going deep

spiral-galaxy-ngc1232-1600Why do you write about what you write about? What images or feelings stay with you after reading a story or watching a film? What genres resonates the most with you? Horror? Thriller? The life of the mind or the heart? Mystery? Romance? What feelings or images stick with you? Do you know why? What is it in your own life that has happened for those to be the ones that stick?

As 2012 winds down, I would invite you to take some time off for yourself and by yourself to ask the big questions of life. Why are we here? If you have a faith tradition, reread its scriptures. Read some philosophy. Read the book of a faith you do not belief in or follow. Challenge yourself. Think about your beliefs. Take some time to mull over what is important to you and why.

It is easy to follow the news, to stay informed, and feel like that is enough, but if you are creating art, it is not enough. You may be informed, but there’s no depth to it. And with so much information available, it is easier than ever before to remain on the surface, to be busy, distracted.

To deepen your thinking and therefore your writing, to add something meaningful, requires a strategic drawing heic0402aback to ponder, to wonder, to take the time to think. I don’t think there is a simple straightforward connection between this time and what you may write, but as artists we need to pull back from time to time to think about why we create. I do believe that over time, if you make this a regular practice – and the time is of course up to you from daily to annually – there will be a change in your writing. More resonance. More depth. More wonder.

What’s the rush?

In the last post, I briefly addressed the dragging of feet that can go along with finishing your work or getting it out into the world. We cannot know if success will come quickly, after many years or not at all. All we can to is to try to be prepared and that means making the work and ourselves the best we can.

There’s another way to defeat yourself and that is rushing work out. NaNoWriMo can teach you to just write and write fast. Very fast. There’s huge benefit in that. Clean out the system, prove to yourself you can be far more productive than you imagined, discovering that your characters have things to say in scenes that may not make it to the next draft, but give you valuable information on who they are and so on.

Sometimes you need to slow down. Examine the work, your process…. That can mean slowing down to play with the story. Whether you write fast or slow, it is important to honor your own process once you land on it, but be aware it may change from piece to piece or book to book. What is important about not rushing is not rushing the work out into the world. We tend to believe we’ve written THE BEST BOOK IN THE WORLD as soon as it’s done. It takes perseverance to write over seventy thousand words for a novel. Talent aside, it’s a lot of work! You feel you should be rewarded – at least appreciated – and that’s fine, but don’t act on it, not until you’ve had more eyeballs on your manuscript. Reward yourself in other ways and take the time to make sure your work is ready to send out.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to have at least one great mentor and to surround yourself with talented writers, preferably ones who will tell you the truth. And one or two non-writers as well. Ask a few people to read it before you start querying agents. This does not apply if you’re, say, Jonathan Safran Foer with Joyce Carol Oates as your advisor on your senior thesis. There are exceptions. Now back to real life!

Pay an editor to go through it and make sure it is free from errors and that it flows. Get both specific and global notes. Check the punctuation and do not rely on spell check. Look at the overall structure – do sequences make sense? Is there a strain of a theme that gets lost halfway through? I will give you an example. I had a very talented editor give me notes on WRESTLING ALLIGATORS. She pointed out that I made an allusion to the Daedalus-Icarus myth at the beginning that was then not explored in the rest of the text. It was a challenge, but in one of the subsequent passes (after I’d dealt with her other points), I spent a fair amount of time walking in the hills trying to come up with an answer and finally found it. It enriched the manuscript in a way I never expected and I would have not found it on my own. If I had rushed the manuscript out, that piece would have not been addressed and I would have missed the growth I experienced in that challenge. I really enjoyed solving the problem and discovering a way to solve it will benefit future work.

There are many things about the writing life that are challenging and one is the balance you have to strike between knowing when to go fast and when to slow down. Have you ever wish you’d taken more time before sending work out? Or do you have a triumph about taking your time?

Writing & Money

What is your relationship to money? We tend to accept it as a given that if we create, we will be poor, but what it we challenge that assumption?

I contend that the traits that most often lead us into the arts, or at least into creating fiction, are many of the ones that limit earnings. So often we come to the page or the stage out of need, out of hurt, out of a desire to make things right for ourselves, to find a voice denied us. The higher elements of motivation – creativity and imagination – are the ones to point the way to a more satisfying relationship to money and success.

Can you own your full potential? Are you willing to put everything on the line or do you make excuses for not finishing the short story, the novel, the play, etc.?  For not writing today? We all have 10-15 minutes a day to write no matter what excuse we make. What about not submitting it once it’s done or undercutting yourself to a potential agent or publisher?

First comes the inner work. For much more on this, read Overcoming Underearning and Financial Recovery. Challenge your assumptions about what is possible, not only with your time and your writing, but about what comes after you finish.

The Balkanization of society into fragments is not good for the arts. You’re not exploiting another culture if you explore it, certainly not if you love it. I know a Dutchman who loves Japanese culture so much, he learned Japanese and found a way to live there half the year. Who knows what new ideas and relationships may come out of that? We need each other. We need commonality, communal explorations, not only to find solutions, but to find those intersections where great art resides. You want to make money? Do what you have not dared to do. Go where you have not been. Learn about yourself and your limits. And get your work out into the world. It may not come in the form you expect. Chance are it won’t arrive the way you thought it would, but if you don’t try, don’t risk, you are guaranteed stasis.

Breathe into your fear, your fear of finishing or of failure or of success and experience the alchemy that happens when fear is transformed into excitement and energy. That will fuel the persistence necessary to the creative life. Break through your old assumptions. Now, go write!

The writing continues

NaNoWriMo has helped me get back in the habit of writing a LOT. They suggest 1,667 words per day to reach the goal of 50,000 words for a first draft. So far so good only in terms of word count. This is a quantity over quality exercise and “first draft” is going to be a very loose term for whatever it turns out that I am writing. I am slinging words at the page and not looking back. In some ways, it’s a longer version of Julia Cameron’s Daily Pages in The Artist’s Way. Write like your hair’s on fire. Don’t edit, don’t think about what you’ve written and never go back to fix it. Be a creative great white shark and keep moving forward:

Some sharks, however, have completely lost the ability to breathe by buccal pumping, and these are the sharks that will indeed drown if they stop swimming and ramming water. These sharks are known as obligate ram breathers (or obligate ram ventilators); only about two dozen of the 400 identified shark species are required to maintain this forward swimming motion . These include the great white shark, the mako shark, the salmon shark and the whale shark.

I spent a couple of weeks in Israel and it was an amazing experience that will take some time and reflection. I went with a group and so much was packed in a short time, it will take some sorting out. But it does go back to the previous post on writing tips from the Bible. What about persistence? What can keep you writing? There are many examples: Peter, Jacob, David, the persistent widow in the New Testament etc. We went to Jacob’s Well and 4,000 years after it was dug, could still draw up fresh water. Jacob served 14 years to have the bride he wanted in Genesis 29:13-30. Two chapters later, Jacob details his persistence:

38 “I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. 39 I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. 40 This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. 41 It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.”

It is Jacob in Ch 32 who wrestles with God and receives a new name, Israel, meaning “one who contends with God.” He was not one for easy answers or settling.

Will you continue to move forward? Will you persist?

I Want You To Want Me

Rejection.

Well, that’s depressing, but all artists, all writers, must deal with it at one time or another. Maybe all the time or at least it feels that way. The added problem is that rejection triggers me and other writers I know with old echoes of rejection, humiliation, etc. from childhood. Probably true for most writers because of the reasons we started writing in the first place. I can at least report that as your skin thickens and you maintain the attitude that it is fuel to propel you forward, it hurts and resonates less.

William Goldman famously said about movie making, Nobody knows anything, and I think to a degree that holds true for books. The agents and publishers are bright hard-working people, but no one knows for sure what’s going to sell, let alone catch fire, especially in fiction. Sometimes we have to fan our own flames, twirl our own sticks together on a little pile of kindling in the dark and see what happens. Any one agent or publisher (or review for that matter) is not worth the time or emotion to be devastated. But it still stings.

We are spiritual sharks. We must keep moving forward to live.  UPDATE: Leonard Chang has some thoughts on that

And then what if…?

Curiosity is the engine of art. The desire to know or learn and the desire to create come together in the best writing. Probably the two defining questions for the writer are ‘what if?’ and ‘what happens next?’ To which Lisa Cron would add ‘and so?’ (read her book Wired for Story to find out more about that)

The stimulus to trigger your curiosity can come from anywhere: a bit of conversation that passes you on the street, articles, daydreaming, music, museums, the line at Starbucks, you name it. Following any of those questions is the path that takes you into your material. While writing this, I did a Google search on curiosity and found a Tumblr on morbid curiosity.  If that or another site featuring people at their favorite celebrity tombstone doesn’t give you an idea for a story, I don’t know what will. There are so many approaches you can take – who died, how, what was their life like, why be photographed at the tomb of someone you never met, what is the fascination, hobby or obsession? and so on. Maybe it only gives you a jumping off point for a character, but that’s no small thing.

If your curiosity is strong enough, it can blast through writer’s block or fill up a blank page before you have time to be intimidated. All it takes is imagining or encountering a question compelling enough to get you to ask “and then what happened?”

How can you use curiosity to enhance your writing? First, keep a small notepad or recorder with you or use your smart phone so you can makes notes as you encounter inspiration or story ideas, a bit of dialog or an interesting character. Keep reading all kinds of material, including things outside your normal interest, try new things, Google random words, go rock climbing, learn the tango, travel, pay close attention to your environment and see what happens. The wonderful thing about curiosity is that it is endless.

How has curiosity led you into a story?

Tick, tick, tick, write

The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.           ~ Vol II, Within A Budding Grove, Marcel Proust

There are 168 hours in one week. The best way to determine how to use those hours is to recognize or establish your values and be clear about them. Then you can decide how to fill your time to balance writing with a job, family, etc., as well as how best to use your hours to write, how to enrich your life, and how to use the writing time within the parameters you set. There is also the balance of reading novels and writing. I prefer not to read fiction while I’m writing a novel – I do it between books as one way to refill the creative well.

A friend just noted that the kids in her neighborhood have no idea how to read an analog clock. We are in a kind of war with time itself when you look at analog and digital clocks. Consider a disconnected individual point in time. No longer the hands on a clock face flowing (much like traditional narrative), showing time as movement from one place to another, from someplace to somewhere. A digital readout displays isolated moments of time – 10:31 am, 11:18 am. Has this affected modern narrative, sometimes at the expense of character development? Perhaps. But can be a creative choice that offers its own aesthetic.

Snake by Kate Jennings is like that digital clock. She uses specific moments of time to portray the unraveling of a marriage. There are 76 chapters in 157 pages where time is revealed in snapshots of the characters’ lives. Although it is the antithesis of Snake, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past also deals with what is permanent and what is transitory. Jennings creates a cohesive picture of tragedy; Proust recorded the wearing away of time, yet both books – so different in length, scope and approach – manage to reveal things about time in fascinating ways. One can be read in an afternoon, the other takes a far greater investment of time. Here’s an online journal on reading Proust.

Is an investment in analog time worthwhile to your reader? That’s a question only you as a writer can answer because it goes to the core of how you think about writing, time, your values and artistic sensibility. Slipping into the flow of the great writers has been profoundly rewarding to me. As an artist, you must evaluation your own relationship to time.

A Great and Interesting Story

“A story is the shaping of experience that let’s us know there is movement in time from an initial starting point, through a development, to a place where it stops. Every story is a pilgrimage, just as every human life is a pilgrimage – coming from somewhere, moving somewhere, ending somewhere. A good story, properly shaped, will be ordered; it will be shaped along those lines, which is not an easy thing. Story is to literature what melody is to music and what line is to painting. It is that which defines the work of art, and it is the reason why plot is the most essential thing in literature. It is like carpentry. You’ve got to take the materials and assemble them piece by piece until your project is completed. On account of its complexity, it takes thought, discipline, art, shaping, craft, and wordsmithing to write a good story. We respond to a good story, which means it will be well told, make sense, and of course, approach a truth.” ~ Dr. David Allen White, Professor Emeritus Literature, USNA

Story is the subject of Lisa Cron’s excellent book, WIRED FOR STORY. I’m just going to keep reminding you, so you might as well go buy it.

In all phases of writing, from conception to marketing, thoroughness and attention to detail will set you apart. It’s important to have a good copy editor as well as an objective person for global notes (theme, does your plot make sense, overlooked details, consistency, etc). If you can’t afford it, trade favors with other writers. Making the material the best it can be shows respect for yourself as a writer and for your audience. But the most crucial part is story and for that, it’s important to know which details to include (hint: relevant) and when to present them.

In the past, I tended to underwrite (hey, I know what I mean and you should too!) and while minimalism can be style choice, what I was doing wasn’t minimalist – it was not being thorough. You must round out and complete your communication to your readers for them to fully invest in the story and your characters.

The best writing does this without guiding your hand to connect all of the dots. In a chilling scene in John Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN, two members of a three person family die a fiery death. The scene describes the aftermath of the fire, the bones and teeth in the ashes and the absence of keys in the locks on the inside. The description of the aftermath frees us to imagine the horror of discovering being unable to open the doors while trapped in an inferno. Most current books and movies walk us through everything without giving the audience any credit for imagination. Artistry is not paint-by-numbers.

Who Needs A Mentor?

I’ve been very blessed with great mentors. Rob Roberge and Gayle Brandeis in particular helped shape my work. Cheryl Strayed totally saved me in workshop – saved Growing Chocolate – with her suggestion to flip the last two chapters. I did have to go back and clean some things up, but that change kept the tone consistent all the way to the end and preserved my original intent. That’s the great thing about a talented mentor – they will not rewrite your work or suggest changes according to their vision or how they would write, but try to help you find your own way in your own voice. Also, for me, kind encouragement goes a long way and all three of these people are extraordinarily kind. That doesn’t mean they aren’t rigorous because they are. I never felt like I could slide or get away with anything. Plus they’re so fiercely smart, it would have been foolish to try. But as far as mentoring styles, I cannot hear ridicule. I shut down. Mean mentors don’t work for me. Criticism as bloodsport? No thanks. The world is cruel enough. We don’t need to help things along in that department.

Rob got me started on the path to better writing. He’s one of the best teachers out there. He asked a lot of questions and clarified the difference between mystery and murky and so many other issues. Mystery is fine, withholding certain bits of information is fine, but you don’t want murky. Readers want to know what’s going on in any given scene, so tell them. Lucky for all of us, he’s working on a craft book.

Gayle has many gifts including relating writing to the body. Plus she gets more done than practically anyone I know; we, her mentees, were suspicious that she does not need sleep, but she says she does so we will take her at her word. She must bend time somehow. 🙂 Anyway, as writers we tend to live in our heads and Gayle always reminds me that there’s much more to it.

In addition to the mentorship on any particular book, there is the mentorship of career, which is now more or less where I am with these three wonderful people. At a certain point, you make the shift from writing to your writing career. These three writers and others I had the privilege to work with at Antioch and elsewhere, have all taught me the value of continuing to move forward, of hard work, of taking chances. They are all productive and pretty darned cheerful in the process. Cheryl has been unfailingly gracious as she steps into the dream so many writers wish for. Rob and Gayle are generous with their time even with the demands of their own writing, teaching, readings, and so on.

Did I mention they all write beautifully? They do.

Who are your mentors? If you don’t have one, find one at a conference, a master’s program, workshops, even conventions such as Book Expo or AWP. It will save your sanity, help your writing, and, if you’re fortunate, enrich your life.

P.S. If you need a pep talk, here you go.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Seventh Rule for Writing Fiction

We’re almost there – here’s #7 of 8 rules for writing fiction by Mr. Vonnegut as delivered by guest blogger Aaron Gansky.

by adgansky

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. –Kurt Vonnegut

Pneumonia, maybe, and a host of other things. Would we call this literary promiscuity? Perhaps, and the same risks apply. Vonnegut is not alone in his call for monogamous literature. Stephen King, in his book On Writing discusses a similar idea. He mentions that every writer has an ideal reader, and should hold that ideal reader in their mind as they’re writing. For King, his wife is his ideal reader.

We’ve heard the adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” The same holds true for fiction. If you write to please all of the people, more often than not, you will fail to please anyone (most notably and sadly, yourself). Your story will lose itself in trying to be something that it’s not, that it shouldn’t be. It will get lost in itself, so to speak, and perhaps never see the light of day.

Your ideal reader may be the same for all your books, or they may change. For example, if you’re writing a western, you’ll likely have one reader in mind, maybe your father with whom you grew up watching Bonanza. Maybe, after the western, you try your hand at a fantasy, and your ideal reader is now your first girlfriend, who swore she wanted to save up her money to have plastic surgery on her ears to make them pointed like an elf’s. Maybe you write a horror, and you think of your best friend with whom you spent every Halloween for the last twenty years. Then again, you may be lucky enough to have, as King does, a wife that fulfills multiple roles and, regardless of the genre, serves as an ideal reader.

Either way, understanding who  your ideal reader is can help shape the path of the novel—what would they most like to see next? What would surprise them here? How would they feel about this particular scene?

Knowing your reader (singular) can also help you finish your book. Two often we get caught up in trying to add something for everyone, which is both futile and frustrating. Somewhere, about a hundred pages in or so, you’ll realize that your novel lacks a clear direction. There are too many threads to make a quilt. Instead, you’re working with enough threads to make several bed sets.

Streamline and focus. Your reader will thank you.