Saturday, April 17, 2010

What I Have Learned About Writing

I have been attending a lot of workshops lately about writing, as well as joining a number of author groups and critique groups. I will be eternally grateful to all of these for what I am learning.

But first, I would like to mention a few books I have recently read about the process (and I have ordered still more.) I taught creative writing for years, and taught English on the college level, but the whole field about writing and publishing is changing. Everyone is writing, and a lot of people are so intent on publishing, that they are self publishing (which gives one a lot more control over the process). so there is a lot to know. Marketing is a changing field as well, and I believe a lot of politics is probably involved as in most arenas. But publishing and marketing will be for another time.

Of course, there are those who say one should write just for the joy of writing, but those people, I think, must be independently wealthy or have a lot of extra time on their hands.

The Old School

For now, about writing....I am of the old school, from the days when a good novel was considered to be something like To Kill A Mockingbird. You know the kind of story; pages are spent on creating the scene, to capture a moment of time, and there is nothing I like better than to see a moment captured in time. Time flies; people and cultures die, and one can't help but look nostalgically to the past and wish those times and the people of those times still existed. When there was no TV, no internet, and reading was the main form of entertainment, I guess people liked it when an author helped create a world for them where he would set his characters.

The New School

But today, things are different. I went to a writers' conference last week and sat with an agent. She thought I had a good story, and that my writing was good, but told me I spent too much time in the opening explaining the setting. She said most people did not have time today or patience to wait for a whole chapter before real action began. They want to know right away what problem a main character has to solve in order to decide if they want to buy the book and spend some time with that character and those set of problems.

She also said there was not enough emotion in my first chapter, and that I needed to begin my story in the middle of the action. Readers, today, she said, want to know what emotion the main character is feeling-fear, or sadness, despair-to know if they want to go on that ride too.

Now I thought I had a lot of emotion in my story; there was sadness, a little fear, but like myself, the main character didn't show a lot of each. She said there was not enough of those emotions to make a reader feel for the character and turn the pages to find out what was going to happen. Of course I was a little disappointed; I had had some grandiose ideas that this agent would be so into the story and the plot, that she would immediately go to a publisher and get me an advance so I could live on an island somewhere and write full time. Wake up time!

Part of the goody bag that went with the conference was a book handed out to all participants entitled No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells by Alice Orr. Not feeling like the agent was on my wave length, or wanted the same thing out of a book as I did, at first I did not think I'd get anything out of the book. When I finally read it, at first I was even a little repulsed by what I read there. According to Ms. Orr, the author of the book, if one wants to get an agent to really look at a book and to sell it to a publisher, one of the essential elements of a book is that there must be ""blood on the floor "on the first page or second page .

What is that you say? According to the book author, and the agent, most people today look at the back cover, the jacket flap, and the first two pages, or maybe just the first page. If they aren't grabbed or hooked by the writer on those first few pages, a potential reader is not going to buy or read the book, and an author might as well not waste his time writing it.

I thought about this theory, and as the agent suggested, looked at some of the books I was reading. One of them, Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair made it to the top of the Best Sellers' List. You remember Ms. Kidd from The Secret Life of Bees. Sure enough, even though her book is about a woman's midlife crisis, there is real blood on the floor on the first or second page . I won't tell you how the blood got there, or what the plot is about, because I don't want to spoil the book for you, but there is definitely blood there.

Now truth be told, I am not a lover of blood. I bought the book because of the title and the fact that part of the story was based on a real mermaid chair in Cornwall England. I would read anything about Cornwall, England, one of my favorite places in the world, even recipes. And, I constantly remind myself, my favorite author, who writes essays about the changing seasons and her reflections on it, has no blood or much excitement in any of her books, which is why I read her books when I need some comfort or to calm down. The only conflict occurred when she was figuring out how to operate her new vacuum cleaner, shovel her way through snow to the mailbox, or how to pay the mortgage. But, after serious consideration, I think that today, that agent just may have her point, and the book as well.

Another point made by this book is that every scene included in a book must advance the plot. Now I am the kind of person who likes to dwell on what gives me pleasure, especially in writing., and especially when I am capturing historic or other periods in time. But again, just because I like something, doesn't mean a reader would (which is why I love crit groups, I never see my manuscript as others see it). So one has to be ready to cut out the extraneous.

Speaker Today

Which brings me to where I am today. I just heard Eileen Albrizio, an author, poet, writing teacher, and originally news journalist for National Public Radio, speak at a writer's group today.
When I asked her if she thought writing expectations had changed and mentioned To Kill A Mockingbird, she pointed out to me that Harper Lee's editor did serious editing at the beginning of the book, and almost rewrote the entire part with the vignettes about the townspeople. So even in the days of editors who spent days brushing up an author's work, which they don't do today, there was a lot of cutting.

Ms. Albrizio also had a useful tip for prewriting a novel. She said one should have a detailed sort of topic sentence (elevator speech) of one line saying who the character is and in detail what his inner and outer struggles are that are stopping him/her from achieving his/her goal. And she said the conflict, or problem (blood) should be first, because without that there is no story.

Another Writer on Writing

Of course, different people who write about writing, have different viewpoints on things, or emphasize different aspects. Another writer I have been reading a lot about lately, is Anne LaMott. She wrote Bird by Bird , a very popular writer's handout assigned in many college classes today. According to Ms. LaMott, who has more of a spiritual bent, and less of a commercial one, she believes that a writer shouldn't plan too much but let the unconscious lead where it may. She says she has a small frame on her desk with an inch of space in lieu of a picture, to remind her when she is blocked, that she only has to worry about one paragraph at a time. This tip came from her writer/father, who once told his 13 year old son, who was crying the day before he began a project on birds due the next day, and which he had postponed for three months, that the way to get through the project was just to focus on one thing at a time. Not much planning or prewriting here, unless you consider her technique, freewriting.

Another of Ms. LaMott's ideas I like is that if you do this, and maybe you aren't sure what your theme or motifs are, somehow, like a polaroid picture, those themes you hadn't quite figured out or the direction you want to go, will show through what you have written ,in time. I know that is how my writing works; sometimes I am not sure if an incident is essential to my work, but after I have written it down, I can see that there is a pattern to what keeps coming to mind and where I want the story to go.

But maybe the idea I like best of Ms. LaMott's, is that there are demons surrounding most of us that stop us from doing our writing. They may be the spirits of our parents that say we aren't supposed to tell family secrets or talk about certain subjects, or that we just aren't good enough. or have anything important to say. We all have those demons; she says to just ignore them because they are what stop writers from writing. I have learned to ignore those demons myself, and to just trust myself and the process.

Well, that is what I have learned about writing recently. I would love to hear about other writers' ideas or strategies or what they have recently learned.

1 comment:

  1. HI Mary,
    interesting post, thanks for bringing up Bird by Bird, reminds me i'd like to reread it.

    I don’t plan out my writing. When I start to write a story I have a character and scene in mind and allow the story to unfold.
    In a writing workshop, my instructor asks, “What is the ‘Spine’ of your story.” At first, I’m not quite certain what she is asking. Is ‘Spine’ theme? Is it motivation? Is it voice? Oh no, I worry, do I even have a story to tell?
    My ah-ha moment – I was struggling with the question because I didn’t know my story well enough. Not what happens next, but the guts of the story. And by knowing the guts, I’ve got more to work with. Though I may write as a story unfolds; there is much work and planning ahead for me, checking to see that all elements are stitched to the ‘Spine.’ If it can’t be stitched it’s got to go.