support my creativity. And, personally, I only have about two, maybe three days of writing in me at a time. After that, I struggle. I need a break. I need to walk away from the project and refill my jar. So I have a list of things I can be doing, all of which support me in my writing life in one way or another. Here’s the list I drew up just yesterday in my morning pages journal:

  • Write New Words
    • Novel Project #1
    • Novel Project #2
  • Work on Flash Non-fiction Collection
  • Work on Flash Fabulism Collection
  • Post to Blog (I’m doing it now!)
  • Post to Jane Austen Blog: alifeinausten.com – if you care to check it out. No pressure.
  • Read a Craft Book, do exercises
  • Read a literary work
  • Check Calls for Submissions Facebook Group/ Submittable
  • Be Gentle – Do Yoga – Meditate

What’s on your list? What can you do when you want to feed your creativity but you need a break or the energy feels a little stuck? How can you keep your brain space in that creative place, ready for the muse to arrive, but in a way that refreshes you?

I want to end by saying that if you’re feeling stuck, if you feel that there’s one way to be a writer and you’re not matching that ideal, if you feel overwhelmed and discouraged – then welcome. I have been in that space and I doubtless will be again – because our connection to our writing life is a cyclic as any other relationship in our life: it ebbs and flows; it feeds us and it drains us; it lifts us up and it drags us down. But the truth I hope rings for you is this: yes, there’s value to establishing a schedule and following it. Just as there is value to flexibility, adaptability, and gentleness. If 2020 has taught us anything, and it’s been a whirlwind of so many lessons I wish we hadn’t had to learn, these three are some of the positive ones you can take away from it.

I’ll also leave you with a quote from Tayari Jones: “The things that make it difficult for you to write are also the things that make your writing worthwhile.”

It isn’t easy to find the time or commit to a schedule – however strict or loose it might look – so do your best, put in a genuine effort, and hold all of this and yourself with gentleness.

I’d LOVE to hear your comments. Please post your ideas, your schedule, what works for you/what doesn’t, to the Comments section. Thanks!

Image:“Pen and Paper” by Guudmorning! is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Jumpstart Your Flash Fiction/Non-fiction Writing Practice Today

For those who want to engage with literary writing but who may not have the time or energy to dedicate to a full-length novel, flash fiction and non-fiction has increasingly found a ready audience. In addition, most flash is often published online at a number of exciting and well-regarded online publications. Today, I want to share some of my journey with writing flash as well as provide some resources to help you jumpstart your own flash fiction writing.

First, what is it? Well, the industry still debates what exactly constitutes flash, but most agree that flash pieces are 1,000 words or less. Some publishers prefer to publish stories at 750 words or less or even 500 words or less, which then begs the question – when is it flash and when is it micro? For our purposes, let’s call anything at or less than 1,000 words to be flash. My favorite description of flash fiction comes from the Chinese definition, which is fiction that can be read during the course of smoking one cigarette, earning it one particularly fine name: the Smokelong. Incidentally, one of the premiere publishers of flash fiction/non-fiction is the online literary journal SmokeLong Quarterly.

Next, why flash? Writing flash fiction can be a way to keep your writing fresh and exciting, as well as offer you the opportunity to break away from other projects. As I’ve moved away from short-story writing and into novels, I’ve needed a place where I can create shorter works requiring slightly less time commitment than, say, a short story or, ach!, beginning another novel entirely. Additionally, because of the rising demand for quick hits of good prose, flash publications and online journals are on the rise and they can often be a critical foot-in-the-door opportunity for emerging writers.

And finally, flash is fun. Quick. Low investment. And often, surprisingly good.

So here are the nuts and bolts for how to get this practice going. I came to flash through the suggestion of another writer and friend, Hobie Anthony, when we were in a writing group together. “Yeah, ok,” I found myself saying at our meetings, “but what is flash exactly?” Flash has this kind of amorphism that initially repelled me but now appeals to me on so many levels. Is it a vignette, a character sketch, a setting description, a tiny story complete with plot and characters? Yes, and yes, and yes, and yes. It can be any of those. It might have a plot – it might not. In most cases, the bulk of the plot lies off the page, implied rather than exposed, a shadow of an experience which the skilled flash writer can evoke through the barest means possible. Flash can be anything and everything.

Sure, sure, that’s all good and well, you’re probably thinking, but how do I do it? Well, I’ll tell you – you pick up some good flash fiction craft books and you do the exercises. No joke – nearly every flash piece I’ve had published so far began as a writing exercise – a feat I certainly can’t claim for any of the short stories I started from a writing exercise! Best of all – every flash craft book I’m going to share with you includes a huge range of flash pieces to illustrate the techniques being described. With one purchase supporting these craft book authors, you’re also getting a fabulous anthology of flash. So here they are:

Rose Metal Press Field Guides – one for Flash Fiction, Flash Non-fiction, and Prose Poetry. These were my very first craft books and they were wonderfully helpful in teaching me how to write flash.

Brevity A Flash Fiction Handbook by David Galef

Short-Form Creative Writign A Writer’s Guide and Anthology by H.K. Hummel and Stephanie Lenox

Flash! Writing the Very Short Story by John Dufresne

Next, you can improve your understanding of flash by reading the preeminent publishers of the genre:

SmokeLong Quarterly

Little Fiction, Big Truths

Brevity – Flash Non-fiction

And some additional resources:

List of Flash Fiction Websites

Best Small Fictions Anthology – formerly published by Braddock Avenue Books, currently published by Sonder Press. This anthology began in 2015 and has been published yearly since. What’s particularly helpful about this anthology is that it includes where the flash was originally published and from there, your world of where to read – and someday submit! – flash fiction will open up.

Broken Toe. Broken World.

This week, I became the kind of person who gets so angry, she kicks her couch and breaks a toe. If you weren’t aware already, this is indeed a type, and I can now check that box off. I’m sure there’s some medical form or mental illness assessment somewhere that asks, “have you ever been so mad, you’ve done something to injure yourself?” I will now have to face the choice of lying about this bad behavior or fessing up to it and enduring a whole new round of invasive, personal questions from a medical provider.

We’ve all done things in anger: punched pillows, screamed, stomped a foot – you know, the usual. Kicking something hard enough to break a bone seems extreme at first, until you consider that toe bones are fairly easy to break (based on my extensively non-existent medical knowledge) – but nonetheless, it feels like I’ve entered into a whole new level of competition. You could say that I am now peering over the ledge into Olympic-level self-destruction.

And you know what I got so pissed about that I needed to kick my couch?? The Olympics. Yup, that’s right. I kicked my couch because my not-so-smart TV would not allow me to stream the Olympics even though the TV in the basement was able to access it perfectly fine with the NBC app two years ago for the summer games. Not on this TV. Incompatible. And as much as I might blame  my particular brand of TV, which is apparently incompatible with quite a lot that I’d like to access, the TV is not the real problem. The corporate assholes who broadcast the Olympics are the problem. Excuse me, let me correct that, the corporate assholes who control access to the Olympics are the problem.

Close your eyes and think back with me to days of yore – or, more specifically, about 30 years ago. All three major stations – NBC, ABC, and CBS – each had a hand in the Olympics, showing their own little niche of events. All you needed was an antennae and someone your family disliked enough to send onto the roof to twiddle it until your father yelled out an open window to hold it right there. That’s it. The global amazingness, the global patriotism that is evoked by the Olympics was available to all. Sure, you had to watch endless rounds of commercials (I think they were still McDonald’s even in those days…oh, and Wheaties), but you were given a golden moment to watch men and women who have devoted themselves to perfection in their event perform for you, to put everything they had out there on that slope or on that gymnastics mat or in that pool. All across this country, across this world, we were watching them together. What an amazing thing that had been – I realize, now that it’s gone and forever – to have been in community with so many brothers and sisters across this country and across this planet.

Now, like so much else about our world – our political system, our education system, our healthcare system – watching the Olympics is a privilege gifted only to those who have the $49.99, or $89.99, or (can you believe it?!) $129.99 a month to throw at the price of admission, in this case a cable company (and I’m sure there are plans that cost even more for those who desperately need 1,000+ stations). It’s like you’ve shown up to the bi-annual family reunion, and someone’s put a giant Reserved sign all over it. Sure, go right over there to where someone else erected a ticket booth and show them you’re part of this clan; if you think it’ll work for you, remind the person behind the plexiglass that you’re an American dammit, and shouldn’t that count for something? But unless you have the price of admission and a willingness to commit to a 1-year contract with a lifeless company that will stream trash at you 24/7, you’re not welcome anymore.

Now, I’m about the least sporty person you’ll find, but I do love the Olympics. I love the comaraderie, the sportsmanship, the athleticism, the teamwork, and the sense that for all of two weeks, all the schmoes who wouldn’t be caught dead doing things like the luge or the ski jump or anything else remotely aerobic are both devotedly cheering for the representatives of their nation and doing it all together. The whole world. Together. One voice cheering for a hundred different countries. Across time zones, across oceans, across continents.

I lost a lot more than the ability to see the Olympics when I screamed at my TV and slammed my foot in the couch. In my crumpled, defeated state, I lost a sense of being part of US (as in you and me and our brothers and sisters across the ocean, not the United States. I lost that one very bad night in November 2016, but that’s a post for another time). It was just me in that moment. Me and my throbbing foot. My foot will heal and I’ll laughingly tell this story to friends, just as I did today when I went to Ash Wednesday service, but some things can’t be healed.  And the things that used to heal us – things like the Olympics? – will we even notice in our consumer-crazed, digitized, TV-brain obliterated state that they’re even gone? I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore.

Dialogue Tags and Filter Words

(From a lecture originally delivered to students in Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program)

99190 WUOT Dialogue Logo V2.0

I love talking about dialogue tags and filter words. The concept is simple and making a quick change to our approach to these two things can vastly improve the quality of our writing. When I revise, I set aside one read-through just for finding, considering, and fixing dialogue tags and filter words. It’s the only thing I look at during that run-through, and often, fixing dialogue tags and filter words does so much toward the overall flow and style of the work.

Dialogue Tags

First, let’s talk about dialogue tags. As pretty much every craft book will tell you, the simplest dialogue tags are the best: I said, he said, she said. Even more importantly, across every panel of agents I’ve ever attended or interviews with agents I’ve read, the use of overly embellished dialogue tags is a core place where an agent will find a reason to say no thanks, not this one. We want to avoid those robust, meaty tags like: he squacked, she screeched, I spat, etc. We might think these kinds of dialogue tags are good, that they’re performing a showing-over-telling function, but in truth, dialogue tags like the examples above call attention to themselves rather than the dialogue they’re attempting to describe. And also, those dialogue tags call attention to themselves for what the dialogue itself is not doing – that is, if someone squacks, or bellows, or snaps, or exclaims, it should be apparent within the dialogue itself or delivered via some other more natural means.

Example: “Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped, setting the plates on the counter.

Better: “Don’t take that tone with me.” She slammed the plates on the counter and heard one somewhere in the middle give way, the crack of mishandled porcelain, the splintering of her life.

In the example above, I removed the dialogue tag entirely and allowed the dialogue to stand on its own, the emotion then underscored by the action that follows it.

This leads me to my next point, which is that as much as is possible, do away with dialogue tags entirely. For the most part, readers can follow along with the dialogue, especially if you intersperse it with actions that then remind readers of who said what. This relates to the idea of using punctuation and organization to your benefit – whatever occurs in a paragraph together, whether dialogue or action or a combination, is being said or performed by one person. A new paragraph indicates a new speaker/performer. In writing, we have a term for when we break dialogue with small actions – beats. Using beats allows you to slow the pace of the dialogue, in addition to indicating who was just speaking. They allow a pause in the speaking, which then offers your readers and your characters a moment to reflect on what has just been said. Likewise, dialogue tags can themselves be used to break up speech, thus creating emphasis on various phrases:

  • “Consider my perspective here. I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me,” he said. (speech followed by tag. All ideas presented up front and in quick succession)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag. Emphasis on perspective)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said, sliding the contract back over the table. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag including action to lengthen the speech. This moment just grew longer. Emphasis on perspective, with the action to reflect his disdain for the contract.)
  • “Consider my perspective here.” He slid the contract back over the table in one deft push. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech with no dialogue tag and only action. Same effect as above)

Consider Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” again. This story relies entirely on setting and dialogue to convey emotion. There’s not a single dialogue tag other than “he said” or “she said” and those are minimally used. Take a look at this excerpt:

“Then what will we do afterward?” [said by Jig]

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.” [said by the American]

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

So the beat occurs when the girl looks at the bead curtain. The American has just said it’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy, and Jig looks away. She’s considering this. This pause is Hemingway telling us perhaps this isn’t the only thing making them unhappy. Then, look at the sentence after she looks at the bead curtain (hint: symbolism – a divider). Because her dialogue leading up to this moment has been a series of questions, we read this one as a question too, and yet it isn’t actually a question. It’s a statement. Hemingway flips the expected punctuation mark for a period and though we read it as a question, we hit the end of that sentence and realize she’s making a statement of fact. Now, I’ve included the final two sections because I want you to look at Jig’s dialogue there: “And afterward they were all so happy.” What’s her tone there? Is she serious? No, she’s being sarcastic. She’s letting him know she’s not buying it. That it isn’t going to be that easy. Did Hemingway write “said the girl sarcastically” or “sneered the girl”? Nope. Because he trusted in the power of that dialogue to convey what he wanted to convey. And he succeeds.

Read this story thoroughly and pay attention to the use of dialogue tags. Where does Hemingway use them? Where does he do away with them?

Neutral_density_filter_demonstration

Filter Words

Filter words are indicators of feeling or thought which put an additional layer (or filter) between the reader and the actual sensation or thought being conveyed. Rather than presenting the situation mimetically, these phrases filter the experience through the narrator or focal character’s perspective. Filter words are: felt/touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or thought, etc. Take a look at the following example:

He saw the V of geese passing across the sky. He heard them honk, a father directing his children and imagined him to be saying something like, “don’t make me turn this formation around.” He felt the cool, crispness of an October morning through the thin flannel of his sleeve. He heard a shot ring out, cracking the morning stillness. Oh heavens, he thought, surely it isn’t hunting season already. And then he heard the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

The first problem with this paragraph is that the sentences are simple and follow the same pattern – i.e. there is no variation in sentence structure (syntax). Worse, readers are not actually seeing the v of geese nor hearing them honk, nor feeling the cool air. Readers are observing the character see, hear, and feel those things. Compare:

Geese flew overhead in their V formation. The one leading them began to honk incessantly, a father scolding his children not to make him turn that formation around. The cool, crispness of the October morning seeped through the flannel of his shirt, goosebumping his skin. And then a shot rang out, cracking the morning calm. Oh heavens, surely it wasn’t hunting season already. And then followed the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

How is the experience of this paragraph different than the one above? In what ways do you feel that you yourself as the reader are more engaged in this scene, seeing it firsthand? Now, as the above indicates, we’re in close third point of view. We are delivered direct thought in the line that begins “Oh heavens.” This is the character’s actual thought, and because we are in close third, we don’t need it to be filtered, but we do need to change “isn’t” into “wasn’t” in order to keep with the narrative voice rather than direct thought.

This principle around filtering applies to first person narration as well. Compare: I held the baby up to my ear and felt for her breath on my cheek, but there was none. I placed my ear closer to her chest, listening, but heard nothing. And I felt along her jawline, palpating that tender skin, feeling, feeling. And then I felt it – a pulse. -à I held the baby up to my ear, praying for breath on my skin. Nothing. I lifted her, my ear to her chest, listening. Nothing. My fingers palpated the tender skin under her jawline, but nothing. And then there it was, soft and thready, but there. A pulse.

This is not to say you can never use those words, but you want to do so infrequently and mindfully. The key thing to remember is that whether you’re working in first person or close third, readers know that whatever information they’re being given is that which the character sees, feels, hears, smells, tastes, touches, or thinks. It’s understood. If you’re working in third person omniscient and move between different characters’ interior landscape within the same chapter, then using these kinds of filters can act as your transition point. For instance, if we’ve just been in a male perspective and then we get, “She thought about what he’d said and decided he was full of it,” then the phrase “she thought” is our transition point. You can do it with any sensation as the trigger point that we’re changing perspectives, but once you’ve indicated that transition, it’s back to avoiding them entirely.

Here are some additional resources to aid in your study of dialogue tags and filter words:

 Autocrit on Dialogue Tag Syndrome

Writer’s Digest Keys to Realistic Dialogue

Filter Words that Weaken Fiction

Filter Words on Pub(lishing)Crawl

 

Willamette Writers’ Meeting Recap – December 5th

Fonda Lee event - Discover Your Next Story Idea

(Image courtesy of Willamette Writers)

The first week of December, we met with Fonda Lee to discuss how to discover great story ideas. Besides being an engaging, friendly speaker, Fonda has a success story most of us drool over. She began her publishing journey at our very own Willamette Writers’ Conference in 2013. Over the past 4 years, she’s published 3 books and is under contract for 3 more. Clearly, this is a writer with no problems finding ideas for her stories.

Fonda started off sharing the things she’d wish she’d known before she was published. Here are her truths:

  • Truth #1: Good writing doesn’t sell books. Great ideas sell books. The idea gets you in the door and the writing seals the deal.
    • I’ve spent time in the bookstore plucking books off the shelves and opening to a random section. I’ve been surprised at just how much mediocre writing is out there, and yet these books continue to come out because it’s not really about the writing – it’s about the story.
  • Truth #2: There are 2 common beliefs held by writers.
    • #1 Optimistic Artist: I need an original idea no one has every done before.
    • #2 Cynical Commercialist: Copy an idea that’s been successful.
      • As Austin Kleon says, “Steal like an artist.” (TED talk provided in the link)
    • So we ask ourselves: do agents and editors want what’s new and original or what’s proven and done. And the catch is, they want both: a unique take on a familiar subject. (disclaimer, I may have gotten this truth wrong as my notes have annoyingly omitted “Truth #2” in my notebook. I think the words walked off the page of their own accord. I’ve seen it happen.)
  • Truth #3: Creative ideas come from making connections between seemingly unrelated events.
    • Here, Fonda invoked the old adage we’re all familiar with: write what you know. But, Fonda said, take it to the next level – draw connections between all the things you know. (There’s an exercise for this in a little bit)
  • Truth #4: The originality of a story does not come from its ideas but from its creator.

So if we combine these four truths together. We get Fonda’s advice for building all of this into one framework: connect, combine, steal, remix, mash-up, and transform. Here, we see how both the optimistic artist and the cynical commercialist can find common ground.

Exercise for Generating Ideas:

One of the best things I love about attending our WW meetings is that we (usually) get some hands-on ideas for how to implement the concepts discussed in the talk. Fonda’s idea really hit home for me and an idea – that is, a feasible, doable idea – came out of the scant 10 minutes we spent on this exercise. The exercise: Take a sheet of paper and make three columns. At the top of the first, write: Things I’ve experienced. At the top of the middle, write: Things I Know About. At the top of the third, write: Things I’m passionate about. To give you an example from my list, I wrote about some of the things I’ve experienced due to our family’s infertility. In the second, I wrote about all the different historical eras I like to study – Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Tudor England, Regency England, etc. And in the final one, I listed my passions, one of which is knitting.

Then, explore your lists and see what your connections are. Pull something from each category and see how it mashes up. What did I come up with? “An infertile woman discovers the ability to knit portals through time.” I’m not sure what else would happen in this story, but I imagine that she might fall back through time, be mistaken for a midwife (or a witch), and use her knowledge to both help the women she encounters and find healing for herself. Again, it’s just a seed, but it’s not half bad, if I do say so myself.

Give it a try. I think you’ll surprise yourself.

Fonda then gave us some Practical Advice:

  • Keep an Idea File – a story seed farm
  • Cultivate a habit of noticing connections
    • explore what you’re seeing in different contexts
  • Read, watch, and consume art widely
    • Anyone notice how popular cross-genre fiction is??
  • More experiences = more creative fodder
    • This reminds me of something Portland-based author Vanessa Veselka said in a workshop once, which was that writers must give themselves permission to NOT write. She said, take a few weeks and go DO something. Fonda also shared that she is not an everyday writer and doesn’t believe that a strict regimen is right for her and may not be right for everyone. But you can bet that if she’s not writing, she’s doing something that will fuel her writing later.
  • Let ideas rise to the top over time
    • Let those good ideas percolate. As we’ve probably all experienced, the flush and flurry of a new idea can send us racing for our keyboard or notepad, but then we burn out on them after just a couple chapters. In my own experience, I had an idea for a Jane Austen time travel something like 5 or 6 years ago. I kept a notebook just for that particular idea and would jot things down as they came to me over 3 years – scenes, dialogue, and plot points. When I sat down to write that draft (in a Literary Arts workshop with Emily Chenoweth on writing a novel in 8 weeks), my fingers were practically vibrating with the muse. And I did it – I wrote something like 60,000 words in 8 weeks. It was a very rough draft, but it was a draft and I was able to bang it out because I had let it sit. I’m now at work on my next novel, which also came into being as a short story some 5 years ago and which I’ve been percolating for that time.
  • Dig deep, be vulnerable, be personal
  • Know when to be alone and when to collaborate
  • Deliver on the execution – while good writing won’t sell the book, bad writing could certainly be the reason an agent or editor gives it a pass.
  • Don’t imitate. Transform.

Q/A with Fonda Lee:

Q: Did you have a large social media platform that influenced publishers?

A: No, and it’s not necessary. There’s an expectation you have to have some presence. But it has little bearing on getting published. For the average author, it does not have a bearing.

Q: To what extend do tricks of the trade (a la Writers’ Digest, etc) work?

A: There is a difference between a writing workout/conditioning and actual writing. It is separate from the work itself. Don’t rely on tricks of the trade to get to a finished book.

Q: How do you develop characters?

A: Sometimes, it’s character first (Zeroboxer), plot first (Exo), or world first (Jade City). What is the spark of that idea? Then gather material around it. Ask yourself: “who would be really poorly equipped to deal with this problem?” Or “What would be the worst thing that could happen to this character?”

Q: How much world building has to be done? Every detail?

A: Identify the core of the story and the character. Which components of the world need to be developed? In Zeroboxer, it was a story about an athlete at its core. World building has to center on his experience – all the other stuff didn’t have to be as detailed. If your world feels credible, readers will extrapolate.

Q: What do you do when you’re finished with one book and haven’t started another? Do you have a writing routine?

A: I don’t believe in writing every day, but I do something creative every day. I have a parallel process. At any one time, I’m drafting the new book, revising the previous one, and ruminating on the next one. I also spend about 2-4 months of research before starting a new book for things that will go into the world.

 

 

Dialogue Tags and Filter Words

(From a lecture delivered to students in the Southern New Hampshire University online MFA program)

Image result for character dialogue

I love talking about dialogue tags and filter words. The concept is simple and making a quick change to our approach to these two things can vastly improve the quality of our writing. When I revise, I set aside one read-through just for finding, considering, and fixing dialogue tags and filter words. It’s the only thing I look at during that run-through, and often, fixing dialogue tags and filter words does so much toward the overall flow and style of the work.

Dialogue Tags

First, let’s talk about dialogue tags. As pretty much every craft book will tell you, the simplest dialogue tags are the best: I said, he said, she said. Even more importantly, across every panel of agents I’ve ever attended or interviews with agents I’ve read, the use of overly embellished dialogue tags is a core place where an agent will find a reason to say no thanks, not this one. We want to avoid those robust, meaty tags like: he squacked, she screeched, I spat, etc. We might think these kinds of dialogue tags are good, that they’re performing a showing-over-telling function, but in truth, dialogue tags like the examples above call attention to themselves rather than the dialogue they’re attempting to describe. And also, those dialogue tags call attention to themselves for what the dialogue itself is not doing – that is, if someone squacks, or bellows, or snaps, or exclaims, it should be apparent within the dialogue itself or delivered via some other more natural means.

Example: “Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped, setting the plates on the counter.

Better: “Don’t take that tone with me.” She slammed the plates on the counter and heard one somewhere in the middle give way, the crack of mishandled porcelain, the splintering of her life.

In the example above, I removed the dialogue tag entirely and allowed the dialogue to stand on its own, the emotion then underscored by the action that follows it.

This leads me to my next point, which is that as much as is possible, do away with dialogue tags entirely. For the most part, readers can follow along with the dialogue, especially if you intersperse it with actions that then remind readers of who said what. This relates to the idea of using punctuation and organization to your benefit – whatever occurs in a paragraph together, whether dialogue or action or a combination, is being said or performed by one person. A new paragraph indicates a new speaker/performer. In writing, we have a term for when we break dialogue with small actions – beats. Using beats allows you to slow the pace of the dialogue, in addition to indicating who was just speaking. They allow a pause in the speaking, which then offers your readers and your characters a moment to reflect on what has just been said. Likewise, dialogue tags can themselves be used to break up speech, thus creating emphasis on various phrases:

  • “Consider my perspective here. I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me,” he said. (speech followed by tag. All ideas presented up front and in quick succession)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag. Emphasis on perspective)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said, sliding the contract back over the table. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag including action to lengthen the speech. This moment just grew longer. Emphasis on perspective, with the action to reflect his disdain for the contract.)
  • “Consider my perspective here.” He slid the contract back over the table in one deft push. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech with no dialogue tag and only action. Same effect as above)

Consider Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” again. This story relies entirely on setting and dialogue to convey emotion. There’s not a single dialogue tag other than “he said” or “she said” and those are minimally used. Take a look at this excerpt:

“Then what will we do afterward?” [said by Jig]

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.” [said by the American]

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

So the beat occurs when the girl looks at the bead curtain. The American has just said it’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy, and Jig looks away. She’s considering this. This pause is Hemingway telling us perhaps this isn’t the only thing making them unhappy. Then, look at the sentence after she looks at the bead curtain (hint: symbolism – a divider). Because her dialogue leading up to this moment has been a series of questions, we read this one as a question too, and yet it isn’t actually a question. It’s a statement. Hemingway flips the expected punctuation mark for a period and though we read it as a question, we hit the end of that sentence and realize she’s making a statement of fact. Now, I’ve included the final two sections because I want you to look at Jig’s dialogue there: “And afterward they were all so happy.” What’s her tone there? Is she serious? No, she’s being sarcastic. She’s letting him know she’s not buying it. That it isn’t going to be that easy. Did Hemingway write “said the girl sarcastically” or “sneered the girl”? Nope. Because he trusted in the power of that dialogue to convey what he wanted to convey. And he succeeds.

Read this story thoroughly and pay attention to the use of dialogue tags. Where does Hemingway use them? Where does he do away with them?

Image result for filter images

Filter Words

Filter words are indicators of feeling or thought which put an additional layer (or filter) between the reader and the actual sensation or thought being conveyed. Rather than presenting the situation mimetically, these phrases filter the experience through the narrator or focal character’s perspective. Filter words are: felt/touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or thought, etc. Take a look at the following example:

He saw the V of geese passing across the sky. He heard them honk, a father directing his children and imagined him to be saying something like, “don’t make me turn this formation around.” He felt the cool, crispness of an October morning through the thin flannel of his sleeve. He heard a shot ring out, cracking the morning stillness. Oh heavens, he thought, surely it isn’t hunting season already. And then he heard the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

The first problem with this paragraph is that the sentences are simple and follow the same pattern – i.e. there is no variation in sentence structure (syntax). Worse, readers are not actually seeing the v of geese nor hearing them honk, nor feeling the cool air. Readers are observing the character see, hear, and feel those things. Compare:

Geese flew overhead in their V formation. The one leading them began to honk incessantly, a father scolding his children not to make him turn that formation around. The cool, crispness of the October morning seeped through the flannel of his shirt, goosebumping his skin. And then a shot rang out, cracking the morning calm. Oh heavens, surely it wasn’t hunting season already. And then followed the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

How is the experience of this paragraph different than the one above? In what ways do you feel that you yourself as the reader are more engaged in this scene, seeing it firsthand? Now, as the above indicates, we’re in close third point of view. We are delivered direct thought in the line that begins “Oh heavens.” This is the character’s actual thought, and because we are in close third, we don’t need it to be filtered, but we do need to change “isn’t” into “wasn’t” in order to keep with the narrative voice rather than direct thought.

This principle around filtering applies to first person narration as well. Compare: I held the baby up to my ear and felt for her breath on my cheek, but there was none. I placed my ear closer to her chest, listening, but heard nothing. And I felt along her jawline, palpating that tender skin, feeling, feeling. And then I felt it – a pulse. –à I held the baby up to my ear, praying for breath on my skin. Nothing. I lifted her, my ear to her chest, listening. Nothing. My fingers palpated the tender skin under her jawline, but nothing. And then there it was, soft and thready, but there. A pulse.

This is not to say you can never use those words, but you want to do so infrequently and mindfully. The key thing to remember is that whether you’re working in first person or close third, readers know that whatever information they’re being given is that which the character sees, feels, hears, smells, tastes, touches, or thinks. It’s understood. If you’re working in third person omniscient and move between different characters’ interior landscape within the same chapter, then using these kinds of filters can act as your transition point. For instance, if we’ve just been in a male perspective and then we get, “She thought about what he’d said and decided he was full of it,” then the phrase “she thought” is our transition point. You can do it with any sensation as the trigger point that we’re changing perspectives, but once you’ve indicated that transition, it’s back to avoiding them entirely.

Here are some additional resources to aid in your study of dialogue tags and filter words:

 Autocrit on Dialogue Tag Syndrome

Writer’s Digest Keys to Realistic Dialogue

Filter Words that Weaken Fiction

Filter Words on Pub(lishing)Crawl

 

Willamette Writers’ Meeting Recap – November 7th

After a busy summer and a transition into a new fall school schedule, it was so wonderful to be back in community with all of you at the Old Church on November 7th. It was also a full and vibrant meeting, with many thanks to the efforts of Kate Ristau and others who promoted our meeting and our speaker.

Normally, I have striven to get my recaps out to you within a few days’ time. This time, I found myself coming away from our meeting feeling challenged and a little frustrated, so I took some time to really parse through what those challenges were about and how I might best serve you, dear readers.

First, William Kenower is an excellent motivational speaker. He offers writers real enthusiasm for finding the joy in writing, and he eschews the idea that writers must be tortured artists, slaving over their art, splitting their souls, and constantly deprecating their own work or process. Instead, Kenower focuses on the joys that come from good days of writing, which he describes as: the words are flowing and writing becomes an act of transcribing what we’re observing as though we are flies on the wall in the world which we ourselves have created. It’s an addicting, mesmerizing, joyful, and invigorating experience. Sadly, for some writers (many? Most??) it’s not a consistent one. This is where that whole tortured-artist shtick rears its ugly head, and we have a bad day of writing: the words refuse to come, we stare at the page and wonder why we ever thought this was a good idea in the first place, and everything we even dare to put down feels stilted, stiff, and just plain wrong. That’s a bad day of writing, and for many writers, it happens too often.

So what I enjoyed about Kenower’s presentation was the way he describes these days and then offers some suggestions for why we have them. His #1 point here is that the writing becomes arduous when we allow the voice of the critic to intrude into our creative space. Most particularly, Kenower says we halt the flow when we allow this question in: “I wonder what other people will think of this?” He then said, “this question stands between every writer and their productivity and happiness.”

What I want to do first is to share a few more of Kenower’s motivational one-liners, because many of them are worth printing out and tacking up wherever you look when you need to remember why you do this:

  • Understand the questions you should be asking:
    • What do I want to say
    • How do I say it
  • Success [i.e. publication] can’t be your goal; you do it because you’re interested.
  • A book is an opportunity to have a conversation.
  • Writing requires us to indulge our curiosity.
  • Readers don’t care what happens in a novel. They care about how it makes them feel.
  • Writing is simple at its core. We complicate it. We complicate it with questions like, “do I have what it takes” and “what will someone else think of this?”
  • Confidence as an artist is an expression of your inherent awareness of equality.
  • Writers start a story; readers end it.
  • Writers aren’t trying to answer a question; writers are asking them.

Ok, those are the key things that Kenower offered as lenses through which we can see ourselves and our craft. I find them helpful in the sense that they remind me of the core truths about what we’re doing and why.

Now for the challenges. As I’ve rested and ruminated, I’ve narrowed the challenges down to two core areas. First, it is my opinion that Kenower’s general stance – that writing should be effortless and we are “truly” writing when the right words fall into place one after the other – probably only really relates to that 1% of writers for whom writing comes just that easily and naturally. There’s also a certain level of irony, you have to admit, that Kenower mentioned he’s never taken a class or read a craft book and yet he was in Portland to teach a workshop while slinging his own craft book. Clearly, there’s a lot of value in that, and I don’t mean to imply he doesn’t also value classes and books, but there’s a danger to this idea that we should only bother writing if the words are flowing, the voice of the critic is silenced, and, as he said himself, “the right story takes no effort. The right word, the right scene, the right character falls into place – effortless.” Well, my friends, if that’s how it works for you, I am overjoyed to hear it. If that’s not how it works for you, hang in there, I have a few ideas.

And this is my second challenge with this presentation. While Kenower said quite a bit that I agree with, he didn’t offer nuts and bolts ideas on what to do to get to that effortless place, or how to silence the voice after it has already intruded. I sense this is what you learn in his workshop, which I’m sure was amazing and inspiring because he is simply the kind of speaker and teacher who amazes and inspires.

So this is where I’m going to pick up that baton and offer my own thoughts about how we create good writing days and what we can do to turn those bad writing days into good ones (and yes, it is absolutely possible!).

~ Writing Through the Bad until You Get to the Good

I have to say it: I reject the idea that the only “good” writing is that which is effortless. If we all waited around until only effortless writing happened…, well, pull up a chair and I’ll make us a couple gallons of tea. A Good Writing Day doesn’t only happen when the words place themselves in the “right” order right away, and I unequivocally believe that if you hold onto that ideal, you’re going to have even more bad days than you already do. We can push through and make it a good writing day, and this is part of the work it takes to be a good writer. If the words aren’t coming, just keep placing them one in front of the other. Tell the voice of the critic to shove off and remind both of you that where real writing happens is during revision. So yeah, I put words down knowing they’re wrong, but I remind myself that what I’ve just written is completely alterable. Nothing is written on stone here. Additionally, what I’ve discovered is that if I force myself to sit at my chair and keep putting one word after another, then eventually (and usually within 500-700 words, so we’re not talking a lifetime here), the “right” words will come. All of a sudden, the character will take a turn down an alley, or get in a car, or pick up the phone – things I didn’t plan for or realize were about to happen – but once it does, I’m off and rolling. The character has finally taken up space once more to do the things he or she wants to do, and I can become the transcribing observer. Most of my writing days look like this, and they can be just as joyful and satisfying as the effortless ones. In fact, I would say more so, because I also have the satisfaction of knowing that I persevered, I allowed resilience to rule over despair, and I proved to myself once again that I really can do the work I feel called to do.

  • Tip: Find a way of indicating to yourself that you want to revisit a word or passage for future revision. I like to put “thes.”for thesaurus after a word I want to find a synonym for. I put [rework] at the end of paragraphs that need some serious reframing. The point is – I put words on the page, and revision is where I’m going to shape them up. The key thing? I’m not waiting to get it right; I mark where it needs work and I move on.

 

Writerly Activities Other Than Writing

Let’s face it, those days when the words simply refuse to come are going to happen. I don’t recommend you always force yourself through it because you may end up so distraught, you do something drastic. I’ve tossed a number of novel and short story seedlings because I reached a point when I was so disgusted with them, I threw them out! There’s a point when we have to walk away and console ourselves that the words/the muse will come back another day. And we have to remember that being a writer is not just about writing. There’s a whole slew of other things we can do to maintain the core of our writerly being.

 

~ Read a Craft Book

One of the things I found particularly difficult to digest was when Kenower said that while taking classes and reading craft books can be helpful, you should just write because by writing and writing and writing, you learn to be a writer. Again, I reject this was a capital “R.” Again, this is advice that is applicable to the 1% of writers who are going to write a good story no matter what, for whom their hands become the mouth of the muse. It’s not a good strategy for the rest of us. The problem: you’re writing in a vacuum; you’re writing for an audience of one; you are, essentially, journaling. The result: you end up perpetuating really bad writing habits, and as anyone who has ever tried to kick a habit knows, they are nefarious, niggling, and self-excusing little things. Someone who is not taking classes or reading craft books is going to spend many years writing unpublishable material because that individual is never going to realize that adverbs are anathema (you know, except for in this blog), that stories can’t and shouldn’t be told solely through exposition, that world-building cannot look like a list of the magical or nuanced elements of a fantastical setting, and so on. These are things you learn from craft books and from other writers, even from a writing group if not a workshop or class, but which is very difficult to learn on your own. So there’s my stance on that.

But here’s what else I’ve found about maintaining a constant flow of craft books: They Inspire Me! – oh boy do they ever! When I read craft books, all sorts of ideas pop to mind, whether it’s revising something I’ve written or generating new content. I’ll read another writer’s ideas about how to work with this or that literary device, and I’ll have an aha! moment about how I can fix a section that was giving me trouble. An idea inspired from a craft book can lead me to that place of effortless writing. And of course, I’m also honing in on the things I can do to make my own writing stand out above the rest because ultimately, I do want to publish – not because I crave that kind of success – but because I am a storyteller, and I want to offer my own community of readers the same joys that I have and continue to garner from those whom I read.

~ Keep a Book or List of Writing Prompts

While you may have wanted to sit down and write on this one particular project, it may be the case that it’s just not going to happen on this one day. That doesn’t mean you can’t still write. Pull out a writing prompt and just let yourself play with words. Even if it isn’t with your current project, you’re still practicing the art of words-on-the-page, and that will naturally inform your writing in positive ways. Here’s one I offered to my writer’s group, and while it had nothing to do with anything any of us were writing on, a couple members said it unlocked some ideas:

  • A woman (or your character of choice) digging in her gardenuncovers a sealed, ancient box. (From The Writer’s Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction)

There are a number of websites that offer daily writing prompts, as well, so you don’t have to go buy a book. You can find them in places such as Poets & Writers.

~ Read

One of the best things you can do as a writer is to read. If you’re stuck with the project you’re working on, read within the same genre or work that is tonally-similar to your own project. Just recently, I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, a collection of stories, and only because I happen to love her writing. All of a sudden, I put her book down, went to my desk, and wrote 2,000 words on a story I’d started years ago. The tone of Strout’s stories and the everydayness of her characters clicked something over in my mind, even though the story I’m working on has magical realism elements to it and is otherwise not related at all to the story I was reading at the time. Reading works that exemplify what you yourself are trying to do is a wonderful way to stay motivated. In addition, you will naturally build your own craft by reading and closely focusing on what makes that writing so compelling. For help with that, you might like Francince Prose’s craft book Reading like a Writer or Mike Bunn’s article “How to Read like a Writer.”

~ Write a Blog

This idea harkens back to the one offered by Tex Thompson at her appearance in the summer, where she also offered that we find our audience by writing about the things we love, because those things likely make a fairly large appearance in our writing. I write this blog because I enjoy writing about writing, and I feel that this is something I can offer the community. I also love Jane Austen, and I have a blog idea brewing for that as well. What do you love? What are you thinking about or researching when you’re not writing? Think about how you can use your writer’s platform as a place to generate more writing content. Again, you’re writing à you’re practicing the skills. Right here, I’ve written 2,000+ words, and it has felt joyful, and that is a very good day for me. (And I’ve also been thinking the whole time about you, dear reader, and what I want to offer you and why).

~ Find an Inspiring Activity

And this final idea is where I diverge from writing-focused activities. Sometimes, what you need is to clear your head. Identify an activity that has also been inspiring for you in the past. For me, it’s walking. I often set a goal when I go for a walk, something like, “write down 3 scene ideas before you get back.” And while I tell myself I’m not allowed to return home until I have those ideas, I usually find that within a couple blocks, I’ve written my 3 scene ideas and a couple more follow after. Right in that moment, I’ve fed my writing practice for the next few days or even a week. Another time, I spoke out loud an entire scene, saying it over and over again, revising it, until I got home and wrote it down. Not only that scene, but about 1,000 more words. What can you do? And remember it has to be an activity that occupies your body but not your mind. Exercising in general is good (plus it’s just good for you, so win-win!), weeding or gardening, knitting, taking a shower or bath, etc.

 

So here’s where I want to end: while we’re all striving for those perfect, effortless days of writing, don’t let that be your only goal. Don’t let it become the perfect nexus into which you believe you must fall before you can write. Because if you do, you may find it a very long time before you hit another good day. I believe that the myth of effortless writing can be just as damaging to your productivity as worrying about what other people are thinking. And I’ll offer this as well, part of what makes a good day of writing good for me is realizing that not only have I fallen completely into the world, but that I’ve created a world which will be fun and engaging for my readers. There is a place where we can feel joyful and inspired by thinking about our readers, but I do agree that when we allow it to come from a critical place, a place of judgement and censor, that is not productive.

I want to end by saying that while I don’t agree with some of Kenower’s points, I also only got the opportunity to spend 45 minutes with him. Had I not already made plans with my wife to get away while the in-laws kept our 5-year old from burning down the house, I would have immediately signed up for his Fearless Writing Workshop held at TaborSpace. While we didn’t necessarily get nuts-and-bolts advice for turning bad writing days to good at our meeting, I have every confidence that William Kenower offers them in his book and his workshop. If anyone who took the class or has read his book would like to add those suggestions, feel free to do so in the comments section. I hope these ideas from my own writing practice unlock some additional strategies for you. Because really, we’re all a family in this crazy thing we’re doing together, and why not share around some of the things we do to turn our bad days into good?

Willamette Writers Meeting with Tex Thompson – June 6th

    The June 6th Willamette Writers meeting was a wonderful time to be in community with one of my very favorite presenters from last year’s conference, Tex Thompson. Tex is a one-woman community, as paradoxical as that phrase might sound. From the moment she stepped on stage, she had the audience riveted, chuckling along to her witty humor and self-deprecating jokes. If anything rang true about that presentation, it was that Tex is someone you want on your side, and fortunately, she already is.

The presentation focused on how writers can promote and market themselves, a topic that has become more and more important as the entire publishing landscape shifts into an entirely different geography (think west of I-5 after “the big one,” that’s what’s going on here). From start to finish, writers have to be more aware than ever about what it is they’re writing, who it appeals to, why, and how this work can get to that audience. Teams of marketing agents no longer do all the work to promote your book; more and more often, the writer must take ownership of these aspects of publishing.

Tex did not tramp the same old tropes normally tossed around at seminars like these – i.e. develop your presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Rather, Tex gave the audience a formula for understanding our work in relation to the other passions of our lives, providing exercises that reinforce just how pervasive our passions are. And pervasive is a good thing because if you’re a fan of Firefly – like Tex is and as I am and as many others in that room and thousands more in this city and hundreds of thousands more are across this country (and that’s a vast understatement), then you already have your “in”. You have your way to relate what you’ve created, which may have some Firefly-esque themes, to others who would want to read it.

She also provided us a few nuts and bolts of what we can do in regards to self-promotion that doesn’t follow what you’ve heard already. Take your passions and write about them. Create a blog. Submit a magazine article. Write a review and post it on Goodreads (you were going to read that book anyway, right? Why not write a review about it and maybe get a few followers?). Some other ideas took me by surprise: organize an event. Sponsor a contest or fellowship. Create a group around what you’re passionate for. You get the idea – self-promotion does not have to be all about me, this book, me, this story, me…while your listener begins to stare off into space, eyes glazing as she mentally calculates just how far she can get away from you and how fast. Self-promotion can be all about doing the things you love, sharing them in a variety of ways, and building community with and for people who are your built-in audience.

Tex provided a road-map to the logline we can shoot out to an agent, and not surprisingly, it follows very closely the formula DongWon Song shared in his seminar a few months back: “My work will appeal to fans of X, written in the style of Y.” Also key, make sure your book comps come from within the past 5 years because agents or publishers want to know that you know what’s going on outside the little “word cave” you otherwise hole yourself up in.

The seminar wasn’t all fun and games, though, which is to say that it was all fun, but Tex doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of this life we’ve committed ourselves to. She just piles enough humor on top to make them palatable. Did you know that 80% of published books are considered financial failures? That most books don’t even earn back the advances given to authors? I didn’t. But Tex said this, and I put a star by it in my notebook, “Success can’t be guaranteed. Let it be a byproduct of living a life you’re proud of.”

While you may never schmooze your way to the best-seller list or find yourself giving an interview to Terri Gross or accepting a Pulitzer, you can still do what you love, love doing it for as long as it’s good, and perhaps a little bit of success will find you along the way.

Now for the best part – Tex will be at our very own Willamette Writers’ Conference and I can already tell you I’ll be there, front and center, and I may even bust out my cowboy boots for fun.

Willamette Writers – April 4 Recap: Why Your Characters Do What They Do by Jessica Morrell

On Tuesday evening, Willamette Writers hosted author and editor Jessica Morrell. Having seen Jessica present at the 2016 Willamette Writers Conference: Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 1, I can tell you she is an amazing presenter who provides an absolute wealth of information in a speck of time. She is truly a gift to the writing community and an exemplar of what I believe it means to be a good literary citizen. To decide for yourself, just check out her blog here and see how much information she shares with writers about craft, the writing life, publishing and more: Jessica Morrell

Now, if you have taken a workshop with Jessica, then you know that her presentations are bursting with information, so much so that were I to attempt to note it all down in the scant hour we had with her, I would be dealing with a hand cramp of epic proportions! So.

What I will present are the highlights from her presentation, along with a slide of some of the questions we should all be asking about our characters to ensure that each character in our novel (yup, I said “each”) has a believable and intrinsic set of motivations and goals.

First, all characters must have a reason for being in your story. They must perform some duty to the narrative arc. Jessica shared that she so often comes across characters in her clients’ novels that seem to be running around rather aimlessly, where they either don’t have goals at all, their goals are “goofy,” or the stakes of the story don’t match the goals.

Jessica made a key point that nearly all the answers of why characters do what they do links back to structure. For more on structure, take a look at Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 2 and Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 3 to read what Larry Brooks and Eric Witchey both have to say about structure and its importance in our novels – also amazing literary citizens.

Here are Jessica’s Motivation Basics. Motivations must:

  • be easy to understand; not easy to achieve
  • be shown in actions and move the story forward
  • become more complex and personal as story progresses
  • showcase the protagonist’s core traits
  • reveal the protagonist’s fears
  • exact a cost as the story progresses – your protagonist must always sacrifice something
  • create a catharsis at the climax

We also have Levels of Motivation:

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • External – tangible, visible, fuels story, creates action
  • Internal
  • Personal
  • Public

As we see with the above, each motivation must have two sides, the side that is shown to the world of the story – i.e. the other characters – and the side that is available to the protagonist and reader alone. Clearly, quite a bit of tension can exist in the space between a protagonist’s apparent external motivators and his/her internal motivators actually are. Imagine this like a tight wire stretching between the two, your main character balancing as he/she walks back and forth. Whole novels have been built on the tension between what a character says they want, and what they actually want.

Now, here’s the slide with the questions you should be asking yourself about your characters’ motivations:

slideshow

This covers some of the key points from Jessica’s very full presentation. And while there was quite a bit of information covered, it all boils down to this one thing: motivations – they are a must for your story to have any lift. Without a clear motivation and goal, readers don’t know what or who to root for, and if we don’t know what’s at stake, then there’s nothing at stake for us in reading it.

Again, please visit Jessica’s website through the link above. It is well worth a visit on a regular basis and she also intends to post more of the material from her Willamette Writers lecture on her site in the coming weeks.

Onwards, Writers!

Willamette Writers’ Meeting – Feb.7th: Leading a Literary Life with Kevin Sampsell and Monica Drake

This month’s meeting touches on a subject close to my own heart – leading a literary life. And it’s very important cousin – being a good literary citizen. Being a good literary citizen is all about supporting other writers, buying their books, going to their readings, and cheering on the successes of each of our counterparts while working toward our own literary goals.

The evening began with readings from both authors. Monica Drake read from a non-fiction work-in-progress, and Kevin Sampsell read his short short “Gloves” from his short story collection.

Next, Kevin led a discussion with Monica regarding the literary life. Both authors agreed that good writers must do these four things: Read – A LOT; Be around other writers; Go to Readings; and Participate in a literary community. Interestingly, another key aspect of being a writer is having plenty of things in your life that have nothing at all to do with writing. See Lorrie Moore’s story “How to be a Writer”for more. As Monica explained, her life was full of all kinds of random jobs – animal behavior intern at the zoo, art gallery employee, office worker, clown (which directly influenced her novel Clown Girl) and more. Because of this rich range of job experiences, she can pull various details that lend her characters believability and authenticity. This mirrors advice I once received from Portland author Vanessa Veselka, who said every writer must give him or herself permission to not write – i.e. to do other things that build the experiences that inform our writing. For instance, Vanessa once took off some number of months to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. She’s also a Kung Fu badass. She gives herself permission to take weeks and months away from the page to do the things that interest and intrigue her. And of course, that time ends up generating rich work.

As regards education, each author had very different experiences, with Monica completing a more traditional graduate program through University of Arizona, while Kevin said he taught himself to write through reading. Monica also got her start with Tom Spanbauer’s class, now titled Dangerous Writing. In general, writing workshops can be key to keeping a writer motivated, staying connected to a literary community, and finding support in that community. To that end, here are some additional links to workshops here in Portland that I have been part of and can highly recommend:

Willamette Writers’ Workshops

Literary Arts Writing Classes

The Attic

Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop

In addition, community colleges around Portland offer a range of writing classes that are economical and a great opportunity for developing work. My current writing group came out of a Literary Arts class and I have been in other writing groups formed after Attic workshops and PCC community ed workshops.

Now, let’s cover the Q & A portion:

Q: Monica, how did you complete and assemble your story collection The Folly of Loving Life?

A: The stories were written over 20 years, created intermittently while Monica wrote Clown Girl and The Stud Book. The publishers of her two novels as well as her agent dismissed the idea of a collection out of hand, but Kevin once said, “hey, do you have a short story collection?” At that point, Monica explained that she took all her short stories and laid them out on the dining room table. She looked for cohesive elements and themes, and once identified, pulled out the stories that didn’t seem to connect with that linking element. She felt drawn toward connecting and linking her story collection with a narrative arc, something she said isn’t always necessary for story collections to be successful, but which she felt was important for this particular collection. Once she had her core set of stories, she then developed a few additional stories that further enhanced and linked the stories, making revisions to previous work to also improve the linking between them. She explained that it took somewhere around 1-2 years from when Kevin first suggested a collection to when it came out in print.

Q: What are the advantages of publishing with the Big 5?

A: Money. Monica explained that in her experience with Hawthorne Books and Kevin’s press Future Tense Books, small presses do as good of a job with editing, cover art, etc. – i.e. all the smaller steps of publishing a book – as the large publishers. She said, “ultimately, you’re going to make your money in different ways,” but that each writer has to decide what “success” means to him or her. Thus, you should determine where to submit based on what your desired outcomes are. For more help finding local, small presses, take a look at Literary Arts’ Guide to Small Presses and Magazines. You can find some helpful information about the 10 biggest small presses here: Lit Reactor’s 10 Portland Press Powerhouses.

Q: How much of what you write is what you’ve lived versus researched?

A: Both authors expressed that the majority of what they write comes from personal experience. Kevin said he will do plenty of research into topics that he’s passionate about, such as collage art, and when it’s a topic you love, it’s not as hard to do the research. As mentioned before, Monica’s research has largely been her own life and experiences. As we’ve all experienced, a fair amount of fiction writing is speculation, but those speculations are still drawn from what we believe we might think or feel in a given situation, even if we haven’t directly experienced it. Here, I’ll insert my own two cents based on the novel I’m currently trying to find an agent for, which is mainly set in Bath, UK in 1804 and heavily involves the life of Jane Austen. Because I was already a rabid Jane Austen fan, I didn’t need to do much research, and the research I did have to do was just more of the kind of reading I do for fun. This goes back to that adage: write what you know. (Yes, yes, there’s plenty in that other camp that say write what you don’t know, but you can find their blogs and read them later ) And I would suggest that writers choose topics that they are already drawn to. That is, don’t write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you think it’s a cool idea. Write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you also happen to be a nerd for the Napoleonic Era outside of your life as a writer. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through research that you otherwise couldn’t give two figs about.

Q: What are your thoughts on publishing online while attempting to find other publishers?

(Here, I think the questioner was asking if we should self-publish our books, such as through kindle or Nook, while also looking for a traditional publisher. If this is the case, then what I’ve discovered in my own research is: DON’T DO IT! At least not if you ever want to see your book in print. Many book publishers won’t come near a book that has already been published online. And yes, there’s those outliers who were discovered through self-published books and then given a huge book deal, but we’re talking lottery chances here. For more on this, read my post below as Dong Won Song addressed this very question. As regards short fiction, poetry, and essays –  the same applies. My experience is that when a journal asked for previously unpublished work, this includes your blog or website; they want work that has never appeared anywhere before.)

A: Publishing online is the way to go these days. Ten to fifteen years ago, there was a stigma around online publishing, as if it weren’t as legitimate as print publications. Both Monica and Kevin expressed that this stigma is largely done away with since online publications get much more traffic and can be much more easily shared than their print counterparts. Online publications are especially key for poets, short story writers, and essayists/creative non-fiction writers to get their name established. They tend to be more open to new voices than print publishers, as well. Monica suggested Long Reads as a journal that accepts longer form works, which often have a hard time finding a home online. For more on both online and print publishers, see my posts: Resources for Writers: Print and Online Literary Journal Databases

Q: What is your process for getting in the creative mood?

A: Monica shared that because she’s balancing so many responsibilities between parenting, teaching, and writing, she often stores quite a bit of material in her head and when she has a moment to write it down, she’ll do that. She also expressed that having a deadline, such as the Willamette Writers’ meeting that very night, can be key to getting the writing going. In fact, the piece she read for us was written that day for this particular meeting. Most writers agree that deadlines can be key to productivity, and this is another reason why being part of a critique group or signing up for a workshop can generate work.

Kevin also expressed that he has no set schedule. He balances two full-time jobs between his work at Powell’s and his press, and is also a collage artist, so he doesn’t always have a lot of time for writing. However, on his days off, he’ll set aside 2-8 hours to dedicate to his writing. Kevin also shared that he’s a very careful writer and will spend a long time thinking about the words before putting them on the page. The benefits are that the words tend to come out just as he wants them, with little revision necessary. He also expressed that his novel came out very quickly – written in about 2 years. He said that snippets and pieces would come to him and he’d bang out 1-2 pages in the 10 minutes before bed, accumulating a novel through that process.

Q: What advice would you give to those who want to seek work in the world of publishing?

A: Kevin fielded this question as a publisher, saying that there are many tracks to entering publishing. One could do the traditional thing and move to New York and work one’s way up from reading slush, but that success could be found in other avenues. For instance, in his work at Powell’s, he’s seen people start as cashiers, get promoted over a section, become the buyer for that section, and then move into the role of buyer for a large publisher. Great experience can be had working in bookstores, small presses, and magazines. Finally, he said, you could always start your own press. Future Tense Books began as Kevin’s endeavor to see his own work in print, and then writers would come to him and say, “can you help me get my book out?” This then led to being a publisher now listed on Lit Reactor’s site as the first small press publisher of note in Portland.

This concludes our evening with Monica and Kevin. Many thanks to these writers for sharing their experiences and wisdom. If anyone feels I’ve captured something incorrectly or missed a key detail, please add it to the comments section.