Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time, Risk, and Writing

The stately clock has been with us for years. When we moved, we transported it as carefully as we had when we first brought it home, even though it had never once while in our possession ticked off a single second. At the new house, we found a stashed key and finally delivered it to the local clock shop for repair.

Today we started it up precisely at 11:49, the moment at which it had long ago ceased tracking time. The pendulum now ticks and tocks, beating a rhythm all but forgotten in our digital age, a reminder of time passing, passing, passing.

Time is a tough foe. We race with it, beat ourselves up over it, lose ourselves in it. In the end, time always prevails. Writing, an inefficient pursuit at best, is especially at odds with time. As a New Year looms, full of promise, we can’t resist looking back at all we failed to accomplish – the unfinished manuscript, the imperfect poem, the unanswered queries.

But writing, as Doctorow points out, is no mere way of passing the time. It is an endeavor that entails large risks, risks that call your very sense of self into question.

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader,” said Paul Gallico back in 1946. “If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don't feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you're wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”

Real writing, the hazardous, vein-opening kind, is at odds with our schedule-happy, competitive, productivity-obsessed modern age. Revision is especially so. In her essay “Waiting and Silence,” Susan Snively notes that Franz Kafka kept a sign above his desk that said simply “Wait.” A writer’s completion of a first draft, Snively says, is “the most exhilarating, and therefore treacherous, moment,” because we are all too eager to show our unpolished work to the world.

The ticking of my clock is a gift, a reminder that as a writer, I’m privileged to step beyond time. In my stories, I can mold it as I choose. I can take immeasurable risks without leaving my chair. I can stop time, waiting until a piece rights itself, following the example of poet Elizabeth Bishop, who would leave gaps in her drafts where she lacked the right words, waiting patiently for them to reveal themselves. “Her refusal to hurry a poem was, among other things,” Snively says, “a way to say that the poem’s special life had to be honored above her own need for closure or publication.”

The swinging pendulum of our newly-refurbished clock says this: the passion for truth trumps the march of minutes and hours every time. As writers, may we be fierce with determination, unflinching with risks, and generous with ourselves.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


“In your writing, remember that the purpose of everything you’re doing is to bring about some kind of emotional reaction in your reader.” Christopher Vogler

What draws us to literature? What makes writing worthwhile? The holiday season has answers.

Yes, that holiday season, the one we love to hate. Whether you celebrate Channukah or Christmas or Kwaanzaa or St. Nicholas Day or St. Lucia’s Day, or whether you plug your ears and cover your eyes and roar humbug at it all, you need only a little fortitude and persistence to dig beyond the advertising inserts and glitter and cheesy carols to discover truths for your writing.

A recent caller to Rick Steve’s travel show described his favorite holiday ever: nestled with his family under a blanket on a balcony in a Swiss village that bans motor vehicles, listening to the clatter of horses drawing sleighs through the streets, enjoying a snowy scene happily lacking in bustle. As Christopher Vogler points out in The Writer’s Journey, that sort of simple, reflective interlude was the original point of the solstice holidays, presenting a sacred opportunity, a turning point in which we collectively removed ourselves from the rhythms of daily life.

But in the modern age, we’ve subverted the ritual cycle which birthed literature, and we’ve lost touch with genuine rest. As a byproduct, we’ve also lost touch with catharsis, the sudden release of emotions evoked by story, which is why much modern writing, including our own work, can leave us largely unsatisfied.

A few years ago, I had my first cave experience, thanks to the kind owners of Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge on Prince of Wales Island. (I also nearly blinded their fly-fishing guide, but that’s a story for another day). We hiked up the side of a mountain to El Capitan, the largest known cave in Alaska and home to the deepest limestone pit in the country. After belly-crawling deep into the caverns, we extinguished the lights. The total darkness we shared is what Vogler calls “the perfect stage to initiate young people into the mysteries of the tribe, its deepest beliefs, the essence of its compact with nature.”

Originating in festivals that ritualized the cave experience in a cycle of mythological death and rebirth that includes mortification, purgation, invigoration, and jubilation, story plunges us into a place of darkness from which we emerge transformed “The absence of things that were normally taken for granted created a renewed appreciation for them,” says Vogler of ancient rituals born from the disorienting effect of the dark. “It also focused the minds of the people and reminded them of the possibility of death that was always near.”

These days, mortification and purgation are out of vogue. Heaven forbid we deprive ourselves, which ritually speaking explains why the jubilation we’re supposed to experience at this time of year feels so feeble.

In Aristotle’s era, catharsis was a medical term for the elimination of poisons.  In story, the hero stands in for the sacrificial god-king (or queen). As her fate unfolds, we feel sorry for her, and we fear her fate. We are purged. The poisons are gone. We leave the story relieved that though we, like the hero, are flawed, we haven’t had to endure what she has.

That’s classic tragedy. We associate it with the Greeks, but the concept is universal. Consider what Mark John says about story-songs in Yupitt Yuraryarait (Yup’ik Ways of Dancing): “Even a song, our ancestors sang it to take out bad feelings inside, and they considered such songs powerful. And though one feels tired before the dance, when one goes home, it seems like one’s being has been expanded.”

Comedy, too, is cathartic. The jolly old elf of our current season is no accident. Neither are the celebrations of light, joy at emerging from the cave.

In your holiday greetings to writers, you need but one word: catharsis. It’s a reminder of purpose.  As Vogler says, “You are always raising and lowering the tension, pumping energy into your story and characters until some kind of emotional release is inevitable, in the form of laughter, tears, shudders, or a warm glow of understanding.”

Try This:  In a favorite piece of poetry or prose, identify the cathartic effect. Then do the same for your own work in progress.

Check This Out: The back matter describes Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey as “one of the most influential writing books in the world.” Though they must resist the urge to find formula in Vogler’s analysis of mythic structure, writers will benefit from understanding the primal function of myth in story.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Butting Heads, and Other Pursuits of a Writer

The youngest writers have no problem with conflict. Ask six-year-old Billy to tell you a story, and he’ll dizzy you with an unflappable hero who prevails against bad guys at every turn. But then Billy’s idea of conflict resolution is to whack Bobby over the head with the Tonka truck he wants. Grown-ups will spend lots of time and energy training Billy out of this impulse. For the sake of the greater good, he’ll eventually do a full 180 and spend a good part of his adult energy avoiding conflict. If he’s not careful, the characters in his stories will do the same.

To make sure your stories have enough conflict, you don’t have to re-inhabit your six-year-old self (though let’s face it – you know a person or two on whom you’d like to execute that Tonka truck maneuver). But you do need to acknowledge the importance of conflict and understand how to unleash it in your prose.

Conflict matters in story precisely because of how we train Billy and all of our children. To play well together as grown-ups, conflicts are channeled and rerouted and boxed in to sanctioned activities. They acquire protocol. The outing of conflict in literature allows us to validate that Tonka truck. As Sol Stein says in How to Grow a Novel, “Readers enjoy conflict because it is in fiction and not in their real lives.

“Successful writing is permeated with an adversarial spirit demonstrate in suspicion, opposition, confrontation, and refusal,” Stein says. “A writer has to look only to his own humanity to find the material for conflict.” Those seven deadly sins? Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony are all about conflict of one type or another.

Speaking of types, we all know these three: person versus person, person versus nature, person versus self. We also know that for conflict to matter, there must be something at stake, and that the obstacles need to stack up – in other words, the conflict gets complicated. What’s trickier, perhaps because of those suppressed Tonka truck impulses, is probing the emotional tension that accompanies conflict. Even as we love our characters, we have to prod them through hell and back.

In an article in the The Writer (“Get the Emotion into Your Fiction,” September, 2007), Eric Witchey suggests making at least three agendas for each of your characters: an overall agenda, as in her broad goals and hopes; a scene agenda; and a compulsive agenda fueled by deep needs known to others but not acknowledged by the character herself (pane 3 of the Johari Window). Conflict tests a character’s need to succeed, Witchey says, and it forces her to play out her own deep psychology.

“Conflict is not merely obstacle,” Witchey points out. “Conflicted characters can’t win. The best they can do is choose well. That makes them real to the reader and much more compelling.”

Conflicts unfold in many ways – that’s part of what makes them so interesting. Where do your readers first discover the conflicts your characters will grapple with? If it’s not early on, why are you holding out? Are the conflicts obvious? Why hide them?

From page one of One Mississippi (by Mark Childress), here’s the first indication of one of the conflicts young Daniel Musgrove is up against (overall agenda): “My father was a good man – I can say that now, after all these years and everything that happened – but on a day-to-day basis, he was about as fun as Hitler.”

Two pages later, after the father announces the family will be moving, Daniel’s oldest brother bluntly objects (scene agenda), and we learn the conflict runs deeper (compulsive agenda – the reader sees complications that Daniel appears not to realize): “Bud took my breath away saying things like that, things that would have got me backhanded and sent to my room. Dad darkened and loomed in his corner, but stayed silent. Bud looked like Dad, and Dad respected him for that.”

Chapter One seeds additional conflicts within Daniel’s family, complicated when along the highway they come upon the moving van loaded with all their belongings, wrecked and on fire. After refusing to admit he’s driven past their destination, Daniel’s father turns abruptly into a motel parking lot and comes back with a key. The chapter ends like this:

I don’t know why I felt moved to speak. It was like when I was little, playing hide-and-seek – I could find a good place to hide, but I couldn’t stay hidden. I always gave myself away.

I got up on my knees in the backseat to peer out the window. “Dad,” I said, “are you crazy? We can’t stay here. The pool doesn’t even have a slide.”

It’s a good thing there are laws against killing your kids. What I will never know is how he managed to hit me all the way from the car to the room without making a sound of his own.

A literary version of the Tonka truck? Maybe. Conflict doesn’t require such overt acts of violence, and you may favor a more lyrical style than Childress opens with. Regardless, the conflicts should be clear, to propel the reader forward.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In the Beginning

How to start? This isn’t a question of motivation or of how to get ideas on the page, though these are important considerations. It’s a matter of those essential first lines, the ones on which all your readers, including agents and editors, will judge your work.

Author Sinclair Lewis learned firsthand the importance of beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book is of paramount importance.”

Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end? Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do.

This was the scenario that played out at a recent “Writer Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents, there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too much information. There were too many clichés, or the writing was unfocused, or the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors trying for active beginnings overload them with action.

The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose. Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs, foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict.

You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Sea opens like a news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” begins James Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more.

With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity. In short, you’re hooked.

Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolita for proof that a book can open successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming, confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis on voice, it seems more than modern.

A final caveat: it’s all too easy to get attached to our beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible.  Remember - they’re not.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Confident Writer

“There is in you what’s beyond you.” Paul Valery

As a self-doubting teen (weren’t we all that, once?), I developed a passion for politics. For this I blame my parents, who before I entered kindergarten took our family to march for civil rights in our small Illinois town.

One of my deep childhood memories is holding a charred fragment of a Mississippi church that was burned by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer in 1964. My parents, like many others, were moved to action. My father traveled south to assist the civil rights movement there and brought back a piece of the church.

Though deeply shy, I grew up believing that activism mattered. Impassioned by Senator George McGovern’s bid for President, I volunteered, going door to door and making phone calls – lots of phone calls – to get out the vote.

McGovern lost, badly, but I came out a winner. I got hung up on and yelled at. I got scolded and ridiculed and cussed. In a word, I got tough. I learned that people could think and say what they wanted. At the end of the day, I was still me.

As it turned out, all that rejection was excellent preparation for becoming a writer. Our calling demands courage and confidence, even and especially in the face of all we don’t know. In this, it’s like parenting. You’re never exactly sure that you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes you’re not even sure what the right thing is. Yet you carry on. You don’t falter. You give it your best, and you try to get better. You stay open. And in the end, you let go.

Confident writers are not brazen or blustering. Even in doing the necessary work of promotion, they don’t brag. Bluster, brazenness, and bragging are thin disguises for the insecurity that accompanies a poorly formed sense of self and, in the case of writers, a poorly executed manuscript.

In The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux offer wisdom on the topic of confidence. Though they address poets, their truths apply to all writers. Don’t dwell on your failures, they advise: “In the literary life, which is full of rejected manuscripts, lost awards and prizes, and critical judgments of your work, it’s essential to develop some self-appreciation – to delight in your successes, wherever and however they arrive.”

Eschew competitiveness, they say. “Poetry, ultimately, is not a competition, in spite of the competitive nature of achieving publication and recognition. If you see it as such, you’re likely to feel unhappy, instead of being nourished by it.” Another pitfall to avoid: equating your self with your writing. As committed as we are to our craft, as much as we may bleed on the page, we must not wrap ourselves so completely into our writing that we are crushed by rejection and criticism. “The truth is that good poems come from a combination of things: awareness, talent, persistence, persistence, native and acquired language abilities, luck, persistence, knowledge, imagination, persistence,” note Addonizio and Laux. “Who you are contributes to your poetry in a number of important ways, but you shouldn’t identify with your poems so closely that when they are cut, you’re the one who bleeds.”

And finally, this good advice: “If you want to write poems, you have to acknowledge that that’s what you want to do, and quit sabotaging yourself. Don’t give in to doubt; feel it, recognize it, and then quit beating yourself up and get to work.”

Check This Out: The study of poetry is good for all writers, and this “guide to the pleasures of writing poetry” is among the best. Divided into sections on subjects, craft, and the writing life, The Poet’s Companion also includes twenty-minute writing exercises and four useful appendices.

Try This: In The Poet’sCompanion, Addonizio and Laux recommend this exercise: write down all your doubts about yourself as a writer. Once you’ve got it on the page, counter that voice. Argue back. Include why you write, and what you know to be true about your creative self.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hearing Voices: Point of View, Perspective, and Narrative Distance

“I have wanted you to see out of my eyes so many times.” 

Point of view, perspective, and narrative distance: these aren’t difficult concepts, but they do trip up writers. Jarring switches in point of view or a character’s sudden omniscience are mistakes that imply you’re a novice.

Who narrates? How much does the narrator see and know? What perspective, including biases and blind spots, does the narrator bring? How close is the reader to the narrator, and how close is the narrator – we’re talking psychic distance here – to the story? These decisions are generally embedded in a narrative from the very first sentence.

Every author works differently, and for most of us, the process shifts from project to project. These days, I don’t generally begin a story until I hear the narrative voice. When I first began my novel Cold Spell, I heard sixteen-year-old Sylvie loud and clear. The novel began like this, in first person:

Kenny promised a new start at the glacier, where the wind blew mean and cold off the ice.   You’ll love it, he promised my mother, and being eager to love, she believed him. 

As the novel began to take shape, I felt it needed to be told from three points of view: sixteen-year-old Sylvie, her mother Ruth, and Kenny’s mother, Lena. For a long time, Sylvie’s portions stayed in first person, reflecting my strong connection to her, along with the fact that she’s sixteen, an age that favors a certain amount of self-absorption. Ruth and Lena narrated from the third person limited.

But as the novel came together, the shifts from first to third person began to feel lopsided. It’s not that such a thing can’t be done – Jayne Anne Phillip’s award-winning Lark and Termite is a great example – but I wasn’t achieving the intimacy I wanted with each of the three characters, and adjusting the point of view seemed one way to balance things out. Early readers concurred. Now the novel begins like this, still with Sylvie, but in third person:

I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory. Then her father ran off and her mother became obsessed with a glacier and she realized this was what happened to girls who believed themselves poems, poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.

In shifting from first to third person, no intimacy is lost. Third person can in fact allow for more latitude with voice and perspective, including self-insight. Sylvie herself wouldn’t have said “poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.” She’s sixteen, and that’s not how she talks. 

Consider how the process works in reverse, when the change is from third to first person. “Changing POV like this involves a great deal more than simply turning all the she’s into I’s,” explain Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter in What If? “The author must step out from the middle and let the I’s voice speak for itself.” There’s much to be said for the power of a strong, sustaining voice, rendered in the first person. But first person can also the most limiting of the point of view options. You can only tell what one character experiences, and it must be through her own set of filters, in her own voice.

I’ve had plenty of misadventures with point of view and perspective during my years in publishing. It felt like my first novel, A Distant Enemy, wrote itself, and it happened to be in third person, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy. Buoyed with unearned confidence, I decided I’d be strategic with my second novel, which began with an idea instead of a voice: I’d write about a girl’s experience in the wilderness. I drafted and redrafted the whole novel a couple of times before my editor, the venerable Virginia Buckley, pointed out that it wasn’t the girl’s story after all. Before it was all said and done, I wrote four different versions of Out of the Wilderness, each with a different point of view: girl first, girl third, boy first, boy third. You might say I’m a slow learner.

We build intuition about point of view, perspective, and narrative distance through careful reading, awareness, and flexibility - a willingness to revise. As we grow in skill and confidence, it becomes easier to juggle pov, perspective, and distance. It took me a good long time to get comfortable, for instance, with the limited use of second person as part of a narrator’s voice, and with multiple points of view. In Cold Spell, the narration shifts completely in the final scene, as does the tense, and the characters aren’t referred to by name as they approach the glacier:

You feel it first in the dry sucking wind that shivers past shadows, empty and defiant, the air mean and low, siphoning warmth, the ice a large and perpetual testimony to cold. Two figures creep toward it, dwarfed by raw-edged mountains that chew at the sky, the illusion of ice so close you could reach out and feel the wet melt of it under your skin as you press as if for a pulse.

“The closing scene is especially masterful in this regard,” says one of my readers.“Taking Brody's and Sylvie's names out renders them both as the anguished, grasping, not-yet-fully developed characters we know so well AND spiritual archetypes.” Commenting on the multiple points of view in the novel, this same reader says, “I love the way you weave together the overlapping voices of the characters--a narrative technique that can easily come across as gimmicky, but that you manage beautifully.”

While multiple viewpoints can add layers of tension to a narrative, there are other pitfalls besides the gimmick. “A novel dominated by point of view often lacks the feeling of space and freedom, of security in the world, that permits the reader to transcend themselves, to grow and change by living for a period in the narrative,” notes Rachel Cusk

A more dire pitfall is what author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford terms head jumping. “Whatever perspective you choose,” Bransford says, “it has to be grounded. The reader has to know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.” He likens point of view to a camera, noting that writers need to be mindful of the potentially jerky, dizzying effect of swapping perspectives within a scene.

Like so much else in writing, your skillful handling of point of view, perspective, and narrative distance earns you the trust of your readers, proving that they’re in capable hands, and that the narrative you’ve fashioned through a wild, messy, hair-pulling process now flows confidently in all its aspects.

Try This: In What If?, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter suggest you write in 550 words or less about an early memory, something that occurred before you were seven years old. Use the first person and the perspective of a child. Keep the distance tight by not analyzing, reflecting, or interpreting.  Let the narrative speak for itself. Then write about the same incident in no more than two pages, this time with the distance created by time, and an adult perspective, in either first or third person.

Check This Out: What If? by Bernays and Painter offer a multitude of exercises for the fiction writer, on beginnings, memory, characterization, perspective, dialogue, plot, story elements, resolution, transformation, and mechanics. There’s even a section on games, and another on learning from the greats. With each are student examples.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Character Motivation

“It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.” ~ Sir Edmond Hillary

Steve Almond says it simply: in any narrative, we care first about the character, and then we care about what that character cares about. More than anything else, this is what compels a reader through a narrative.

It seems that Almond is referring to character motivation, and on one level, he is. But motivation runs even deeper. As Jennifer Van Bergen points out in Archetypes forWriters: Using the Power of Your Subconscious, it is a very small subset of motivations, which she calls “Universal Drives,” that motivate compelling characters: to survive, to love, to be loved, and (my addition) to matter.

These universal drives (I’m not keen on Van Bergen’s capitals, which smack of jargon) underlie virtually everything that matters in our lives, and in the lives of our characters. Universal drives are not conscious, nor are they situational. They are not emotions or reactions or beliefs. They are not doable in and of themselves. Being in love, for instance, is not a universal drive; rather, it is a situation compelled by the universal desire to love and be loved.

As writers, we discover the universal forces that motivate our characters by first acknowledging that our characters exist inside us. Despite the language we use to talk about characters – building, crafting, developing – character work is as much about discovery as anything else.

Though it seems inefficient, we typically uncover the universal desires of our characters by working backwards. My recently completed novel Cold Spell features Ruth, single mother of two, who becomes obsessed by a glacier. What’s behind this obsession? In part, that’s what the novel’s about, and what I had to discover myself in the process of writing it. Surface-level motivations – Ruth’s husband taking off for Florida with another woman, her fear that she’ll get stuck in her small Midwestern town, her deep hurts and longings – led me to her fundamental desire to love (her daughters especially) and be loved (by her girls, and by herself). As I sifted through these layers, it became more and more clear what’s truly at stake when Ruth abandons all that’s familiar and follows a man to the glacier.

In order to write effectively about our characters, Van Bergen points out that we must understand them from the inside, and with deep empathy. Readers care about characters who are motivated by universal desires. We all want to be secure. We all want to love and be loved. We all want to feel like we matter.

By definition, universal desires exist at all times, in everyone. In other words, they’re as common as dirt, yet they’re also highly intriguing because in each person these desires are uniquely manifested and suppressed. We are all damaged goods, pummeled by forces that keep us from attaining what we so desperately and fundamentally desire. What stands between our characters and their universal desires is what makes their stories truly compelling, along with the fact that the nature of these desires is such that none can ever be sure that they’ve always and forever achieved them.

Check This Out:  In Archetypes for Writers, Jennifer Van Bergen taps into acting strategies to explore archetypal elements of characters. Her insistence on Greek-based nomenclature (universal drives, for instance, are “nos-amianthy) is cumbersome, and the prose in some parts reads more like notes, but there are some useful ideas in the book, and plenty of exercises.

Try This: Modified from Van Bergen: Identify a character’s goal or goals within a single scene from a short story, then consider the same character’s goal or goals within the entire story. Finally, identify the universal desires that underlie these goals.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Spooky Subtext

Just in time for All Hallows Eve, a big full moon rose over the mountains last night, a reminder that there’s no better time to talk about subtext. At Halloween, the subconscious comes forward, and we confront our fears in gruesome detail. It’s a time to celebrate haunting, which is how subtext works in a narrative.

In The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter explains the ways in which subtext haunts a text: hyperdetailing of what’s not fully known, the unbidden return of certain aspects of the story, the half-noticed and half-heard. He describes how subtext is often rendered through super-vigilant observers, children like Harper Lee’s Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. In subtext, as in haunting, genuine desires are often hidden; the ghost that wants you to go away communicates in a barely discernable voice.

As hauntings horrify, so does subtext: any unthinkable thought qualifies, according to Baxter. Ghosts behave badly, and so do characters caught up in subtext. “Stories thrive on bad behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes,” Baxter says. When it comes to subtext, think poltergeist, not Casper with his jovial antics.

For awhile I was working on a novel that involved a ghost, which gave me a wonderful excuse to watch ghost shows on TV. I became quite a snob about it: all but the Syfy Channel’s Ghost Hunter series I deemed too hyped and far out. Week after week, I watched the Ghost Hunter team set up in haunted places and shut out the lights. They spent the night listening, watching, waiting, and occasionally cajoling the ghosts, expressing sympathy for their troubles as a way of drawing them out. In a recent issue of Author Magazine, author Jennifer Paros in “Being a Whisperer: Gentleness over Force” discusses how writers work best this way, too, to draw out the most haunting aspects of their prose.

Paying close attention to your text is one of the best ways to discover and maximize the subtext that haunts it. Watch for revealed, excessive detailing. Note the characters who refuse to go to the heart of a matter, who insist on their blind spots and mental bubbles and thus prolong their own anguish. Connect with your subconscious, which is often smarter than your ego. Rely on good readers and multiple revisions to find motifs and linked themes in your writing, and the subtext that haunts your work will make itself known.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Landscapes Revisited

With the words you’re reading here, the 49 Writers blog has featured a whopping 1281 posts. Figure an average of 600 words per post, and that’s 768,600 words, or enough for nine full-length books at an average word length of 85,000 each, a truly amazing collective accomplishment achieved by Alaska’s writers.

Blogger continues to beef up its stat reporting feature, and while it acts up once in awhile, it has overall become a fascinating source of information about who’s reading what on the blog. The top five 49 Writers posts with the most page views are an eclectic assortment that includes the “We have a key!” post announcing the opening of Alaska’s first writing center, a tribute to John Haines, a post on Amazon self-publishing, a Harper Lee Christmas story, and our most recent Ode to a Dead Salmon contest finalists.

It’s an intriguing assortment, but what’s of even more interest are some really great hidden gems that haven’t yet made the top five, or even the top ten all-time posts as measured in number of page views. One of my personal all-time favorites is David Vann’s piece on landscapes, posted all the way back in 2009.  It’s worth reading alone for Vann’s introductory comments:

The London Book Fair has been going on this week, and it’s one of those events that controls my future. I know nothing about it, though, except that my agents are there and several of my editors are there, and I do trust that they’re doing the most they possibly can for me. I’m extremely happy with my editors and publishers now, but I had a lot of frustrations with that first book.

All’s well that ends well, as one of the world’s best writers once said. That first book Vann mentions, Legend of a Suicide, went on to win numerous awards, including best foreign novel in both Spain and France.

But it’s Vann’s observations on landscapes that keep me going back to that post, because it’s there I first came to fully understand the objective correlative, something I’d been doing (sort of) without knowing the term for it. I’ll let Vann explain it, since he does it so well:

When T.S. Eliot used this term, he meant something larger (such as a sequence of dramatic events that, taken together, evoke an emotion in a reader), but in creative writing workshops it has come to mean this: by describing an exterior landscape from the point of view of a character, we are indirectly describing the interior landscape (the thoughts, feelings, and sensibility) of that character. This is the same, really, as what we mean most of the time by “vision” (how a character views himself or herself, the other characters, and the world), and since these are inevitably the most important moments in our stories, telling our readers what our stories are about, it’s also the same as “theme,” and because we’re saying something important indirectly, it’s also the same as “subtext.” It’s impossible to write a successful work in any genre without at least one of these moments. I mean that. If you don’t have a moment like this, of vision and theme and subtext, your work is not worth reading, and landscape description is the easiest way to create these moments.

For more of Vann’s observations, including how to see, how to describe a place, how to use landscape to build theme, and how to write a beautiful sentence, read the full post, which is partially a reprint of an article Vann wrote for Writer’s Digest. Whether or not it makes the top five all-time posts, you can be sure I’ll be reading it again and again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's Left Unsaid

I used to secretly cringe whenever I heard the commandment of Henry James, that as a writer I must be “one upon whom nothing is lost." I was all too aware of my shortcomings in this department. I’m not completely oblivious to what goes on around me, but I’ve been known to forget a face, or not notice what someone’s wearing, or wonder whether the leaves had fallen from the tree I walked past a half-hour earlier. Instead, I remember weird things, impressions really, like smudged lipstick or scuffed shoes or the wet smell of fall.

Years passed before I figured out that James wasn’t suggesting that writers had to be cameras, recording minutia and spitting it back for our readers. That’s boring and pointless. Readers want to get involved in the story. They don’t want the author to lay everything out, front and center. “Fiction is about the selection of details, not the accumulation of them,” says author Victoria Redel in Words Overflown by Stars. “Every detail, even the most seemingly random or improbable, must accrue, must finally as the details that thread and weave through the fiction become imbued with larger meaning.”

She goes on to explain that random looking, a kind way to describe my un-Jamesish way of noticing, accumulates into meaning. “Descriptions of the witnessed world are not important in fiction only to give the reader a feeling of where the characters are,” she says. “The details of the witnessed world are essential because, properly selected, they become vehicles for understanding the human experience.”

How do writers select the proper details? “One answer would be ‘very carefully,’” says Redel. “But I also think that another equally valid and not altogether different answer might be ‘randomly.’ The random thing looked at long enough and from enough different angles will become essential and vital.”

We don’t need all the details. In fact, too many will muck things up. Power comes from omission. By leaving out or strategically withholding certain details, by focusing tightly on a few and leaving others to the reader, it’s possible to create a purposeful ambiguity that encourages readers to participate with the text.

This isn’t an excuse for sloppiness. It’s certainly possibly to overdo ambiguity by making the reader work too hard, with few clues and little payoff. But hurling everything at the reader invites yawns and accusations of a different sort of laziness, where the writer says in effect to the reader: Here, have it all, and you figure out what matters.

Is omission the same as minimalism? I think not. The point is not so much to strip down or to be spare or to shun emotion as to make meaningful choices. “For the most part, to say a thing directly in a piece of fiction, to say it directly from the get-go, diminishes tension. And the fictive enterprise is all about maximizing, creating a whirl of tension,” says Redel. “I am proposing that there is a bounty, often greater bounty, in the partial, the suggested, the entirely left out.”

Even crucial literary elements can be omitted, if the writer is skillful and purposeful about it. In “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson leaves out motive; tension is heightened by the juxtaposition of quotidian details against the horrific.

Likewise, some of the most powerful dialogue involves what’s left unsaid, the responses people don’t make to each other. As Charles Baxter says in The Art of Subtext, “In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Scene and Summary

In shifting from work on a novel (almost done!) to a nonfiction project (researched and three chapters in), I’ve been thinking a lot about how scene and summary work.

There’s a certain luxury about scenes in a novel. You can invent them one after another, whole cloth, and cut them as needed, which I did in a few spots in my latest novel. That’s not especially efficient, I know, but sometimes I need to write scenes in order to watch my characters interact, even if those scenes later end up as backstory or summary or litter in my hard drive.

When you’re writing narrative nonfiction from history, scenes pose a bigger challenge. You have to snatch every opportunity where there are sufficient details to construct them. You’ll do some of what Joan Silber calls “sneaky summary,” using details to simulate scene, as here, where my historical protagonist, Tagish Indian Shaaw Tlaa (later known as Kate Carmack), enters her puberty seclusion:

She would drink through a straw fashioned from the bone of a swan or a goose so her lips wouldn’t touch water.  She would keep busy with sewing brought by the Crow women, but she was not allowed to do any of the cutting. To ensure she would always be light on her feet, she might blow on down from a swan. If she rubbed her teeth with white rocks, they would stay strong even when she was old. But she had to be careful. Spirit power could backfire if it wasn’t used properly.

Even in fiction, scenes don’t include everything that happens. “Elements are reduced to the service of the story,” Silber says, noting that selective concreteness – gestures, dialogue, and sensory details – make us feel that we were there “for the good parts.” When in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald relays through Daisy’s friend Jordan how Daisy got drunk before her bridal dinner, he uses selective details instead of straight summary to render the culminating episode:

She began to cry – she cried and cried. I rushed out and found her mother’s maid, and we locked the door and got her into a cold bath. She wouldn’t let go of the letter. She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.

Summary isn’t simply the default for when we don’t have the raw materials for scene or for when we need a bridge between scenes. As Catherine Brady points out in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, summary can provide another level of intimacy with characters, allowing us to see how they perceive the world, as in this from my novel Cold Spell, where Sylvie speculates on why her mother became obsessed with a glacier:

The ice drew her mother, and Sylvie was helpless to stop it. Her obsession was absurd, an embarrassment that Sylvie struggled to justify. Maybe after her father packed his belongings into that refurbished Ford van and pointed it south, her mother’s head had swelled with palm trees and beaches and skimpy swimsuits that a woman like Mirabelle might still pull off.  That big frozen mass would have butted the tropical images right out of her head. Or maybe she simply aspired to the cold, regal power of ice.

There’s a natural tension between what’s told and what’s shown, Brady points out, so that summary can actually set up the stakes for an entire novel.

Scene is the close-up shot, says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. Summary is the long shot. She adds a third category: musing, offering this sample from the first page of her memoir Lifesaving:

The way I see it, the story is about my mother’s lifelong terror of the sea and my father’s pigheadedness. Or perhaps it is about the absurd pretenses of the British middle class, particularly the male of that species, whose dignity must be preserved at all costs. It might be in part about those costs – about the price some of us paid for keeping up that pretense. It might, too, be about a child’s lifelong yearning to save her mother. Inevitably, though, as I set out to tell what happened on the day of the race, the telling is also about the creation of myth and fallibility of memory. Memory lurking in the shadow of myth, waiting to be lost in the dark.

Barrington notes that beginning writers tend too much toward summary. As they gain experience, they tend toward scene, missing out on the power of summary and musing to build intimacy with characters, to set up the stakes, and to heighten tension. “Remember it is scene and summary that make for a good story,” she says, “while musing in some form makes it layered and thought-provoking.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How I Joined the Twittersphere

It started with pumpkins. Jack o’lanterns, to be specific. My son and his then-girlfriend (now wife) are alumni of rival universities, so they went one-on-one in a little friendly competition, carving their mascots, the WSU Cougs and UW Huskies, into jack o’lanterns.

“I’d send you a picture,” my son said. “But you don’t text.”

You could text pictures? I had no idea. That’s how Cro-Magnon I was. I’d shunned texting. What happened to conversation? If people had something to say, they should call. I was so anti-texting that I’d my phone carrier shut off the feature.

But there were those pumpkins. One thing led to another, and I got an iPhone. Now I text all the time, and I’ll never miss another jack o’lantern. But I re-drew the line at Twitter. Really, 140 characters? It made no sense.

Then I ran some analytics on my website. Fresh content was what I needed– more of it, more often. A Twitter feed was a whole lot easier than logging into my website every day and finding new things to say there. All I had to do was jump on Twitter and post or retweet.

It really was that easy. In two minutes, I became @debvanasse, and I discovered that – duh – there really is a reason for Twitter. It’s not an evil plot to destroy the world by promoting snippets and abbreviations over extended thoughts. It’s a way to share actual content, almost like skimming a whole shelf of books on your favorite subjects and by your favorite authors, only at hyperspeed, with the capability to instantly share the good stuff without having to worry about whether you’d get your book back.

In a flash, I get briefed by @GalleyCat and @PublishersWeekly about what’s going on in publishing. I get to know authors I admire (who knew @margaretatwood had such a passion for environment?) I get to chuckle at the ever-witty @donrearden (from last week: “That's odd. The #NFL just called and I've been hired as a Ref! Sweet!”) and my brother @lehmannchris (“Bidding on Jonah Lehrer-Mike Daisey spoken-word collaboration to begin first thing in the morning. slate.me/UR4M0f“)

Lots of tweets contain links to longer content. At first I fretted over the cute little URLs. No problem: Twitter shortens them for you. And those #hashtags – was that some sort of secret tweetspeak I had to learn? Nope. The #hashtag feature instantly forms mini-discussion groups on pretty much any topic you can think of. You can include them or not in your tweets.

I fell in love with the #hashtag feature when the first in a string of September wind storms (aka #Arcticane) knocked out my power for three days. Calling Chugach Electric was pointless –  there was no way to get through. But at #akstorm I got on-the-ground reports from around the city and updates from meteorologist @brettshepard, and the only power I needed to do it was an occasional charge of my iPhone at a coffee shop that still had electricity. Once the melee was under control, the power companies woke up and realized through social media, they could communicate with customers a whole lot more efficiently. Now I follow @ChugachOutages.

Twitter isn’t hard, and unless you’re a social media addict (and I realize some people are), it won’t suck up a lot of your time – I spend an average of two minutes a day in the Twittersphere. But my point is not to convince all of you to jump on Twitter. Rather, it’s a reminder that if you’re serious about writing, if you’re serious about your career, a social media strategy should be part of your business plan.

Earlier this month I attended the Publishers Weekly webinair “Develop a Winning Tablet and Mobile Strategy.” It’s a complex and rapidly changing market out there, Stephen Ryden-Lloyd of Innodata Consulting reminded us, a multi-screen world in which we simultaneously use multiple devices. I’m no techie, but I could have been his poster child. As I watched him on my laptop, I had my iPhone at my side (I could skim tweets if the webinair started to drag) and my Kindle close at hand (I’d just downloaded a free electronic version of a book published in 1884; I needed it for research on my Wealth Woman project, but there had been no librarian available to help when I tried to access it from the rare books collection at the local library).

Social media is so much a part of our culture that it will likely become embedded in books; the new generation of readers, Ryden-Lloyd says, will demand that social media capacity so they can chat about what they’re reading in real time. You can throw up your hands and say it’s all too much, you just want to write books, or you can keep writing those books but also vow to spend five minutes a day connecting with authors and publishers in real time.

If you, too, decide to plunge into the Twittersphere (or if you’re already there) join me in using these hashtags: #AKwriters, #AKbooks, and #AKBookWeek (which starts Oct. 6). It’s another way for us to connect, and to make sure the world knows what we’re up to. And if you follow us at @49writingcenter, we’ll follow you back!

@debvanasse crossposts at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com. To learn more about integrating social media strategies into your writing life, sign up for the three-hour 49 Writers Workshop “Building a Platform as a Writer” taught by @bigstatebiglife (Lorena Knapp) on Oct. 27.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Business Creep

I first thought of business creep as the dance of an author between creative work and the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing. Then I started paying attention to the genuine creepiness that can slip in on the business side, as in the recent carjacking of a literary agent perpetrated by a writer that she’d rejected. How had the crazy guy tracked her down? Her frequent postings on Twitter and Facebook told where she was and what she was doing.

Creepy in a different way are writers who’ve paid for good online reviews of their books, and the freelancers who’ve paid their bills writing those reviews. I understand about the free market and all, but there’s still something chilling about a guy making $28,000 a month providing fake reviews. Google and Amazon eventually agreed, pulling the enterprising Todd Rutherford’s ads and reviews. Now he’s selling RVs while on the side running a business that creates book buzz via blogs and Twitter.

For as much as we hear about buzz, there must be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation. “I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Harper Lee did it; J.D. Salinger did it, they say.

A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do – create – and what we must do – help sell our books.

Much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With 10 million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a recent Goodreads post titled The Anatomy of a Book Discovery uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered.

Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis: how a “following” built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice can be overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.

Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your writing time on the business part. If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a whole lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market – growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance – you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized.

While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back.

The profile of Emma Straub in this month’s Poets and Writers brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has 10,000 followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, which now includes her novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, published by Riverhead Books and selected by Barnes and Nobel as a Discover pick for this fall.

“I see how some writers have really great relationships with bookstores and with booksellers, and some writers don’t. I see what happens when a writer is a kind of dick to people who work at a bookstore. I am never going to recommend that person’s book,” she says. “Nowadays it really is the role of the writer to make sure that you have these personal connections with everyone you can to help things go well – and not in a gross, networky, slimy way; in an actual, genuine way. Relationships matter.”

As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Humility: Why Writers Need It

Writers walk a fine line between humility and confidence. We’re fundamentally insecure creatures, not so much because we write, but because we’re human. At its best, insecurity makes us authentic. At its worst, it breeds pompous asses masquerading as writers.

Much as we must believe in ourselves and our work, a writer’s humility serves her far better than trumped-up self-assurance. “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector,” said Ernest Hemingway. “This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.” It's a radar that must be pointed not only at our work but also at ourselves.

In This Won’t Take But a Minute, HoneySteve Almond says writing is a process of decision-making, nothing more and nothing less. “If you refuse to pass judgment on these decisions,” he says, “if you walk around thinking you’re the Messiah, you’ll wind up settling for inferior decisions, by which I mean imprecise, contrived, masturbatory ones.” We must learn, he says, to second-guess our decisions without second-guessing our talent.

In a follow-up essay, Almond notes that art is first and foremost about the transmission of love, of the kind ascribed in the gospels to Jesus Christ. (By the way, Almond is Jewish.) “You love people not for their strength and nobility,” he says, “but, on the contrary, for their weakness and iniquity.” Only as we humbly acknowledge our own weakness can we love it in others, including our characters.

When you’re full of yourself – and we all are at times – your work is full of you, too, and not in a way that speaks meaningfully to readers. In Walking on Water, author Madeleine L’Engle reminds us of how readily ego gets in our way. “The important thing,” she says, “is to recognize that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.”

This fall Deb is teaching an online Children’s Literature Apprenticeship and a Anchorage-based workshop called Description and Detail: The Glint and the Squint through the 49 Alaska Writing Center.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beat a Retreat

Sunrise at Tutka Bay Writers Retreat

Like a note held long in a song, a pair of eagles glides effortlessly across a crisp September sky as sixteen writers prepare to leave Tutka Bay, refreshed and renewed thanks to a gracious couple who for the last three years have opened this little pocket of paradise to writers. The stillness, the energy, the community, and the restoration fostered at the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat will no doubt make Carl and Kirsten Dixon godparents to much fine writing conceived at their maritime hideaway. But the retreat sells out early each year, and even those lucky enough to snag a spot find themselves all too soon back in the daily grind, their transcendent experience already seeming a collective hallucination.

For writers, retreating is crucial. A getaway to an almost-island like the one at Tutka Bay is the perfect getaway, but it’s not the only way to achieve or maintain a retreat state of mind. Within our daily routines, we must covet retreat, which means simply that we must consciously balance away-ness with being, stillness with energy, community with solitude, and learning with practice. The retreat state of mind yields refreshment, opening, insight, and change, all critical to our craft.

“Writing is utter solitude,” Kafka says, “the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” But you can’t operate solely in the abyss, which this year’s Tutka Bay Writers Retreat leader Pam Houston calls “a very strange and self-absorbed place.” Writing is a dance between living and stepping back from that living, between falling into yourself and engaging in community and the literary dialogue.

Life is where our stories find us; retreat, be it for a week or a day or a quarter-hour, is where we find them. Though she writes fiction, Houston says she never makes anything up whole cloth. Her stories grow from glimmers of experience – visceral, powerful scenes and images. One-third of her time is spent in teaching, one-third writing, and one-third in travel, which serves as a retreat of sorts when coupled with attentiveness.

The retreat state of mind involves paying attention. It involves spending time in what Houston calls “the forest of not knowing.” Space and time away from daily demands restores balance. It encourages generosity with yourself and others. It reminds us of the value of patience, and of backing away. It calls us into solitude and nudges us back toward community and the restoration offered by good writer friends.

Because our business is words, writers are way too good with excuses. If only I could get away for a week or a month or a year, we say. Then you’d see what I can really write. But retreat is a state of mind. The daily grind that we long to escape generates the raw material for our work. Writing happens in living, and in getting away. It happens in solitude, and it’s enriched by community. Even when you can’t pull away to a place as remarkable as Tutka Bay, you must find and use the reset button in your head, where retreat is a state of mind.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Growing Great Writing: Trash, Time, and Turning

We aren't running everything, not even the writing we do.
~Natalie Goldberg

Here’s what I was up to this summer when I wasn’t planning weddings or revising novels. We bought and assembled an 8 by 12 foot greenhouse. I started every single plant from seed. We had 10 cubic yards of dirt hauled in, then shoveled it ourselves into raised beds. A little rain, a little sunshine, and presto: I’ve been harvesting daily for the last several weeks.

We’re not big fans of pesticides, so our little garden is organic. That means compost. We’d already been making it on a small scale, as a way of cutting back on trash that gets hauled to the landfill, and we’d already had the fun of watching steam pour from the pile as it worked its magic. Now we’ve got two compost piles going, and we’re more serious about our process. You can get really serious about composting: calculating ratios of green to brown, brewing up compost tea, adding worms in a little condo-style set-up.

Fundamentally, though, composting is a simple, natural process that requires only trash, time, and turning. From Natalie Goldberg I first heard composting used as a metaphor for writing, and I think it’s a good one. The best insights in our work often come only with time, and they often grow from bits and pieces of our experiences that we’d meant to throw out.

When we’re in the middle of a situation, we don’t have the perspective to write well about it. Goldberg quotes Hemingway, who wrote about Michigan from a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan,” he said.

Goldberg describes turning as she sees it in her students: “They are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into ourselves, but not in a neurotic way.”

About two years back, I took a little inventory of the “trash” in my life, experiences I took for granted along with some I’d rather forget. One: my mother wrote me a letter saying I’d never see her again. Another: I enthusiastically turned from agnostic to deeply religious, then lost a good chunk of what I thought I believed in.

These were difficult, painful experiences. As they happened, I couldn’t write about them in any sort of meaningful way. But time does its work. Though I expect I’ll never fully understand them, I eventually gained enough perspective to begin writing about them.

Then came the turning. I drafted part of a novel – I called it Cold Spell - about a woman who discovers the mother who walked out of her life. More time, and more turning, and the novel, still called Cold Spell, turned out to be about a woman obsessed with a glacier. The tension still involves mothers and daughters, with faith and doubt also playing heavily.

Another project began when I hiked the Chilkoot Trail. It was a great experience, not trash at all, but I tried to write about it too soon. Years later, my thoughts got their legs. I zeroed in on Kate Carmack, an Indian who for a season packed loads for white men over the trail; she went on to marry – and got dumped by - the man who claimed first rights to Klondike gold. More sifting and turning, and I’ve got the first narrative nonfiction to fully explore the gold rush from the perspective of women and Indians:  Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold.

Trash, turning, and time – as with gardens, that’s where most good writing comes from. Hang onto the bits and pieces of your life that seem so common as not to matter. Discard no experience. Discount nothing. Allow time to do its work. Turn your thoughts over once in awhile, even (or especially) the ones you believed were most fixed. One day you’ll find them steaming, rich material for a bountiful harvest.

The literary equivalent of worms? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Try This: Little writing exercises are embedded throughout Writing Down the Bones, many of them grounded (sorry!) in the act of composting. Here’s one: “Learn to write about the ordinary. Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of. Keep adding to it. Promise yourself, before you leave the earth, to mention everything on your list at least once in a poem, short story, newspaper article.”

Check This Out: There’s a special place in my heart for Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Right after reading it for a workshop I was taking, I drafted the manuscript that became my first published novel. It’s a classic text on process that frees up the way we think about writing. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Good Query

The Good Query

My first book or two had already been published before I began to study in any real depth how a query letter should work. I was lucky – a friend’s editor picked up my first two manuscripts, unagented. That still happens occasionally, but in the years that followed those first books, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what makes a good query.

The query represents a turning point in the way you think about your project. It’s where your work of art becomes a commodity and where your passion morphs into a business. Query-writing is such a valuable process that even if I were to self-publish, I’d take the time to develop a query to myself as the first step in the promotional process.

When I first began writing queries, I followed the usual formula - why I’m writing, what my project is, who I am – and I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into it. With an ever-tightening market, I spend more time now crafting my queries. I treat them like mini-manuscripts, prewriting and drafting and letting them sit and doing multiple revisions. I pay a lot of attention to my audience and to figuring out what my project is really about, and I make sure my unique voice shines in the letter.

These days emerging writers seem to focus most of their attention on the one or two sentence “elevator pitch” and then build their query around it. I find this backwards. Any project, even a lame one, can be reduced to a sentence or two rattled off on the fly. If you take the time to produce a finely-crafted query, you’ll have all the content and confidence you need to pitch your project to any agent you happen to meet in an elevator.

Though it may sound odd, I often draft the book pitching part of my queries in the early stages of my projects, as soon as I feel them beginning to take shape. Even though it will most certainly change, I find it helpful to consider how a project will appear to potential publishers and readers, in the form of back cover copy, which is how I think of the pitch line or lines.

Despite the grumbling you hear (possibly even from me), placing your manuscript is not a crap shoot or a numbers game. It’s about knowing your book through and through and understanding enough about the market to know where it fits, and it’s about the project earning your conviction that it absolutely must reach its readers.

There’s all sorts of query advice floating around, but the best I’ve found is in a slim little volume called The Last Query by Cindy Dyson. I bought this book not so much because I was intent on mastering the query but because I love Cindy and her writing, and I appreciate the way she engages with and gives back to the literary community. As it turns out The Last Query not only offers great advice but is also a fine example of the type of project that lends itself to self-publishing even though the writer has already published traditionally: a viable topic, a knowledgeable author, and a niche market.

Dyson approaches queries from the agent’s perspective. What will make yours stand out among hundreds and thousands that all follow the same formula? We all like to think our projects are entirely unique, when in truth they’re not nearly as special as we imagine. That’s not to say they’re not worthy of publication, only that we must work hard to figure out how to help our target audience – first the agent, then the publisher and then readers - understand that they MUST have this book.

Consider the fears and desires of agents, Dyson suggests. Ask yourself significant questions about your project, things you might not have considered before, like the metaphorical highlights and the soul of the story. Examine yourself as a writer, including what Dyson calls the “sexy hooks” of your life.

In one succinct, powerful page, the good query merges your best writing with target marketing. In the good query, you leap not just with your best foot forward but with both feet from art into business, a move so smoothly executed that no one will be able to distinguish between them.