Category Archives: The art of writing…

Five Sideways Sources for Writing Instruction

This post recently appeared on Girlfriends Book Club 

Since I don’t have an MFA, my learning curve offers a unique perspective on the subject of writing instruction, including less conventional resources that may not get coverage elsewhere. Here are five sources for important lessons I didn’t learn in a formal program:
  1. Gossip: Understanding how individuals operate under pressure is a prerequisite for creating empathetic characters and a grasp of the complex world of human psychology is expected from the get-go. Fortunately, my grandmother, a professional counselor, shared her expertise with me–her oddly attentive granddaughter–from an early age. We lingered at the table long after meals, solving the the problems of in-laws and outlaws, leaving no unseen pressure under-analyzed. If you don’t have a professionally trained grandmother, an observant girlfriend will do. And if the term gossip bothers you, just call it material.
  2. Other Writers’ Work-in-Progress: The best way to learn about my own work was in a writer’s workshop while reading someone else’s unpublished manuscript. And the most important lesson I learned was to recognize filler: major obstacle to reaching the next level, notorious killer of newbie writers. Filler is not only a problem; it comes with deep denial that is difficult to penetrate. But here’s the good news: mistakes not visible in one’s own work are perfectly obvious in someones else’s. Once I recognized filler in another manuscript, I was able to transfer the skill to my own work and cut without regret.
  3. Critical Reviews: I don’t wast time on one-star reviews since they all seem to have been written by the same sour person, lamenting trees sacrificed, announcing a cure for insomnia, etc. But reviewers who write with less venom and greater discrimination can provide helpful insights from the perspective of the next level. Published novels have different flaws than amateur manuscripts and good reviewers taught me what those flaws look like. Again, recognizing flaws in published work allowed me to apply it to my own and cut, cut, cut.
  4. Famous Authors: Rather than waiting to attend conferences, hoping to glean writing technique from celebrity authors, I simply open celebrity authors’ books. This summer I was working on revisions, acting on my agent’s advice concerning the need to pull story threads forward into my first chapter, but I was afraid of creating speed bumps for readers, introducing too much back story in the early pages. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, I deconstructed the first chapter from Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder to see how she did it. Now, when I get stuck, I open a book or turn on my Kindle and read my way out of problems.
  5. Dave and Bob: My job is to figure out what I don’t know, learn it, and use it to improve my work. Problem is I don’t know what I don’t know. Imagine my delight when I discovered David Madden and Robert McKee who explained everything I needed to know about writing (but didn’t know to ask). I am truly embarrassed to admit that before reading David Madden’sRevising Fiction, I thought description was used to describe things. Madden provides a list of 185 questions a writer can apply to their work–and provides the answers. Robert McKee’s book, Story, is my other go-to resource for craft questions. I don’t leave town without one of those guys in my satchel.

I’m still trying to figure out what I don’t know and I would love for you to share any particularly illuminating sideways resources you may have encountered in your writing journey.

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My Silent Hotel Room

 

My son rowing in The Head of the Oklahoma Regatta (he's tallest in the middle)

Last weekend I drove to Oklahoma City to cheer my son’s crew team.  I went alone.  What this really means is: I left my personal fraternity house (on Pizza Friday) for the absolute solitude of a remote hotel room.  Husband felt sorry to cancel on me, but I pulled out of the driveway before he or anyone could reshuffle their schedules and get in my car.  For three hours I drove, imagining a block of time in a silent hotel room to work on my novel.  No dog jumping on the bed, no boys arguing over TV controllers, no husband expecting ducks in a row.  I was so excited I nearly missed my exit.

Alone in my room, I experienced the joy of thinking in a straight line.  I read without losing my place, revised without stopping and starting, generated ideas without interruptions.  I glided effortlessly through a fertile field of inspiration, stunned by new perspective.  I bloated my notebook with ideas, dispatched research materials that had idled since June, and noticed how quickly the friction-free time was passing.  Too fast.  I hadn’t figured out how all this stuff I’d gathered, informed my subject.  If only I were smarter, had greater capacity, I could close the gap as I went.  By the time I packed my car and headed to the regatta, I felt cerebrally hung over and lacking in accomplishment.

Physically present at the river, but mentally stuck in my head, I actually wished someone would ask me to feed them or find their socks or something, just to help me transition back to reality.  I sat alone by the river and watched boats proceed to their starting line.  While synchronized oars dipped in and out of the water, churning tight puddles in their wake, I stopped thinking entirely, and focused on water dripping from blades.  My ideas drifted away and I let them go.  But instead of dissipating, they found each other and gathered, creating their own wake, returning to me in a current of meaning.  Suddenly, I could see how the new perspective fit perfectly into my back story, illuminated my front story, and allowed me to understand my own novel. 

Driving back to Dallas I refereed an argument via cell phone, remotely directed the pick up of one Boy Scout, and recalled the serene hum of the refrigerator in my hotel room.

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My Bodice Ripping Love Affair (with summer reading)

Still Life: Teenager With Book

Summer ended today as the last of my four sons surrendered his Xbox controller, packed up his summer reading files, and entered Middle School peacefully.  Structure, discipline, and progress for all.  But before completely buttoning up starry nights and car trips, I want to confess my summer reading affairs and relive the attribute that made me fall in love each time.   

And then I will move on. 

While adjusting to the freedom of no homework and children who sleep all morning, I had a fling with literature.  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman was indeed original, perspective-altering, and a teensy bit heartbreaking for an old-fashioned reader like me.  (Italy was great).  Walks With Men by Ann Beattie was edgy for my appetite, but her photo-realistic characters taught me things a writer can use.  Solar by Ian McEwan was way better than the NYTBR led me to expect, the potato chip scene alone was worth the read.              

While children were away at camp, I slipped off to Nagasaki for a week with David Mitchell and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 800 pages of action and adventure with a Dutch Trading Company official in the year 1799.  This novel was recommended by my aunt who maintains 18 unread books on her Kindle, a good summer reading safety margin in my opinion.  

Husband slept in my reading light while I indulged in romance:  Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian–WWII with a Russian twist, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, a Young Adult writer to watch, and Dracula, My Love by Syrie James, who writes like a native of the 19th century, a book that goes both ways: romance with a Romantic hero.  Which leads me to Young Romantics by Daisy Hay, non-fiction I read for research, but include here because it was just so good.  Keats, Shelley, and Byron’s 1814 summer of love: mad, bad, and dangerous to know.                    

But the dalliance that most often made me sneak away, stay up late, and decline the society of real people was the Stieg Larsson trilogy:  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  I fell in love with Sweden, protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, and the gripping story that fulfilled all my summer reading desires.  

Goodbye novels.  We’ll always have the summer of 2010.

(Which books carried you away this summer?  I will be taking confession in the comment section of this blog). 

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