Tag Archives: Novel

How a Middle School Track Meet Informed My Writing

In the seventh grade, I signed up for athletics. I lasted for one season (skinny, asthmatic kids are better suited for things like Drama), but I stayed long enough to experience a powerful moment.

After one look, and a few practices into the school year, the coaches figured out that I was C-team material. I was too short to spike a volleyball and couldn’t complete an overhand serve if my popularity depended on it (which it did). I was easily run over in basketball and was given an alternate uniform that screamed “sub.” During games, I took my seat at the bench. But during each practice, I did the drills and ran the laps. When track season rolled around, Coach Lewis looked at me and said “long distance runner.” He signed me up for the 400 meter race.

We didn’t practice with Coach Lewis often during track season, which made him all the more intimidating when he did show up on the field. He barked orders, shouted praise, laughed once in a while. On a particularly chilly Saturday morning at a track meet, he said the one sentence that has stuck with me ever since.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Cold weather aggravates asthma, and during the middle of the 400 meter event, I started wheezing, sputtering, slowing down. I jogged in the outside lane. Coach Lewis didn’t like that. He walked up to the chain link fence that surrounded the track, stuck his head out like a snapping turtle, and hollered.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

I was shocked. Had he forgotten I had asthma? Where was the sympathy? Too scared to stop and ask him, I picked up the pace. I took the deepest breaths I could manage and the longest strides my chicken legs would take. I merged into the inside lane, rounded the last turn, and passed that tall girl with the mean eyes. I focused on the white lines that marked my lane and tuned into the sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt of the track. I pushed myself, into fourth place, earning a ribbon and a big boost of confidence.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Coach Lewis’ words flashed through my mind last week as I experienced the same shortness of breath and sluggish feeling. This time, it wasn’t my asthma slowing me down, though, it was fear. I had reached a familiar point in my novel draft, the place in the story where ideas  scatter and plot weakens, the moment where I stare at the blank screen and worry if what I write next will kill the energy in the work.

Barbara O’Neal calls that place “The Slough of Despond.” In her post on Writer Unboxed, O’Neal says:

This is the [place] on the old maps, the murky, muddy spot where quicksand sucks at the feet and demons overtake the heart.

I’ve been here before, with this same story. In the past, I’ve faltered and quit – full stop – and gone back to the beginning to rework chapter one. But, this time is different. I’ve got Coach Lewis breathing down my neck. And, I have a few other incentives to keep me moving forward.

1. The Radio. I recently read my story, “Red Velvet Sunday,” on WUWM’s Lake Effect program (click here to listen). Nothing makes you feel more like a writer than answering questions about the craft and having the honor of reading your work to a new audience. The experience was like a shot of adrenaline, and it was a reminder that good things do happen, usually at just the right time — like during a writing lull when you wonder if you’ve got it in you to succeed.

2. Jody Hedlund. In her post, “How to Beat the Fear of Being a One Book Wonder,” she talks about old self-doubts that resurfaced while writing her second novel. Her thoughts on how to move through those fears apply to writers at any phase.

3. Ira Glass. In his video on storytelling (part 1) (the link found via a post from Jane Friedman on Writer Unboxed), he talks about “the anecdote” as a sequence of actions that move a story forward one moment at a time. That’s how I can get through this next section so that, as Barbara O’Neal says, I’ll “eventually…have a finished draft. To rewrite. So goes the game.”

How about you? What memorable moments keep you from coughing and sputtering your way to “I quit?”

Coach Lewis

Me, bottom right corner, finisher.

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You Talk Too Much: Balancing Dialogue and Narrative

I pride myself on being a quiet observer: in a church pew, during a staff meeting, behind a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in a cafe. Most days, it takes me a long time to warm up to any conversation. But, stick me in front of my laptop (and smack-dab in the middle of rewriting a story) and suddenly I’m all talk.

At least, that’s what I’ve noticed lately with my work-in-progress. The early drafts of my novel were heavy in exposition and light in conversation. Now, I have a clearer vision of the plot, and I know my characters better. And, dialogue comes easy for me. The problem is that once the characters start talking, I let them go on and on. In rewriting another section last week, I noticed a whole page of chit chat. All that character banter started to tug at my writer’s gut, which suggested I should to rethink my use of dialogue.

Nathan Bransford posted on the Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, in which he pin points one area of concern. He says, “A good conversation is an escalationCharacters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.” In all writing, each character, scene, and piece of dialogue must move the story forward. I practice that in my short stories and flash fiction. But, in this novel rewrite, much of the dialogue I’ve written just fills up space. Though realistic, it reads flat and doesn’t necessarily propel the story.

Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only for conflict…You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, and all that yack…If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything.” Then, she throws in a quick example of unnecessary talk: in response to a character asking, Want a cup of coffee? she writes, “No. I don’t. Ever.”

I’m guilty of that kind of dialogue: in the span of one chapter, my characters have discussed getting  a cup of coffee or tea twice. That’s a lot of “coffee talk.”

Sam McGarver, in his article, “10 Fiction Pitfalls,” (which appears in the May 2010 issue of The Writer) talks about too much weight on the other end of the writing scale: narrative. He says:

Many writers think a story should be largely narrated, in the manner of classic literature. But here’s a good rule: fight the urge to narrate…A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration.

I don’t want to nix half of the conversations in my novel just because I want to avoid too much talking. So, how do I find a balance between dialogue and narrative? After reading Bransford, Fitch, and McCarver, I found three different techniques:

  • From McCarver’s article: Find a particularly long narrative section and see how it might be broken up into more of a scene with dialogue.
  • After reading Fitch’s post: Find a section in the story where the characters have a whole conversation, and then cross out the dialogue that is commonplace. Because, as Fitch says, “A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.”
  • From Bransford’s post: If the dialogue does carry the story forward but still feels “thin,” look for places to add gestures, facial expressions, and/or any details from the scene that enhance that section. Bransford says, “gesture and action [are] not [used] to simply break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful….”

How do you balance your story with narrative and dialogue? Do you talk too much?

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Reflecting Life in Our Writing

I am never disappointed in The Writer magazine. True to form, when I paged through my December issue this month, I read another article that struck a chord at exactly the right moment.

I am finally – and seriously – back to work on my novel in progress, so much so that I named this draft “Signs of Life, for real this time.” It’s a story about a young woman named Gale, who’s mother is killed, and in losing family, Gale finds family – and forgiveness. I want to write this story with enough emotion but not too much, which has been one reason for procrastination: I’m afraid the story will read too dark and too heavy. I was relieved, then, to come upon David Harris Ebenbach’s essay in The Writer, “Writing Toward the Light.”

In his essay, Ebenbach focuses only on the short story, but many of his points can be applied to memoirs and novels as well. Ebenbach addresses his long-standing belief that, to be called “great,” a story must focus on “struggle and conflict” and pain. But, as he questions his own ideas and discovers several well-written and well-received stories that highlight a character’s “opportunities” instead of “struggles,” Ebenbach realizes that all writing must embody balance. He says:

“…[T]here’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing about darkness…darkness is a significant part of life. [But], light, of course, is also part of life, and as writers that ought to mean something to us.”

While definitions of literary fiction (like the one on Writer’s Relief, Inc.) say that “[l]iterary fiction tackles ‘big’ issues that are…controversial, difficult, and complex,” I need to remember Ebenbach’s point, that “difficult” in fiction (or memoir, for that matter) doesn’t have to mean all dark, all the time.

As Ebenbach says, “[readers] want to see the real world – in all its richness and complexity – reflected in literature.” And, isn’t that the way life rolls: the serious and the silly taking our focus in turns?

I know about death, about losing a mother, about the heaviness that settles and then hovers for months after. But, I also know about moments that surface during those dark times, moments that propel a person into a fit of laughter when laughter doesn’t seem possible.

Like when an overweight and messy driver ushers a grieving family into the back of a limo and then cruises down the road, from the funeral home to the church, at a high rate of speed. It’s only when he slams on the brakes and tosses the family around like rag dolls that the tension breaks and laughter erupts.

Those kind of moments in life give us a breather from a harsh reality long enough to gather strength; they are the moments that have us rolling on the couch the next day when we’re hung over on emotion.

And, those kinds of moments can turn up for the characters in our stories, as they face struggles, as well.

Ebenbach’s stress on balance in our writing gives me a broader perspective as I tackle more of this new draft, as I rearrange scenes in the novel, add new details, and weave the dark and light of emotion throughout the pages. I can’t throw in a humorous scene for the sake of “a breather” — every scene must still drive the plot forward. Yet, I shouldn’t be afraid to see the lighter side of a character’s life, even a character in pain.

*****

Ebenbach, David Harris. “Writing Toward the Light.” The Writer. December 2010: 15-16. Print.

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Ego throws a mean left hook.

Ego is a funny thing.

Sometimes Ego is my driving force that gives me just enough courage to put my work out there. Other times, Ego whispers something that sends me spinning and knocks me out for a few days.

Several weeks ago, I had my eye on a couple of writing contests. I considered submitting a story I wrote, one that got some good feedback. As I wavered, Ego leaned into my ear and said –  all syrupy and sweet – “Oh, it’s good. Just do it.” She was so encouraging. I clicked “submit.”

Days later, I read a different story to a group of writers, my confidence still inflated. I received some good responses, but those weren’t the ones I heard. What I tuned into was one or two critiques that made me question my writing and myself, and then I focused on Ego’s quiet little whisper that followed.

“I’m not sure why you brought in that story anyway,” she said as we exited the studio. “You know they hated it. In fact, I’m fairly certain they don’t even like you.”

Knock out.

Man, she’s mean.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg doesn’t call the problem Ego, but she writes about it just the same. She says “Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascos.”

I have to take my successes for what they are: rewards for hard work done on a story. When I feel good about a story, I can relish the moment, even write a post about it, but I can’t play into a false belief that everything I write from that point forward will be perfect.

Then again, as Goldberg says, I can’t let my failures drain me either.

See beyond [doubt] to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice. Write something else. Let go of your failures and sit down and write something great. Or write something terrible and feel great about it.

The problem with Ego is that, whether the words I hear are praise or a put-down, it’s always all about me. And, when I’m all into me, I’m not into writing. The best way to avoid that pitfall is to take Natalie Goldberg’s advice: Write something else. Through successes and failures, just write.

How do I do that?

1. I Keep it short. If I’m writing a short story or a first chapter (or if I’m knee-deep in a 50,000 word first draft), I don’t want to get stuck on perfecting one scene. I keep it short, get the first draft done, and then share it with writers who know what they’re doing. I can trust that a good roundtable session will help me filter through the parts that need more expansion and bump the sections that don’t belong.

2. I Pull out something old and rework it. I hate looking back, which doesn’t make for easy rewrites. But, after spending some time learning the craft, I might pull out an old story and apply some of those new techniques. That’s the best time to see how far I’ve come in my writing.

3. I Enjoy the process. This is especially important when I’m working through early drafts of a piece. Sometimes a whole page of writing reveals only one gem, but that gem may turn out to be the crux of my story. In a feedback session, I might hear the one suggestion that clears up the whole picture for me and brings that story into focus.

I love Jody Hedlund’s final comment in one of her recent posts, because it speaks to my struggle as well:

Perfection is unattainable. We need to guard against thinking we’re already close to perfect. And we need to guard against thinking we need to be perfect. Instead, we can begin to develop a quiet confidence in our writing abilities—seeing how far we’ve come, but knowing we still have room to grow.

So, whatever Ego mumbles in my ear today, I know what I have to do. Write.
Or, rewrite.
Whatever it takes.

Because, Ego isn’t going away.

*****

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.

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Okay. I’m listening.

I love this blog. In fact, I love it a little too much.

That thought surfaced several times in the past few months, but in the last few days I looked at the ugly truth of it.

Blogging, while providing a great outlet to hone my writing skills, sometimes serves as a distraction for me.

Just when I decide to sit down and face that novel again, I realize I’m due for a post, whether it’s Wednesday or the weekend.

I made a commitment, I tell myself, and if anything, I follow through.

Sure, I follow through, on shot-in-the-arm kind of writing. But, the bigger projects sit on the sidelines, waiting. And, the longer they sit, the more difficult it becomes to bring them back into focus.

Several posts by other writers shed light on the importance of keeping my blogging in balance with my outside writing.

In Lisa Rivero’s recent post, she writes about the “place of stillness,” as described by Jonathan Franzen in an article in Time Magazine. Franzen’s words were inspiration enough, but it’s the quote Lisa uses to open her post that grabbed me:

“You have to protect your writing time. You have to protect it to the death.” – William Goldman

That got me thinking. Where am I devoting the majority of my writing time, and how can I redirect it towards more important projects?

A post from Michelle Davidson Argyle offers one suggestion, “slow blogging,” and highlights an essay from Anne R. Allen. In Allen’s essay, she discusses the dangers of blogging too often and the pros of blogging less often. Allen mentions writer/translator Lee Robertson, who shared his philosophy, “A blog is like frosting on top of the cake.” Then, Allen quotes Miss Snark:

…There’s a lot to be said for sitting down with your ownself and writing. Nothing, literally NOTHING replaces that. Focus. You’re wasting time.”

Someone, or something, was nudging me to pay attention, and finally I started listening. I’d been wondering how I might shake things up on this blog, set some new goals, and now it was clear.

Blog less, write more.

I still love the Wednesday Word challenge, so I won’t give that up. But, I will stretch out the schedule of those writing exercises. Every other Wednesday, I’ll still face off with Wordsmith.org and his logophilian self. Then, on alternate Wednesdays, you can look for a post on all things writing: author interviews, book reviews, essays on the craft of writing itself.

That means, posting once a week.

And, the other days of the week? Well, considering I just sent in my check for a writing class on Flash Fiction and a Roundtable critique for longer works (like a novel-in-progress…*ahem*), I’ll be writing.

And, reading.

And, I will NOT be obsessing about rising or falling stats or how many bloggers “like” my weekly posts (WordPress sure makes it easy to become gluttons for punishment).*

Where do you spend the majority of your writing time, and is the Universe directing you towards change?

____________________________________________
* I might obsess a little, but it’ll be my dirty little secret.

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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?
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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.

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