At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fictional Style (You Need This)

You can write, fine.  But if you want to be a published fiction writer, you must find your way to a fictional style of writing.  What’s this thing–fictional style?  It’s a way of writing that employs the techniques of fiction for the goal of “streaming” (modern metaphor) your story to the reader. And there’s a big difference between basic writing and “streaming.” 

Below is a paragraph from a young writer in high school.  He wrote a novel, and his teacher (bless her) reached out to me.  “Now what?” she asked.  When I had a moment I took a look and  saw a few things immediately.  First, the kid has the desire to write.  He wrote a damn novel–that’s an achievement.  But it’s “written”, not streamed.  So the biggest thing this young writer can do is work on his fictional style.

Student excerpt: 

            He ran as fast as he could. He didn't think he had run this fast in a long time. He could hear the gun shots ringing out. He even anticipated a few, dodging behind rocks and other debris that could save him. The sun was beating down hard on him. Out of habit his gaze went momentarily towards his watch. It was one thirty five in the afternoon.   "Not that late," he thought aloud. Just then a bullet whizzed by his head and another blasted a rock by his foot. In response he grabbed the revolver that was resting at his side and the crossbow that was slung over his back. Turning around, Arcsen, now running backwards, aimed his two weapons, and fired. The pistol only hit one of his pursuers in the shoulder. The bolt, however, hit its mark.

My rewrite:

            He ran. Gun shots pinged as he dodged behind rocks, debris, anything that could save him. The sun hammered down–he found a moment to look at his watch–it was one thirty-five in the afternoon.
            “Not that late,” he breathed.  A bullet hissed passed his head.  Another blew up a rock near his foot.  He grabbed his revolver from his holster, and snatched his crossbow slung over his back.  Turning, he ran backwards as he aimed his weapons and fired.  His pistol shot blew skin from a pursuer’s shoulder–he went down.  The bolt missed its mark….

My Comments for him: 
            “You story has everything you need, but your goal now should be toward a stronger fictional style.  This means “showing” as opposed to telling/explaining.  That is, try to eliminate all topic sentence generalities in favor of tightly described action—just the action, and action that avoids clichés such as “the bullet whizzed.”   Also try to eliminate all weak verb constructions such as “was running” (use “ran”) and most all adverbs.  Adverbs often end in ‘ly—kill those suckers.  In short, learning fictional style is a matter of practice, practice, practice—plus laying your prose alongside that of a published writer, and examining how the two examples are different.  I can’t take time to read your whole manuscript; I get a LOT of requests for such editing, and if I did them all, I’d never write again.  Your job now is to take a close look at your fictional style. I hope my brief re-write example will be useful in that regard.

Good Luck"

(P.S.  The student wrote back, all excited, and said, “I’m on it!”)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hitting Refresh

People write for many different reasons.  Those reasons all fall under the umbrella of "need."  A Need to write. A Need to say something that other people will hear. So where does the Need come from? The call we hear in the present moment likely has deep roots. Events, people, incidents, "stuff" in our past, taken altogether, poke us, prod us–require us to speak up. Speak out.  I don't necessarily mean trauma, though trauma is often a strong trigger for writing.

Where Need to write does not come from is here.  Blogs. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. Tumblr and a hundred other social media, informationally overloaded, time-sucking pleasures of the internet.  Cumulatively, the effect of our time spent online is dilute our Need to write. A dilatory effect. The more time we spend online, the more we are absorbed into the monolith of Cumulative Thought–Group Think–at the expense of our inner, unique selves.  The more we post and comment and share, the more of ourselves we give away–all at the expense of our own truths. Our own secret, individual voice.  Our unique vision of the world, the one that looks out through our eye holes.

Yet we all have an online life.  It's almost impossible not to.  That being the case, my argument is simple:  we all need to hit "Refresh" on occasion.  We need to try to find our way back to those events, feelings, and images that shaped us in the first place.

For example, I grew up on a farm, and so landscape is a key part of my identity.  Fields, machinery, harvesting, the company of men, group labor ("many hands").  But gradually, from a career of teaching and writing, I became a "town guy."  An urban person.  Steadily, over the years, I necessarily left behind all the "stuff" that had shaped me, but with a gradually deleterious effect. Enough so that that the occasional objective correlative (T. S. Elliot)–the sound of a tractor, or a smell of freshly mown alfalfa, or a man's cap cocked at a particular angle (my Uncle Earl)–became dizzying. As if, for a moment, I didn't know where or who I was.  When that happens nowadays, I know it's time to hit "Refresh."  To get back in touch, however I can, with my original, inner self.

This week I will head up to serious, big-farm country in northwestern Minnesota for the "beet" harvest.  Sugar beets, that is.  I'll stay a few days with a farm family, and ride in the harvesters, and drive a beet truck, and eat a long table with the other workers, men and women.  It's the life I had to let go of in order to write well about it, but a life I greatly miss at times.  The critic and short story Frank O'Connor coined the phrase "submerged population."  He meant the people, usually from our past, who were authentic, unselfconscious, non-homogenized, and "real."  His point was that we need to stay in touch with them and with other "true" bulwarks of our lives.  Our online life might churn us through the great washing machine of wired culture, but we have all a secret stash of memories that belong to us alone.

A serendipitous coda to this post: the mail just came, including the new New Yorker magazine.  In a cartoon, one character says to  another, "I spend too much time promoting myself, and not enough time being myself."

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Cultural Appropriation" and Fiction Writing

I've been hearing about his issue from younger writers in the trenches of college writing programs, and in their encounters with "progressive" editors and agents.  But personally I've been ignoring it in hopes that it will go away.  I've been ignoring the issue of "cultural appropriation" for same way reason I try not to use the name D***** T*****: talking about him gives him credence.  Legitimacy.  Hey, if we fiction writers can't use our imaginations to cross boundaries and create characters unlike ourselves, we're doomed as a species.  But the issue doesn't seem to going away away. A recent New York  Times op-ed piece by Lionel Shriver (9/23/16) has generated a lot of buzz.  Here's her piece:   

And below is part of two letters to the NYT in reply:

"No one is saying Ms. Shriver should be put in jail or that it should be illegal to publish a book she writes from the perspective of an oppressed person of color or some other position about which she can have little personal experience. In the same vein, it shouldn’t be illegal for me to post an article about how that reflects on her, and suggesting that other people join me in not reading it...."  Uma  B. Gaffney

 "If the great evolutionary triumph of our species is the capacity to reason and understand, then for millennials to define themselves strictly in terms of their race, age, gender or ethnicity is to be forever stranded on a smaller planet. When we allow anyone of any age to police our imaginations, to condemn us to writing plays, poems and novels only about people like ourselves, then we’re doomed as artists and humanists. The best thing about our capacity for abstract thinking is that it allows us to imagine what it’s like to be someone else (saint or sinner), and might help us become more empathetic...."  Fengar Gael

My take?  (Sorry, can't shed the highlight).  The first letter is dripping with assumptions and "correctness" if not literary fascism. The second is quite a nice counter. All the writers I know personally are quite sensitive to the issue cultural appropriation.  We're simply not going to do it if it's a bridge too far, that is, if we don't have deep personal experience and knowledge about the subject at hand.  We have to earn the right to write the character very different than ourselves.  And if we've done our work–deep, sincere, empathetic immersion in which we imagine the inner and out life of the character–then we should have at it.  After all, in the business of fiction writing the rules are made to be broken.

Postscript:  here's breaking news/response to the issue of cultural appropriation:

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Syntax-focused Revision (Writing Tip #927)

Okay.  Say you've got a good draft of a short story or a chapter, and now it's time for revision.  Revision should cover a bunch of areas.  Let's lay out an obvious one, and one that's a little more slippery.

• Description
Is  there enough?  Too much?  The goal is have just crisp, clear description in order to set the scene in the reader's head–they can "see it."  Ah, but that's not enough.  Yes we need to see, but we also need to hear, smell, taste, and maybe touch it.  Or feel like we could.  One aspect of revision, then, should be you re-examining the quality of your descriptive writing.  First drafts are often plot-driven and a bit thin in terms of the writing . In revision you can make sure you use, with reason, a fuller range of imagery.  We have five senses.  Use all that seem appropriate for the scene at hand.  Make it "real." Make your scene play like a little movie in the reader's head.  Good description can do that.

This is a trickier area of revision.  It asks you to take a very close look at your prose, your sentences.  "Syntax," defined, often has a lot of mumbo-jumbo about "the rules of orderly grammatical constructions."  For example, the main order of sentence  is Subject + Verb + Object.  Okay, we get that. But a better way to understand syntax is think of the order of your phrases and clauses.  Below, is an example sentence from a chapter I just broke away from (my new novel):

1. "He became more flamboyant after his mother died, and his wild parties–for men only– were the talk of the town."

Okay.  A solid sentence.  Character development and conflict moving forward.  But I kept thinking there was something slightly wrong with the sentence.  So I revised its syntax:

2.  "After his mother died he became more flamboyant, and his wild parties–for men only– were the talk of the town. 
Aha.  What was amiss in #1 is what I might call Syntactical Chronology. That is, the order of the ongoing phrases.  In your writing, do your phrases move forward in logical chronology?  Or are they inverted or in some way out of causal order?  In my #2, the mother dies and because of this, he becomes more flamboyant–which is really what I want to convey.  I also think #2 has a slightly smoother flow, plus places a potential "black-hole word"* in the middle of the sentence, thereby lessening its potential to detract from the overall message of the sentence, which is "talk of the town."  

Geeky stuff here.  Revision-as-brain-surgery.  But if your short story or novel has its syntax well-thought out and well-revised, your prose will have a subtle but felt effect as being better than the other submissions–those in which writers have not fully considered syntax.  

*Black-hole word:  a diction choice, by its nature of being dramatic or colorful, that can suck away all the attention from the rest of the sentence. (My term, thank you very much.)  The goal is to have blended diction in which no one word dominates the sentence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What's In A Name?

No, this is not about your novel's title (though titles are fun to talk about–let's do that soon).  Rather, I've renamed my blog.

"Write Right" always nagged at me, because it suggests there's one way. One correct way, that is, to write.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  So let's use IN THE WRITE.  Because that's what this blog really wants to do–get you inside the conversation about writing and the writing life.

For example, and real topic of this post: once you publish a novel or two, you start to get invitations to come and say something about it. Let's call this your Public Life as a Writer.

Invitations to speak span a range from small book clubs in living rooms to keynoting a library convention or giving a commencement address (if you've generated some serious attention) .  But most will fall somewhere in the middle.  Like my visit yesterday to Winona State University in southeastern Minnesota.

I met an afternoon Intro to Creative Writing class, with about twenty-five students and their lively, pony-tailed English professor, Dr. James Armstrong. A school visit is only as good as the students' preparation, and Jim had them ready.  They'd read all the short stories in my SWEET LAND collection, and were packing with "three questions" each.  I didn't get to all of the questions, but many, and we had a good class.  One of the students, a guy, lingered afterward, and said he hadn't expected to like some of my "farm stories," because he had no background in any way in terms of farming. However, he said I had made some of the stories "living things" that kept him reading. "Living things!"  How cool is that as a descriptor of what we authors should aspire to with everything piece we write!  I thought it was a deeply insightful comment about literature and writing, and told him so.

Then, later in the afternoon I did an on-campus reading for about fifty folks, students and community members.  The time (5 p.m) was a bit awkward, as people's biorhythms late in the day are on the wane (I know mine are). And that matter itself–the time of your gig– is yet another part of your challenge as a performing writer: you've got to consider the needs of your audience.  I've developed a habit of picking 2-3 reading options, then, upon seeing the audience in their seats, making a choice at the last minute.  It's a bit risky, but I've made it work.

In this case, I read two shorter pieces, one older, one new.  The older piece was my short story, "Dispersal," about a very sad farm auction. In it there's an auctioneer, and his voice affords me the opportunity to mimic his "crying of the lot" (riffing here on a Thomas Pynchon title), and punch up my reading.

 I talked a little between selections; excused, as promised, students who saw me earlier in class (they were dragging); came down off the podium to make the reading more of conversation; then tried to finish strong once again at the mic. I wrapped up by reading my introduction to a new anthology, TAKING AIM: GUNS IN AMERICA (HarperCollins).  It's controversial piece (things with guns have to get way worse before they will get better).  But remember: as a writer your first job is to get people's attention. After that it's to push them to think–about their lives, their ideas, their values.  If you can do that, you've had a successful reading.

You have fulfilled that tricky, complicated, public side of being an author.  Ideally you've made it look easy, left some good ideas and energy in your wake, and returned home ever more committed to the writing life.

P.S. Here's a link to that guns anthology.  Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Dean Myers, and more top authors.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

But Is It Worth Writing About?

A quote from Orson Scott Card:  "Everybody walks past a thousand stories every day.  The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.  Most people don't see any."

Exaggerations aside, you can see what he's saying, and there's lots of truth to it. It's writers who, as Flannery O'Connor said,"look twice and three times" at something, because they instinctively feel that whatever has caught their attention, has meaning. Then it's question of:  what's the story behind it?

That "most people don't see any" story is a bit harsh.  Non-writers see meaning (heartbreak, joy, humor) in life around them, too, but most don't know what to do with it.  Writers have a leg up in this matter, but we have decisions to make.  For example, let's say we see something, read something, or overhear a snippet of conversation that clearly has something very interesting behind it. But now we have a choice before us:  is it really worth writing about?

I've blogged a bit about this matter before, but an idea is different than a Story.  An idea catches the attention of our brain; a Story tugs at our heart.  An idea engages our analytical side; a "true" Story engages our emotions. The better the story, the more deeply our emotional reaction to its possibilities.

That, in a nutshell, is a good test to employ when judging whether to commit to a new writing project.  Is what you have mainly an idea?  Or is it a real, deeply felt human story that needs to be told?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Novel Writing: The Slog Through The Middle Part

Pretty sure it was Margaret Atwood who said, generally:  "Writing the opening chapters is exciting.  Writing the last chapters is an exhilarating rush to the end. It's the middle part that's hard."

If you look closely, you'll see that she's divided the novel into a three-part structure--which is pretty much the way screen plays are written.  In fact, pretty much like ALL mainstream movie plots are structured.  So we're looking at "Trouble" in act one.  "Trouble With A Capital 'T'" in act two.  And "Trouble Resolved/Ended"  in act three.  So it probably behooves the novel writer to pump the plot jam in the middle part (second part) in order to sustain interest–anything to get us to the last part where the real action (the Big Fight, the Resolution) happens.

It also happens that I'm talking to myself here, talking myself through a middle part of a big fat novel of the Midwest for adults.  Hey, it's high time:  Red Earth, White Earth came out thirty years ago. (You can see that I try not to be hard on trees).   During that time I've been largely answering an internal bell to keep young people, boys especially, reading.  My novels for grades 6-12 have taken me on a wonderful ride, but it's nice to be back in the middle of seriously adult matters. And a novel the structure of which is challenging me to the max, mainly because I've broken a main tenet of my advice to younger, would-be novel writers.

• Cover the least amount of time possible.  That is, make life easy on yourself by limiting the time span in your novel. A year?  A summer?  Even, better, why not a week?  (Or, like James Joyce, one day in Dublin.)

So in my big fat, multigenerational novel, I'm covering the 1890's to 2015. (Do as I say, not as I do.) It's not like I can't succeed at that, but to do so, I have to find creative narrative solutions to small matters such Point of View, Protagonist (who is it, really?). Those small matters. . . .

But hey, solving literary problems is what writers do.  Every novel is its own puzzle, and I'm happy to see–I think–that my pieces are fitting together.

Wish I could say more about this new novel, but it's a great jinx to talk about your work in progress. That advice I'm sticking with.