From The Writing Life

Editing Challenge Day 7: Make a Choice

The Blairzone - 31This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

 

Life can be seen, to paraphrase Borges, as a garden of forking paths. Your story can be seen that way too: so much of the stories we write are about roads not taken, or looking back at alternate paths with regret or nostalgia or simple curiosity. Life is a series of choices: this way and that way and this one and that one. So why don’t our stories reflect this tangled web of choice?

Today we’re examining the role that choice plays in stories. Ultimately, for a story to feel like a story and not just an anecdote, a sketch, a vignette, a scene, or an observation, it must contain some element of choice. There must be a crux, a point after which the world will never be the same again for your character.

In your editing journal, try to summarize what choice your character must make in the story. It’s got to be something that the story hinges on. It must act as a fulcrum, or pivot point for the story. And certainly, the choice your character makes might be to do nothing; that, too, is a choice.

If you’re having trouble articulating what that choice is, that’s already a helpful thing to notice. It might be time to clarify a choice, or make a bigger choice as part of the story. If you can articulate it, then start looking back into the scenes leading up to that choice. It shouldn’t suddenly appear as a fork in the road at the climax; all along we should see a steady build toward that choice. Does your story do that?

If the choice is a little weak, brainstorm in your journal a few different ways to make your character forced into a choice. Instead of discovering his friend’s affair at the same time as everyone else, have him learn about it early and have to decide whether to spill the beans.  Instead of assuming that your character will do the right thing in a situation — return the lost money, tell the authorities about the crime, refuse the bribe — make this a more difficult decision. Flirt with the disaster the wrong choice could bring.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at editorial.blairhurley.com.

Editing Challenge Day 6: Find Your Entry Point

The Blairzone - 23This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

 

Think of your story as a river. Just like life, just like time, it’s continually flowing by us; the lives of your characters, unless you’re going for some epic David Copperfield-type deal, began some point before your story. You can choose to step into the river at any point; as a writer, you have that freedom. And just because you stepped in somewhere in your first draft doesn’t mean that’s the best place to have stepped in.

Writers often talk about the entry point of their stories. Where do we choose to begin? With puberty? With that morning in the character’s mid-forties when the long-lost son knocks on the door? With any old regular day? The important thing to remember is that entry point, like the myriad other elements of a story, is a deliberate choice, and will set the story’s framing and timeline.

Too many student stories that I read seem to begin arbitrarily, not choosing their entry point deliberately. The stories begin with a character waking up and having a typical day. It’s only sometime in the afternoon, or maybe a week later, that we see the story again. In workshop, I try to raise the question of entry point. Why does the story have to begin now? I ask. Because the story’s beginning must feel imperative. It must feel like no other point will do. It must feel like the story had such a need to be told that at this very point, the water of the river overflowed its banks.

The assignment:

In your editing journal today, summarize the point at which your story begins. Then write down the question I always ask my students, riffing on the question asked at Passover tables: Why is this night not like any other night? What is so world-changing about this day that makes it the right day, the right time, to begin the story?

Look for symptoms of wrong-timeitis:

Perhaps you begin at a certain point, but then you have to spend the next page and a half quickly getting us up to speed with the traumatic event that happened to your character last year. You’ll either have to do this in flashback or backstory. But if that’s the case, why not begin with that point? Why have the most dramatic elements of your story told in a hurried aside?

Try an experiment:

Take down a few notes, imagining if the story began at a different point. What if you began forty years ago, or forty years in the future? What if you began the day before the murder instead of the day after? What would happen if you dipped into a character’s life just as she was meeting her future husband, instead of beginning with the unhappy divorce?

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at editorial.blairhurley.com.

Editing Challenge Day 5: Establishing the Problem

editingchallengeThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

When I look at published short stories in my favorite literary magazines, I can’t help noticing something that student work, even very good student work, is often lacking. Let’s look at a few examples of first sentences of stories I love:

“My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore.” – Grace Paley, A Conversation with My Father

“Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up.” – Seth Fried, Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre

“I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife.” – Molly Giles, Pie Dance

“My wife came home crying from the Dumpsters, said there was some pervert over there jerked down his pants and showed her his schlong.” – Larry Brown, Waiting for the Ladies

What do you notice? These sentences are all winning in their own ways; they’re different in style and perspective and voice. But what they all have in common is that they are inherently problem statements. In the very first or second sentences of these stories, writers are identifying central problems in their tales. They are establishing the problem that characters will be worrying over like bad teeth for the rest of the story. In Grace Paley’s story, we see an aging father with a bad heart; in Seth Fried, we have a mysterious but vivid problem of violence; in Molly Giles, we see an odd little turn of phrase that makes us curious about the marital conflict; and in Larry Brown, we see an inherently conflict-ridden situation, with a flasher threatening the character’s wife.

It seems so simple and easy to do now that I’m pointing it out, right? But if we look back at our own first drafts, I bet we’ll be missing that immediate sense of problem. We might have a vivid opening line, but does it leap right into the problem that is going to be worked on for the rest of the story?

Today’s editing challenge is about more than just tweaking that first line. It’s about the big picture of framing your story in the context of problems. What is the fundamental problem your character is wrestling with? Is it quickly evident, and does it drive the momentum of the story? Does that problem drop away for a few pages? In your editing journal, make a note of every page that doesn’t make explicit mention of the problem that first set the story in motion. You might notice that your story’s true problem doesn’t really emerge until page three or four. There are stories that can make this work, but in that case we need another problem to hold our attention, a kind of bait and switch that occurs. This is somewhat true in the Larry Brown example above; we think the story is a more-or-less straightforward problem about the flasher, but after a few pages we realize it is about the narrator’s own insecurities and struggles with his masculinity. Think about ways to introduce that problem back into a conversation or scene. Keep the flame on under the pot so that the water is constantly burbling.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at editorial.blairhurley.com.

Editing Challenge Day 4: Imagining the Story Arc

risingactiongraphThis is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

All right, we’re ready to actually enter the world of editing, now that we have the right attitude. (What is the attitude? It’s the calm confidence that others need to edit too, and that editing is part of the process). So where do we begin? What’s the first step?

If you’ve got a short story whose first draft is tentatively completed, it can feel like you’re holding a piece of Swiss cheese. There’s a structure there, but it’s full of holes. When I complete a first draft, I’m often already aware of some missing pieces, whether it’s scenes or much-needed character development, but I think it’s important to push through to the end and follow the story’s momentum. So just look away from those Swiss cheese bits; for now, we’re going to tackle the overall story arc.

Remember, you are not bound irrevocably to the story arc as you originally envisioned it. Maybe you knew the story had to end with a character getting on a train and choosing to end her marriage. That was what you needed to know to finish your first draft — but now that you’ve gotten there, is it really the right choice for the story?

Have you printed out a copy of your story? Some of my fellow writers print the story two-up to a page so they can visualize the entire thing even more easily; today, we really are thinking about the big picture, and you need to be able to hold the whole story’s trajectory in your head. Take a moment and jot down the big three or four plot points on the top of the first page in colored marker or pen. Keep it as simple as you can: if you find yourself needing more than four or five points, or needing to explain why one plot point follows from another, than the story is already too complex. That’s a good thing to notice.

Ask yourself if the first plot point is really a plot point. I see this as a common mistake in a lot of story drafts; we save the actions and choices for the second half of the story, and the first half is more or less buildup or background. We need the story to have a balanced plot, moving and changing and growing throughout. Think of your story’s plot as a seesaw. Is the seesaw heavily tilted in one direction or another? If so, jot down some notes about events that could or should happen in the beginning, or earlier on.

Ask yourself if there is a climax. Does the character make a choice that changes the trajectory of the story? Great! If not, think about why that might be. Does your character only have things happening to him or her? Is the character only passively observing someone else’s life?

In a notebook or text file that you are keeping specifically for this editing project, jot down some notes about actions that could be added to the story. Instead of having the character just at work for a while, have the action move up earlier in the story. Instead of just letting the bad thing happen, have your character make an effort to stop it.

Good work, editors. Next time, we’ll delve deeper into plot choices.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting at editorial.blairhurley.com.

Editing Challenge Day 3: Print and Highlight

The Blairzone - 39-1This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

 

Today’s task for the editing challenge might sound simple, but it’s stunning to me how many people have lost touch with editing their writing in this way. We’re going to go old-school today and treat our stories the way legendary writers and editors of the past, from Hemingway to Gordon Lish, would have treated them.

It starts with a simple instruction: print it out.

Yes, it’s so simple! But the ease and convenience of word processing software can actually be a hindrance when it comes to the editing process. It’s so easy to move a paragraph here and shuffle a sentence there — so easy to delete a sentence with a click — that we can lose sight of what the original story looked like, and what shape it ought to take. We can skim easily over lackluster sentences and allow them to continue existing.

So today, print out your story. You might want to use a two-up to a page printing system; this allows to take in even more of the story on a single page. But reading glasses for the nearsighted (like me) will be required for this technique.

Now that you’ve printed it out, it’s time to have fun with highlighters. We’re going to get a thorough understanding of the components of your story. So break out at least three or four colors of highlighter and spread the story’s pages on your desk.

In your first pass, highlight all the passages of exposition or backstory.

In your next pass, highlight all the passages of dialogue.

In your next pass, highlight all the passive description.

In your next pass, highlight all the action.

If all went well, you should now have a story that looks like a rainbow, with parts of backstory bumping up against dialogue and description and so on. This is a great way to get a visual sense of what your story is made up of. And very simply on this level, do you see patterns emerging? Do you see now how the first two pages are all backstory before we ever get the first action sequence, or perhaps in the middle is a three-page section of back-and-forth dialogue? Is one component entirely missing? Is the balance of the story heavily weighted toward one kind of writing and not others?

This isn’t an immediate prescription; some stories might be entirely dialogue or entirely exposition and they can make it work. But you’ll never know how to improve your story until you start noticing what is at work in it. Looking at your story in this zoomed-out way can help us see the forest that contains the trees. And being armed with this knowledge will be tremendously helpful as we embark on the real shaping in future days.

Editing Challenge Day Two: Make an Editing Journal

The Blairzone - 22This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s time to kick our editing journey into high gear, writers. And that means starting with some hard, concrete plans for editing your story this month. Let’s try to begin with organization and purpose. So today, the goal is to set up an editing journal.

This can be part of your existing note-jotting journal, or your daily thoughts journal; it just shouldn’t overlap with the place where you write your stories. This journal’s pages should be set up for a place of organization, creativity, and thoughtful dissection.

First, choose the story or two that you’d really like to focus on for the 30-day challenge. Then Start a fresh page in your editing journal. Date it and title it and then in note form, give a rough overview of the story you’re re-visiting. Don’t just start describing the setting or characters; instead, put a big giant problem statement at the top. Then, in note form, try filling out a few of these lines:

PROBLEM:

MAIN CHARACTER:

SIDE CHARACTERS:

SETTING/TIME:

INCITING INCIDENT:

OBSTACLES:

If you haven’t heard the term “inciting incident” before, it’s the thing that gets the story in motion. It’s not the big problem driving the whole story; it’s merely the action that starts the wheels turning. A stranger knocks on the door or a surprising letter arrives in the mail; a person forgets his umbrella on a rainy day or a wife asks for a divorce. What starts the story moving?

We’ll re-visit all of these elements of story in future days of the 30-day challenge, but it’s crucial for now to establish a place where you can think freely about your story with the mindset of an editor instead of that of a writer. We need a scratchpad for these thoughts. As you embark on the 30-day challenge, try taking notes on each new assignment on a new page of the journal. When you reach the end, you’ll have a deeply-realized portrait of the mechanisms at work in your story. And that will give you the freedom to play with it.

One of the principle challenges of editing a story, and even more so with a novel, is the challenge of holding the entire thing in your head simultaneously, understanding movements and shifts in one visual sphere. Taking notes in this way will help you contain your story in a framework. It’s a valuable tool for changing the way you visualize your writing.

Editing Challenge Day 1: The Crucial Editing Myth

editingchallenge
This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It might be one of the most pervasive and damaging myths circulating among fledgling writers: that the truly talented writers, the ones we see popping up in the pages of literary magazines or gracing the New Fiction tables of bookstores, got it right on the first try. We think that great writing came from the sky, or from the minds of genius; that Hemingway, Carver, Munro, wrote their stories more or less in one draft. Kind of like Michelangelo imagining the sculpture within the block of marble, and removing anything that wasn’t sculpture. It’s even in professional writers’ interest to perpetuate this myth, and in interviews and discussions they will often keep the myth going, talking about writing the book in a number of weeks or making few changes from the original.

I’m here to tell you that almost all of that is, as my mother would say, horse-puckey.

When writers are truly honest, they start talking about their seventh or seventeenth drafts. They talk about how the prize-winning novel had to be completely re-written from scratch. Multiple times. Hemingway wrote somewhere near forty-five different endings for A Farewell to Arms. The editor Gordon Lish cut nearly 90% of Raymond Carver’s original draft of his story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” You can find the original online and do a side-by-side comparison; whole backstories and character arcs have been excised. It’s a slash-and-burn job, and it resulted in one of the most successful short stories of the past forty years.

So I think this is where we have to begin, if we are really going to take our editing journey seriously; we have to acknowledge and know that revision is a necessary part of the writing process; it cannot be skipped or jettisoned, even by the greatest of the great among us. I have yet to find an exception to this rule. Even the writers we think of as truly intuitive geniuses, such as Nabokov, have rounds of revision. Nabokov wrote all of his books in isolated paragraph-sized chunks on notecards; a major part of his writing process was spent shuffling the cards into the appropriate order.

So. Inspiration versus perspiration? You know the old adage. But as I’ll talk about more in future posts, it’s a mistake to think of revision as only perspiration. It, too, is an intensely creative process, requiring thought and intuition and boldness. And when you embark on that journey, you’ll be walking well-trodden ground. Take heart: every book you see in a bookstore, every classic on your shelf, had to undergo this process. No one gets it perfectly on the first try.

Next time: tackling your draft with a fresh perspective.

Revision is Writing: The 30-Day Editing Challenge Begins Today

editingchallenge

I’m excited to launch a new challenge for readers and writing: it’s a 30-day editing challenge for you to follow along with me. I’ll be tackling the many ways that we can take a half-finished story and bring it to its full potential. Follow along with me this month and take your story to the next level! And if you’re interested in really taking your editing quest seriously, then visit editorial.blairhurley.com for my professional manuscript consulting services.

Too many writers think that all the work of writing takes place in the first draft of a story. They suck in a deep breath, get their inspiration from the muse, and pound through a story like it’s a sprint. Once they’ve finished the first draft, they think, the rest is really just manual labor or window dressing: fixing the grammar, filling in a plot hole, laboring a little with a missing scene. And far too many stories that could have been great stop right there.

Have you been in this boat? I think most of us have, particularly when we’re just starting out. We write a story, barely glance over it before breathlessly sending it out, and then have to face the puzzlement and disappointment of seeing the rejection slips come in. Then we think that’s it: that’s the life cycle of a story, and now we move on to the next. But I want to impress on my readers how very wrong they are. That early stage of writing isn’t the end — it’s barely even the beginning! It’s the caterpillar. It’s not even the chrysalis yet.

I think the mistake in abandoning stories stems from the idea that we are more or less married to the idea as it originally came to us. We think of story ideas as precious, gossamer things, better left untouched, fragile as a moth’s wings. We faithfully capture the original idea, and then when we face the story for some editing, we feel paralyzed. I can’t change that character too much. He came to me as a loveable screwup. There’s nothing else I can add. Or, the original ending I had in mind was that she sells the house. I’m stuck with that. How can I possibly change what originally gave me the idea to write?

In a new series on revision, I want to try to dispel some commonly held myths about what we can and can’t do. Over and over I’ve thought stories of mine that limped across the finish line of a first draft were done, set in stone, with no potential for further growth or improvement. I’ve felt that small shudder of disappointment that yet another story has concluded without achieving all the things I thought it could. But when I revisit, and I consider revision to be as creative a process as the creation of the first draft, I’m stunned by how much a story can be changed. Stories that I thought were going nowhere have become some of my favorite pieces when I discovered the freedom I had to change and re-imagine.

That’s not to say that editing isn’t hard. Revision, just like generation, is hard, dirty work. But with some guidance and some new ideas, we can stop feeling paralyzed and helpless, re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We can build a whole new damn boat. We can plug the leaks.

Thinking about editing your story or manuscript? I now offer professional manuscript consulting at editorial.blairhurley.com.

Get on board with the 30-day editing challenge. We start tomorrow, and it’ll be 30 days full of editing tips, techniques, and philosophy.

What’s Next for Experimental Fiction?

psychedelic-1160626EXPERIMENTAL FICTION HAS BEEN IN CRISIS EVER SINCE THE FIRST PORTMANTEAU OF FINNEGAN’S WAKE THREW ITS MUTANT HAT INTO THE RING. For those who thrill at the bold experiments of modernism, it can often feel like the heyday of experimentation is in the past. The idea of language itself breaking down, of form and function breaking their strained marriage, reached its dizzying peak with works like Finnegan’s Wake and other Joyce
books. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and others continue to exhilarate readers because eighty years later, they’re still dazzlingly transgressive, defying all convention, even the conventions they seem to have established.

But almost immediately following such heady experiments in fiction, experimental fiction itself seemed endangered. Where could writers possibly go from here? What new frontiers were left to explore? The work of defying convention seemed exhausted. The duty of pushing literature forward was left to post-modernists, whose writing still seems disturbingly clinical and sterile to me, divorced from emotion. Consider Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, with its dark conspiracies, its twisted phantasmagoric cityscapes, and its utterly flat, two-dimensional characters. Pynchon’s world seems utterly worn out to me, without the joyous unraveling of language that experimental modernists offered.

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How to Make Writing Resolutions You Can Keep

Every year, articles and thinkpieces online inform us that our best efforts to make and keep resolutions are utterly doomed. We’re told that our pledges to lose weight, exercise more, eat better, and so on, are hubris at best, stupidity at worst. To some extent, the naysayers are right; the usual, vague resolutions, the ones that show little understanding of ourselves and our natures, are doomed to fail.

But that doesn’t mean we writers are stuck, or that it’s not helpful to make resolutions. In fact, i find it tremendously useful to look at my life with a macro lens once in a while and be ambitious and idealistic about what I really want to accomplish. The key, of course, is in making the right kind of resolutions.

1. Know thyself.

The first way to make a meaningful resolution is to actually understand your own habits, personality, and limitations. I don’t think I’m ever going to be the type of writer who wakes at dawn to write for two hours; I’m not sure I’ll even be the type of writer who writes every day. To set too ambitious a goal often comes from not understanding what we’re really capable of.

So I can’t write for two hours every day. But if I stretch myself a bit, I could write three days a week. I’m going to do my best to do that.

2. Be specific.

The other most common mistake resolvers make is that they make very broad, vague generalizations, hoping they’ll be able to quantify that success later. “Read more” is about the same as “Exercise more”; how am I measuring that? What level of “more” will I be satisfied with?

The resolution that is most likely to succeed is one that is truly concrete and measurable. Read a new literary magazine each week. Write two pages a day. Read more books than the number of books you read last year. These are things that you can measure and track; they’re goals that you can keep an eye on, and use to stay motivated. If you’re disappointed in your progress, it’s hard to get back on your feet; but if you have that concrete goal, those two pages to get done, you can keep improving.

3. Resist the “what the hell effect.”

In the dieting world, researchers have found that many diets are lost after one small violation. After violating the rules or failing in a small way, such as eating a dessert, people who wanted to lose weight then threw caution to the winds and overate. If we set too strict goals for ourselves, and then break them, that one disappointment can cause us to lose motivation entirely and backslide into old habits.

This applies to writing goals as well. Set a goal that challenges you, but forgive yourself if you fail to live up to it perfectly. Didn’t have the strength to write today? Then write a little tomorrow. Take good care of yourself, but push yourself too. Don’t allow any but the most emergent excuses from yourself; but if you do need to take a rain check, then roll out of bed the next day and do better.

What are your writing resolutions for 2016?