Tag Archives: Becky Levine

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.
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Writing Past the Pain of Critique

It’s funny how fate plays a role in your writing sometimes.

Today,I woke up exhausted, my head thick with a fog that settled in after lack of sleep and a hangover.

Sleep deprivation was a result from spending two days home with a sick child. Prescribed certain medications, she becomes a toddler-on-the-move who’s stuck on fast forward and can’t even pause for bedtime. At 10:30 last night, her feet kicked up and out and down on the bed and her hands clapped and she whispered stories non stop.

The hangover came after a night of novel workshop with me and mine in the hot seat. Though the critique process worked well – the author sits quiet and listens while the readers discuss – the feedback weighed heavy against my chest when I finally fell asleep.

I’m a newbie, and I imagine first critiques always cut deep. So, I’m following Becky Levine’s advice, from her book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide:

Most of our bad feelings don’t come from the words written on our manuscripts…or from the person who writes them. Instead they come from within ourselves. They reflect our own doubts about ourselves as writers – as skilled, creative craftspeople.

Be ready for [those feelings] to come, and, when they do, recognize and acknowledge them. Then, get to work (p. 242).

I decided to pushthose critiques to the side for the day and to tackle Wednesday’s Word.

And, funny enough, the word that rolled out from Wordsmith.org this morning was bayonet — a call to arms, an insistence to fight, a subtle reminder that this is where the rubber meets the road, missy.

Critique or no critique, get writing.

So, here goes. Read at your own risk. And, if you’re feeling feisty, put a link to your version of how the word-of-the-day’s call to action translates into your writing. Camaraderie is always a good thing.

*****

They were back, the whole lot of them.

Phi Delts, from the frat house down the block, stormed into the bar as soon as she unlocked the door that morning. They slurred on and on about another 24 hour party, chanting rugby cheers and demanding multiple rounds of Bloody Marys.

She stood behind the counter and emptied bottles into glasses like she worked on an assembly line.

They harassed her and called her a hard ass when she tried to measure the vodka and told her to “lighten up.”

The one with the U of M baseball cap and stubble leaned over the bar, grabbed her hand, kissed it, and then begged for “three more of those plump…green…olives.” She jerked her hand away.

She picked up a cocktail sword and stabbed three times into the dish with the habanero stuffed olives. She held them up close to his face and smiled.

“Here you go, Mr. Rugby.” Then, she excused herself and walked calmly to the restroom.

She barely heard him over the noise of the hand dryer as he coughed and sneezed and pleaded for water.

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Becky Levine, Voice and Dialogue

My last post was about balance, and all weekend long I fought to maintain it. Despite the swings back and forth between sane and not, I completed several writerly tasks without driving my family away.

I rewrote a few more chapters in my WIP, I punched out drafts for two posts, and I read more of Becky Levine’s book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

Becky Levine wrote her book with two goals in mind: to share tips and strategies for critiquing the work of other writers and to help the reader apply those techniques to his or her own writing.

I love Becky Levine’s down-to-earth writing style.

Unlike the evil antagonist in my mind, she doesn’t judge her readers when she discusses the elements of storytelling that a writer should know – but might not know – well enough.

Take, for instance, point of view. I know it, for the most part. But when I got to the chapter on point of view and read “close third” versus “distant third,” my personal antagonist pounced on my moment of insecurity.

“You should get this part, easy,” she hissed. “If you don’t you should go back to writing 101.” Then, she skipped off into darkness and left me with my head hanging.

Levine is much more gentle. She doesn’t assume the reader’s knowledge, one way or the other. She simply drops in a reminder about the differences between each point of view and moves on.

She goes on to explain that while point of view helps us determine who narrates the story, voice brings the narrator to life:

When I read a book where [voice and point of view] are strong, I come away certain that, if I met the story narrator on the street, I would recognized him or her. And it wouldn’t be the color of her hair and eyes that would look familiar, it would be her personality. If I stood and talked to her for a few minutes, I would be able to state the book where I’d “met” her before. When I experience this feeling, I know that the author has created a truly distinctive voice (p. 82).

Browse through a host of writer’s blogs, and you’ll find plenty of posts on voice and attempts to uncover the mystery behind creating that strong voice in writing. After reading through more of Levine’s book, I honed in on one way I can strengthen my narrator’s voice in my WIP: dialogue.

Dialogue moves the story along, breaks up long narratives, and aids in character development. Levine calls dialogue “the multitool of fiction.”

When you look closely at [it], you’ll find tools for character, plot, setting, voice, you name it (p. 91).

Voice, there it is. But, Levine doesn’t mean just words bubbling from a character’s mouth. Dialogue beats (as she calls them) reveal meaning behind those words, insights into a character’s personality, or the tone of a conversation.

Dialogue beats are the words and phrases surrounding a character’s spoken words (p. 95).

For example, here’s a piece of dialogue from one of my past Wednesday’s Word posts with, what I think, is a dialogue beat tacked on the end:

“Carry Millie for 50 yards as fast as you can. Whoever crosses the finish line in the least amount of time wins the grill!” Her mother clapped to get the crowd going.

What strikes me about the importance of dialogue beats is not so much how they enhance a narrator’s voice. Misuse of dialogue beats can skew the point of view or clutter the scene with too much information.

My WIP is written in close third person point of view (pow – take that, evil antagonist. Get thee back to thy dark corner). Dialogue and dialogue beats are crucial in creating that strong narrative voice for my story. Which means, as I finish rewriting this draft (and then return to the beginning again), I must keep an eagle eye on every aspect of the dialogue I write.

Looking back, today, through a few old posts of my own to find an example of dialogue and dialogue beat, I couldn’t keep my mind off of voice and whether or not it clearly showed through in each post. As painful as it is to read back through old pieces sometimes, I love seeing the work through a wiser eye. I gain that wisdom through reading the works of authors like Becky Levine.

On a side note, we writers woke up on the same plane of thought this morning, with dialogue on the mind. I saw a few other links to posts on dialogue come across Twitter.  Here’s one on “dialog tags” (Behler Blog’s term for dialogue beats).

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Becky Levine and the Basement of a Mall

A while ago, I ordered Becky Levine’s The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.  Because I ordered it to be delivered along with the more-than-popular LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary (on back order for all you hard-core LEGO and Star Wars fans), I didn’t receive the book until last week.

I’m not far into Becky Levine’s book yet, but I read just enough to carry me through my first meeting with a local writing group this afternoon.

She writes:

Take care to make the meeting worth your time and money. Talk to people. Too often, at these events, writers give in to their nervousness, shyness, or just their uncertainty about their own writing.

…[R]emember: This is your writing. It’s important. I’m not advocating shoving yourself into the middle of someone else’s discussion or waving a red flag in the bathroom line, but put yourself out there (pgs. 14-15).

The woman who runs this particular local group emailed me the room information, said I was welcome to attend, and mentioned that they would all be bringing a sample of their work to share.

Yesterday, I worked a split shift at my paying job and was gone most of the day. My daughter cried both times I had to leave, so the decision to steal away for another two hours today wasn’t easy. Add, to that guilt, the anxiety about sitting in a room with strangers and reading a short story out loud (for the first time to someone other than myself), and I could have easily backed out. But, something in my gut told me – and Becky Levine’s words encouraged me – to go to this meeting.

When I got to the building, I came upon another woman looking for the meeting room. She smiled, told me her name, and immediately set me at ease. We made our way to the basement of the building and walked into the meeting together. She introduced me to her friends as a “fellow traveler.”

It was a small group, and I mostly just listened. When it came time to read our samples of work, I hesitated. A few of the members were aging adults, and the conversation, in the beginning, drifted from writing to assisted living. In the story I brought to read aloud, a young woman visits her grandmother in a nursing home. I thought maybe they wouldn’t like the story, that they would think I was rude to read that kind of story to this group. Worse yet, I worried they might not like my writing style.

Then, I remembered,

This is your writing.
It’s important.
Put yourself out there.

So, in the basement of a shopping mall, I sat around a table with six other writers and read my work. My face grew hot and my voice wavered. But, I pushed off that feeling of insecurity and panic and kept my eyes on the words.

After I finished, one person noted a place where I might change the wording to make it more clear. Everyone else sat quiet. Someone got up to leave. I tried to interpret the silence, then I decided, Oh well, at least I took the action.

I can’t control their response.
Nor, can I assume I know what it means.

And, isn’t that the way it is with every story a writer sends out into the world?

Before the meeting ended, the woman who introduced me earlier offered some kind words about my story. The man across the table suggested my published works will be filed in the group’s archives one day. I left the meeting with a few phone numbers and an invitation to come back.

I don’t know that I had much in common with the people there today, other than writing itself. But, when Becky Levine talks about finding a writing or critique group, she doesn’t mention we should search for people like ourselves: with kids or without, working day jobs or not, old or young. Instead, she emphasizes that we follow our gut instinct.

Find a group where we feel welcomed and supported – a group that will meet our writing needs.

My gut tells me that I found several good souls sitting at a table in a mall basement today, who passed kind words around the circle and who didn’t kick me out after my first reading. I can’t wait to go back.

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