Hello again from the happy hallowed halls of academia! This trip my student and I were discussion the merits of one of my favorite books, Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer, Penguin/Random House’s copy chief, when of course, we riffs on other topics, one of them being having your work read aloud…
As not only a writer but an English/Writing instructor, Dreyer’s English was like a revelation to me. I love reading about the minutiae of language, books that open up prose to all its quirks and working mechanisms, much like a doctor would with a dissection of a body. His writing is easily understandable as well as humorous, and I had several “ah-ha” moments, parts that spoke to me about things I’ve done that or thought about.
One of those such moments that seemed to have hit you too was reading or having read your work aloud. I like to do that with dialogue, to see if the language has a natural flow, it if sound like something someone would actually say. People’s speech also has a rhythm, injecting pauses and emphasis, speak in shortened phrases and use words that wouldn’t be written down. Another perk to reading aloud, one that writers seem to have, is knowing almost instinctively when something just doesn’t “sound right.” I think you alluded to this in your critique that sometimes we don’t know exactly why something sounds wrong, we just know that it is. I suppose it’s a skill we can’t help developing from our constant manipulation of the language. But it doesn’t work with everything.
Such a “lay” and “lie.” I have a Post-it note on the bulletin board next to my desk containing the past, present, and future conjunctions it’s such a handicap for me! But even when we write it correctly, sometimes our listening ear will tell us “that’s not how real people speak.” Who says, “I will have lain in my bed until seven.” If you said that in your dialogue people would assume you’re writing a story about the 19th century!
Almost as jarring is when you first hear other people read your work aloud. There’s no better feeling in the world when you know you’ve nailed it and the reader or readers come away impressed. Conversely, there’s no worse feeling when you hear your own missteps spoken aloud. Either way, it’s enormously helpful to work with what’s called beta readers, to have other eyes on your writing. By the time we get into our third or fourth or however many drafts, we’re so close to the writing it’s hard to see where we still need work. Or also the spots where we need to stop ourselves from further tinkering. Yes, sometimes we DO get it just perfect!
In the end, it’s helpful to have a critique partner, someone we can trust to give us an honest opinion about our work, no holds barred. And it’s also helpful to remember when they are honest with us it’s always about the work and never about us personally.
Take care, and have a great week!
This goes way back but I encountered my first Ukrainians when I was in the first grade. I went to one of those little K-8th grade Catholic parish schools that were abundant in small cities like Trenton, NJ, where each ethnicity gathered in certain urban neighborhoods with the ethnic church as the religious and social center. My parish was Slovak, as were the kids, but the nearby Ukrainian church didn’t have a parish school, so they sent all their kids to ours. The kids were all native-born, but their parents, and most likely their grandparents were from the the Ukraine. This was opposed to we Slovaks, we were third or even fourth generation Americans, and the most Slovak we knew was pierogi and kolbas and a few other words we knew meant to run away fast when the nuns yelled them at us. But the Ukrainian kids all knew the mother tongue–they ALL did, and they were fierce in retaining their heritage no matter how American they sounded or looked. They were proud to be Ukrainian and they let everyone know it.
I’ve been thinking of those kids lately, wondering how they got on and what they’re thinking at this particular time in history. All I know is even though those kids didn’t have their own school, that they had to blend into ours, they never lost lost their identity, and they always let us know exactly who they were, and we always respected them for it. So no matter what the future brings, they will never let their identity be lost. They didn’t lose it in Trenton, and they sure as hell aren’t going to give it up in their homeland. Never. Ever ever ever.
It’s a new year and a new semester, and with it a new edition of Tips From the MFA Pit. For those not familiar, I teach in an MFA program and what you’ll read here is actual sage advice gleaned from all my years of passing on…my sage advice. This it to a student taking a course in finding their process and individual aesthetic, which loosely interpreted, is finding your own voice and writing methods. The first assignment is an opening essay, to which I’d offered this…
In your opening essay, you stated that your “writing used to be as habitual as brushing my teeth.” This is so true of young writers, and they see it as practice that sets them apart from their peers, as something wonderous and inspirational and unique unto themselves. Sometimes this “calling” seems otherworldly to us, as we almost feel compelled to put down our thoughts into words. It’s exhilarating and we do it as often as we could, and it’s from there that we know—we just know—we were destined to be writers and write great things. The trick is, as we get older and are confronted with demands of adult life, is to keep that magic alive, as we are straddling two very different world.
Part of that adult world is sending our work out for review, whether through the people we share it with, the classes we take, or through publication. What starts out primarily as something we do for ourselves morphs into messages we send out to the world, and from there we open ourselves up to scrutiny. This is never easy, as actually it’s quite a feat of bravery, to share this interior space with the world. But part of what makes writing so satisfying in the end is letting the outside into that interior world, and having them revel in it as much as you do is thrilling. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes the words don’t quite translate, sometimes the cerebral pictures we paint appear blurred. Of course, all writing is subjective, and everyone has their own opinions, but when too many of these opinions come out the same way, we’re forced to take another look. After all, we want to make sure our message is getting across, don’t we?
That’s when we have to assure ourselves that it’s always about the work, it’s never about you. It’s hard, because that’s when that magical feeling we felt in your youth hits up against the hard reality of the reading world. Truth is we all need editors, no matter how successful we get, and there’s proof enough of that is some of the rambling texts of major authors with no-edit clauses in their contracts. From this point we may no longer see our writing as fun as it used to be. Suddenly it becomes work, and that’s when our writing process starts to alter.
This is the hardest part. This is when we may be afraid to face that blank page because we become afraid of the reaction our work will get. But to counter this, we have to split our writer self into the parts: the writer/creator, the editor, and the publicist. The writer/creator just writes, just pounds those words out onto the page, verbal vomit, so to speak, the world be damned. The editor takes those words and refines them, adds and detracts, hones and polished. Then the publicist gets it ready for the markets, eyes it not as a literary creation but a product. Later on, this last task is relegated to an agent, and it’s sometimes the cruelest task of all. But if your want to get our voice out in the world, it’s the most necessary. But it also can’t exist without the first two, the two which allow the third to exist.
I’m not kidding around this time. Enough bullshit already. I’m really sick and tired of your hollow promises. Enough with all the noisemakers, funny hats, glow sticks, confetti and fireworks at midnight. I want me some real live Happy New Years and no more playing around. No more insurrections, Omicrons, lockdowns, natural disasters, Zoomers, KN95s, vaccine deniers, or breakthrough infections. I’m so over take-out. I want to hang out at a bar. Go to the movies. I’m really wanting some five-star service and I don’t care if I have to pay for it. Go get the damn shot. Shots. The booster. Just go do your part and let’s do some Normal already.
It’s that time of year, the holidays, and I’m going to take a break. So have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a stellar New Year, and I’ll see you sometimes in January!
The following is a reboot of a post from a couple of years ago, but I happen to like it and I’ve been so busy grading end-of-semester essays, my brain’s too mushed to think up anything original. So consider it a Christmas gift–from me to you and visa-versa. (You may thank me now.)
With Hanukkah now behind us, another holiday fest starts imminently, but you would think that it already has, as much as gets done in December. As for me, I simply let the ‘daze rumble past like a runaway train, and if something happens to fall out of the caboose for me, so be it. But if you believe the concept driving the season is peace and not what piece is for you, then here’s a few hints to let you know just how far behind you are:
1. The Great Work Stoppage – As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey comes out of the oven, it’s as if everyone forgets they have a job. Suddenly all meetings become holiday parties, and if you’re expecting that report to get finished, you might as well call back next year. In my particular milieu, I nearly have to hit my students over the head with their final essays to get them to even remember my name.
2. Vanishing Editors – If you were hoping to get your manuscript sold before the end of the year–ha ha, good one! From now until after New Year’s, editors, as well as a fair amount of agents, take a breather and make the rounds of Gotham’s holiday celebrations, where I imagine a fair amount of deal making takes place over the babaganoush. If you’re the writer, think of it as a temporary reprieve from submission angst.
3. Everything’s on Sale – Back in the day, you used to have to wait until after Christmas to get a price cut, but thanks to retail giants like Target and Macy’s, the discounts only get deeper the closer you get to the big day. Which is fine, because if you’re like me, the shopping starts the day before, and I’m all about half-off.
4. The Dread Christmas Sweater – Think about it: if it wasn’t the holidays, would you ever wear that sweater in public? Do you actually like rick-rack, glitter, Rudolph’s battery-operated flashing nose, or cable-knitted Thomas Kinkade reproductions on your chest? So much better to wear the DCS’s less offensive cousins, The Christmas Socks. At least we only have to endure them when you cross your legs.
5. “Oh go ahead – it’s the Holidays.” – Which means, go ahead and eat that brandy cheesecake as big as your head. What the hell – you’re on Lipitor anyway, and your blood test isn’t until January. Which also means you can eat half that Hickory Farm’s beef stick, which is my personal holiday no-denial favorite. No fooling, I’m stocking up!
Only thirteen days left. Get crackin’!
Okay, so it’s December first. That means the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is over, and you have to stop the writing, but only long enough to take stock. So, how did it go for you? Did you start that new novel? Did you drag the old one from under your proverbial bed and continue? Did you give up after three days? Three hours? Three minutes? Or did you tough it out, fall into a groove, and breeze the rest of the way through? Or are you banging your head against the wall, still trying to figure it out? Whatever way you approached it, you deserve a BIG pat on the back for at least giving it a go, and if you finished, you deserve a big HUZZAH! Now you can join that elite club of NaNoWriMos who’ve done it. And hopefully, you’re on your way to join those who’ve gone onto selling.
Inevitably, you’ll ask the question, so now what? Well, if you enjoyed National Novel Writing Month, you can continue the good feels after the holidays by signing onto NaNoWriMo’s help taking that finished novel to the next level. Need help with editing and revision and where to go next? Then go here for the NaNoWriMo site and let them help your continue your publishing journey. Happy Writing!
My gift to you this Thanksgiving! My gift to myself is carpal tunnel in my right hand, so I won’t be doing too much writing these next couple of days, all my energy spent in hoisting leftover turkey leftover and its accompaniments. I’ll also be upending the whipped cream over my mouth for a covert squirt after burying a slice of pumpkin pie under it. So yeah, I’ll be kinda busy after all. Happy Thanksgiving!