Thursday, July 28, 2011

It's My Party and I'll Invite if I Want To...

Heaven knows I don't need more social media. I love facebook, but it can suck the time right off my clock. I do it because I love connecting with people there. I write something, they write something back. Also, it is great for news. I find out what celebrity died within minutes of them dying, what books are climbing the Amazon bestseller list for mysteries (my friends Stephen Parrish and Deborah Reed, thank you very much), and also what recent naked burglar was caught in my hometown.

And twitter I just don't get, because it's got the attention span of a flea. Seriously. I read somewhere that a tweet has the life of something like seven minutes. Seven minutes after you hit the enter key, it's not likely to be read. Ever. By anyone. Writing something on there for me is like throwing a thought into the universe knowing that the only one to hear it will be God.

Then there's blogging. And despite how little I write nowadays, I hope y'all know the affection I have for you. True, heart-swelling affection. I loves you.

But now there is something new, and I admit (and not even ashamedly) that I am on the bandwagon.

Google+ is here.

Okay - so the party is a little empty right now. For a while one had to be "invited" by someone on the new site to get in, so there aren't a lot of people yet. Also, social media users want to know why they should add it to their already full media line-up.

This is how I think it's different: it allows you to put your contacts into circles, an artistic way of saying groups, and then post your thoughts to just that group. In other words, I can post all my writing stuff and not bore my church friends with it. Also, I can post my thoughts on faith without offending my writing friends. I can post family stuff for my family without fear of people I don't know seeing it.

It's something between facebook and twitter - where you can have a broad spectrum of contacts without it being too hard to keep up, and can write more than 140 characters but less than a blog post.

This is where I'm going with this ... I think it has the amazing possibility to turn into a great writing forum - a sort of online writing group. Twitter moves too fast and requires a brevity that doesn't lend itself to this. Facebook feels very broad to accomplish this. Blogs are time hogs. (I love you, blog, but you know you are!)

But Google+ sets up the perfect scenario for conversations about writing.... ones that are much briefer than blogging.

We can bat back and forth quick questions for everyone to chime in on: What's the hardest thing about writing for you? Have you tried writing in a different genre? Are you having a good writing day today or a hard one?

We can bat tips back and forth: Cut as many adverbs as possible. Write the first draft without self-editing and let it be okay for it to be utter poo.

We can post inspiring quotes. (Okay, I know people who do this on twitter, but then how often do you comment on those, or how often are they more than 140 characters?)

We can encourage each other.

And all in much less time than blogging. (I'm not disparaging blogging. I LOVE y'all, remember?? But it does take a time commitment if you want to read or write more than a sentence or two)

Anyone interested to give it a try? If you want an invitation, let me know (with your email address) and I'll send one. (a shout out to new blogging buddy Jade who sent me mine). No obligation necessary.

And if you're on Google+ and you aren't in one of my circles, why not?? Let me know and I'd love to add you.

After all, a party of one is just sad.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Even in summer, life goes on. Unless you are a frog.

I feel scattered these days, running one child to music camp and another to dance team practice and reading and writing and revising and synopsizing and attacking school work due on Monday in the middle of fixing meals and carpooling and laundry (will the laundry NEVER stop????) and cleaning hair from the pooch who is shedding like a mad dog in this hundred plus heat.

If I didn't have ADD before, I have it now. I can't concentrate on any one thing long enough to get it accomplished.

This bad for writing. I've read a lot of blogs lately about how writers are struggling with writing. It's the heat. The summer with kids home. The waiting on hearing about queries and submissions. The just plain feeling that their writing is not what it should be.

I just go from blog to blog writing, "YEAH! ME TOO!"

It's more than just activities, though. It's become a fear of opening my project and realizing I have nothing worthwhile to write. I can't write poetically like Marisa de los Santos. (Oh how I wish I could!!) I can't write imaginatively like J.K. Rowling. I can't write break-neck-paced adventures or mysteries or love stories. I find myself comparing myself constantly and coming up short.

And the one thing that makes me put that fear and depression aside is the fact that, at residency, nearly all of the faculty admitted to the same thing. Best-sellers, critically acclaimed and highly awarded authors all feel this way. Well, not all of them, but many of them.

So I just do it. Like Nike says. I just put my butt in the chair and open the document and stop worrying about how good the words are and just write.

I love this quote by Tom Wolfe:

Sometimes, if things are going badly, I will force myself to write a page in half an hour. I find that can be done. I find that what I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I'm feeling inspired.

So stop lollygagging around on my blog and go write.


First I'll show you why I'm coming to call my home Marlin Perkin's Wild Kingdom.

In the past two months I have caught, in the house, a lizard, a frog, and six mice. Caught in the door frame of the basement I have found two copperhead snakeskins. One was mostly outside with the head of the skin in the frame. The other was found inside the basement, caught by the tail in the frame. I killed one copperhead hiding by the doghouse, but that was before the snakeskins appeared. I have stepped on too many frogs to count on my way out with the puppy. The cicadas are so loud at night I can't hear my own whistle, and the owls wake me up at three in the morning.

But this beats them all.

Yes, that is a snake eating a frog. And yes, there was much screaming and wailing and panicking about how to save the frog, and then we just settled on the idea that it was the circle of life and the snake needed to eat, and so we stood around taking pictures.

That's just how we roll here in the wild kingdom.

Monday, July 18, 2011

MFA Monday: Motives. What Does Your Character Want?

I am juggling two pieces of writing right now: my current novel revisions and a short story I'm revising from school. In both I'm wrestling with the same question. What does my character want?

Kurt Vonnegut once said: "...make [your] characters want something right away - even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time."

It's true that even in the shortest pieces, a character needs motivation. Motivation is what leads to conflict. 

I never stopped to think about what my characters want. I know inherently they want something. I sometimes even think I know what it is they want; but when I stop to name it, to define what it is my characters are working towards or secretly desiring, I realize that what I think it is is not always what the story is driving.

For example, the short story I'm working on is about a woman recently discharged from the Army trying to find her way in the civilian world. What I think she wants is to be back in the Army. What the story has showed her wanting is to be back in the war she just left.

While the two wants may seem interchangeable, they are absolutely two different wants, and if she just wants the security and family of the Army, that makes her an entirely different person than if she wants to be in war.

So I either need to change the character's personality or I need to change the focus of the plot.

In my novel, the overall want is easier. She wants a family, and a place to belong. But since it's a longer piece of work, there is the need in each scene to have her wanting something - the desire to go unseen, the desire to get out of the restaurant and the sticky conversation, the desire to connect with her brother at some level. Each time I open a scene, I'm asking myself now, "What does she want here?"

Ray Bradbury says, "My characters write my stories for me. They tell me what they want, and I tell them to go get it, and I follow as they run, working at my typing as they rush to their destiny."

Stephen Koch says, "There's a story inside every motive, because wanting something invariably has a result, some sort of outcome. That result may be nothing more than pure frustration - but then frustration will have some outcome. In any case, the wish will lead to a result, and therein lies, always, some sort of tale, a path to narrative, and a route to the end."

What is it your character want, and is the action motivated by that?

Monday, July 11, 2011

MFA Monday: Stop Your Crying

"No character should cry more than once in a book," more than one of the faculty advisors said this past residency.

Having written a book in which the character cries probably four or five times - and all, I'd say, with really good reason - this made me stop and think. Is it cliche to have a character cry? Or worse, is it lazy on my part?

What is the more creative way to show emotion? How can we surprise our readers?

By showing them trying NOT to do it, Ellen Bass says. Show your characters trying NOT to be undone by their feelings - trying NOT to cry, trying NOT to get angry. THIS is the interesting emotion!

And above all, not resorting to cliche bodily function to tell us how a character is feeling.

How many times have you read (or written) that someone's heart was pounding? That their hands were sweaty? That they cried?  If you're like me, probably a lot. And does that make my own heart pound, feel nervous and anxious or scared or excited? No. It makes me know that the character feels that way, but it doesn't make me as a reader feel that way.

And isn't that what we want from a reader? Their participation in the story? For them to feel as though they are right there with our character?

Replace those cliche bodily functions with gestures, Bass suggested to us. Observe yourself and others. What do we do when we are nervous or scared or excited? What do we do when we are crying, or better yet, trying not to cry?

I think, even here, it is tricky not to fall in cliches. Biting nails, twisting hair around a finger, biting the lip. These are all so common they can become as emotionally desaturated as a heart pounding.

I read a chapter of a friend's WIP last week that was riddled with this kind of cliched telling. I felt completely detached watching the scene, and I know that was the opposite of what she wanted. When she went back to re-write it, she replaced much of the telling me how the character's body was acting (crying, clenched stomach) with much more interesting gestures (closed eyes, brow furrowed, reaching out but then dropping his hand before he touched her) and some dialogue that told me more about how the characters were feeling that narrative ever could, even though (or because) the characters never really SAID how they were feeling.

For me, this is the hard work of writing: finding a way to say my story in a way no one has before. Using images and gestures that are unique to my characters that will bring the reader in rather than leave them on the outside observing. It's something I'm struggling with right now, and yet so excited about as well. It's one thing, I think, that can truly make good writing great. I'm certainly not there yet!

How about you? Do you find your character crying too much? Do you tend to lean on tried-and-true (but often cliche) gestures or feelings, and does it work for you?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Is There a Draft in Here?

It seems like it's been forever since I've been here on the blog - and worse yet, on yours. Although I certainly loved school and all the busyness of being secluded for ten days doing nothing but learning about writing, and while I love have mini-vacations with my family where we dance off to the pool in the early morning hours and come home a teensy bit sunburned and full of watermelon, I do miss this.

I am still in revision mode on my second novel, and though I convinced my saintly advisor this semester to not only review my revisions but also to look at some new short stories (this is just extra work for her, so I am sooooo thankful she's behind me in my need to write some fresh material too), the novel still takes precedence.

And so revisions continue.

I know many people who call this revision hell. I can understand that terminology, especially if one is more are writer than reviser, but I happen to love revisions. I adore them. There is nothing I like more than writing on a page that isn't blank.

But it does seem to never end. It's more like revision purgatory. I'm stuck here until some day far in the future when I decide I've done as much as I can do, and some editor agrees.

I was relieved when my last advisor told me he'd done 18 revisions on his latest novel. That makes my 8 look pretty piddly. The thing that I love about this MFA program is that no one is in a rush to get published. They all want to get published, don't get me wrong, but I haven't met a person yet who is champing at the bit to send off a piece before it's absolutely ready. And every one of them is willing to keep working until it is.

I read a great book on writing this past week called Modern Library Writer's Workshop. It's chock full of very interesting tips, ideas, encouragement, examples, and quotes that I frantically highlighted.

In it, the author talks about drafts and the process of revision that I found obvious but enlightening.

According to the author, there are three draft phases (each phase of which may contain several drafts).

Draft 1: Get the story down. This is what Stephen King calls a "closed door draft," because no one should see it. The point is to get the words on the page and figure out what the story is. The point is to finish it. To have characters and a semblance of plot. When it's done, the author says, feel good. Have a glass of champagne. Celebrate. And then give it a rest. At least a week, but no more than two months.

Then read the entire thing, all the way through.

Don't judge the book; it isn't ready to be judged. It's ready to be revised. But don't revise yet. Just read, and makes notes of places where you get lost in the story (those are the good passages!) and places where you start skimming (maybe this part needs cutting or trimming or rewriting). 

Draft 2: This is not a polishing phase. This is not where you sit down and make line-by-line changes as you go along. This is where you take charge of the story. Find the characters that need fleshing out. Find the plot holes.

First off, revise for structure. Solve the problem of sequence.

Secondly, develop the underdeveloped. Nearly everything you write will need to be more vivid, more coherent, and more powerful.

Thirdly, revise for plot. Get the details and mechanics of the plot under control.

Fourthly, revise for clarity. Even if you know what you meant, does the reader?

Lastly, cut. Cut everything by 10%. If the story is 10 pages, make it 9. If the novel is 300 pages, make it 270. I don't remember who it was, but some famous author said, "When I write, I try not to write the stuff readers skip over." I love that line!

The author says, "Cut. But don't cut out your heart... Your job in revision is to capture that first excitement and know it again, no longer as a promise but as a promise redeemed."

Draft 3: Finishing and polishing it. This is where you can further tighten language and look at sentence structure and check spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This drafting should be relatively quick.

I'm somewhere in the midst of drafting phase 2. Hopefully near the end of it, but I won't know until I finish the writing and read through it all in one sitting.

So my question for you: do you do all of it, or do you tend to skip phase 2? And where are you right now?