Tag Archives: Novel

Writing is Looking Back and Moving Forward

Goodbye summer.

This week, I return to my day job after a summer-long hiatus. I don’t like change, so even a slight shake-up of routine sent me straight to my journal the other day.

As I scribbled down all my anxieties, I realized that the entry I wrote was all too similar to the one I wrote in May – when my day job ended and my summer promised two kids at home – all day – and absolutely no routine. The list from May to August differed in a few details, but the big question remained the same: When will I find time to write?

One thing’s for sure, I’m a consistent worrier.

It’s the endless plight of any writer with a day job or a mother writer with kids. What I’ve found though – in looking back on the last few months – is that as much as I worry about not having time to write, I still end up with a stack of essays and stories in the end. Too bad those essays or stories have little to do with the “big one.” I’ve tucked my novel draft and notes under my arm and carried them from room to room with me all summer. They even traveled with me on vacations. But, I’ve pushed through only a few more pages of that draft.

Still, I’ve been writing, even when time was tight. And, that’s better than not writing at all.

In considering my slow-moving novel, I thought of Jan O’Hara’s recent post on Writer Unboxed where she mentioned wise words from Donald Maass, heard at the RWA Nationals:

If possible, resist the push to rapid production. A good story well told means an audience willing to wait. Reward their loyalty with quality.

Maass’s words do little to ease my worries that I will oversleep tomorrow and show up late (or worse – unshowered) for first day back at work. But, his advice reminds me that writing is simply moving forward — inch by inch, page by page.

Looking back from May to August, I see small steps in progress and moments of synchronicity, when little burning bushes signaled that I can be (and am) a writer. In spite of tight schedules, posts were written, stories were submitted, and connections with other writers were made.

I can view my day job as a  burden that takes me away from writing (though that paycheck and health insurance lightens the load). Or, I can see it as an opportunity: new routines force me to schedule more succinct writing times.

I did it once; I can do it again.

What inspiration have you found in looking back on your writing?

Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.’” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?

I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.

But hear me out.

My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.

Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.

I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago.  In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.

In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.

As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.

Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.

Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.

“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”

When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.

Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:

“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”

Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.

There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.

What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?

*****

Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p.  Print.

A Synopsis and a Critique: Distance is a Good Thing

A few months ago, I took a novel writing workshop. Most of us in the group had little experience critiquing another’s work. And, several of us were beginners when it came to writing a novel.

Everyone looked forward to the critiques; no one wanted to tackle the required one-page synopsis. In fact, several groans broke out as the word hung in the air above us.

Synopsis.

I had never attempted a synopsis, and – since this was a class for beginners – I stuck to my motto of “I have nothing to lose.” I remained optimistic.

But, it was hard to write. In an essay, entitled “Writing a synopsis can rock your novel,” Roz Morris explains – in a more concise way – why writing one overwhelms most writers.

[W]riting a synopsis is hard…because we’re so close to the detail that we can’t see what to include and what to leave out. It’s all important, right? Writing a synopsis requires you to view the novel from a distance, which is all but impossible when you’ve been living in the thick of it. But it also gives you distance. Like looking at a maze from above, you can see patterns you couldn’t see when it’s all wood and trees.

I didn’t have that distance. I spent too much time on the back story and the beginning and very little time talking about the end of the story. When I took my synopsis to class for critique, I expected pointers on how to tighten it up, maybe thoughts on what to delete or add (like a few forgotten characters). But, being the first to go under the knife, that critique ran long, detailed and painful. My spirits fell, and I left wondering if I should continue to write the story.*

Joni B. Cole published an article in the July 2010 issue of The Writer on the “7 Myths About Feedback.” Two stand out for me as reasons why that particular critique was so discouraging.

“Writers should be silent during their story discussions.” This was my first face-to-face critique. When the workshop leader suggested the writer sit quietly while everyone else discussed the story, I did exactly that. In Cole’s article, she says that many workshops use the “silent writer” policy, but there comes a time when the writer should speak up.

…[When] negative comments are flying at you like the arrows at St. Sebastian, don’t just sit there.

Much of the criticism that night came across very harsh, a lot of it based on the synopsis alone. Critiquing a synopsis to such depths while still in the revision process threw me off track, especially because I sat quiet and fielded the “arrows” with my open chest.

That said, another myth – “The goal of feedback is to help ‘fix’ a story” - reminded me how reeling in the negative part of the experience and focusing on the positive can keep a writer moving forward.  Cole says a writer should:

…[T]hink of feedback not in terms of fixes, but reader responses. And by this I mean any response that gets the writer to write more and write better.”

After my experience, I took several days “off” from my story until I recovered from the sting of some of the other writers’ comments. Then, I looked deeper into the issues their comments addressed: problems of clarity, character development, and plot.

Next weekend, I’m heading out of town. One of my writing goals during my vacation (because a writer is always writing, even when we’re digging our toes in the sand or traipsing through the woods) is to look at the chapter one rewrite of my current novel in progress, with the first draft of the full manuscript, and write out a new synopsis. Then, I hope to give the first chapter and synopsis to a friend for critique.

After reading Morris’s essay and Cole’s article, and after reviewing my own past experience again, I’m confident of a few things. First, I know I want to write a synopsis early in the process again. I agree with Morris when she explains how a writer can use a synopsis to her benefit:

Summarizing like this lets me kick away the clutter to see the strong core of the story. I’ve seen patterns I didn’t know were there and given real punch to my plot.

I love the image of looking down on the story from a distance and seeing the patterns unfold, seeing the core of the story and the path of the character. I need that kind of perspective in revision.

Second, when I send the synopsis and first chapter out for critique, I will remember:

  • This synopsis is a draft, a first draft.
  • To find a critique partner who knows how to talk about what works, as well as how to ask questions about what doesn’t work.
  • That I don’t have to sit and listen to critique with my heart in my hand and my mouth closed. I can ask questions.

A synopsis doesn’t have to be a thorn in my side, and neither does another writer’s feedback. With a little distance, I can incorporate both into a successful revision.

* I did eventually put that story down, though the decision wasn’t a result of that particular critique.

__________

Step Away from the Internet

Staring at a shelf of books on all things writing, I never know which one to choose. I want the best one. I want the one that will infuse my writing brain with the knowledge and inspiration of all the great authors.

But, there’s so many. Click on author, Jody Hedlund’s Helpful Writing Books page alone, and you’ll find a long list of choices.

Stuck with the funds to buy only one book recently, I gravitated towards a collection of authors’ advice on writing, a book whose cover stood out to me: bright orange and red and yielding the words “Secret” and “Miracle.” I picked it up because, well, I want to know the secret to and the miracle of writing a complete novel.

I’ve mentioned Daniel Alarćon’s book (The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook) before when I talked about walking away from a novel in progress, and his book continues to be a great resource.

In Alarćon’s chapter titled “Getting Started,” he asks several published authors, “What is most distracting for you? How do you deal with it?”

About one third of the authors he interviewed answered with the same irresistable pull: the Internet.

This I write, as I work diligently on a post I hope readers will click to, read, and comment on in their own spare time.

While the Internet as a distraction is nothing new – there are plenty of articles by other writers about ways to avoid the Internet when you should be writing – what’s new for me is a glimpse I got, from Alarćon’s interviews, into the reasons why I turn to the Internet instead of my work in progress.

Jennifer Egan (author of The Keep) says:

I find that there is some part of me that is always looking for a way to pull  myself out of a state of deep concentration….The Internet is a naughty accomplice to that desire (p. 118).

Anne Enright (author of The Gathering) says:

I think a lot of distraction is anxiety. If I am too anxious to work on the piece at hand, then I work on something else (p. 119).

For me, that “something else” often turns out to be emails and Twitter. Ouch.

Today, I wrote in my morning pages about how many precious minutes I use up browsing Twitter or reading articles on writing, instead of using that time to write. I will avoid working on a draft if I don’t have a significant amount of time to tackle a big chunk of the project.

Just as soon as I get started, get into the grove, I think to myself, I’ll have to stop. It’s difficult for me to trust that short spurts of writing eventually add up, even as I do trust authors like Becky Levine who can attest to the fact that “baby steps [in writing] can lead to big productivity.”

Of course, I produce better work when I have bigger chunks of time to sit and concentrate. Still, something is better than nothing, and I wonder how much of my quick dips into the Internet don’t stem from a little writer’s anxiety?

Jennifer Egan shares a little more of her experience, which might explain why I cling to the internet, and she offers one strategy for getting back to the work:

A writer friend of mine, Lisa Fugard, once told me that she had a sign next to the door of her office that said, ‘Why are you leaving?’ Many times she found herself walking through that door with no idea of why. Then she made herself sit down again and continue working. I try to have a mental sign that asks why I’m leaving when I find myself suddenly typing something into Google for no particular reason, as if I had nothing else to do (p. 118).

I value Google, email and Twitter. But, on days when I have to ration my writing time, I have to be more vigilant about avoiding their draw and ask myself “What am I looking for?”

If what I’m surfing through isn’t time sensitive or relevant research for the story I want to write, then I can close down the application and open up that draft instead.

What are your biggest distractions and how do you deal with them?

***

Alarćon, Daniel. The Secret Miracle: the Novelist’s Handbook. New York, New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC, 2010. Print.

Short Story Techniques for Novel Writing

If you want to be a great writer, you have to learn to write well.

On that advice, beginning writers often spend more of their time studying the craft of writing instead of creating the stories.

Or, at least I do. Still attempting to crank out my first novel, I assume that how-to books on writing (successful) 80,000+ word stories should find permanent space on my bookshelf and time in my hands. But, I’m discovering that techniques for crafting longer works can be found from other sources that don’t focus on the novel specifically.

Back in March, Lydia Sharp (from The Sharp Angle) published a post where she explains that “[a] good way to improve your skills as a novelist is to write short fiction.” Short stories require structure the same as novels — clear plot points and solid character development. And, short stories have less time (and word count) to accomplish these goals.

If you can master the techniques in short fiction, you can master them in novels.

But even with Sharp’s convincing post, it’s easy to minimize the benefits of short story writing, because Oh…a whole novel gives me plenty of word count to fill in plot points and work in characterization. Yet, under the protection of more space to “fill,” each word must have a strong purpose or the reader will lose interest. And, fast.

Tom Bailey’s A Short Story Writer’s Companion* offers plenty of lessons on characterization, dialogue, and voice. But it was Andre Dubus’s essay – filed under the category of Rewriting – that solidified the translation of short story techniques to novels.

Andre Dubus, image from Wikipedia.org

In “The Habit of Writing,” Dubus speaks about character development and draws on a technique he calls “vertical writing.” After pushing through a story and still feeling a strong disconnect from the character, Anna (in his novella, Adultery), Dubus decides to dig deeper into her psyche and to find out exactly what Anna was feeling.

“…[F]or years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could. Very slowly, I worked on feeling all of her physical sensations. Following her through her day [thinking]: “Just follow the dots: become the character and follow; there will be a story” p. 137.

I’ve heard of character journals, and there are several great worksheets online that help characters come to life. But, Dubus’s words “vertical writing” and “follow the dots” give me a much better visual. And, it’s a technique that complements my tendency to write a story more organically. For me, character worksheets act like lists, which can be confining (in writing, anyway…everyday life is a different story), and I always stray from outlines.

I know, some writers cringe at the thought of organic writing – No outline, No peace! – but Dubus makes a good case when he talks about his own process:

“I try never to think about where a story will go…I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender” p. 136.

Larry Brooks, in his essay (posted on WriteToDone), “SOLVED: The Outlining vs. Organic Writing Debate,” also supports organic writing. He says, in comparing premeditated with by-the-seat-of-your-pants, neither process is better than the other. Both can work as long as certain protocol is followed:

“[S]tory architecture is universal. If a writer understands basic story architecture, organic drafting becomes an efficient and joyful process.”

Short story techniques – like Dubus’s ideas of organic and vertical writing – offer me more ideas on how to tackle that novel. If the story is moving forward but feeling flat, I can pause and then write downward instead: follow the dots of the character that alludes me — an organic writing technique that doesn’t ignore the structure of the story, but enhances it.

***

* Bailey, Tom. A Short Story Writer’s Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print. (check citation format)