Sunday, July 28, 2013

Good Reading Yields Good Writing

When I started my MFA program (back in 2009 at Vermont College of Fine Arts), I dutifully discussed and compiled and reading list for my first semester.  But secretly I thought: my main job is writing... what's the deal with all this reading!  I thought I would skim whatever my advisor suggested, cobble together my paper, and then get back to the (much more important) manuscript.

But, truth be told, the reading turned out not to be something extra (let alone extraneous) but essential.  Here's how I think of it.

Reading is medicine for the writer.

What ails you?  Weak characterization?  Slow plot?  Wimpy diction?  There's a remedy for that... if you know what to read.

I've been thinking about this lately because I had the change to read Nance Van Winckel's collection of linked short stories, Boneland. (Get it from Amazon HERE.)  Nance was an advisor of mine while I attended VCFA and I have long been impressed by her short stories and poetry (if you ever have the chance to hear her read... do it!  She's a great reader as well as a great writer.)

These stories are wonderful.  Whatever it is you are struggling with in your craft, whatever it is you need a reminder of... this collection is the right prescription.  There is nothing better for a writer than to pick up a wonderful book and think: oh, yes... this is how it should be done!  

There were many craft points that inspired me as I read (though I don't want to overemphasize this because Boneland impresses for other reasons: the stories are captivating!) but I kept being drawn to Nance's metaphors.  What beautiful comparisons.  It made me go back to the manuscript I have been working on and examine what I had done... did I even have metaphors?  Were any of them good?

And that's what, as a writer, I love about reading: it not only entertains me as I get involved in the story but also inspires me to do better in my own craft.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

On Organization and the Writing Process

With these days of summer vacation (not to mention extreme heat), I've logged some pretty good hours at my writing desk.

And though I am a neat-freak in other areas of my life (go ahead, ask me how I organize my t-shirt drawer... but know that the answer might take a while) my writing desk tends to be rather messy.

To be clear, it isn't empty pizza box and sticky coffee ring messy (I couldn't deal with that).  But it is paper-absolutely-everywhere messy.  And I like it that way.

There are many authors I know who prefer to have a bulletin board over their desk or a white board or simply a large, clear wall surface on which to paste sticky notes.  Some folks have elaborate systems on their computer to keep track of thoughts, ideas, storylines, and character development.

However, I prefer lots of little pieces of paper.  I have a legal pad (white, not yellow paper), a medium size scratch pad, a large stack of those hotel notepads (I won't reveal my source), and index cards.  I like to jot notes to myself about a scene I'm thinking of, or an essay I want to write when I'm through the novel draft, or something I don't want to forget to go back and fix, or some topic that I need to research.  Right now, I'm working on a rough draft and there are notes everywhere.

Even stranger, what I like to do with these notes is, mostly, ignore them. I write them and scatter them on my desk.  Then I go back to drafting.  Sometimes I read them when I get stuck, but mostly I ignore them.  I'd like to say I have a system and when I finish a day's work, I read through all the notes and collate them, blah, blah.  But I don't.  They sit there until I finish the draft, at which point, I scoop them all up, paper clip them, and stick them in manila envelope and file them along with the handwritten draft.

It is the case that when I am in the revision process, my notes are much more organized.  Then, I usually post a coherent list of things to do and keep in mind and I tape it at eye-level on the wall.  (Even then, I usually tape up a blank sheet or two for random thoughts and notes.)

So why do I continue this practice?  I don't know that it helps me produce a better draft, but I do know that it helps me keep peace of mind.   Once I write something down, my brain reads that as "taken care of."  Sure, there's danger to this: if I actually need to do something and I write it down, then I need to keep that piece of paper handy and do that thing.  However, when I'm writing a rough draft, mostly what I need to do is... write the rough draft!  I don't need to worry about the extraneous questions and thoughts: that's what revision is for.

In short, while my practice keeps my desk cluttered, it keeps my mind pleasantly clean.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Character Motivation in General... and Historical Context in Particular

In any work of fiction, the main character's (or characters') desire drives the piece forward.  Don't know what your main character wants?  Or can't make that want clear, compelling, and believable to the reader?  Then your fiction will never take off.

Desire is linked to motivation: what you want, how you're going to get it, and why you want it so bad.

Because of the important of desire in driving fiction, a writer should spend lots of time understanding and deepening this aspect of the story or novel.  This is time "off the page," as I like to say, by which I mean that a lot of what you will work on in developing is for your own understanding of the character and not to be included in the finished writing.  Well, it will be included but not word by word... your understanding will inform your writing.

To give you an example of this, I'll use my forthcoming novel, Revolutionary.  Early in the story, the main character, Deborah Sampson, runs away from home.  Why? That isn't an easy decision to make in anyone's life, at any time, but particularly for a young, unmarried woman in 1782, this would have been an earth-shattering choice.  So I needed to understand her motive well.

Given that Deborah is a historical personage, I could look at material in which she discussed (or others discussed) her motive.  From these sources, I gleaned that her motive was money (the town gave a bounty for soldiers signing on), patriotism, and freedom.  Of these three, money seemed the least interesting: once she had the bounty, she still ran away, so that couldn't have been the sole motive.  Patriotism was a nice thought -- and I don't doubt that she was patriotic -- but this was a reason she offered to her later biographer (Herman Mann) and a very convenient reason it was.  It allowed her a virtuous basis for an unvirtuous act.

That left me with freedom.  She desired to break away from the constraints of society, the bounds of her (medium-sized) town, and, particularly, the limited sphere of being a woman.  I knew that's what I had to convey on the page, what I had to convince my readers of.  But in order to be convincing, I had to know my subject and context much more specifically than that.

In my next blog post, I'll provide more of the historical context of Deborah, but I wanted to open with this general craft point:  start with characters' desires... and let that drive your fiction!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Feeding Your Writing Self: Reading

A few months ago (as I prepared to move and jettisoned books like a listing ship) I loaned a book to a friend.  It was an anthology of nonfiction, and I dogeared for him a particular essay ("The Beautiful City of Tirzah") that I thought he'd like.  Recently, he said that not only did he enjoy the reading, but he found that it had inspired him to write.

That's what good reading does.

Reading good material feeds the writer's soul.  It inspires.  Literally.  It breathes into you the breath of the writing spirit and tells you: you can, you should, you ought.  (Of course, if you are in a negative swirl, reading good material can make you say: I can never do this.  But silence those negative voices!)

I have long believed that, for the writer, reading should be therapeutic.  Too often, I hear writer-friends say that they don't have time to read if they are fully engaged in writing mode.  But the two should go hand-in-hand.  What you read should provide the foundation or the nutrient substrate for what you are writing.  It needn't be in the same genre or style.  It just needs to speak to where you mind is.

In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that reading can cure that writing block of which folks often complain.  So, if you find yourself stuck or feeling a bit slow, ask yourself: what good have I read today?  The right essay or story or novel can spark within you the belief and the desire to begin anew.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vocabulary and Writing

Recently, a friend of mine forwarded me a link to the following article on archaic words that linger, vestigially, in our modern usage (the article is here).  After enjoying the piece and thinking of some other random and "one shot" words -- words that only occur in a set phrase, I started thinking about vocabulary more broadly.

In fact, this has been on my mind for a while, ever since Revolutionary went through copy-editing. During those rounds of revision, a copy-editor pointed out that I tended to write "amongst" and "midst" which were deemed "archaic" forms.  I hadn't noticed that before, and I went back to short stories and other pieces I had written.  Indeed, amongst and midst cropped up there as well.  Then I paid attention to my speech... and found that I spoke these words (and others on the archaic list).

All this made me think about what language stands out.  I believe that the goal of the copy-editor is to make the writing smooth, in the sense that no word draws the reader out of the story or makes them say, "what?"  Of course, you don't want to be confusing, but more than that, you want the words you write to fit the texture -- the soundscape -- of the story.

Linking to characterization, all characters should use vocabulary that fits their personality; that's an essential of voice.  But more than that, the narrative voice, the way in which setting and scene are described, should be clear, consistent, and, well, I guess like wall-paper: it's there, and it makes the room look nicer, but, after a while, you forget it's there.

So here's my question to you, dear reader... where do you stand on quirky vocabulary?  Do you every drop that strange word into a story?  Do you do that because it is the right word for that moment?  Or because you just like the word?

I once had a character going for a walk after a rain and enjoying that mineral smell that comes up from the sidewalk. The word for that smell is petrachore -- I love both that smell and that word -- and I had my character use it.  When the story was accepted for publication, the editor X-ed "petrachore" out.  I wrote back: but it's the right word!  Answer: maybe, but no one will know what it means.

That is the point of vocabulary... to communicate and express clearly.  I've had (and taught with) English teachers on both sides of the spectrum, those who say "don't use a dime word when a nickel word will do" and those who preach that you should "dress your words from Saks."

These days, I tend to former.  Simple, direct -- the best word for the moment.  It's just that, sometimes, the best word is a little dressy.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Road Signs & That First Draft

When I teach introductory writing, the same question often crops up: should I outline and plan a story before I start a draft, or should I just wing it?

The answer, as it often is (at least when I'm answering) is: both!

Honestly, though, the best answer I ever received to this question came during a workshop I attended at the Ocean State Writers' Conference.  (The first writers' conference I ever attended, back when I had just started dabbling with short stories.)  The author who was presenting was asked this question and he replied that when he drafts, he starts with an idea (character, place, question) and it's as if he is driving on a highway at night.  As he drives, his headlights (writing) illuminates a new sign and he can tell where he is, where he might go.  But in between those signs, it's all dark.

Though I've drafted many different ways (sometimes starting with a firm idea of where I wanted to end up; sometimes with a full outline), this is still my favorite method.  Of course, it necessitates additional drafts because the intention/motive/goal of the piece only comes out as it is in progress; you have to go back and clear up themes and the central "strings" of the piece.  But what piece of writing can't benefit from that practice?  

This question has been on my mind as I've begun a new rough draft of a piece I've worked on multiple times (I have two full "fair" drafts of it) over the past three years.  In doing so, I'm undertaking a very different style of composition.  I have those two full drafts lurking in my mind -- that's a whole bunch of road signs!  But I want to start fresh... I want to turn off that route (or not; I want the ability to deviate.  What's new?).  

The process of trying to do so -- trying to let the story head in a new direction, trying to let it feel its way through itself -- is proving difficult, but it is also emphasizing to me that this is my preferred way to draft.  Not quite "seat of the pants" but close!  That's where the possibility and imagination can really bubble (and then, through rewriting, ferment).  Since I've been thinking about this lately, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the process.  

What is your preferred method?