Methods for your madness

990488Most writing follows a certain form, whether fiction or nonfiction. Newswriting and creative non-fiction are fact-based, humor amuses, biography chronicles a life. Fiction tells an invented story, whereas, genre fiction adheres to certain inherent strictures, ie, mysteries leave clues, romance relates a developing relationship, horror shocks, fantasy world-builds. Readers expect when they pick up a thriller or an autobiography or a true crime that it’ll follow whatever form’s intrinsic to that genre, but what if you want to define what you’re writing even further? This is what I call writing for context, or putting that extra level of specification into your writing–for clarity, for authenticity, to strike the right mood. Shall I explain?

Historical fiction is one of the best examples. Aside from not including an HD TV in your Victorian drawing room, certain phrasing and references will lend you writing more credibility, as well as anchor your reader in the era. The best way to get this is to read works not so much about the time of which you are writing, but from the time. For example, from the 18th century, Jonathan Swift or Henry Fielding, 19th century, Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, early 20th, Sinclair Lewis or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Pay attention to the cadence of their dialogue, their use of phrasing, their historical references, the position of their wording. He was a hale fellow, or Shall we meet at half-past seven? will lend a certain credence to your writing. Now, no one will expect you to construct your exposition with thees and thous, but if you’re writing about 18th century Quakers, you might expect to see a few of those whiskered words in their dialogue.

Another example is writing in the first person. I find this type of writing gives you the most license to experiment. Take the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. In this novel he writes from a the perspective of a 15-year-old with Asperger Syndrome. He includes the protagonist’s tics and phobias, sprinkling the narrative with logic and math, numbering his chapters with only prime numbers. By writing with this context in mind, Haddon places us firmly in the character’s mind, and makes the experience resonate long after we put the book down.

There are many examples I could go into to illustrate this principle, but basically, it’s almost like Method Acting, or maybe even a little bit like time travel. As soon as you sit down to write, put yourself into the mind of your character, in both time and setting, and let it lead you down its little garden path. If it’s engrossing enough, your minions will soon follow.

 

Writers! Seek out your own!

IMG_0114In past posts we’ve explored from preparing for a writing project, confronting the blank page, priming your plot pump, getting past your slumping middle, to wrapping it all up and sending it out the door. But what if you’ve got the will and the way, but you still can’t get your motor started? And what if you’ve got it started, but can’t figure out how to shut it down? Or what if you’re stuck in that sagging middle, and it’s got you so daunted you want to hurl the whole kit-and-kaboodle against the wall? Then maybe it’s time to give both the laptop and the sheet rock a break, because you know what they say: when all else fails–retreat!

No, my dear writers, I’m most certainly not saying you should quit. Five noogies to the head for even considering it! What I’m saying is perhaps you need a change of venue, to step out of your everyday and try a different milieu. Where would you go? Why don’t you try these…

1. Writers Colonies – If you’ve got the wallet for it, writers colonies or residencies are about as close as you can get to literary nirvana. Usually in a picturesque location or town, at a college or camp or hotel, they give you uninterrupted time to write, plot or just stare off into space. Many come with social activities so you can network with fellow writers, some even come with stipends, others you have to qualify for. Check the wonderful website Agent Query for their list of colonies and residencies.

2. Writers Conferences – Every writer should attend at least one a year. I certainly do, have for years, and if you just happen to be in New Jersey in next March , you might want to take a look at Liberty States Fiction Writers’ “Create Something Magical” Conference. It’s for one day, but take the weekend and bookend the schmooze, panels and workshops with some serious writing time. Writers Conferences can range from an afternoon to a week-long series of events, many of them grouped by genre, such as the Romance Writers of America in the summer, or the Backspace Writers Conference in New York this November. Full of workshops, editor/agent appointments, panels, readings, book fairs and the chance to meet some of your favorite authors, if you don’t come out energized and ready to attack the page, then perhaps you’re in the wrong business. Again, here’s another look at Agent Query, and their rundown of upcoming conferences.

3. Book Expo America BEA is one of the premier industry events if you are any way connected. If you’re a bookseller, agent, editor, librarian, educator, book club member, writers’ organization officer or published author you can’t afford to miss it. Held over three days in May, last year in Chicago, but next year back at the Javits Center in New York City, anyone who is anyone in the industry is there. After one hour trolling this convergence of Every Publisher in the Free World, if you don’t feel like closing down that WIP to get in the game, then stay home on the porch. You ain’t gonna be runnin’ with the big dogs.

4. College Literary Festivals – Held by the English Department at a college or university, these usually weeklong events hold readings and signings for writers and readers alike. If you’re alumni, this is a good way to connect with your old professors who no doubt have a line on the writers attending, so you never know who you can meet. I go back to my alma mater twice a year for their festival held during their MFA residencies, meeting many of the visiting writers. I even had dinner with Francine Prose one night, though being one of twelve at her banquet-seating table, I doubt if our conversation went past pass the salt.

5. Create your own – Batton down the home hatches and take off for the weekend, to a vacationing friend or family member’s house, to a off-season cottage by the lake or ocean, to a campsite up in the mountains, or even a bargain-basement afternoon with the laptop or legal pad at the library or Barnes and Noble cafe. Perhaps even send the kids off with the spouse to the zoo and stretch out on the back porch, a glass of your favorite libation at your side, letting all those ideas in your head bounce off the trees, the alleyway, the horizon. It doesn’t take much, just a firm commitment and the time to percolate, and perchance, of course, to dream.

The Writer Entitled

img_13631Dear Deadbeat Writer: Who do you think you are?

You get up at the crack of noon, saunter to your desk wearing nothing but your PJs and that smug expression, munching on multigrain pretzels and bouffe from Trader Joe’s. While the rest of us actually BUILD something, you’re hoisting your feet atop your desk to “ponder” and “plot,” your baby-soft fingers tapping the laptop with Call me Ishmael, or It was the best of times, it was the worst of times or other such blather. Instead of putting those keys to work by shaving some stock and buying on margin you’d rather “create,” not even bothering anymore to print your “genius” and pack it into a respectable manuscript box to ship off USPS. Even ink and paper are too much trouble for you anymore! Now we’re all about “attachments,” and “uploads,” and “streaming,” even calling “creative” such linguistic aberrations as blogs and podcasts and tweets. And in your ennui, you can’t even bother to bind your books anymore, leveling them to some ethereal creation called an e-book, packing them on a virtual bookshelf while your compensation floats through cyberspace to directly deposit itself into your bank account.

Oh it’s the life, fooling us all, and getting money, it appears, for nothing.

Be warned: we are so onto you.

My Midsummer Night Meander

5MN1Been working hot and obsessively developing  another project the last few weeks. When I do this I so live in my head I’m apt to leave lights on or subsist on string cheese and blueberries because I can eat them with one hand. Because of that I’m giving myself a pass tonight to let my mind wander.  I have too many topics rolling around the fertile landscape of my brain to settle on one, so I’m treating you to a virtual sampler of each. Think of it as the Jones version of the Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy,” except not about chain restaurant Italian food or really anything to do with food at all. Please don’t ask me to explain…

~ Why is it harder to write in the summer when it should be easier? Okay, I”m a college professor, right? And I “theoretically” have the summer off (except for the summer class I’m teaching, which really is cake next to my usual load). So my brain should be my own (mostly), and I should be able to sail through what I’m working on, producing so many pages a day I’d best keep a fire extinguisher near my desk. Wrong! Phuque moi! Could it be the sun shining through my window? The fact I have no schedule? The lure of the beach? Distraction by a shiny object? Or I’m still trying to get to know my characters? Hmm…I going to have to think about that one. Where’s the string cheese?

~ You can lose weight on summer fruit. (All right; I lied about the food reference, but here’s living proof I write by the seat of my pants.) I live in the heart of the South Jersey farm belt, and you can’t drive more than a couple of miles without either passing a farm or a farm stand. This morning I happened to visit the latter, where I purchased tomatoes (early, but there’s nothing like a Jersey tomato!), cukes, blueberries (another iconic Jersey crop), cantaloupe and peaches, both yellow and white. Lately I’ve been gorging on berries and melons and cherries, instead of the usual snacky-type foods, and in the past month I’ve lost seven pounds! Of course, this may have something to do with the 1725 calories I’ve been allowing myself to eat, the half-hour of daily exercise, and the frequent swims in the ocean BUT! I have had more than a couple Bacchanalia events and let me tell you, the Yuengling hasn’t been lonely!

~ Beer tastes better in summer. That’s all I got. Any other commentary on that topic would be redundant.

~ Socks suck in summer.  I haven’t worn a pair of socks since, oh…probably early May. I hate the fricking little cotton casings anyway–hate the way they bunch up under your instep, hate the indentations they make on your shins, hate how the heels always wear out when the rest of the sock can go for another 10,000 miles. But MOST of all I HATE folding them. Hate! Hate! Hate! Just sayin’.

~ I love the sound of birdsong at dusk. The sun has set, the western sky is stained red, outside a soft breeze is blowing and you can finally shut off the A.C. and let in some fresh air. You venture out on your porch or you open your car window, or maybe you’re out for a walk and there in the bushes, the trees or on an overhead wire is a whip-poor-will or a mockingbird or who knows what kind of bird, only that their song is lovely, a tiny gratis pleasure on a soft summer night. What else can you possibly need?

My Case for Hillary

slide_hillary-convention_2If you’re a writer, then it’s no secret that unless you’re J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, or well on your way to becoming either, you’re  probably making part of your living doing something else. For me it’s teaching college. It’s a profession I came to by default, after being laid off after many years in the corporate world. Luckily, I had already secured my Masters of Fine Arts degree, which enabled me to jump right into teaching. Nothing I’ve ever done has given me more of a sense of accomplishment and worth than seeing students benefit from what they’ve learned in my classes, and after five years, I’ve come to love it. And I’d better, because I’m sure not in it for the money.

You see, I’m an adjunct professor, who is a contractual, contingent teaching professional with same level of education as “full-time” faculty, often with the same accomplishments and experience.  The quotes are my own, not to denigrate those who are permanent, but to distinguish them from the adjuncts who more often than not, work twice as much and sometimes three times as long to earn less compensation. That’s because adjuncts often have to travel to multiple campuses to teach, as most higher ed institutions will not give them more than 9 credit hours, and the usual full load of 12 would then compel them to pay our health insurance.  Contingent faculty now comprise close to 70% of all teaching professionals on college campuses nation-wide, deeming us one of the most educated workforces toiling for poverty wages, with thirty-one percent of part-time faculty living near or below the federal poverty line. To add insult to injury, we’re not even considered “part-time” employees, so we’re routinely denied unemployment and disability benefits when both are deducted from our pay.  This is because we’re lumped with full-time educators, who traditionally receive a year’s worth of pay on a ten-month schedule. State governments don’t seem to recognize if we don’t work, we don’t get paid. 

After working within this reality for many years, I felt I needed to do something about it. But what? I could bitch on social media, complain to my friends and to my fellow professors, write comment after comment on articles on adjunct unfairness. But how would that affect a practice so ingrained and only getting worse? I realized if I wanted to bring about real change, I needed to get off my ass and work within the system, or no one would ever listen to me.  So when I saw the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local adjunct union was having an election at the main college where I teach, I entered my name in the ballot for the executive board.

And hot damn–I won.  And just in time too, as our current contract was set to expire. I and my team are now in the process of negotiating our new two-year contract, and for the first time in my new-ish career, I’m actually helping to bring about real change. So what does all this have to do with my case for Hillary Clinton? Lots, because it’s taught me two things: the world is a cruel, unforgiving place. But nothing beats the power of negotiation.

This is really, really important in light of what’s going on in the Democratic Party right now. I was raised as a progressive, and I’ve always been proud to call myself a liberal, no matter how much conservatives like to make a dirty word out of it. And because I am a liberal, I’ve been a fan of Bernie Sanders for years, long before many of his supporters caught their first viral video about him. I admired his stance on almost everything–the big banks, free college tuition, the Trans Pacific Partnership, universal health care –but mainly because  he speaks truth to power. It impressed me he ran one of the most successful and honest campaigns in history, shunning PAC money for the average $27 donation. What’s not to love?

Yet I didn’t vote for him in New Jersey’s June primary.  I voted for Hillary.

Why? Because I thought she was the best possible candidate? No. (That’s Cory Booker, yo!) Look, I’ve had my problems with the Clintons way back to Bill’s first presidential election. (Yes, I’m old enough to have voted in that.) As a staunch disbeliever in capital punishment (New Jersey has since abolished it), I still can’t get over his flying back to Arkansas from the campaign trail to sign the death warrant for a mentally-impaired man.  And the whole Monica Lewinsky affair–not the impeachment which was bullshit–still sticks in my craw. But Bill isn’t Hillary, and at times, I find the connection unfair. And even if it isn’t, she has long had her own history of social service and activism, way before she ever met Bill, in children’s rights, civil rights, and women’s rights. She’s been a First Lady not just content “stay home and bake cookies,” but also a Senator, a Secretary of State, and the first woman to win a major party’s nomination — which if you think isn’t significant, just goes to show you how far women have come to make it almost seem routine. Hillary’s smart, savvy, worldly, and quite frankly, knows her shit. But none of that’s why I voted for her. I voted for her because I knew the numbers were with her, and she ‘d win out over Bernie in the end.

Reality — check.

Now that Hillary’s got the nomination, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to vote for her in November. Why? Because I’m a realist, because she’s capable, because I’m not caught in a cult of personality, because party platform is bigger than any one candidate, and hopefully with her comes a slate of change down-ticket. And to all you Bernie-or-Bust holdouts, who think that a vote for Hillary is a sell-out, that a vote for the Green party will somehow make a statement, that voting for Trump will bring on “the revolution” sooner, that a single vote can’t matter, that Bernie didn’t do something significant by forcing the MOST progressive platform in the DNC’s history, that one sweep of the convention floor won’t tell you how much the Democratic Party stands for inclusion, that don’t know a roll call on the convention floor is the way a convention is supposed to work, that all politics is local and real democracy ENDS at a presidential election, that shouting someone down and not allowing them a voice only creates dissonance, that government works best when both sides come together and work it out, that the DNC doesn’t get it. Really? Then what other party currently competing has a real chance to actually affect change for you? I mean–seriously?

Get over yourselves.

The United States, my friends, is a Work in Progress, not perfect, but certainly worth perfecting. Again, Hillary’s not perfect, but she’s not intractable either, and if you think electing her opponent would be better, or that sitting the whole thing out will leave you pure so you can stand on your principles, well, let Sarah say it for you.

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Addiction: Writer

37ac708e8dee8de4ff3e1ecf73ed6944I’ll bet you thought I was going to write something about watching the RNC Convention tonight. Because who’d bypass the chance to shout about those toxic twins of the GOP, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, rockin’ Cleveland this eve. Well, sage observer you’re wrong wrong wrong. No idling in deep thought or in front of a television tonight for me. I have bigger fish to fry!

As a writer, you’ve probably had people say to you, “I’d write a book if I only had the time!’ or “Where do you get the time to write?” I’ve heard those gems to the point of distraction, and I usually answer, “When you’re a writer you find the time.” I know I’ve gone over this before, but here it is again–when approaching a project, clear your schedule and set up an immovable block of writing time, make sure your friends and family are aware of that block, and then enforce your boundaries. This is a common sense approach, and most of the time, it works. But what if real life does intrude to the point you find yourself NOT writing for an extended period of time? And when it does, how does that make you feel?

The reason I’m mentioning it is that’s exactly where I’ve found myself. As an academic, especially with the start of school looming, I’ve had a million minutiae to attend to, finalizing syllabi, finishing curriculum, coordinating crazy professor attire, etc., damn near sending me skittering off the cliff of sanity. This can happen to any writer when the noose of family, job or real world responsibilities begin to encroach on your fantasy time (let’s face it; we’d rather live in that world than “reality”. When it does, the worst of the worst could happen–you start not feeling like a writer. You’ve abandoned your routine and as the plot and pages start to fade, an ennui sets in that makes you so doubt yourself, you feel that tenuous identity slip away.

Here’s another thing I’ve said more than a few times: writers write. But if you’re not doing it, how can you possibly call yourself one anymore? If that very statement gives you the shakes, than congratulate yourself: you’re taking yourself–and your craft–more seriously than you realize. And if you are, then to get back into writing like a writer, start thinking like one and prioritize.

Above all, ask yourself how important writing is to your health and well-being. If you feel about it the way I do, you’re not quite right when you don’t write, so you’ll find a way to get it back into your routine. The craziness can’t last forever, so start planning for when things return to normal, and if that means perhaps taking those extra two or three weeks to finish what been occupying your time, then do it or you’ll never be able to concentrate. If you’re able, fix a deadline to restart, but if you find yourself open-ended, then again–ask yourself how important writing is in your life. If you can’t picture life without it, then you must make time for it–during lunch, after the kids are in bed, the first thing in the morning, between episodes of Mr. Robot–but do find some time for it somewhere. There is one intractable rule here: writers write. We are addicts in our own inimitable way, but it’s an addiction, when it’s done well, the world–and your own world–is so much better for.

Now that I have that out of the way–onto the DNC! (Hoo boy, I’m such a liar.)

Get out of my face

Get outta heahDid you ever notice whenever you’re trying to write the world finds its way to your door?  Your phone won’t stop going off, everyone in your family is bleeding, and the house keeps catching fire? Even if you try to sneak in a few minutes at work during lunchtime, there’s always some needy coworker who thinks you’re The Help Desk, Dr. Phil and Google all rolled up in one. When does it stop?

I don’t know about you, but when I’m deep into a project, I usually have forty things vying for my attention, when there’s only one place I want to direct it–into the work. True, you can’t shut down the world, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could? Every once in a while, especially when you’re at a critical juncture, wouldn’t it be nice to scream “GET OUT OF MY FACE!” and slam the door? This is especially evident when you’re at the early stages of your career, when you’re either not yet published or Published Without Substantial Royalty Checks (lot of you out there, I hear you), and very few, outside of your critique partners and maybe your mother, take you seriously. And this goes double if you happen to be female. Hey, I’m not going all sexist on you, but there IS a double standard when it comes to Writing While Woman. We’re still expected to go to the outside, schlep groceries, fold the socks, corral the kids and magically produce dinner. Who was that romance writer who used to haul her typewriter into the laundry room and work while the spin cycle spun? This is what we have to put up with. AND we can’t expect anyone to take over these duties until our future bestsellers actually become bestsellers and we get to hire help. Now, that’s what I call incentive!

Don’t get me wrong. As I said, you can’t block out the world, and you can’t expect everyone to understand your obsession. And Sweetie does give me the time I need (mostly). But for cryin’ out loud, sometime you just have to be a selfish bastard to get anything done, and what’s wrong with that? At least in the creative stage, there’s not much about writing that’s a group effort and there are times when a slammed door is an absolute necessity. And it doesn’t have anything to do with my not loving you or I don’t care the cat barfed on the bed or that you’ll  end up a shriveled husk for wont of a chicken pot pie. Believe it when I say that I won’t love you any less if you disappear for the afternoon. But I’ll love you a whole lot if you allow me to spend just a few hours playing my imaginary friends. Trust me, in the long run it’ll benefit both of us. And you’ll be living with much less insane person.

Now will you get out of my face?

Writing against the rules

IMG_3255I have a friend, a fellow writer who I swap works-in-progress with. I trust her judgment as she has a good eye, and I’d like to think she regards me in the same way. (By the way, the picture above has nothing to do with what I’m writing about. I was on Martha’s Vineyard last week–hence, why no post–and this is a picture of me standing in front of the Aquinnah Cliffs.  Just thought you needed to see it.) But what I recently sent her did not include the laudatory and enthusiastic commentary I had hoped. As a matter of fact, she thought I was writing as if I didn’t know my own character as well as I thought I did, not to mention his motivation and where it fit in the story.  She thought the reaction my character had after an amorous situation was a bit cold, and that I should just let the story happen. But I had also sent the same piece of writing to someone else, and her reaction was totally different: That was hot and sweet with a sprinkle of realism, and that got me to thinking – how much should you let reality intrude upon your fiction?

Many of us think of fiction as an escape, and that writer all should follow some unwritten rules on the road to a satisfying conclusion. This is especially true of romance fiction, as its many readers expect the protagonists to act or react in a preordained way, ie, there is an instant attraction, and that once attracted, the couple should only have carnal knowledge of each other, and most important, the hero and/or heroine should never deceive each other without a very serious, nearly life-threatening reason. Not that what I’m writing is a romance per se, but it does have a very strong romantic overtone, and here is where it gets sticky: my main character breaks one of those rules. And by doing so leads my friend/critique partner to think her acting cold. Perhaps so, but that’s all right, because that’s where the sprinkle of realism comes in (and the fact my other friend got that is why she is my friend. So shallow, me.)

The way I see it, is that people rarely follow a preordained set of rules, so why write them as if they do? Although many have reactions we can deem typical, in reality, things aren’t that cut and dried, so why should I write as if they were? As long as my character is acting within character, and I’m following a certain sense of logic, it makes for better writing, as well as a better story, if I let reality intrude now and then. You have to ask yourself if you can reasonably see your character acting the way she does. Does it make sense to the story line? Does it carry the plot forward? Does it make for a better outcome? If you can satisfactory answer each of these questions, then go ahead and include that bare-knuckled fight, the bus falling off a cliff, the fact that she gets up and leaves him instead of the other way around. Life isn’t always pretty, but there’s nothing more compelling than writing a pretty compelling story. It’s what selling. And what they’re buying.

 

Hot, Hotter, Hot as F***

Ah, Amour!If you’re reading some of the more popular Romances these days, you may have noticed the sex has gotten a whole lot spicier. Odd to think at one time various works of such classic writers as Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov and D.H. Lawrence were banned in this country because of a sexual content which would now barely raise a eyebrow. This is, of course, not to say more lurid works weren’t out there. Ask your grammy if she ever heard of a Tijuana Bible, and if she doesn’t slap your face, she just might surprise the heck out of you. But if books you can now buy from the drugstore spinner are jalapeno enough to singe your fingers, how can you tell the difference between what’s hot, hotter and goodness! gracious! hose-me-down!? Well, here’s a handy little thumbnail to help you sort it all out.

Romance is the story of the journey lovers take to their happily ever after.

Erotic Romance is the story of the sexual journey lovers take to their happily ever after.

Erotica is the story of a lovers’ sexual journey. Period.

So as you can see, it’s not really the sex per se as much as how the sex is used as a plot technique. In Erotic Romance, as opposed to more “traditional” romance, the sex is more defined, ie, a spade is a spade is a spade. Nix the hammer of love, darling, and call it what it is. In Erotica, this concept is stripped (oh, dear – forgive me) of all pretense, and goes straight to the good parts (no flipping necessary).Yet, as in all writing, just because its temperature has gone well beyond the hard crack stage, it doesn’t mean its quality should be compromised. Bad writing is still bad writing. Just because we’re looking to be bad, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get it good.

 

 

Congress is where the real crazies are

We're here for you, Orlando

There’s no disputing the fact that anyone who finds logic in what happened in Orlando over the weekend needs to have their brain examined. The Pulse massacre was a tragedy beyond comprehension, but that’s not what I’m referring to. What I’m talking about is the members of Congress who patently refuse any kind of gun control, even to the point where it makes about as much sense as comparing apples to recliners.  They even refuse to bring up a bill that would ban persons on the No-Fly List from purchasing weapons, a bill that had a slim chance of passing after the shooting in San Bernadino.  That’s why I’m so proud of my Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) who  joined with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) in a filibuster. The Daily Beast quotes Murphy as saying, “I am prepared to stand on the Senate floor and talk about the need to prevent gun violence for as long as I can,”  tweeting Wednesday morning before taking the podium. “I’ve had #enough.”

So have I. If you have too, then for fuck’s sake do something about it.  Contact your representative in Congress and email, call, visit–do whatever it takes to make your voice heard. And don’t forget to remind them they’re one election away from becoming as voiceless as the rest of the American people now feel.

Seriously Snark

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