Sunday, April 3, 2016

Are You Listening?


“Oh, it is interesting, the creative process.  Where was this story before I wrote it down?  I don’t know.  It certainly wasn’t in my head.”  --Gore Vidal

I think the idea process is the part of writing that I love most.  
I like to go to a worn, well-traveled area and sit still with my notebook.  Train stations can be perfect for this kind of brainstorming and idea-mining, because of the combinations and variety of people.  There will be those who are actually going somewhere, and those who are biding their time, wishing for a destination.  

Then I listen -- I mean really listen – to voice inflections and accents, to tones and volume.  What is that woman in the corner  worried about?  What is that young man on the steps so excited about? What is making that couple on the bench so angry?  And that woman with the cell phone imbedded in her cheek . . . what is the person on the other end saying?  

I’ll try to notice quirks and facial expressions, body language and eye rolling.  Then I’ll ask myself, How can I use this?  
 
How do I know if that person or that line is worthy of a story?  It hangs around in my head for a good while….it’s that phrase I can’t stop thinking about.  It makes me wonder, or smile, or cringe, and I have to write it down. 
  
One thing that is important for me is to keep myself open to new ideas –not just at the brewing, beginning stages of a story or book, but throughout my writing.  This is what starts to round out my characters as I go, and what fills up my story, as a whole.  Even after I have that initial motivating idea, I try to keep the brainstorming going. 


We take notes on what we see and hear and audition them on the page.  Trying out new ideas takes risk and guts, because you can’t leave them floating around in your head. You have to be willing to take it one step further and put them down on the page.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Slow Down and Enjoy the Ride



I know next to nothing about basketball, but when March Madness hits, I see people scrambling to predict who will win.  They even put down money to back their frenzied calculations. 

It can be like that with that first idea when you are writing.  It explodes in a mad frenzy of possibilities.  All we want is that big win at the end.  And we want to get to the end.  As soon as possible.  Now.  Do not pass Go.  Do not pause to collect the two hundred dollars.

When we are first getting our story down on paper, it may be fragmented.  As my writer friends know, I am a fan of working in coffee shops, and I use coffee shop analogies freely and often.  So . . . imagine a  busy coffee shop—in a big city.  You have just moved to the neighborhood and you are visiting it for the first time. 

There is a lot going on, but a great deal of it is just a thin surface layer.  You go into the coffee shop and the customers are all your characters, major and minor.  You see them—you might see what they are wearing, but you really don’t know anything about them yet. 

You hear bits and pieces of conversations, but you aren’t interacting with anyone but the barista or the guy at the counter. 

You are seated in a corner by yourself, trying to make sense of all that is going on around you.   People are on their laptops, not paying any attention to you.  People are in pairs and groups, having their own conversations.  You are excited about being in this new place, but you really aren’t comfortable yet.

The next day, things get a little more familiar.  You notice some people from the day before.  Someone gives you a recognizing nod.  You start to notice how the customers are interacting with each other.  You sense the tension between the couple by the window.  You notice the woman off to the side appears to have slept in her clothes.  You start to wonder about their stories.

Each day, each revision, you add another layer. 

You may think you have your story down pat—especially if you are an extensive note taker or an outliner.  I heard about a writer, who wrote her entire novel in her head while she was gardening.  Finished the entire thing.  Then she went home and put the words down on paper. 
We all want to be done.  It’s human nature to want to see a job through to the end.  It is the best feeling in the world to type THE END.  But for a writer, the first time you type those words, it usually just means the beginning.  It’s the beginning of your layering process.  The beginning of your revision. 

I used to hate it.  But I look forward to it now.  It means my words are turning into a real story.  So don’t get sucked in by the March Madness.  Slow down and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Post Where I Shamelessly Use Field of Dream Quotes

In February we are given a day of possibilities at the beginning, with an extra day at the end during a leap year.  My challenge for everyone this month is to combine Groundhog’s Day where anything can happen, with that gift of an extra day, and write without caring what anyone else thinks.  Write with abandon.  Write as if you have all the time in the world, because you sort of do.  You have that extra day, that anything-can-happen day.
 
But here’s the only rule:   

Write What Only You Know. 

Annie Dillard said,  “A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.  Strange seizures beset us.  Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light….”  

She also asks the thought-provoking question, “Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you avert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands?  Because it is up to you.  There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain.  It is hard to explain, because you have never read it on any page; there you begin.”

You can make something interesting to your readers because of your own fascination with it. 

What are the everyday things that intrigue you?

Think about sitting in a restaurant or in a train station, or on the subway.  What makes you give a person a longer-than-usual look?  Why are you drawn to that person?  Is it their distinct, unusual beauty?  Maybe.  But more likely it’s something else—because you are a writer.  Maybe they have a bald spot on the side of their head that they are trying to cover.  But it’s not a man’s comb-over.  It’s a woman’s.  You take it one step further, because you are a writer.

What foods are you drawn to?

What places fascinate you so much, you want to stop your car—even though it might not be a convenient or a safe place to stop it?

You take the everyday--something you encounter or pass each day, and point it out in your writing.  

Chances are, you have no idea why you are drawn to certain foods or people or places or events.  You just are.  But that draw is your key.  You write about it, and you make these fascinations your readers’, as well.  

(Remember, you’ve got that extra day here.  You can take your time.)  Dare to take the mundane and sneak it to the forefront.  But do it as only you can do.  Forgive me for massacring a line from “Field of Dreams”, but … If you write it, they will read.



Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Go Ahead . . . Try It!

It’s not that bad, right?  Some people just want to do it and get it over with.  Some look forward to it eagerly.  Adding details to our writing is like decorating for the holidays.  Once you immerse yourself into it, you are hooked – and so will be your readers. 

 C.S. Lewis said,  “Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we ‘ve read the description.  You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
 
If you add the right detail, just a tiny word or two, you can make the reader laugh, or cry, or catch their breath.

Finding those perfect details isn’t as hard as it sounds.  Try to notice the little things around you.  What is that man doing in the car next to you?  Is he texting?  Is he weeping?  Is he picking his nose?

When you add details to your story, it becomes personal.  It goes from being any old story to being personal.  That’s when it becomes real.  

Maybe you are writing about the lady next door taking her garbage out in the morning.  Get nosey with those characters.  Ask yourself those impolite questions.  What’s in that garbage and why does she have to take it out every morning?  What’s that stain on her robe?  Are her curtains open or closed, and how come she keeps her curtains closed in the daytime?

Try to notice those little details—I call it thinking like a poet.  My favorite poets use very spare language to make the story come to life in the poem.   They make every word count.  They pay attention to subtle things, like the way someone’s voice goes up or down a little when they say certain things.  Or the way their voice catches. 

Don’t be afraid to channel Gladys Kravitz.  Spy on those people in their stories.  What’s out front of the house?  Why are all those cars in the driveway all of a sudden?  What’s going on over there?
Is there a death?  A birth?  
The cars are coming and going at all hours of the night.  Are they drug dealers? 

Don’t be satisfied with just steps.  Make them creak.

Don’t be satisfied with just a classroom.  Jazz it up.  Put some contraband in there.  Make someone throw up or want to throw up.  
Details can be deceptive, too.  They can trick us—they can trick the reader.  You can drop a tiny detail in and see if the reader notices—a bit of foreshadowing.
 
I leave you with some holiday cheer from Mark Twain:  “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning-bug.”

Now get back to your decorating!




Sunday, November 1, 2015

What's it Doing in the Back of Your Refrigerator??










Annie Dillard says,  “ . . .  spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good … give it, give it all, give it now.  Something more will arise for later, something better.”  This wisdom has become one of my favorite recipes for writing.

I love this, because I am guilty of saving my writing.  But really, for what am I saving it? A perfectly good idea can end up like back-of-the-refrigerator food--something that was perfectly good on Saturday, but ended up getting stashed away and wasted by next Friday.  I have a million little notebooks—I always have one going, as do most of the writers I know.  But if a good line comes to you—or a great character idea—or some fantastic setting details, find a way to put it in right now.  Don’t let it disappear forever into the pages of your journal; get it down on a page of your book.

H.G. Wells had another great writing recipe.  He said, “If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise; attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.”


I am a big proponent of writing at the same time every day.  It may just be a mind game that I play with myself, but I truly believe that my body and mind get used to this 5:00 a.m. time.  The words automatically start trickling out after I’ve had my first few sips of coffee.  The routine of it all works for me.  However, we have all gotten to a point in our story where either we, or the story feels stagnant.  So try again.  Try it at 5:00 p.m., instead.  If you are too tired at this time, because your first writing time of the day was at 5 a.m., go for a walk.  Let the ideas start to flow.  Do what makes your mind wander to your story.  Walking, running, riding your bike, cooking, baking, knitting…be open to it, and your characters might just start talking to you.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Trick . . . or Treat . . . ?

It's easy, right?  Just treat your readers with your tricks.  We beat ourselves up and rack our crazy writer brains trying to come up with the latest wowing trick.

Writer, Merrill Markoe says she struggles with her tendency toward “contrarianism”.

“If I know there’s something I’m supposed to be doing or saying or wearing, I feel compelled to resist—particularly with creative endeavors like writing.  If I see an obvious punch line or plotline driving toward me, I can’t help but make a sharp left turn into the unexpected.  I don’t like to replicate what I’ve seen done before—I don’t like to give people what they expect.  I think it’s my job to come up with a surprising angle or add some personal twist.” –Merrill Markoe

She made me think about how some people are trying to follow the market and write what they think is “hot” or selling right then.  Of course we all want to sell our work, but if we aren’t writing from our gut and our heart, it shows in our work.  It ends up feeling derivative.  We need to make our work our own, with our original, distinctive voice.  

In comedy, I think one of the reason’s that David Letterman has had such success, even early on in his career, is that he felt a strong rapport with his audience, making them feel as if they were in on the joke.

As a fiction writer, that’s exactly what you are doing.  You are making the audience feel as if they are in on the story.  –You are sucking them in without their even knowing it, from the very first page—even the very first line.

Nobody likes to feel as if they are on the outside, looking in, and not a part of things.  Remember how you felt as a kid, or even as an adult, when you were at a party, or on the playground, and you weren’t included in a conversation.  Or you felt as if you had entered in the middle or towards the end and you didn’t have the details to jump in.  Sometimes, the people were doing that on purpose, hoping that you would go away, or wanting to control the group, giving them the upper hand.  When this happens in a story, the reader never gets a chance to connect with the characters, and may, in fact just put the book down.  


One of the ways you can include your readers in your story—letting them feel as if they are “in the know”—is to give them things to which they can relate.  You have to dig deeply in order to do this.  This doesn’t always happen for me until I’m heavily into my revision process.  Again, you have to climb into the minds of your characters—not just your main character, but all of your characters—and figure  out how they would feel and react to each situation in which you put them.  What you are shooting for is for your readers to think, “I’ve felt like that, too.  That’s just like me, or that’s just like when I …”

So dig to the bottom of that plastic pumpkin.  That's where the best treats are hiding out--waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to LaGuardia

I believe it was the brilliant John Irving who said,  “You don’t initiate a story until you know how you’re going to end it.  You don’t start a dinner party conversation—‘A funny thing happened on the way to LaGuardia’ –and not know what happened in LaGuardia."

I used to use the “fly by the seat of my pants” approach.  Sometimes it worked—just by fluke, I think.  But more often than not, I would dig myself into a hole and get stuck.  Now I think I tend to agree with John Irving.  I try to tell myself the story.  I don’t like to tell other people the story, because, maybe it’s just Irish superstition, but it feels as if it loses some of the magic for me when I talk it out with someone.  I’ll write little notes to myself –when I do it that way, it’s as if the story unfolds on its own.  As soon as I have a general idea of where it's going, then I start to work—and I work out technicalities and logistics along the way.
But the big, meaty question I try to remember to ask myself is, What has to happen?  If you have an impulsive character up on a rocky ledge, or if you have a nervous, self-conscious character fumbling in a mud pit, what absolutely has to happen?  I don't always know, but it's always an adventure to see where this question takes me.