Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Inspiration, and Staying the Course

Seasonal Affective Disorder, a winter affliction, has a summertime counterpart. I call it SDD: Seasonal Distraction Disorder. The outdoors beckons. Flocks of visitors descend. We want to play, and we want to get things done – active, physical chores - before winter sets in.

What’s a writer to do?

When he’s working on a book, author David Vann maintains his momentum with a disciplined schedule. He guards a few quiet hours of solitude every morning so he doesn’t lose touch with his project.

I do my best to follow his example. But though writing weaves close to the soul, though we need it deeply, there are times when we simply have to focus on other priorities. Within the past month, both my children got married. I considering pressing forward with my projects, writing daily, preserving momentum. But I realized I’d simply be too distracted. I set my writing aside and focused on flowers, brunches, and ceremonies.

Still I feared losing momentum. What if I couldn’t recapture the initial excitement that spurred me to the page? What if I lost touch with my inspiration? Maybe I should have plodded forward, writing a little each day, regardless of how distracted I felt or how crazy-tired I was.

Not necessarily, says Joyce Carol Oates. Applying yourself too doggedly to your work can be “like striking a damp match again, again, again: hoping a small flame will break out before the match breaks.”

No matter how busy or distracted we get, inspiration is always at hand. If you believe with Oates in the Surrealist notion that life is a “forest of signs” for us to interpret, there’s nothing seasonal about inspiration, and there’s no need to drop out of live to pursue it. Henry James dined out two hundred times in a single season, eavesdropping on conversations that inspired The Turn of the ScrewEudora Welty claimed she heard the most amazing things at the beauty shop, inspiring her story “Petrified Man.

Traveling? While driving in the Adirondacks ,E.L. Doctorow saw a sign for Loon Lake. He was struck with the sudden conviction that everything he felt about the mountains was contained there. The novel Loon Lake resulted, a story of “a palpably mysterious wilderness, a place full of dark secrets, history rotting in the forests.”

When you find yourself distracted, consider all the ways you might get inspired again. Joseph Heller begins simply with an intriguing first sentence. Joan Didion explores an image that fixes itself in her mind. James Joyce believed in epiphany, “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or of a memorable place in the mind” (Stephen Dedalus). Joyce collected seventy of these epiphanies in notebooks, using them as raw material for virtually all of his important writing.

When SDD strikes – or any distraction, for that matter – don’t despair. Your momentum may stall. But it will return. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll find or recover inspiration, even when it seems you’re doing everything but writing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Keep It Simple

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
~Ernest Hemingway

My only daughter gets married today, on a bluff overlooking Kachemak Bay. If we pull it off as intended, it will be beautiful, simple affair.

Make that deceptively simple. A year ago, my daughter traveled 1500 miles from Portland to deposit in my closet the first set of dishes lovingly scavenged for the reception, the perfect shade of green, more yellow than blue. That was only the beginning. What followed: dress, rings, music, officiant, photos, catering, cake, lodging, vows, seating, tents, heaters, rehearsal, plates, flatware, tables, coffee urns, welcome bags. One hundred twenty-five things to buy, rent, or borrow; 162 items to scratch off the to-do list. Not that anyone’s counting.

In writing it also takes effort to pull off the simple. A little exposure to the classics, a lot of textbook drivel, and we leave school with writing that’s pompous and overbearing. Re-training can take years. 

Overwriting is the caste mark of the emerging writer, worn unaware. “Diction problems are symptomatic of defects in the character or education of the writer,” John Gardner says. “Both diction shifts and the steady use of inappropriate diction suggest either deep-down bad taste or the awkwardness that comes of inexperience and timidity.” Ouch.

In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, agent Jessica Page Morrell calls it purple bling: writing that’s euphemistic, clichéd, and extravagant. “The problem with purple prose is that it calls attention to itself instead of performing its job – telling a story – and it tries too hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions.”

In The First Five Pages, agent Noah Lukeman echoes this concern. He identifies these warning signs of overwritten prose: writing that feels forced or exaggerated, not fitting the subject; books that come off as arenas for showing off the writer’s talent; and writing so noticeable it drives the reader away from the story.

Gardner identifies these signs of badly elevated diction: cliched personification (“greeted by the sound”), abstract language (“unique sound”), and Latinate where Anglo-Saxon will suffice (“surveyed the sound situation”).

Maybe once, long ago, you let a purple phrase or two slip. Examples, courtesy of Morrell:

  • In love scenes, quivering and throbbing; breasts as mounds or globes, couples locked in a primal dance
  • Storms featuring distant thunder and menacing clouds that crouch on the horizon, generating violent gusts of wind that frighten the shutters
  • Characters known to the core of their being or to every fiber of their being; characters who experience the slow burn of anger or who are touched to their innermost souls

Fortunately, there’s a cure. “By reading carefully and extensively,” Gardner says, “by writing constantly and getting the best criticism available to him, the writer who begins with no feeling for diction can eventually overcome his problems.”

Try This: As an antidote for purple prose, Lukeman recommends rewriting a passage in a style exactly the opposite of its original. “If your style is straightforward,” he says, “try one that is convoluted; if it is baroque, try one that is minimalist.”

Check This Out: For no-holds-barred advice from a master, read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. “A necessary handbook, a stern judge, an encouraging friend,” is how John L’Heureux describes this classic.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Outlining: How Good Ideas Get Undone

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
~E.M. Forster

I rarely outline, not at first anyhow. But like most writers, I do a lot of thinking about structure, and especially about what I call the reveal.

Admittedly, outlines are great for seeing what you’ve got to work with and for playing around with organization. But they also wheel us back to the artifices of academia that work against fresh, lively prose.

The outline’s partner in crime is the five-paragraph essay. Both set up habits that please teachers but stifle interest. Find a topic, chop it up in the most obvious way, knit it back together with a thesis statement and a bunch of handy transitions, reiterate, reiterate, reiterate, and then wrap it all up. You may thank Artistotle for the snores of your readers.

This training is all wrong. We’re not building a case in a courtroom. We’re aiming for art, insight, and enjoyment. But if logic’s not the best way to arrive at surprise and delight, a hodgepodge doesn’t satisfy either.

Rewind to Aristotle, more helpful with his three acts. Beginning, middle, end; set-up, complication, climax/resolution. Screenwriters can tell you how long each should be, and how the action shifts. The more we read, the more good movies we watch, the more we develop an intuitive sense these three acts, so as we’re playing around with ideas for a story or a narrative essay or a book, we start to envision scenes in which the action builds from the set-up and complications toward a climax and resolution.

Though we’d like to think the process is entirely organic, at some level order does get imposed. The question turns to when and what kind of order. First thoughts aren’t always best thoughts, and that’s the problem with a lot of traditional outlining, which carves a topic into logical parts and arranges them in the most logical and expected manner.

Pulitzer-prize winning author Jon Franklin says there are three levels of story: the academic, polished level; the outline level that deals with conceptual relationships between characters; and the structural level, made up of major focuses that zoom in on emotional turning points. Transitions aren’t used to connect dots, but to move the reader from scene to scene.

The first focus Franklin calls the complicating focus. It’s where your reader is hooked, where character begins to unfold, where the nature of the dilemma is made clear. The second focus, in three or more parts, is the developmental focus, where complications are explored. Each of these has its own beginning, middle, and end. The first can carry a flashback. At the end of the third comes a moment of insight, a plot point in screenwriter lingo. A resolving focus comes at the end.

S.C. Gwynne’s bestseller Empireof the Summer Moon, a finalist for the Pulitzer, is a great example of Franklin’s principles on the page. The subtitle reveals the scope of this nonfiction book: Quanah Parker and the Rice and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Outlined in the traditional way, it would follow the life of Quanah Parker, starting with his birth, tracking the rise of his influence, and ending with his death. Yawn.

Gwynne begins instead with a complicating focus, hooking the reader with on-the-ground accounts of fierce Comanche battles. Hints of Quanah’s character through the captivating (literally) story of his mother, a white woman taken by the Comanches. The over-arching dilemma is clear: the Comanches rise up as warriors among the Plains Indian tribes, and they won’t go down without a fight. Every complication has its own beginning, middle, and end: the introduction of the horse onto the American plains, the botched Indian policies of the U.S. government, the in-fighting among tribes. Each focus weaves into the others, and the very, very end of the book satisfies the reader’s anticipation of how they’ll ultimately come together.

Even at the paragraph level, Gwynne is a master of rocking the traditional order. Look at where he puts the traditional topic sentence in this excerpt, which comes at the end of a long paragraph about the blunders of Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, deemed the “Anti-Custer” by Gwynne:

Large concentrations of soldiers with long supply trains were a signal to simply disappear, which was usually easy enough. It was the reason so many U.S. troops spent so much time marching and riding about, looking for and not finding Indians. Not finding Indians had been the principal activity of the U.S. cavalry for years in the West. Mackenzie’s force was enormous by plains standards: It was the largest that had ever been sent to pursue Indians.

“Not finding Indians had been the principal activity of the U.S. cavalry for years in the West.” A less writer would have killed the reveal by moving this great one-liner to the top of the paragraph where we expect the topic sentence, and thereby deflating its effect by half.

Withholding is a huge part of good writing. So is shaking up the traditional order.

Try This: Shake up the order of your work in progress. Think like a camera, zooming and in and out of complications. Work the stories within your story. Strategize your reveals. As Seth Kantner says, you need to always carry your reader, but don’t overuse transitions to impose logic; instead, use them sparingly, to move the reader from scene to scene.

Check This Out: Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story promises – and delivers on – craft secrets of dramatic non-fiction by a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. It opens new ways to think about structure for writers of fiction, too.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Channeling Your Inner Guerilla

Once upon a time there was an easy order to the business of writing: create, pitch, publish, promote. A writer’s creative energy went mostly into her work, and the rest followed from there.

That everything’s different is old news. Your work no longer stands only on its own two feet. It requires a platform, or so goes the twenty-first century wisdom. Agents and editors urge writers to promote early and often, even if they’re still working on their first viable project.

To get your work noticed in the topsy-turvy world of modern publishing requires fortitude, courage, and a broad-minded approach. “Schmoozing, pitching, that’s your job,” says screenwriter Scott Silver. Though he admits some people are good only at schmoozing, he also points out that it’s juvenile to think that if your work is good enough, you’ll never have to promote.  Nevertheless, he reiterates, the work matters most.  

“I’ve been a Luddite most of my life,” says author Lynn Schooler. “Then they overthrew the government in Twitter, and I realized I’d better start paying attention.” These days, Schooler notes, writers have to schmooze the world, not just a person.

Though he self-describes as a bit of a recluse and until recently had only dial-up internet service, Schooler has managed to amass over 3000 Facebook friends in less than two years by applying an old principle of marketing – offering a value-added service by regularly posting scenic Alaska photos from his professional portfolio.

Author Heather Lende contends that self-promotion boils down to doing the work and showing genuine interest in the people around you. In the beginning, you might find yourself working for free, the way Lende did. Though she initially volunteered to do radio shows in Haines, she looked up a few people at NPR and mailed tapes of her shows to them.

She got her first paying gig as a writer on Monitor Radio, thanks to her husband’s Aunt Dottie, who passed on a tape of one of her radio pieces to the executive producer of Monitor Radio, who went to her church. Once she started writing a column for the Anchorage Daily News, NPR picked up Lende’s work. Whenever she called back East, Lende says, “I always asked who I was speaking to.” Editors come and go, but receptionists stay.

Author Kim Heacox echoes Lende’s advice, recalling an early meeting with an editor at Discover magazine. When he asked how she’d gotten her job, he said, “she was like a flower I’d just watered.” The interview turned into a conversation. A few months later, assignments started flowing in. In the world of what Heacox calls “You Twit Face,” he reminds writers to promote the work of others in the writing community. His cautionary note: “Be careful you don’t turn into a cardboard version of your original self.”

Should you blog? Post about your project on Facebook? Make book trailers? Schedule tours? Talk up yourself and your project every chance you get? The answers boil down to time, energy, and balance in your writing life. You need a viable project, finely crafted, though as Andromeda Romano-Lax demonstrates, it can be promoted in its development stage. Pay attention to opportunities to connect, in person and electronically, with people who might have an interest in your work. Be genuine and sincere in working your connections. Be courteous but not shy. Avoid arrogance. Get used to rejection. Support and promote the work of others, not just your own.

Thanks to North WordsWriters Symposium for providing a forum for discussion of this topic, from which many of the quotes here were drawn.