Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Food for Thought

The Digitalization of Reading (and Writing) This is a thoughtful piece about the ways that reading and writing are changing as our world becomes increasingly digital. (@ Aliventures)

Why Every Writer Needs As Much Editing As Possible As more and more writers become self-published the standards for editing seem to be dropping, but writers need to remember how that impacts their readers. (@ Jody Hedlund)

The Difference Between Your Current and Future Platforms An interesting post about the need for a platform as a writer and the way to explain growth to a potential publisher. (@ Writer Unboxed)

Novelists: Stop Trying to Brand Yourself Who exactly needs a brand or platform? One agent argues that novelists should focus solely on writing well and worry about the other things later. (@ Rachelle Gardner)

A Halloween Reading List Looking for some spooky stories or horror novels to read this weekend? Here's a list that's sure to make you think twice about turning out the lights. (@ The Guardian)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Are You Writing This November?

I mentioned in my post last week that the first time I attempted NANOWRIMO I won. I wrote 50,000+ words in 30 days, and have since written 3 more drafts of that novel. I’m finally happy with what I’ve come up with.

That was in 2008. In 2009 I wrote about 8,000 words and have since abandoned that project. In 2010 I wrote only short stories during the month of November and didn’t even bother logging my numbers on the site.

This year, I’m ready to try again. I’ve had multiple ideas for novels in the past 3 years, but for one reason or other they didn’t happen. This year, though, I have no excuse. I’ve graduated, I’m underemployed and I’ve got nothing but time. I write every day anyway, there’s just no way around it.

So what the heck am I going to write about?

Recently the instructor for my writing class gave us a homework assignment: create a character from two real people that you know.

As I drove home I started thinking about people I could combine into one character and include in a story. I mulled over a few possibilities and finally got stuck on two people from my past that both seemingly overnight disappeared from my life because of our differing values and beliefs. In each case, the other person was heavily devoted to their religion, whereas I am not a heavily religious person. This got me thinking about how religion can be a seriously divisive force and I wonder why that is. 

I’ve been grappling with this issue for a while and was deeply hurt by both people. I’ve been trying to think of an interesting way to write about this for the past few months.

As I thought about it, the story started to materialize. The character began to come alive as her own person and I knew I had a story that I could work with. But later, as I began to write my thoughts down and determine the structure and timeline of the story, I realized that I had too much material to deal with in ten pages. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like a novel to me. The dissolution of a friendship and the consequences of the choices we make in our youth. The story that I had started out to write was only the climax of a much larger piece. 

But why wait to write this novel until November? Community.

That’s one of the beautiful things about NANOWRIMO. We are all in this together. The forums are there so you can talk to other writers who are going through the same pain of trying to get this thing finished quickly. 

This novel is going to be very hard for me. It’s going to be emotional and I will have to work hard to be objective as I write so it doesn’t turn out sounding whiny or bitter. I know that being part of the NANOWRIMO community will help.

Novel writing is a solitary business. It can be lonely. NANOWRIMO reminds us novelists that we are not alone. That’s one of the things I love about it.

What are you planning to write this November? Tell us in the comments section.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What’s the Value in Writing Things That Will Never Be Read?

No writer (especially at the beginning of her career) should be naive enough to believe that every single word she writes will be read by at least one person other than herself. As my creative writing teacher put it, ‘if you have a VERY patient spouse, maybe they will read a third of what you write.’ I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is simple: sometimes you need to just write for yourself until the stuff worth bragging about comes out. 

The class I’m taking now is called Crafting Fiction from Personal Experience. I’ve always had a problem with writing from experience because I worry what someone might think if something they said to me ended up in my novel. That’s right. I’m incredibly self-conscious of what I put into my stories, and there’s a good chance if you say something to me that I want to use I will disguise it so heavily that you will never know it was you. But this class asks me to put a reign on that. Of course it’s up to me how much of the stuff I write for this class is fiction. The point though, is to take observations from the real world and fictionalize them in a way that creates a universal truth for any and all of your readers. 

Universal truths are that kind of elusive, ethereal quality that all writers should be striving for. Somehow though, when I’m asked to create that quality from personal experience, I find it more helpful to ground my stories in reality more heavily than I might normally. To that end, I doubt I will ever show any of the things that I write for this workshop to anyone outside of it, for fear of having a friend or family member say, ‘oh hey this is about me, isn’t it?’

Of course a character might be based on the person reading the story, but no, MY STORY IS NOT ABOUT YOU. And yet it is. 

That’s the point of a universal truth, or a well written story.

What I mean is that, when you read a story that is effective in the universal truth department, whether or not you know the author, you feel like the story is about you. So, in an abstract way, any story is about any reader that it resonates with.

If I write down verbatim a conversation that I have with my Aunt Sally (hypothetically) and then rework it so that it fits into a story I’m writing, it’s not necessarily about my Aunt Sally, right? If she reads it and asks me that inane question, “This is about me, right?” My response would be, “I don’t know, is it?” It doesn’t matter that those are her words on the page, what matters is whether the focus of the story resonates with her. If it doesn’t, then it’s not about her. She might not like that I used a conversation I had with her to illustrate my point, but beyond that, it’s only about universal truths.  Not every reader is going to like every story, even if it is about them.

So why write these stories if you aren’t ready to share them with your Aunt Sally? Writing things that no one will ever see will make you a better writer.  Writing these kinds of stories is an exercise. Even if you will never publish them or show them to outsiders, writing them makes you a better writer. It shows you a new way of doing things that you might not have considered before. Even if you’re not writing Pulitzer material every day, you need to be writing every day, so why not use all the material you can? Do something to get the juices flowing every single day because the faster you get out the crap that you don’t want anyone to read the easier it will be to write. Writing regularly is the only way to get better at it.

My writing instructor gave us an exercise last class that I think anyone out there who is intending to be a writer should try out.
Write two pages on this topic: something you don’t want anyone else in the entire world to know about you, not even your spouse or closest confidant.

If you typed it, print out these pages, then delete the file from your computer permanently.
Find a way to destroy these two pages, preferably, burn them. Other choices include shredding them, eating them etc.

Wait one hour. If you find you can’t live without whatever it is you wrote, go back to your computer or notebook and try to recreate it as best you can.

Have fun.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Food For Thought

Don't Avoid Painful Writing I recently shared a story with my writing workshop that was incredibly painful for me to write. I was terrified of what everyone would say about it, but at least one person in the workshop told me that it was a much better story than anything else I had submitted. You never know until you write it. (@ Jeff Goins Writer)

It's War Three Big Publishers Announce Plans to Share Sales Info with Authors...Just Like Amazon. The publishing industry is changing, and now with the news that Amazon is expanding its publishing imprint, I'm interested to see what happens next. (@ Melville House)

"If You Could Have Seen Her, It Was True" I think it speaks to the power of David Foster Wallace's talent and the untimeliness of his death that three years afterward people are still regularly discussing his work. Even if you haven't read any DFW this is an great piece about the line between fiction and nonfiction. (@ Full Stop)
  • Related: DFW's Letter to Harpers Demanding No Edits This just made me chuckle a bit. As an unpublished (so far) author I can't imagine ever saying something like this to an editor. (@ Huffington Post Culture)

 How To Kiss Writing Jitters Goodbye Writers at any level can learn from this post. I think we all get a little nervous about the quality of our writing but as long as we put our hearts on the page I think we can say we've done our best. (@ Jody Hedlund)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"I Would Prefer Not To"

There are several downsides to studying English in college that really only present themselves after graduation.

On the upside, while still in college, the beautiful thing about being an English major is two-fold: 1) you don’t always have to be right, and 2) you can always be right if you can defend your answer. Take for example the one question quiz I once took about Herman Melville’s wonderful novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street. The question was simple: “What do the walls symbolize?”

For those of you who need a refresher, Bartleby is the story of a lawyer and his four employees, Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut, and particularly Bartleby. Each time Bartleby is asked to do something he responds with “I would prefer not to” until the lawyer loses his patience and tries to get rid of him. More broadly the story is one of class struggles and the unfairness of the wage-labor system. The lawyer’s office is divided into two parts by a wall with a glass door – one side for the lawyer, one side for the employees – which he either opened or closed depending on his mood. Bartleby is given a desk in the same part of the office as the lawyer so as to be close by if he is needed.

So what do the walls symbolize then? You can make up your own answer, if you can defend it, but here’s my answer and subsequent defense: the walls symbolize the economic divide between the lawyer and his employees.

The lawyer does not understand his part in putting his employees where they are economically, he understands that they cannot afford the same things that he can but he does not understand their resultant behavior. His employee, Turkey, is the same age as he (~60) and yet he still works a minimum-wage job that he hates; combine this with the fact that he’s on the same level as 25 year-old Nippers and you’ve got one bitter, angry employee. As a result, Turkey gets drunk on his lunch break every day. The lawyer sees this and thinks that a gift of a nice winter coat might make Turkey appreciate his kindness and stop drinking so much. What actually happens is that Turkey is further reminded of his social status and becomes even more bitter. 

Likewise, each time the lawyer tries to get too close to Bartleby, he is met with the same response: “I would prefer not to.” This is Bartleby’s way of reminding the lawyer that they are not in the same position. That is, kindness is not going to make Bartleby richer. What Bartleby would prefer is a complete overhaul of the system – a way to put himself on the same level as the lawyer, or at least a way to climb up the social ladder. 

So what can we learn from this?

Rereading this story now, I can’t help but think about the Occupy Wall Street movement and what it means. 

So many times in the media, the movement has been trivialized as a senseless mob filled with misdirected anger. Republican presidential candidate hopeful Herman Cain even went so far as to say, “If you’re not rich, blame yourself." 

The movement is about so much more than that. 

As far as I know, none of these protestors is asking for a handout. What they want is a complete overhaul of the system, much like Bartleby they would prefer not to help the rich get richer at the sacrifice of their own well-being. 

There is no such thing as a good economy for an English major. I already knew it would be difficult to find a job when I graduated. If there was ever a time when I didn’t know that, I certainly have it figured out now. 

The problem I see is that every college degree (except for engineering and IT degrees) is being undervalued. College no longer guarantees you a better future and yet high school students are still being pushed to take out massive loans to go to college. I was lucky/smart in that I avoided the pressure to go to a private school and managed to come out with only $20K to pay off, but without a job, that’s still an impossibly high number. Many of my friends who did end up at private schools now have $100K+ with no job prospects in sight.

Five or six years ago, people were still under the impression that going to college would mean a bigger salary, so it didn’t matter how much money you needed to take out in student loans. Now, unemployment is at 9% and few of us are truly able to pay back those student loans, while the banks are doing alright. That’s at least part of why this movement is so big. 

According to the Center for American Progress, 71% of Americans believe that “Executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted.” But those executives have not been prosecuted, and the rest of us are suffering.

It’s time for an overhaul of the system and that’s what Occupy Wall Street is about. At the moment it’s complicated and doesn’t have a central focus but it’s big and it’s not going away. America is ready for the middle class to make their comeback.

Monday, October 17, 2011

National Novel Writing Month

I’ve heard so many writers speak negatively about National Novel Writing Month and I think this is misguided. For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo happens every November. Thousands of participants sign up to write 50,000 words toward a new novel project and gain support and community from others as they go. If you sign up you can track your progress on the site and if you hit 50,000 words by November 30 you win bragging rights and a certificate saying that you did it along with a few other cool things. The goal is to hit the 50,000 mark and if you happen to complete an entire novel in that span, even better. The only catch is that you can’t write any part of the novel before November 1 at midnight.

The great thing about this contest, I think, is that it gives new writers a place to start. Personally, I had written two short novellas before my first NaNoWriMo, one had taken me nearly a year, the other nearly four. I managed to hit 54,000 words during my first NaNo attempt and it felt great. It was the longest thing I’d ever written, and it had taken me the least amount of time. Why? Because someone had given me a reason to sit down and write. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

That’s the key. As a writer you need a regular schedule. Some writers don’t write every day. They write every other day, or three times a week, or whatever. But the key is to set up a schedule and stick to it.

I don’t think that any serious writers would argue against the need for a schedule. I think the problem that people have with NaNoWriMo is that more than likely a novel written so quickly will end up being crap. I agree, that’s pretty much true. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts." 

Anyone who expects the first draft of a novel they write in 30 days to be published immediately is living in a dream world. But the fact of the matter is, you may have a really great idea and NaNoWriMo may be just the push you need to get started. Great books can come out of this if you as the writer put the work into it to take it past the shitty first draft phase

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen was originally a NaNo novel after all.

So go forth and write for 30 days, and whether you finish or not at least you’ll have written more than you might have otherwise. If you do finish, CONGRATULATIONS! You now have a sizable draft of a novel on your hands. It’s up to you what to do next.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Food For Thought

The Build-A-Book Workshop Great post on Writer Unboxed by Ann Aguirre on her process for writing a book. I'm always curious about the process that other writers use to get the job done.

National "Novel Idea" Writing Month An excellent post about one author's experience with NaNoWriMo. I'll be writing my own post on the topic next week.

National Book Award Finalists The NBA Finalists were announced earlier this week. I'm sad to say I haven't read as many of these books as I would like.

Literary Matchmaking: Characters Who Would Date In Real Life  This is an amusing little article that's exactly what it sounds like. Read this if you need a good laugh.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Old Friends, New Memories

What did you do over Columbus Day weekend?

I spent my weekend in Northern Virginia visiting with my friends from college who I haven't seen in at least a year. We missed Alumni Weekend but we went back to campus anyway to see what had changed. George Mason University hasn't stopped building new buildings since any of us started there, so we were surprised when there were only two new buildings since we had last looked.

It was a great weekend and we spent a large part of it outside enjoying the weather. Consequently, I didn't get much writing done. Don't worry though, I'll be back to my regular posts on Friday.

Enjoy your Wednesday!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

As soon as I heard about J. Courtney Sullivan’s second novel, Maine, I felt certain I would enjoy it. It’s the story of three generations of women, set in the family beach house in Cape Neddick, Maine, which is very close to where my own family has a house in Maine.

I thought it would be the perfect summer book and I was not disappointed.

I bought the book from a book store in Kennebunk, during a signing on a dreary day in June that didn’t make me want to be at the beach. Sullivan read an excerpt from the book and then answered several questions and stayed for a long time signing books.

The excerpt she read involved two of the four main characters, thirty-two year old Maggie and her relentless grandmother, Alice. Sullivan is excellent at creating meaningful characters through realistic dialogue. Listening to her read, we could all feel the tension between Maggie and Alice and we could feel the disapproval in Alice’s voice as if Maggie’s actions were our own and we were the ones being questioned. 

As I began to read the book, though, I discovered that there are reasons for Alice’s behavior. Each of the four main characters, Alice, Maggie, Ann-Marie and Kathleen, appear on the page as real people with real histories and real emotions. As a reader it is nice to be able to be so immersed in a story that you continue to think about the characters even after you put the book down. (If you’re a writer you may want to read this book to learn how to create convincing characters.)

At its heart, Maine is the story of four women as they attempt to understand each other and the events in their own lives. It is set on the beach but it is far too literary to be written off as a ‘beach read.’ Sullivan is a master at combining humor and intelligence in order to create marketable, thought-provoking books. 

If you didn’t get a chance to read Maine over the summer, don’t worry, it’s not too late. This is a book that will be around for a long time.

Have you read Maine yet? What did you think?

You can read more reviews of Maine here.