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Mailbag: Looking Forward or Turning Back

In this week’s mailbag, I’ll be addressing an important issue in the novel-writing process. I’ll return to the post Look Forward or Turn Back in Your Novel?, in which I wondered when it was the right time to look back on past chapters and do some editing.

In the first post, Margaret said:

I “turned back” on the first novel I wrote for Nano. I’d written about 15000 words in third person limited POV when I realized the novel needed to be in first person. I rewrote the first section — yes, all 15000 words — in first person. I had to have the voice of my main character clear in my head in order to continue, and I couldn’t do that without rewriting the first part.

For the less serious stuff – a scene that needs to be inserted, perhaps, I leave notes in the document, usually
*** FIXME ***: ….

That way I can easily search for “FIXME” to find all the things I noticed needed changing.

Great idea, Margaret. I use a similar system of notation in my novel so I won’t be slowed down or lose momentum in order to look up places or struggle with one word choice. Passages that are weak and need re-writing I put in bold; for names and other facts, I put [NAME] in brackets. Later I can search for the brackets and do the research.

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Mailbag: Odd Ones Out, Leaving the Atocha Station

The week’s mailbag is finally back, readers! It’s time I got back to your thoughtful comments and kept the dialogue going here at Writerly Life. It’s been a busy summer here with many family obligations keeping me from writing and blogging as much as I’d like to, but that’s no reason to be lax about these two important things. So let’s take a trip back today, readers, to my post about looking for the odd one out in your fiction, and my review of the quite astonishing book, Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner.

About looking for the odd one out, Felicity said:

Whilst I don’t like rules, perhaps we all conform to this and don’t know it! Interesting read. Felicity Fox

Thanks, Felicity (and welcome to the site). I think writers have a distaste for rules in common — it can sometimes seem soulless to follow a rubric or formula when writing. However, it’s surprising how many rules and conventions in storytelling there really are. We rely on these rules for audiences to understand our stories. And things like pacing and suspense tend to follow very strict rules. So it’s useful to know about them — and then break them thoughtfully!

Stacy said:

Very sound advice – thank you. I think this will help with the chapter that’s been haunting me for weeks. It is about an “odd” occurrence with which I was having trouble. Your insight has helped unstick my mind.

Thanks, Stacy. A little insight into the structure governing our own stories can often help get us going again — rules like the odd one out rule are like scaffolds that can hold our story up, getting us to the next page when it’s difficult.

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Mailbag: Writing in a Different Medium, Why ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is Hard

This week’s mailbag is all about what’s holding us back in writing, and a few tricky ways we can overcome these obstacles. In the first post, Write in a different medium, I discuss why writing by hand once in a while can actually change your thought process. And in another post, Why “Show, Don’t Tell” is so difficult, I discuss why we struggle so much to follow the oldest advice in the book for writers.

On “Write in a different medium“, Mary said:

When writing in longhand, I recommend using PENCILS–if you need to change just a word or two, it is much easier. I also recommend double-spacing your written lines. This leaves room for word/clause insertion in your handwritten lines.

When I needed to insert a passage in my handwritten stories, I put a reference in the main body such as “A-1.” I wrote out the passage in a separate binder (or binders) with the same reference symbol.

I like writing by hand–it is the only way I can write poetry. I cannot even imagine settling in with my laptop for a session of poem creation. It just does not fit.

Thanks, Mary. There are lots of ways we can edit more easily if we write a draft by hand; as a teacher, I still prefer grading papers on paper, for example, with lots of red marks and arrows and circles, even though word processing software now has all sorts of fancy commenting features. There’s nothing like the visual experience of moving and inserting paragraphs, or drawing little diagrams, or writing notes to ourselves in the margins. Handwriting can’t be beat for editing.

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Mailbag: Changing the Order, Assembling Story Puzzles

And we’re back with the weekly mailbag, readers! This is my regular post in which I respond to some of your thoughtful comments on past posts and we keep the discussion and debate going. This week I’m responding to comments on two posts with a similar theme: changing up the order of your story, and assembling your story like a jigsaw puzzle. Let’s get to the comments!

On changing up the order of your story, Amy said:

This is a great strategy – thanks so much for sharing. I sometimes get so bogged down in “what happens next” that I forget to think about what happened yesterday, or last week or ten years ago, that is really much more insightful than what happens “next.”

Good point, Amy — we’re so anxious about following our momentum and keeping something boiling in the pot the next day and the next that we forget to look at the time sense of our writing in a larger way, adjusting weeks, using flashbacks, etc. This problem of changing the order is a necessary part of thinking about your story on the “macro” level once in a while.

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Mailbag: Reasons to Read, Poetry and Blindness

The mailbag is back, readers! I’m happily working my way through last month’s thoughtful comments, doing my best to respond to a decent sampling of them. This week, I’m responding to comments on my post called “Give Us a Reason to Read“, as well as my post wondering what we can learn from the connection between poetry and blindness. Let’s get to the comments!

On “Give Us a Reason to Read“, Amy said:

I love that – thanks for sharing. I’ve found that as I write, I tend to “plan” benign but then as I start writing, the ugly tends to come out of my characters. It’s sometimes hard to have them be awful because I really like them, but I think you make a good point that it is that behavior that clarifies life and makes good writing good.

Nice technique, Amy. I think it’s a great idea to start slow and then discover the ugliness in our characters as we learn more about them. In a way, this mimics our actual experience of getting to know someone — on a first date or first meeting, only positive, benign things are going to come out, but on subequent meetings, we’ll see the person when he or she is irritated or fatigued, and as you say, the ugly will start to come out.

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Mailbag: Can We Love the Books of Authors We Despise?

In this week’s mailbag, I want to talk about loving a book but hating an author. Is it possible to fully divorce the work from its creator? Can we forgive authors their sins? Should we? Many of you had something to say on this issue in my post “Can We Love the Books of Authors We Despise?“. So let’s see what you all had to say.

Michael Washburn said:

I know that when recapitulating comments one finds deeply offensive, one doesn’t always err on the side of accuracy. But according to the account in The Guardian, Naipaul said he couldn’t think of a woman who was his literary equal. The last sentence of your first paragraph suggests something quite different — that Naipaul believes “that women writers are always inferior” to male writers. I doubt that Naipaul or any educated person would take such a position.

Thanks for keeping me honest, Michael. Perhaps Naipaul’s stunning arrogance is reserved for his own personal egotism, rather than a more general comment about gender. However, I think the point still stands about the implication of his remarks. He did not single out white writers who were not his equal, or Jewish writers, for example; he selected women writers as fundamentally failing to meet his supposed high standard. That sort of comment happens surprisingly often in the literary world today, and it is deeply damaging.

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Mailbag: Many Characters, Many People; Dystopian Fiction

It’s back to the mailbag once again, readers — I always enjoy reading your thoughtful comments, and I’m doing my best to respond to as many as I can. This week I’m taking a quick look on my post “Think of Your Character as Many People“, as well as my post, “What’s the Deal with Dystopian?” So let’s see some comments!

The first post was about how movies showing characters growing up always have different actors playing these characters. It’s an interesting reminder that our fictional characters have different versions of themselves, too.

The Non-Writing Writer said:

I’ve always said I feel like there are different versions of everyone. There certainly are different versions of me! If I don’t take care of myself physically and mentally, I definitely become a very unlikable version of myself. And the people I surround myself with definitely contribute to the version of me that that I am each day. I never thought of how this applies to my writing until now though! I love this post.

Thanks, non-writing writer (and I love your name!). It’s definitely the way most of us think of ourselves — we have different versions of ourselves with our parents or with our children or with our employers or with our friends. But when we get to our fiction, we make the mistake of saying, “All right, this character is “x”, and he or she always has to be consistent with “x.” It makes for a flat, unrealistic character.

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Mailbag: Most of What You’re Reading is Probably a Waste of Time

Welcome back to the reader mailbag, writers! I’m finally beginning to catch up with your thoughtful comments, and today I’m responding to the post that stirred up quite a lot of buzz here at Writerly Life — my declaration that Most of what you’re reading is probably a waste of time. In the post, I explained that not all reading is equal; we often get pulled into meaningless reading at the expense of helpful or enriching reading. Readers had plenty to say on the issue, so I’ll just highlight a handful of the comments.

Ann Marie said:

I don’t agree (that most reading is a waste of time). If you know what you like, and you choose to read a book, you’re going to know to some degree if you like it enough to continue reading it or not. When I begin a book, I can usually tell in the first couple of pages, if I feel it’s a waste of time or not. Of course, like everyone, I’ve had moments of “Why did I just read that?”. Usually it’s a article or something on the internet. But to see “Most of What You’re Reading is Probably a Waste of Time” is so negetive sounding. Sorry, maybe I’m being a bit of a book snob, but we all can choose what we read.

Thanks, Ann Marie. When I read your comment, though, I can’t help think that you actually are agreeing with me. As I mention in the post, you describe the filtering process we’ve all got to get better at using, discarding books or articles that don’t initially seem like quality reading. As you say, we all are experiencing the “why did I just read that?” syndrome more and more — it can eat into our reading and thinking time enormously. Sorry the title was too negative, though — I do feel strongly that our time is being wasted!

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Mailbag: Being Gutsy in Your Writing

This week I’ve got a quick mailbag, responding to comments about my post “Be Gutsy: Cut Out ‘Kind of’ and ‘Sort of'”. It’s something that my writing teacher noticed; beginning writers in particular tend to apologize for their observations, weakening them by inserting little unnecessary mitigating words. I wondered if this was a trend of our latest generation, affected by the world of social networking; because most of our lives are now a public performance, are we less willing to say anything that is not bland and uncontroversial?

Annie said:

Love this. I know I have a tendency to temper my writing (my word is “just”) and there’s no reason for it.

I know it, Annie! I definitely use “just” as well as the words I’ve mentioned in the post in order to lessen the effect of what I’m writing. Sometimes I tell myself that it’s more realistic to avoid dramatic conclusions, but really, it’s just my way of excusing weaker writing.

Mary said:

I believe this ‘tentative’ writing is a carryover from today’s equally tentative speech patterns. Most people say “kinda like, uhm, you know,…” twelve times in a single statement. No, they say it that many times in a single fragment of a statement.

It drives me nuts to hear this type of speech. Young women are some of the worst offenders. I’ve watched televised events held before assemblies of young female Ivy League college graduates. When it came time for their comments, I could not believe how they spoke. Each had a high-pitched, ‘little girl’ voice & every one of them made assertions sound like questions.

I wonder, too, whether this problem is more of a woman writer’s problem than a man’s, Mary. We’re encouraged to doubt ourselves and the value of our contributions; small wonder that that tentativeness might find its way into our writing. This encouragement to be gutsy should go out to women writers in particular (myself included). If we fear the consequences of our words too much, then we’ll never say anything worthwhile.

Lauren said:

You remind me of that Oscar Wilde quote – ‘Be yourself; everyone else is taken’. If we constantly hold ourselves back for fear of ridicule – and I understand that feeling perfectly – we’re not writing or being ourselves.

Terrific quotation, Lauren! Sometime we need a simple, pithy reminder that the only person we will be successful at being is ourselves. If we pretend to be someone else, we’ll always end up as a lesser version; it’s better to work with what we’ve got and have confidence in our own abilities. It’s amazing how being gutsy can make for stronger writing!

And Eddie reminds us that this trend is not new:

Once again, the old geezer rises up…

In days of yore (1970s), when I was in college, my creative writing instructor told us to eliminate “empty” words and phrases. “Sort of,” “kind of,” and “seemed” were among the worst, he said.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Thanks, Eddie, for letting us know that this problem is actually older than Facebook! Empty phrases seem to be an ageless problem, part of our human insecurities and our desire to sound smart. In a way, that’s reassuring; this generation isn’t losing its marbles any more than the previous generation was.

Until next week, writers!

Mailbag: Using Date Books, Redemptive Violence

It’s time for this week’s reader mailbag, in which I respond to some of your thoughtful comments on posts. I’m still working on a backlog, but I’m definitely catching up! This week I’m tackling comments on my post about how to use a date book as a plot device, as well as comments on my post wondering if violence can actually redeem us. Let’s see some comments!

On “how to use a date book as a plot device“, Margaret said:

Blair, neat idea — I’d never thought to use a date book/ reminder software/appointment as a plot device. I’m going to think about how I might work this into my current work in progress.

Glad to help, Margaret. I’m finding my own tendency is to veer into the abstract, with too much rambling about emotion — I’ve got to learn to use more concrete devices that will reveal character rather than lecture on it.

Mary said:

Have you ever read “The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks” by…some guy? He wrote “Fifth Business” & was all the rage in the 80s, I think. Anyway, this book is a ‘diary’ of an old, cranky man & is pretty funny.

But the datebook is more believable. Everyone OUGHT to keep a paper datebook in my opinion. I used to use them as proof during IRS audits of my clients.

That’s a great use of a date book, Mary! There are so many ways in which our lives can be tracked and recorded these days. I see it in procedural crime dramas on television in particular — the detectives can usually figure out what someone is doing and where they’ve been thanks to emails, cell phone records, online purchases, google maps searches — the list goes on. All of these concrete ways of tracking a person’s movements are good fodder for fiction.

After the jump: I wonder about whether violence can ever be a good thing, and you respond.

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