Author: BLH

Try On A Different Voice

I had a great last week, writers. Instead of working on a few chapters of my novel that I’ve been circling around and trudging through for the past month, I was finally able to skip ahead to a different chapter, one from a different character’s perspective. It was refreshing to write in another character’s voice, one that is much more practical and less dreamy than my hero, more impatient with the world, more eager to solve problems. The pages flew by, and by the weekend I had completed a first draft of a chapter I’d only started days prior.


So what changed? What gave me gumption and will? I think this week’s experience can teach us all a lesson about keeping things fresh in our creative lives. Instead of being mired in one character you don’t understand, try writing a scene or a chapter from another perspective. First, it will give you a chance to stretch some different muscles; you’ll be able to change up the tone, the use of verbs, the concerns that you’d been working so hard to keep consistent before this. It feels fun again to try getting into a new mind.

Second, you’ll be able to finally see and feel things that your main character is unable to see and feel. You can finally discover what that troubled-looking marriage looks like from the inside. You can see what that neglected kid is feeling or understand the person who is getting ignored.

And third, and possibly most importantly, you’ll be able to gain new insight into your main character. By writing from the point of view of my hero’s brother, I was suddenly able to see her from this close relative’s eyes. I was able to see how she presented herself to the world and what she struggled to do. I was able to understand her faults and her desires much better. Writing from the perspective of this other character has galvanized me to write about my main character again — and I’ll be returning to her with greater understanding.

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Tuesday Tip: Try Some Parataxis

Tuesday Tips is a new category of posts here at Writerly Life that will be appearing every Tuesday. It’s a series of concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now, and they’re chosen to immediately re-vitalize your writing in some small (but meaningful!) way.

This week’s tip is:

Use Parataxis for Power

Writing styles can be defined by the use of two techniques: hypotaxis or parataxis. Hypotaxis is the writing of more old-fashioned, flowery writers, such as Fitzgerald or Austen or Bronte. With that route “hypo” (“under”), it means that the parts of your sentences are subordinated underneath others. For example:

While Mabel was suffering from a cold, she still went to work.

In this sentence, “while Mabel was suffering from a cold” is a dependent clause; it the piece of information that is less important than the fact that Mabel went to work. It has been subordinated. If you use a complex interplay of subordinate and dominant clauses in your sentences, you are using hypotaxis, directing us to the important information and subordinating less important information. Skillful use of hypotaxis can create a complex, layered, and very sophisticated style.

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Get a Fresh Perspective

Sorry for the slowdown in posts lately, readers; I’m facing my busiest semester yet, and I’m trying to focus all my available time on my novel, whose first draft is nearing completion. I’m excited about the prospect of finishing the draft, but also very nervous, because I’m getting closer every day to the edge of the map I’ve drawn, entering uncharted (and unplanned) territory. I’m in that “here be dragons” region. It’s going to take a lot more concerted effort and just a bit of daydreaming and stargazing to figure out how this book should end.

I’m still committed to keeping Writerly Life supplying you with regular thoughts and tips on the Writing Life, however. Today, I’m thinking about how helpful it was lately to go all the way back to chapter one of my novel and give it to some folks who had never seen it before to read. It’s so useful to get a fresh perspective on something you’ve been mired in for months.

Get a new pair of eyes on your work

Many writers discuss how important it is to be able to look at your work objectively, or if that fails, to find someone who can look at your work objectively. This means no loving parents or worshiping younger siblings can be your chosen set of eyes. Instead, consider starting up a writing and reading group in your area, or dig up the names of friends you haven’t seen in a while. Ask a coworker with similar interests to read your work.

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Sunday Review: Fat City

This week I buried myself in a book that had been on a writing professor’s recommended list. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of Leonard Gardner’s Fat City before, but I’m glad I have now. Though a slim, modest little book, it is a gripping look at the underbelly of down-and-out, bottom-of-the-barrel boxing in Stockton in the 1950’s. We follow Ernie, a young man on his way up in the boxing world, starting to discover his potential, side by side with Tully, a man who is starting to decline, a man facing the stark realization that he is a has-been at 30. Their stories are twined together, and end up being very moving.

In truth, Fat City is not really about boxing. There are enough scenes of the actual bouts, told with gripping movement and verve. I’m left with vivid impressions of jabs, of power, of the sheer startling violence of this sport. (I was left wondering if it truly was a sport, at this low, desperate level, and not just a spree of aggression). But the book is not really about the stats or what happens in the ring. The book is more about the forgotten cities of this time, the many voiceless laborers picking onions in the sun, the drunks in bars, the women who get left behind. With spare, cutting language, it fluently captures a world of loneliness and labor, of emptiness and occasional bouts of fierce, savage love.

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I Hate It — But I Wrote It

Do you ever get that feeling come over you while you’re writing something — that sinking, nauseous feeling that what you’re writing is absolute bunk? You know what I’m talking about — the feeling that makes you cringe even as you finish typing out that hackneyed sentence, the revulsion as you complete that tired and predictable scene. Sometimes, we sensitive writer types can get overcome by self-loathing as we write. It’s so difficult to create fresh, sparkling work, and anything less than that seems depressing.

But you know what? You still wrote the darn thing.

It’s important to get a little sense of perspective when you’re in the middle of a writing project. Not everything that comes out of our pens or keyboards is going to be perfect. Most of it, in fact, will need a lot of work to get it into shape. A lot of it may even eventually get the axe. But often you needed to write that shoddily constructed scene in order to figure out for yourself what’s happening between two characters. You needed to stumble through two or three bad analogies before you found just the right one. You needed to write that terrible, awful piece.

Be prepared to hold opposing ideas in your head. You may finish a day’s work with that nauseated feeling of dread. You may hate what you wrote. But you wrote it. You did your duty, sat down, thought hard, worked on the words, got some of them out on the page. You pushed the bleeding edge of your story a little farther forward. And even if you end up cutting this work, you needed to write it for one reason or another. You needed to learn about your characters or your craft or even just what “liminal” and “numinous” mean. You hate it — but you wrote it. Say it with me now. Whenever you have a bad writing day, try saying it.

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Tuesday Tip: Use a Simpler Word

Tuesday Tips is a new category of posts here at Writerly Life that will be appearing every Tuesday. It’s a series of concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now, and they’re chosen to immediately re-vitalize your writing in some small (but meaningful!) way.

This week’s tip is:

Use a Simpler Word in a Complicated Word’s Place

English has a wonderful dual heritage. At its core there is a duality, a choice, between its formal, official Latinate roots, with its information, transubstantiation, and nutrition; and its earthy, warlike, immediate Germanic roots, with its knowledge, God, and bread. The Germanic words often hit us on a stronger, more emotional level. They are words that are more connected to our immediate needs for survival. They are the words that tell us about blood, food, and love, not lacerations, nourishment, and amorousness. One teacher of mine called these words, the types that refer to our most basic human desires and instincts, as primordial words. They are words that were in us before words even existed. If you think that’s a contradiction, just don’t overthink it. The goal of this exercise is to stop overthinking.

At moments of great importance or emotion in books, you’ll notice how everything gets simple, and writers return to primordial words to describe things. They are much more effective, more timeless, more human. The other words have their place, but they are fussy and distant. It’s easy for you to switch them out at key points in your story, and they’ll immediately give you a jolt of something both more vivid and more spiritual. These words feel more essential to our humanness. So when your character is dying or loving or weeping, remember these words, and use them liberally. Strike out the anxious, intellectual Latin.

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Get Organized for the Fall

September is a long way off, but August is the perfect time to start thinking about all the demands and challenges of the fall. Personally, I love the feeling of having a place for everything and everything in its place, and it helps my creativity as well. When my space is ready for me and the work to be done, there’s less clutter in my mind as well. So what organizational goals will you be fulfilling this August?

1. Deal with old papers.

As a teacher, I end up with a giant stack of papers at the end of each semester. There are uncollected essays and quizzes, extra handouts, class notes, syllabi — you name it. They make a messy mountain in my inbox, and it’s a bad idea to start a new semester with that swirling around. One of my summer chores is always to go through these papers and eliminate what I don’t need.

There are all sorts of other papers a writer acquires — printouts of drafts, scribbled notes, and the like. It’s a good idea to either file these away or toss them during your August clean.

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Sunday Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

I hope you didn’t miss me too much, readers, as I took a little vacation this week for some important time with family and friends. But as I mentioned in a previous post, the summer is flying past, and it’s time to get back to work. I’ve been struggling to keep writing as a top priority lately, because of a number of other obligations that just keep cropping up. But even when writing is shoved to the side, there’s a way to keep thinking creatively and in a writerly way. One way I keep myself in a creative mode is by reading books that make me see things differently. I returned to an old friend this week, by re-reading a classic of popular science literature, neurologist Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales.

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Tuesday Tip: Throw a Wrench in the Works

Tuesday Tips is a new category of posts here at Writerly Life that will be appearing every Tuesday. It’s a series of concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now, and they’re chosen to immediately re-vitalize your writing in some small (but meaningful!) way.

This week’s tip is:

Throw a Wrench in the Works

You’ve got everything all planned out. It’s going to be great. You have your character’s inner turmoil here, his love interest here, his slow self-realization here. The story is pretty as a picture, with everything in its place.

The problem is that a story isn’t a picture; it’s a story. It needs movement, direction, action, suspense. We readers need to be surprised; we need to worry; we need to think we’re heading in the wrong direction, only to discover we were heading in the right direction all along. A story moves, and the fuel that it runs on is conflict. We need regular infusions of conflict to keep the gears moving.

So instead of planning everything out and continuing merrily along that yellow brick road to the end, today, throw a wrench into the works. Introduce a new conflict, a new complication, a new, worrying character. Make something less perfect and beautiful today. Reveal that your character had a previous marriage, a previous drug problem, a previous unacknowledged love child. Put a deer in the road just when that car is heading around the bend. Make someone get lost. Stories need these jolts of reality; otherwise you’ll end up with a story that may seem polished, even exquisite, but is ultimately a still life.

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Seeing Your Future in the Cards?

While cleaning out my childhood bedroom this weekend, I found an old deck of tarot cards that I’d once received as a joke gift. I remember having a lot of fun with the deck in college, predicting which of my friends would encounter tall dark-haired strangers and whether their relationships would end happily ever after. I’ve never taken this sort of thing seriously, but there’s something highly persuasive about the simple magic of laying out randomized cards in a deck, hoping to learn your future.

This weekend, years after I’d received the deck, I laid out the cards according to the instructions and asked a question or two about how events in my life would shape up. I found myself trying to explain the cards’ presentation to myself, applying it to my own life. It all seemed to make an odd kind of sense, if you were willing to be creative in the interpretation. It got me thinking about the future, and how we hope for knowledge of it, even trusting absurd superstitions in exchange for a little certainty.

Planning for the Future Only Gets You So Far

Writers may be even more anxious about the future than your average person. I think they tend to want control over the narratives of their lives; that’s one reason why they create stories, enjoying being the master of someone’s fate. We all seek the degree of control of writers. The problem, of course, is that real life is not a novel, as much as we want it to be. Things get in the way of our best-laid plans. So we play with cards, or star patterns, or even the entrails of animals, hoping for a little reassurance that everything will work out in the end. I laid out my tarot deck without belief, and yet still hoping the cards would show something positive; some part of me hoped these little rituals could stave off bad luck.

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