Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay, Talking About Writing, which is her response to the question “How do I become a writer?”
Rules for Writing
Why book covers matter
It’s amazing how much difference a cover can make. It really can change your impression of the story.
This will make everything ok.
Worked for me, anyway.
Make Everything Okay.
Of course, I did jinx myself. But not in a bad way.
Haven’t written anything for James’ story for two days now. I received a request for the full manuscript for Sebastian and Sophie’s story, so I’ve been looking at that manuscript, considering if I need to tweak anything.
I hope this isn’t going to jinx me…
I liked this post from Victoria Schwab on how to deal with the dreaded sagging middle of a first draft:
By the time you hit the middle, you’ve written enough to know things are wrong, but you don’t yet know how to fix them. This. This right here. This is my hell. I revise and polish as I go, and I’ve now written enough books that I can tell when something needs fixing long before I’m capable of fixing it. In writing, things often need to be before they can be improved). Which brings me to this…
You have to KEEP GOING.
I am going to come back and re-read this post if I get stuck.
Currently, things are going well with James’ story. Over halfway through the first draft and keeping on schedule. My goal is to finish James’ story and then wrap up Edward’s story before Nationals. Hopefully, this will not jinx me!
Writing classes: helpful or harmful?
Mary Carroll Moore wrote a post the other day about the importance of accountability in writing a book. According to her, there are two kinds of accountability:
- internal: you put yourself in front of the keyboard and start writing every day and force yourself to keep going
- external: you join writing groups or take classes
Granted, since she herself teaches a lot of classes, there is some self-interest in her promoting them as a writing aid. But after reading her blog, I suspect that she started teaching classes because she found that a way to help herself keep writing. Harder to slack off when someone is watching you, regardless of whether you’re a student or a teacher.
For myself, I find classes helpful to learn things about technique, but they do not help keep me writing. Indeed, I have found the opposite effect. One well-meaning critique about how “this is the way things should be done” threw me off stride for days. A teacher gently pointing out what she thought was a flaw made me question whether I should keep writing at all.
I have found classes and critiques to be helpful after I have written something. Not while I am in the process of writing it. Once I’ve gotten the story down, once I understand the characters and have a first draft of the scenes written out, then it helps to have someone point out what’s wrong with it. If I try to get input while I’m writing the story, I might as well put a bullet through the manuscript and be done with it.
Do you find classes helpful while you are writing? Do they keep you at the desk typing?
Judge not, lest ye discover your own writing faults
One piece of advice I’d been given was that I should not only enter writing contests, I should consider judging one. It’s supposed to help you see your own writing in a new light.
Having had the chance to judge some entries in a contest, I can verify this is true.
I found that the stories I was given fell into three distinct groups: the good, the bad, and the meh — stories that were maddening because they had the potential of a good story hidden beneath a lot of stuff that didn’t need to be there.
The good ones, I tried to praise specifics. From my own experience, if the only feedback I get is “Great! Nice job.” I feel as if the judge skimmed my writing while watching their favorite TV show. I tried to include the elements of the story that most resonated with me while I read.
The bad stories, I felt guilty because I was stomping on their dream. I tried to criticize lightly and to point out all the good that I saw in the stories to balance out the things I had to point out that did not work for me.
The in-between stories were the hardest to judge. I ran into two of these. They had well-rounded characters, vivid settings, and loads of potential conflict, but I had to force myself to keep reading. They felt “off.”
Fortunately, I went off and read another of the entries. This one blew me away from the start. I was sorry when the excerpt ended, and I want to read the published version to know what happens next. So I took this entry and matched against the earlier ones to see if I could see any crucial difference.
What stood out in the awesome story was that not only did it start out with a character encountering a problem, the heroine was doing something about it. All three of these stories (the two meh and the one good) had characters with problems, but only one had an active heroine. She couldn’t solve the problem, but she tried. And each step she took toward solving it told me something about her, about the characters around her, about her world.
I did not have a synopsis of any of the stories, so I cannot say for certain, but I suspect that in the ‘meh’ stories, the main characters were eventually going to start doing more than mulling over their feelings.
Lesson du jour: If my main character doesn’t start out doing something in the first few pages, acting instead of just reacting, the reader will stop caring about what happens next.
Off to look at my own characters…
Learning to fly
Douglas Adams once described how humans could learn to fly. The knack, he said, was to learn how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. There you are, floating in the air. You could stay up above the ground but only for as long as you believe yourself able to do it. As soon as you realize that it was impossible, that there was no way for a human to fly, then crash. Back down to your old earth-bound existence.
This description works for writing novels as well. A short story, you can write in one sitting before disbelief has had time to settle in. But a novel? You have to get up the next day and keep going, which gives doubt time to creep in and get settled.
I find it best to write the first draft without thinking about what I’m doing. I think about the plot, I think about the characters, but I avoid thinking Hmmmn. Here I am, writing a novel.
Once I finished Sebastian’s story, I felt different about myself. I was a real writer. I had written a story. Never mind that I’ve over three novels under the bed already (3-1/4). Those weren’t real. The characters are cardboard and plot-driven. This was the first novel I’d written were the characters came to life and drove the story.
Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, I know some of what I need to do to improve the story. I do not know why I am starting to question my ability to do so. Maybe rewriting is also like learning to fly. I’ll try not to think about it while I’m doing it.
Joanna Bourne wrote that criticism could be harsh:
This is not putting a saucer of milk out for the tabby. This is wrapping yourself in raw meat and stepping into the lion’s cage.
Note: all the criticism I’ve received recently hasn’t been harsh. Not really. I entered the story in a contest and the first-round judges liked it enough to send it to the final round of judging. I got feedback on things that needed improving, but nothing harsh.
So I’m not sure why I feel depressed about it. I’ve received scathing criticism before and it didn’t bother me. I sent the beginning of my story into a contest and one judge responded by rewriting it as a parody. That felt like a slap in the face, but it wasn’t depressing. It didn’t make me start to question my ability to write.
Perhaps this feeling is not caused by my writing at all but by something else entirely. I note it here to see if it’s a long-term uneasiness based on something I need to change or if it’s just a passing mood. Regardless, I need to focus on writing the next story.
Mind the gap… but don’t mind it too much
The beginner always falls apart emotionally when a manuscript is criticized. He reacts with raw feelings, resents, disputes, and will argue all the way down the line. He hasn’t learned yet that criticism must be accepted intellectually, and not with the emotions. There really is nothing personal about it. Nobody is saying that you are stupid, but only that you haven’t done it properly yet.
– Phyllis A. Whitney, Guide to Fiction Writing
One of the hardest things about writing fiction is the gap between that glittering new idea that shimmers in your mind and the dull, drab words that end up on the page. Not always drab, not always dull, but always, in all ways, not the bright shiny idea that tempted you down this path of writing the story in the first place. I want the glitter, the tenderness, the tension, and the celebration. The reader wants that too.
Got feedback today: kind, well-intentioned, and depressing.
In Sebastian’s story, I do not think I’ve gotten the characters to reveal themselves early enough to hook the reader. I’m starting the story in the right place, I’m sure of that. Perhaps I need to polish the dialogue so their emotional response to events comes across more clearly.
For now, though, I am going to go on and write James’ story. This will have the added bonus of throwing light on Sebastian and Sophie from the point of view of a secondary character in their story. That will help with revisions.
Plus, James is getting impatient. He’s not one to sit idly on the sidelines watching me wrestle with his friend’s storyline. I need to write his story before he highjacks Sebastian’s.
Preparing for the national conference
It’s three months away, so I’m packing.
That sounds prepared, but it’s mostly a way of dealing with the anxiety of the unknown. Plus, if I wait until a day or so before I leave, I will throw things into a suitcase in a panic, taking about three times as much clothing as I would wear. I won’t keep these clothes in the suitcase for the next few months, but I am trying to see how little I can fit in and still leave room for books.
Seems simple enough: pack some business-like attire, a nice jacket, work pants. Something casual: a nice overlarge t-shirt for lounging about in. Sweats: because I damn well am going to exercise while I’m there. Comfortable shoes and a sweater (I always freeze in air-conditioned hotels.).
I am also trying to prepare by reading up on people’s blogs. It looks like a party where all the other people know each other beforehand. I am afraid that I will stick out as a friendless loner. I am afraid that my writing isn’t good enough yet for me to try pretending that I’m a pro. Can you claim to be a professional writer if you haven’t sold anything yet?
Well yes, you can. I’ve lived in this body long enough to know that there will always be that small voice in the back of my mind telling me that I’m not good enough yet to submit my work, not good enough to play with the big kids. I don’t think I will ever be good enough to please that little voice. I do think that I have to try polishing my work until I can’t see how to improve it any more, and then send it out into the world.