Tagged Mailbag

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: Following Detail, the Loss of Handwriting

It’s that time of the week, writers — time for me to respond to your comments! This week I’m talking about following a detail into your fiction and the loss of handwriting. Let’s get to the comments!

James Thayer said:

This is such an important topic. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction speaks of details as “proofs,” rather like those in a geometry theorem. The novelist, he says, “gives us such details about the streets, stores, weather, politics, and details about the looks, gestures, and experiences of his characters, so that we cannot help believing that the story is true.” Details should be specific and concrete. A detail is concrete when it appeals to the senses.

Thanks, James, for reminding us of that important tenet of detail: a concrete detail is not only specific, but also sensory. Remember to use your senses, writers, rather than speaking generally about heartbreak or joy. What makes an experience joyful? What does the character’s body experience? What sensory experiences are in the air or on the tongue?

Eva said:

I used to doubt my ability to write details. I’ve always considered myself a dialog writer. A few years ago I took a class with a marvelous teacher who somehow managed to get me to unlock the details. the results were a surprise to even me, the person writing them.

Inspiring, Eva. Many of us think we can’t do some particular part of writing, so we avoid it carefully. There’s no reason why these skills can’t be learned and honed — that’s what craft, and this blog, are all about. Play to your strengths — but stretch those strengths, too.

After the jump: responses to the loss of handwriting.

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Mailbag: Teaching and How to Write Surrealism

There were so many thoughtful comments about how to teach creative writing that I just couldn’t tackle all of them last week, so here are a few more I wanted to respond to. I also want to respond to comments about my post on How to Write Surrealism. So let’s get started!

Donna Caterina said:

My favorite writing teacher would be one who can identify my ‘voice’ then tell me when I am ‘off key’. I like to write memoir/travel and find that I do that better when I find and read authors that speak to me and hold my interest. This kind of reading helps me learn to tell the story.
I am so interested and glad I put this on my page.
Looking forward to this

Thanks, Donna, and thank you for adding Writerly Life to your sites! That’s another good point about good creative writing teachers — they’re not there to impose their style on others, but to help others refine their own styles. It’s important for me to remember that I shouldn’t let personal taste get in the way in my critiques — I must think about what each student needs to make her voice come through clearly.

Justin said:

As a regular reader of your blogs, I encourage you to take the same approach to your class that have with your posts. Be consistent to keep your students focused, be creative to keep them interested, and be open enough to foster healthy discussion and debate. The same principles that keep people coming to read your advice and opinions on writing, will be the same principles that keep your students engaged.

Thanks for the kind words, Justin! I do hope to be open and friendly on this blog while also be instructive. I hope to continue striking that balance in a classroom of students. For one thing, I’m only a few years older than my students — I hope they’ll see me almost as a peer, but will still respect my experience. After all, we’re all on this writing journey together.

Now let’s get on to the surrealism! In my post on the topic, I talked about how the best surreal writing is only one notch or two away from the very real. Readers had comments about their favorite surreal authors and how they manage to do it so wonderfully.

Mohamed Mughal said:

One of the best ways to learn how to write in a surrealist manner is to read surrealism that has worked for other writers. In Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut penned a celebration of the anti-hero, the story of an unwitting man who takes a winding, chronologically non-linear dash through the space/time continuum…Did it work? Yes. …Vonnegut effectively gave a new generation of writers permission to experiment. Surrealism works when it’s anchored in compelling, instructive and relevant themes, when it’s written with a larger point that the abstract beauty of surrealist prose.

Thanks for your thorough analysis, Mohamed! Vonnegut is certainly one of the modern masters of the surreal. What I find particularly compelling about his voice is the slightly sardonic but ambiguous tone — you’re never quite sure whether he means something or is being tongue-in-cheek about it. It’s also important as you say not to have surrealism just for weirdness’s sake. Surrealism should serve some purpose in your story, to teach or to match a feeling of being unmoored from reality due to disturbing events. What will your purpose for surrealism be?

Paul Bassett Davies said:

Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte were both surrealist painters but Magritte’s work is more disturbing. In Dali’s vision, everything is distorted. The paintings are visually stunning but all the impact is achieved on the surface. In Magritte’s work, everything is normal but one element is displaced, creating a sense of unease and dissonance. For me the best surrealist writing is like this.

Thank you, Paul, that’s a great point. This is exactly what I was writing about in my post — while Dali seems playful, free of malice, Magritte truly makes the viewer uneasy because of how reality is just a bit off. Dali’s images are a dream: Magritte’s are a skewed reality. That small touch of surrealism can often be more effective in a short story.

Thank you, commenters! Next week I’ll tackle What Makes Religious Writing?

Mailbag: Teaching Creative Writing

This week I’m responding to thoughts and comments on my post about Teaching a Creative Writing Class. That’s right — in the fall, I’ll be loosed upon the unsuspecting student population as a teacher. And I wanted my readers to speak up about what they would want in a writing teacher. Many readers had suggestions. Susie said:

As a teacher myself (and granted, I teach the little guys), I know how easy it is to get overwhelmed, especially if you are given a literal whole world of resources to choose from! Decide what your Big Ideas are first, what you want the students to know, and choose your literature around those goals. Then you can bring in a selection of different pieces to illustrate each Big Idea, and you’re not tied into a particular author, time period, or genre. I’m excited for you–best of luck!

Thanks, Susie! This did end being the way I decided to structure my syllabus — rather than moving in a linear way through short stories and their history, I grouped readings around certain things at work in different stories. I have weeks based around voice, plot structure, or dialogue, then I just picked stories that put these things to use in different ways. Hopefully it will keep the kids guessing about what they’re going to read next.

Felicia said:

As an avid reader who was left cold by some of the classics I was told to read in school, I would have the students explore more than one genre….I find that art suffers a great deal from narrowly defining what is ‘art’ to a single style or genre. Pop art might not be ‘classic’ but it is art. It takes talent, hard work and skill to create and someone out there thinks it is moving and lovely.

Well put, Felicia! I, too, think universities often force students to slog through the perceived heavyweights of the English canon, with not enough emphasis on contemporary fiction or short stories that are more immediate or moving to contemporary students. I’ve taken care not to include stories just because they’re the thing to read; I’m having students read stories that I loved myself.

After the jump: more suggestions and comments on what a good creative writing teacher needs.

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Mailbag: Moments of Silence In Your Creative Life

This week I’m responding to comments about a very popular post here at Writerly Life: Allow Moments of Silence in Your Creative Life. I was pleased to see how many readers also felt the need for moments of peace and contemplation in their daily lives. Let’s see what they said!

Mary Lou Wynegar said:

I too feel there are many who miss out on what goes on around them when they tune out to “tunes” on their ipods. Though I might at times too, if I had one!
In today’s world, call me paranoid ~ but I feel it is safer to be alert to the sounds around you… I know the names of my neighbors dogs from him calling them in at 11pm every night, though I have yet to meet him. I can still remember what my Mother’s and Father’s voices sound like, and they are no longer of this world.
Yes Blair, quiet time is a gift that everyone should learn, and not taken for granted. For I have worked with those who are forever in the quietness and can not receive these gifts.

Thanks, Mary. It’s great to hear from another person who values quietness, and sees an almost spiritual dimension to these moments. I can understand a little of why the deaf community, for example, values their way of life so strongly. A little decrease in stimulation can open up our minds to so many wonders of observation and awareness. And a little silence can greatly increase our listening skills, too. All of this will improve our writing and our ability to imagine and concentrate.

earl boyer said:

I agree 100% I’m a self taught artist ” still learning ” I believe guiet time helps alot in art, writing , learning, and paving attention to life around us . You are such a profound writer, thanks for sharing your many thoughts .

Thanks for the compliment, earl! That’s the important part of moments of silence: paying attention. We’re able to appreciate our surroundings so much more when quiet, as opposed to skimming through our daily lives in a dream. It’s time to wake up!

After the jump: more comments about the value of silence.

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Mailbag: Turning a Short Story Into a Novel

This week I’m excited to look at comments on a post that got a lot of great responses. A while back I wrote about How to Turn a Short Story Into a Novel. As it turns out, a lot of you have stories waiting to turn into something bigger! Marisa Birns said:

This is a very interesting post. I write short fiction and on several of the stories, readers have commented that they have the makings of a book.
Choosing a story with unfinished business is a great way to define it.

Thank you for your tips.

Thanks, Marisa! I think a lot of people are in your shoes — they’ve written a piece that has a lot going on. The story seems to be too big for the constraints of a short structure — it needs to grow, to get messy, to expand and complicate itself. Definitely try expanding the story if you feel inspired to.

Michelle Sussman said:

I love this post! I have a short story I wrote years ago and the story never left me. I wonder about my characters, sure that there’s more to their story. Perhaps when I finish my current novel I’ll revisit that short story.

Thanks for your support, Michelle! That’s a very common characteristic of stories that want to be novels — they never seem to leave your thoughts and keep bugging you. I have a story like that as well; it wasn’t the most perfect story, but maybe that’s why it would do better as a novel, and I just keep thinking about the characters and what their lives are like. Keep that story in mind, keep cogitating, and I’m sure it’ll be ready for a novel attempt soon.

After the jump: more thoughts about turning a story into a novel.

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Mailbag: Peace and Passion, Summer Plans

In this week’s mailbag, I’d like to return to a couple of posts that I wrote recently about getting yourself in the right mindset for writing and editing. The first is about The Need for Peace and Passion in your writing life. I argued that while writing needs vigor and passion, it also needs cool-headedness and thought to be polished. George Fripley said:

Interesting post. I personally find that the second time I read what I have written I often cringe a little. There is usually a much better way to say what I wanted to say. A rather extreme example of this was a novel I wrote some years ago. I slogged through it and then put it down for about 6 months. When I tried to read it it was just dysfunctional and not worth saving. However this stimulated the production of a poem that captured the whole essence of what I was trying to say and is one of the very few that I have had success with.

Thanks, George, for sharing your story experience. It’s often true that when I read back on a draft of my work, I shudder! It just suddenly seems so weak or rough to me. We do need that moment of thoughtful contemplation, though, to understand what we were first trying to accomplish with the story and how to revise it. But the passion is crucial as well; otherwise we’re just crossing the t’s and dotting the I’s of a dead story.

Finally, I wrote a post about getting into the game for summer: What’s Your Summer Plan? mary brady said:

When I worked, I was a great one for to-do lists & I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I crossed off tasks. Since I “got retired,” I’ve felt adrift–there are a number of things I’d like to do…So, I think I’ll go back to my “to-do” lists on a daily basis.
Like many people, I often put down 72 hours worth of tasks on one list. However, as long as I write a minimum of 1.5 hours daily, I WILL get somewhere with this.
I am reminded of an old “Ashleigh Brilliant” postcard that said: “If I do just a little bit each day, eventually the task will completely overwhelm me…”
Hey! I, too, was born in June–June 2nd! I find whenever I tell people I’m a Gemini, they look sad and say, “Awww, that’s too bad. It must be difficult being two-faced.”
Our sign has a bum rap. Any suggestions for a snappy reply?

Thanks, mary! I can’t deny that I’m a big fan of lists. They keep me focused and just make me feel more productive when I know what I have to do and that I can check it off when it’s done. For summer, you might want to make a larger “master list” that has the big things you want to accomplish by summer’s end on it.

As for Gemini comebacks, I can only say that it makes us much more interesting, literally more “multi-faceted” people! There’s nothing wrong with having a serious side and a fun side. (That is, if I believed in astrological signs. I don’t, but they’re fun to think about).

Stay tuned to Writerly Life for more writing thoughts, as always!

Mailbag: Stand Up For Your Writing!

A few weeks ago I wrote a rather passionate post, reminding you writers to Stand Up For Your Writing! A lot of people out there want to get you down, whether it’s non-writers or other writers in your workshop, and it’s important to remember that your writing has value. Readers agreed and sent in their thoughts in the comments. Jerry said:

Boy, did that ring a bell. More like a gong. From both side of the issue. Being over exuberant in my critiquing and sitting with red ears and a hot face while my writing is being lambasted.

However a third situation I find even more frustrating. A group of writers who seemingly refuse to say anything that might hurt someone, who instead deprive the writer of much needed, and wanted, criticism.

Thanks, Jerry. I think this piece struck a nerve with a lot of readers — many writers out there have experienced a tough workshop and the feeling that people are ganging up on them. It’s also easy to become the aggressors ourselves, eagerly piling critiques on as we observe them without thinking about how it might sound. That’s why I don’t want to sound bitter or blame others, because I’m sure I’ve been the workshop hyena myself at times. Let’s all try to be a bit more sensitive!

And you make a great point with your other thought, too. Sometimes it’s even more frustrating just to get vague, buttery praise. People attend workshops to get criticism, so be thoughtful and discerning with your comments! We all may want a little bit of ego-stroking, but more than anything else we want our writing to improve.

After the jump: more thoughts on standing up for your writing.

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Mailbag: Fiction and Non-Fiction, Anxious Readers

In this week’s mailbag post, I’ll be tackling a few different reader comments on various posts. Let’s start with a comment on my post, What’s the Difference Between Fiction and Non-Fiction? I made a few arguments about order, randomness, and structure that differentiate fiction and non-fiction. Here’s what Mary Lou Wynegar said:

I found this to be an excellent article that provoked me to really think deeply… In a world where many are our worst critics I can thoroughly understand why one would be afraid to tell their story in an non-fiction format verses fiction. Fiction is safer. To tell your story you open your self up to being ridiculed, judged, (why didn’t she do this, why didn’t she do that, and so on.) One has to be strong within themselves to know they can withstand the pressures that society may throw their way in knowing that they did the best they could at the time. And that is the whole point, and reason for sharing their story ~ so others may learn from their mistakes, or triumphs.

Thanks, Mary. That’s an aspect of non-fiction I didn’t tackle — the tremendous courage it takes to share it. Not everyone is cut out to be a memoirist; being one necessitates putting the darkest parts of your life out on display for the world to see. Other writers prefer to shadow those aspects of their lives in disguised forms in fiction. That, too, takes courage. But if you think you want to write non-fiction, do heed Mary’s advice here and remember its costs! If you’re ready to be honest with yourself about what has really happened in your life, then non-fiction might be for you.

Now let’s move on to a post I wrote about keeping your reader anxious at all times. One commenter had a very interesting response. S0BeUrself said:

This tactic speaks to the success of gambling. Your book is the slot machine, the reader its player. The more you give your audience, the more they’re likely to stay seated, waiting with baited breath for the big pay-off. Used effectively, it’s almost unethical.

Great way to think about the hook of anxiety in plot, S0BeUrself! Definitely, this power of keeping a reader engaged through keeping him on cliffhangers is very strong and can even be used to manipulate people in the wrong situations. It’s a little fiendish, all these tricks we writers have to hold readers. Let’s just hope they continue to be used in ethical ways!

After the jump: more thoughts on other posts!

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Mailbag: Historical Fiction: Good or Bad?

After a small hiatus, the mailbag series is back, and I’m eager to respond to your thoughtful comments. This week, let’s travel back in time in more ways than one, to a post I wrote called “Historical Fiction: Good or Bad?” that generated a lot of interesting discussion. I meant it to be a little bold as a claim, and I’m glad I got passionate arguments on both sides. I argued that a lot of the genre is flawed because of its flat characters and forced insertions into actual historical events. Historical fiction fans were quick to respond. Tammi Kibler said:

I think in any genre fiction some of the work transcends the genre and other work merely satisfies the masses. Not for me to question what other folks enjoy reading, I am just glad they read.
I loved Michener’s Hawaii – my mother-in-law sent it to me when I arrived on Oahu and I feel I understood the local history and people better for having read it.

Thanks, Tammi. That’s true — in any genre, even in, say, the vampire genre, there are quality works of fiction that transcend the limitations of their frame by using real characters and interesting stories. I’ve also heard good things about Hawaii and I look forward to reading it! It’s one of my dad’s favorites.

Elemarth said:

I see historical fiction as realistic fiction set in the past. Yes, there are too many stories about the civil war and emancipation, and yes, it can be gimmicky, but stories set in the present often reuse the same plotlines. There’s good historical fiction and there’s bad, just like anything else.

Agreed, Elemarth. Historical fiction has its pluses and minuses just like any other genre. But I still find more minuses than pluses, and more minuses than in other genres. Realistic fiction is just less limiting, and I find it difficult to find historical fiction that uses an unusual or creative plotline while also having good characters. My question is, does being set next to huge historical events inherently make it more difficult to make a historical novel a good novel? That’s just me, though!

chris markel has a good point about the value of historical fiction:

i think historical fiction has many possibilities. one of them being, one who has the historical background can express a theory they have about an event that is not accepted by the mainstream. historical demigods demand citations and documented proof for those who have a different slant on the accepted take on events, etc. and as those who really know, history is written by the victors. fiction allows us some license and allows us to look at events in a p.o.v. that text does not.

Absolutely, I agree that historical fiction does us a service in literature: it gives us a look at the loser’s side of history, or the lives of individuals that normally get lost in the great sweep of historical events. We rarely hear, for example, about the lives of Chinese prisoners building the Great Wall, or the women’s side of many historical conflicts. It’s great that we have these novels to give us a glimpse into what their lives may have been like. But do they move us because of the facts, or the story? I think these novels often let their literary merit suffer.

After the jump: more arguments about historical fiction!

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