Writing as . . . Composting?

Colorful tulips blooming in a field.

I write about the weather often because I live in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Extremes. 2019 has been full of them. February’s –30-degree temperatures (without windchill) burst pipes in a building on the college campus where I teach, requiring classes to be moved out of the building for an entire semester. In May, five inches of rain fell on an otherwise ordinary day. 

Minnesotans consider spring sacred because it’s relatively moderate. My favorite part is tulips that bloom outside my home’s back door. Their hardiness, beauty, and short-lived presence after long, dark, brutal winters never cease to inspire me. I obsess over them. Once their green leaves push through the soil—and sometimes through the snow—I check on them as if they were pets. When they bloom, I stare at them giddily for a few minutes every time I step outside. When fall comes, I buy and plant additional bulbs because some Minnesota winters kill even the heartiest souls. And because I firmly believe one can never have too many tulips.

Like a tulip, a student essay I graded this spring pushed up through final exams’ black stress and white blanket of papers to present a colorful bud. The student mistyped our textbook’s title, The Composition of Everyday Life, and Microsoft Word autocorrected it as The Composting of Everyday Life

Initially, I sighed with irritation. 

Then I giggled, amused.

But when I stopped to think about the phrase, I fell in love with it. 

Composting everyday life seems like a perfect definition of writing. Creative nonfiction, especially, requires cutting through experience to find its most colorful or flavorful elements. Reflecting on and working with those parts to create something worth consuming. Revising to eliminate waste. Celebrating the fruits of my labor. Allowing the waste and myself to rest. Using the waste to prepare the soil for future projects. 

For me, the hardest part of writing is eliminating waste—better known among writers as killing my darlings. I’m a teacher, so I overexplain everything in early drafts. Cutting passages I labored over hurts, but it’s less painful when I think of it as composting instead of throwing away. That mindset was especially helpful recently, as I wrote a book proposal. 

I’ll be honest: Creating a proposal was among the hardest and grossest things I’ve had to write, and that includes my Ph.D. dissertation. Aside from the strict format and application of phrases like “poignant but inspiring” to my writing voice (eeeww!), I resented putting so much work into something I might never need. There is no consensus among agents or publishers about pitching memoir. It’s narrative, so some want it pitched like fiction, which doesn’t require a proposal. But it’s nonfiction, so some want it pitched like a how-to or research-based book, which does require a proposal. Most don’t specify, leaving the writer to make her best guess. And forget about consensus as to what belongs in a memoir proposal. One thing all agree on, however, is the need for a chapter outline, and that was the toughest part to write. I had to summarize each chapter of a book I’d revised over and over to add layers of complexity and subtlety (I hope!) by boiling it down to one typed line per page. 

While painful, the outlining exercise proved (I grudgingly admit) informative. I began to see my book’s potential in new ways, to question links among themes that had previously seemed as obvious as rotting vegetables, and to identify weeds I’d thought were flowers. It made me want to revise my entire manuscript again (while also laughing with hysterical madness at the very idea). The proposal and the additional revision it inspired seemed like wasted time and effort, but in truth, it was composting: revisiting early drafts and remixing the book’s ideas to create a layer of nutrients that would feed the final draft’s blossoms. Composting makes the process feel more like pruning to make the bloom healthier than throwing away something nature and I worked hard to grow. So I cut, mix, rest, and then sift the draft, letting “dead” passages fall away, perhaps to feed future projects. If nothing else, the process creates improved writing skills.

I can’t say that revising will ever be as fun as watching Netflix or riding horses, but it’s certainly less malodorous when I think of it as composting rather than trashing.

Image by 1195798 from Pixabay

Read and Critique

emoji scale from angry to happyReading my work aloud, followed by a peppering of critiques, sounded like a college hazing to me. Minus the alcohol. However, I had agreed with my writing coach, published author and ridiculously talented playwright (her most recent work—A Jewish Joke—is moving east, Off Broadway), that my work was ripe for fresh ears. Her group convenes at a California seaside cottage belonging to a creative artist named Barbara.

A First Impression

On that first day—my blind date with this scholarly firing squad—I cradled the introduction of my non-fiction self-help book under my arm as I opened the gate to Barbara’s property. Her garden telegraphed Henri Rousseau—towering birds of paradise, pebbled paths, a lush green backdrop.

I opened the cottage door to a cozy living room. Women of all ages greeted me with smiles and welcoming noises. Their chorus of “Hi, come on in!” did nothing to calm my nerves. These writers looked harmless, but I feared the worst. After all, my flimsy introduction made no sense. My writing lacked clarity, relevance, and imagery. The perfect expression of my work had eluded me despite my years of on-again, off-again attempts.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my writing coach and my years of indentured servitude to my own determination, I held the semblance of a rough draft. Despite my misgivings, in the recesses of my soul, I held onto the faint hope that my writing was pretty darned good. That I was “almost finished.” I imagined the group’s hints about grammar or sequence. But the realistic part of me suspected that I had “miles to go before I would sleep.”

As we mingled, I wandered through Barbara’s home. I admired the colorful mugs on her kitchen counter, the tangerines, and almonds offered as snacks, the bold oil paintings on her dining room walls.

Shaking the hands of my fellow creatives, I warmed to the idea that reading might be fun.

Then we convened. Our leader, my beloved writing coach, began with her hilarious and warm introduction. Personal stories were shared, reports on projects bandied about. Then the invitation, would I like to read? I cleared my throat, and read in my best professional voice.

Having conducted workshops for my counselor peers, having taught for decades, having counseled belligerent parents whose violence required a police presence, NONE of these experiences prepared me for the sharing of my written words. Feeling equal parts faint and nauseated, I read my introduction to the listening audience.

Later That Night

Arriving home after that first dive, I told my husband, “Maybe I’m not ready for this read and critique challenge.” He asked me to elaborate.

“They’re all very encouraging. Lots of ‘this process will help people’ and ‘your message is good,’ but I could feel my words dying as they left my mouth. Each sentence felt like torture. I HATED my own work.”

I explained that the group did offer editing nuggets: structural advice, conceptual criticism, grammar tips. But all this help would force  me back to the page in a way that made my head spin. I had SO hoped to be nearing the finish line. Instead, I was just hearing a starting gun.

Of course, other members had arrived with their hot-off-the-press prose. I’d acted as a beta-reader for one of the authors. The sharing of her hilarious romp through China had us hooting with laughter. Pitch perfect comedy. Her work is destined for the big screen.

Then the amazing memoirists—their ability to lift their personal plights to compelling narrative—brilliance. And a travel writer who had us salivating for our next adventure. Every single writer at the top of her game. Oh, and the witty journalist whose intelligence shines through her every muscular sentence. Not fair!

One of our authors is a playwright. Our collective jaws dropped when she re-enacted one woman’s experience of the Nuremberg trials, props and flawless German accent included. Dazzling talent, destined for greatness.

I reminded myself that I was not competing. It was an honor to be among these creative creatures.

I cried on my husband’s shoulder for a few more moments, but then I HAD to make an attempt. Bitten by the bug of creative compulsion, I locked myself in the study. I cut, tore and soldered words onto the page. Every day for a week, I entered
that study with grim determination. Then a return performance.

Nevertheless, I Persisted

Back to the garden of verses, my revised introduction in my sweaty hands. I began. My words flowed easily. The body and fender work had paid off. They laughed; they applauded; I blushed.

Now, months later, I still feel a frisson of excitement each time I open the gate to Barbara’s garden. I live for Thursday mornings.

I can hardly wait for the unfolding of each writer’s next chapter. And, of course, for their responses to whatever I managed to whittle into a block of writing for my next reading.

 

Phyllis Olins headshotPhyllis Olins holds a master’s degree in counseling and has trained extensively

in conflict mediation. She has had over 20 years of experience in applying conflict-mediation

strategies to dilemmas in all walks of life.

 

Phyllis’ book, The Conflict Crunch, will be released in the spring of 2019.

 

Taking Risks as a Writer

A GIF of a daisy bloomingAre you a raging risk taker? The person who jumps out of planes, eats live crickets, or bets thousands of dollars on a single throw at the craps table? Do you take risks in your writing too? If so, pat on the back for you, carry on.

While I know some fairly bold writers, as a general rule, we tend not to be risky. We like our books and our coffee and our computers and our dogs (or cats).  We hunker down with our words and our small group of humans and pets and live mostly in our minds.

Recently as I sat at my desk, staring at the query letter on my screen and refusing to press send, I thought about the importance of taking risks. I could press send and risk receiving the dreaded rejection letter in return. Or I could stare at the query letter, safe from rejection, with no shot at securing an agent or having my book traditionally published.

The question is, which caused me more pain? The risk of rejection or the risk of not achieving a dream? As I procrastinated, I came across this quote from Robert Schueller: “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”

Well, hell, when you put it that way, the list of what I’d do is pretty long. And it starts with sending that query letter.

So in the spirit of taking risks, here are a few more reasons why it’s important to take risks as a writer.

You don’t get anywhere playing safe

If you have dreams of getting your work out into the world, then at some point, you have to let someone else read it. You need to submit it to an anthology, literary magazine, or contest. Maybe start that blog you’ve always thought about. Submit to a magazine.

Start small, with something that only gives you a tiny bit of panic. Maybe it’s a local anthology or contest, or maybe you feel better in the anonymity of a larger competition. Pick one place where you are going to submit your work in the next thirty days, and do it. Once you take that tiny leap, you can grow and become bolder with your work. Challenge yourself. It’s important.

Learning to “embrace the suck” helps you to overcome your fear

I know people who take cold showers solely for the purpose of overcoming discomfort. It’s a way for them to actively condition their mind to stay present and overcome their hesitation to a situation that they know is going to be uncomfortable.  There’s a school of thought that says you should do something that makes you uncomfortable every day.

What makes you uncomfortable in your writing practice? Are you nervous about sharing your work out loud? Get out to an open mic night (like Dime Stories, here in San Diego) and share your newest piece. Always wanted to write poetry but not sure where to start? Take a class. It’s okay, if you’re not good at something to start, you’ll get better. Build your writing muscle, or your reading aloud muscle, or whatever muscle needs work because it causes you fear.

Sometimes you learn more from a belly flop than you do from a swan dive

In the early drafts of my book, I had a prologue that I loved. LOVED. The rhythmic quality of it. The words. The imagery. I protected that preamble like a troll hoards gold. It was my Precious.

A few months later, I brought that prologue and the first few chapters of my book to a writing workshop hosted by one of my writing heroes. And you know what? That prologue got shredded. Not like a delicate tear. Like a hungry bear destroying a campsite. It was a good lesson. My beloved prologue was not the beautiful swan dive I thought it was and as a result of belly flopping in front of fellow writers, it made my work that much stronger.

Expose yourself to new experiences and new people

The workshop you were afraid of? You met some lifelong friends. That poetry reading you didn’t want to attend by yourself? You got at least three ideas that will improve your work. The open mic night that gave you dry mouth and made you shake? You met two new people who introduced you to two other people with whom your formed a read and critique group. New experiences lead to great things.

It’s important for us as writers to take risks so we can grow. As Anaïs Nin said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk to bloom.”

It’s time to bloom.

Ten Tips for Grooming Drafts, Straight from the Horse’s . . . Hoof

The author poses with a horse on a cold February morning
Smitty, the horse, posing with Lisa, the author, on a chilly February morning.

Why do I do this to myself? I wonder as my alarm jolts me awake on a dark Sunday in February. Its glow seems spitefully cheery combined with its announcement of the temperature for my horseback riding lesson: -14 degrees. Ugh.

Flannel pajamas, a quilt my great-aunt sewed, and a cat’s soft bulk plead with me to stay. But I love to ride, so I roll from my cocoon and don layers.

Once at the barn, I’m glad I ventured out, not only because I’m assigned to ride a favorite horse I haven’t been on for a long time, but also because grooming him sparks insights about grooming my writing.

During the previous two years, I’ve ridden Penny, a horse who spends her winter free-time in a stall because she stirs up trouble when allowed to roam the paddock (the fenced holding area). Preparing an indoor horse for riding is easy: brush her coat, pick her hooves, cinch her saddle, buckle her bridle. No muss, no fuss.

Smitty, the gangly, dark brown gelding I’d ride that February morning, spends his winter free-time in the paddock. A laid back personality makes him easy to catch, but an outdoor life makes him difficult to groom. As soon as he crosses the barn’s threshold, a dull thud replaces the hollow tock his metal shoes usually make on concrete. A look at his feet confirms my suspicion: Ice balls have formed in his hooves’ recessed center, so his shoes float above the ground.

I slide the blanket from Smitty’s body and grab a nail puller (a flat metal bar bent at one end). He lifts a foot, and I cradle his hoof in one hand while I use the puller as a chisel with the other. It’s tough going; the tool glances off the ice instead of carving into it. Just as my back begins to ache and my wrist to throb, an ice chunk falls away. And so do the blinders I’ve been wearing when I revise my writing.

Smitty’s hooves remind me that if I allow grooming—whether horse or draft—to become a series of unaltered steps, I lose touch with its purpose. And process without purpose turns futile.

Grooming must be shaped by context, such as weather for horse, audience and intended effect for writing. Here are ten tips Smitty revealed for warming up to revision:

  1. Start slow. Grooming’s first step is the toughest. I chisel away but make little progress. Then, suddenly, a piece falls. That’s all I need to build momentum. The chunk’s absence reveals weaknesses in what remains, so I attack each spot in succession.
  2. Don’t rush. It’s obvious, but when eager to submit my writing for publication, I forget. Forcing grooming’s pace is as fruitless as it is unwise. Hoof-picks dig mud, grass, oats, and manure from recesses, but they aren’t designed to break ice. Similarly, digging into paragraphs before chiseling big ideas into shape leads to wasted effort.
  3. Rest. I don’t have to clear the whole mess on the first attempt. I merely have to chip away enough frozen muck that the hoof or draft rests on solid footing. Once Smitty can stand flat, he’s safe. Body heat will melt the rest, making it easier to pick. Time away from a draft thaws problems that seem intractable, too.
  4. Let nature share the workload. Allowing Smitty’s bodyweight to warm his hooves offers an opportunity to luxuriate in brushing. Instead of going through the motions, I take my time and stay present, which calms Smitty. I’m surprised how often a solution arises when I let a draft’s trouble spots stew as I work on something else.
  5. Switch it up. Not much gets under Smitty’s skin, but other horses (ahem, Penny) don’t like being brushed. If I start with picking her hooves instead of brushing her coat, I give our relationship a better chance of starting off on the right foot. Switching up where I start revising a draft highlights thematic strands I can braid into something special.
  6. Follow the text’s lead. I’m present enough while brushing to address what Smitty’s coat shows me it needs. A curry comb’s zig-zagged metal teeth cull debris that causes saddle sores and inhibits new hair growth. Reverse outlining is the comb’s textual equivalent. I isolate each paragraph’s main idea and decide whether it benefits the whole, detangling knotted logic.
  7. Apply pressure. A stiff-bristled brush lifts to the surface what the curry comb has loosened. It also distributes oil that nourishes Smitty’s coat, but only if I push hard. When revising, I press myself to answer, “Do I really need this?”
  8. Let it go. A soft-bristle brush provides a gentler way to “kill my darlings.” Dust flies from Smitty’s coat with each stroke. Sometimes the grit makes my eyes water, but the effect is worth the discomfort: Smitty’s hair gleams. My draft, too, shines once stripped clean.
  9. Go back to the beginning. With Smitty’s hide ready for saddling, I return to his hooves—those key points on which he stands. A few swipes with the pick is all it takes. Skipping this step would compromise Smitty’s health. Just as hoof problems left untended can escalate to life-threatening crises, proofreading errors left uncorrected can escalate to career-threatening rejections.
  10. Enjoy the ride. The most important lesson Smitty teaches and re-teaches me is to value process as much as product. In both riding and writing, I used rush preparation to get to the best part: stepping into the arena. Over time, however, I’ve seen how crucial grooming is to success. Now, I look forward to grooming’s meditative nature.

When I finish grooming Smitty, I look him in the eye and see my reflection anew. When I apply to revision what he teaches me, my writing gallops toward unexplored territory.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Whalen

 

Letting Go, in Writing and in Life

A buddha statue behind lotus flowersI swore to myself I’d get my manuscript done in 2017. It didn’t happen. I could talk for hours about all the legitimate reasons it didn’t happen. I could talk for even longer about all the ways I procrastinated and avoided it. Does it make logical sense why I chose to avoid something I care about so much? Yes and no. It would take thousands of words and hundreds of dollars in therapist fees to explain it.

Focusing on 2018, I was determined. It helped that I landed a full-time job that starts at the end of February. It also helped that based on some personal circumstances, I realized the manuscript needed to be finished. It was now or never.

My manuscript is a memoir. It’s based on my journey through the fertility process. It details a year and a half of my mid-30’s, where the life I’d imagined for myself faded to black. I had been pregnant with twins. But five days after I became pregnant, I lost my mother to cancer after a lifetime of addiction. The following week, I lost the twins. And nine months later, as I twisted the sterile bed sheets in my hands, I listened to my doctor tell me I would never be able to have children.

It’s a survival story about losing a past and a future at that same time—and learning to carve out a present much different than the one I expected for myself. Those were dark days. The harder I held on to the life I thought I should be leading, the more painful everything else was. But as soon as I pushed off from the ledge, trusting that whatever I fell into was going to be okay, I was free.

It’s about learning to let go.

After such loss, it’s hard not to build up callouses of control again. They start innocently enough with the little things. A set of activities, a diet to follow, a daily routine. But as time passes, it becomes less of a routine and more of a schedule. The control creeps in a bit more, and it morphs your discipline into fear.

Writing is not so different.

Let’s say you’re starting a new project and you’re not quite sure what it is yet. If you’re not a “pantser” then you want to start with a rough outline. Just a general overview of what you want to write.

It’s easier to write around things. You can write extraordinarily detailed outlines with plot points and character arcs and detailed scenery. You can research and read for hours about how other writers have worked through their pieces, look at maps on structure and complete case studies of manuscripts that you love.

You can build the most beautiful scaffolding to support the building of your dream word house. All of this to try and control your fear of sitting down in front of a project with zero words written.  But at one point, you need rip down the scaffolding. You need to hang by your fingertips, in all the discomfort, in all of the pain, in all of the not knowing and write just what you see right in front of your face. You need to let go.

Writing does not like to be controlled. So despite your disciplined character sketches and your sweeping vistas of scene setting, your outline that you’ve so carefully crafted, it does what it wants.

When your writing is shoved into a narrow hallway, it will read that way. Your characters will seem like they’re tight and brittle and they’ll move through your carefully constructed scenes as if they were made out of matchsticks.

If you’re working on memoir or non-fiction, your readers will see right through your efforts of control. To quote Natalie Goldberg’s Rules of Writing, “Go for the real stuff. If you don’t, your writing will be tiptoeing nervously around whatever your real stuff is. You won’t believe it and neither will your readers.”

Whether you’re writing a first draft, editing, or putting on the final touches, it’s important to let go. Get words on a page, kill your darlings, do whatever you need to do to move your writing forward.

I realized that to finish the manuscript, the lesson for me is no different than it was in my mid-30’s—I need to let go. As Buddha once said, “You only lose what you cling to.”

Photo by Sarah Ball on Unsplash

 

Cherish Your Darlings

two hands offering a flower with a black backgroundYou’re in your writing group, about to read aloud the best thing you’ve ever written. It’s brilliant, it’s poignant, and you’re bursting to share it. You take a deep breath and begin. At the end, you look up, awaiting praise. Your friends are staring at the floor.

“I didn’t totally understand that part,” one says. “I think you can tighten this,” says another. That one lady with the great insights who always gets your work says, “I liked it overall, but I think you can cut the part where …” and then she describes your moment of greatest brilliance. As something to discard.

We all know about darlings. They’re the parts you think are amazing that everyone else knows are anything but. We all know what you do with darlings. You kill them.

That’s right, of course. There’s no part of your book so good it should stay if it isn’t serving the whole. And, let’s be honest, often those “brilliant” bits are self-indulgent, over-written messes. (Though I once read advice that defined a “darling” as any passage the author especially liked. It went on to say that the first step in editing was to delete whichever parts you were most fond of. For the love of Bob and all that is holy, don’t do that.)

But—and here’s the controversial part—I think believing your readers over your instincts is wrong.

Oh, definitely get a writing group you can trust. When they say, “it’s not working,” believe them. Instincts aren’t born, they’re tempered with time. Fail often, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work. You’ll carry your writing group in your head and fix mistakes before your group even sees them. This is how you hone your instincts.

Once you’ve developed good instincts, you’ll still need that group. Sometimes you need a sanity check. Or you need somebody else’s take on an issue. Sometimes you’ve just got to hear how prose lands. You never stop needing that in some form or other.

But when your group says something doesn’t work, your next step is not dry your tears and rush off to delete it. (Or even relocate it to a clippings file, though Melissa Bloom has a great post on how to do that when the time comes.) The next step is to look at the work as a whole. Ask yourself, does this passage serve the larger purpose? Does it make the book better?

Often, it won’t. Your reader says, “That moment doesn’t work,” and you agree. Or you do some arguing and bargaining and painful soul-searching and eventually agree. It’s the wrong beat, or it’s too flowery, or it reiterates something your readers knew already. That’s when you kill it. (Or, you know. Clippings file.)

Sometimes, though, all your instincts insist the moment is vital to the story. It’s not just (allegedly) beautifully written, you need it to convey your meaning. Your readers tell you to cut it, and you can’t. You have no idea how you know, but you know it’s important.

So don’t kill it. Dig deeper. Why do your instincts and your readers disagree?

Maybe you introduced the moment poorly. Or you didn’t flesh it out enough. Maybe it’s something so obvious to you-you’re still finding the words for it. Sometimes the hardest ideas to explain are the true ones.

You may dig way, way down just to discover your readers were right. You have blindspots, and I guarantee you others see them more clearly than you do. When your readers say, “This part doesn’t work,” believe them.

But when your instincts say, “This part is vital,” believe them too. Because sometimes, against all precedent and logic and the feedback of your time-tested writing group, your instincts will insist a moment is right.

Good. Go clean the damned thing up until your readers say so too.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/p-ppCccUZiU

Rant by Nancy Villalobos, Feisty Writer Guest Blogger

side view of a human skullWhat were you feeling?

What was your emotional response to that?

Show more of your emotion.

The other writers in my Read and Critique group pounded away on this theme after I read from my memoir the latest revision of an experience that occurred more than fifty years ago. When I was in Lima, Peru as a 20-year-old international student, I’d gotten locked in the cathedral that holds Pizarro’s tomb. I thought that was a pretty interesting vignette, even mildly humorous.

I had written it exactly as it happened. I described the day, the surroundings, the interior of the church. I described the way I’d taken a long time to find the tomb and what it looked like and then the realization I was locked in. I finished up with my escape at the hands of a disgruntled priest with a bit of translated dialogue. I even closed the piece (really a chapter) with a foreshadowing of the obstacle that had arisen in the rest of my life, the subject of the next chapter. I’d done a defensible job of relating the events of the day. I didn’t know what else to say without making something up. I hadn’t felt like crying or laughing or screaming. I’d just wanted out of the church so I could get to my class on time.

My friends avoided my gaze, unhappy at not being able to applaud my efforts.

“But what were you feeling?”

Enthusiasm drained out of my pores and pooled around my unemotional feet.

Digging deep into my memory after I got home, I kept coming up empty. They expected me to feel something, but what?

The more I thought about it, the only emotional response I felt was anger at the beloved members of my group. Why did they keep harping on this? It happened in 1965, and I really couldn’t remember feeling anything.

What did they want me to feel? Joy? No. An intense spiritual awakening? No. Fear? Nope. Panic? Not really. Despair? Seriously? Anger? Not then.

My list of emotions I hadn’t felt grew. I began an imaginary conversation with that group of very stubborn people who only wanted to make me a better writer but who refused to accept that what I had felt at the time of the event was NOTHING. Why was that so hard to get?

Listen, I would say to them, the only thing I wanted on that day in Lima was to find the tomb of Pizarro. I wanted to see if that skeleton was really there and I wanted to see what it looked like. Period.

And right then my imaginary conversation petered out.

Because…I had really WANTED to find that tomb. It was almost like a quest—Harrison Ford in his battered hat. So, I must have felt ANTICIPATION. And I knew the skeleton was in that church, so I must have felt the EXCITEMENT about seeing it, and I must have had the EXPECTATION of fulfilling my quest. And because I’d never seen a relic, I must have been filled with CURIOSITY. And when I finally found the tomb, and it wasn’t what I’d expected, I must have felt at least mild DISAPPOINTMENT. And when I realized that I’d been locked in, I must have felt FRUSTRATION and CONCERN ABOUT BEING LATE. At the very end, I must have felt CHAGRIN at not having paid attention to my surroundings after the doors were locked. And then I remembered walking out of the church feeling pretty STUPID.

Damn! This was working.

I peeped at my pages again. Yes, I could add an adjective here, another line of dialogue there, a tighter or looser description, move this phrase to the end of the sentence, add a final paragraph with a takeaway—something the reader could relate to. And, in the end, a tiny little phrase rang like a timid bell in the recesses of my writer’s brain: I’d been telling about my experience, but when I’d been able to resuscitate my emotional state, I was able to show.

Sometimes it takes an emotional response to critique to elicit the emotional response to an event.

 

Headshot of authorABOUT NANCY: When not revising her memoir, sending out query letters, and building her blog queue, Nancy loves being on Nana duty with Lucas, her newest grandson, attending Cavalier King Charles Spaniel meet-ups with her Tri-color Coco, or traveling with family and friends. Her writing has been featured in the Memoir Writers Showcase. Her memoir, Peru, My Other Country, chronicles her twenty years there as an American married to a Peruvian in the midst of revolution, earthquakes, and her husband’s untimely death, until an extortion call during the Shining Path terrorist movement forced her to choose where her loyalties lay: in her adopted country or in the land of her birth.

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-476740

 

Good Writing Advice is God-Awful Relationship Advice

A gun on the ground surrounded by bullet casingsShow, don’t tell.

Disclosing your actual thoughts to your loved ones is boring and obvious. Instead, use heavy implication to demonstrate you’re upset with someone. Rely on symbols and subtext to convey what you want. Don’t be too “on the nose”: always argue about something tangential to the thing upsetting you.

Lead with a strong image.

Got something upsetting to tell a partner? Paint a word picture that will burn itself indelibly onto their brain so years from now they will wake in the night in a cold sweat still visualizing it.

Follow the Hero’s Journey.

Regular life is boring. Remember to periodically discover your existence is a lie, embark on a quest, undergo death and resurrection, commune with the goddess, and return home forever changed. Your loved ones will appreciate this.

Start scenes late, end them early.

To skip the dull parts, conduct all conversations as follows: Show up partway through to drop some pithy one-liners, then run away immediately.

Make sure what you want and what you need actively contradict each other.

Be complex. Keep your loved ones guessing.

Escalate conflict.

If your last argument didn’t dredge up trauma from twenty years ago, you didn’t dig deep enough. For best results, wait until everyone involved is hungry, stressed, drunk, and sleep-deprived.

Focus your conflict on a single villain.

Ideally, this person will be the shadow-version of you, on whom you can project all your flaws and insecurities. Definitely, spend all your energy defeating this person.

Scenes should accomplish multiple goals.

Relationship arguments can be boring on their own, so make sure everyone involved has an unrelated but vital and concentration-dependent task to complete. Landing a plane, for instance. Or disarming a bomb. See above about being hungry, stressed, drunk, and sleep-deprived.

Utilize a ticking clock.

Everything is more exciting with life-or-death time limits.

Don’t learn your lessons until the last possible instant.

Nobody wants to see personal growth and amended behavior across an extended time period. It’s best to act like an idiot until the eleventh hour and then communicate you’ve changed with a single grand gesture.

Murder your darlings.

Need I say more?

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/firearm-revolver-bullet-gun-weapon-409252/

Moderate Your Lingering

the outside of the Hobbit's homeI’m reading The Fellowship of the Ring right now. No big deal for a sci-fi/fantasy geek, right? Well, the crazy thing is I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings before. I don’t even know how this happened. How did I go through life this way? I’m the kind of guy who knows the difference between a halfling, a hobbit, and a kender. Everyone should read through Tolkien at least once. So I’m making things right, starting now. And I have some thoughts about what we can learn from Tolkien as aspiring authors.

I’m not gonna lie—reading Tolkien is slow going for me. I just blew through all three books in The Magicians trilogy, which was like super-fast brain candy compared to Tolkien’s literary pot roast (damn hobbits, making me think of food all the time). I loved The Magicians by the way, including the Syfy show, and I might write about Lev Grossman’s incredible world-building in another post. But back to Tolkien.

Tolkien likes to linger. I don’t know how many pages I just read of Tom Bombadil singing and dancing along the river Withywindle. And the hobbits are always eating (hot soup and cold meat with blackberry tart and buttered bread!), which makes me hungry. I can’t sit through a long reading of Tolkien without wanting to heat up some Ellio’s Pizza or Hot Pockets or something, but maybe that’s a personal problem.

Anyway, the fantasy genre is rife with notorious lingerers. George R.R. Martin, “The American Tolkien,” comes to mind. But the prevailing wisdom for new writers is to keep the story moving. The fantasy setting and the fact that you can get away with a higher word count is not an excuse to spend a million years dancing in the Old Forest.

I see this a lot in writing groups with aspiring fantasy authors. Everyone wants to produce huge tomes with lots of lingering. And I get it, I do. It’s exciting! You’ve created this awesome world, and you want your characters to spend tons of time making their way along the winding Withywindle, listening to Tom Bombadil and his wife singing their songs and telling their tales and preparing bread and fresh cheese for hobbits. I’m not saying to cut out your Tom Bombadil completely. Just make sure you’re applying the rules of good writing, even to the lingering. Is this going to pay off for the reader at some point in the future? Does it have some value greater than “look at how cool this place is?” Keep the story moving!

Some lingering is okay; you just have to find the sweet spot. Writing can be a self-indulgent activity, and I think that’s where some of the temptation to linger comes from. Moderate yourself, and your future agent and editor will most certainly thank you.

Now excuse me, I’m going to preheat my oven.

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash

Keep Your Opinion to Yourself: How to Prevent Authorial Bias From Poisoning Your Writing

black and white photo of person wearing gloves holding a mirror in a snowy forestAll artists have a distinctive style, but have you ever thought about how they acquired it? I’ve worked alongside character sculptors for many years and noticed that whether they sculpt animals, monsters, or humans, each creation resembles them to some degree. It’s not a conscious effort but rather a subconsciously learned habit from looking in the mirror every day and seeing the same familiar features staring back.

For writers, it’s not so different. There’s no way to turn off the constant stream of thoughts, emotions, ideas, and annoying jingles swirling around in the figurative mirror of our minds. So, just like those visual artists, our writing is imbued with “features” of ourselves.

By “features” I don’t mean in the sense of “write what you know.” Anything you create will reflect your personality and interests. But there are other “features”—the subconscious ones—that you don’t intend to include.

While you inform how your characters think and act, this doesn’t mean they should think and act how you would in a given situation, or that your opinion of them should affect their identities. In my current project, my protagonist has two love interests vying for her attention. About halfway through my first draft, I realized that not only did my critique partners dislike the second love interest, but so did I (and so did my protagonist)! Far from making him compelling and attractive, I made him deplorable! His actions and dialogue completely discounted his strengths. Upon reflection, this was because the first love interest was someone I would want to be with. So when I was knee deep in the writing trenches, the mirror in my head had a thing or two to contribute to the second love interest’s character. Luckily, with a few dialogue tweaks and sequences where he could be more active, I was able to redeem him.

This is just one example of how the internal mirror can take over. It can also manifest in dialogue, plot, or theme. And although sometimes it will enhance your project, it won’t always. So be aware of the “features” you pour into your writing and then decide if they should stay or go. Here’s how:

  1. Write uncensored. Especially in a first draft, it can be hard to discern where you’re giving away too much information and where the integrity of certain characters falls short. So get the first draft out with no regard for the mirror.
  1. Identify where the mirror takes over. Some instances you’ll notice as you’re writing and others upon immediate review, but certain cases—the ones that have infiltrated an entire character arc or thematic message—you’ll have a hard time identifying. So start with dialogue and plot revelations, and then look at the larger picture of arcs and themes.
  1. Evaluate what works—and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to depart from what you know and love. Remember that removing the mirror’s influence doesn’t mean the writing’s gone forever; you can always relocate it to your ‘killed darlings’ document.
  1. Let others read your work. While they may not know you well enough to recognize where the internal mirror takes over, their critique may show you where your story is suffering. Not to mention, they could help you solve a problem you may not have noticed on your own.

All that being said, this is your story—of course, your “features” will be reflected within! So allow the internal mirror to take over once in a while, and then evaluate if you need to fog it up, shatter it, or give it a good polish.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://unsplash.com/search/mirror?photo=aUYmEjU6mvY