Tips from the MFA Pit, Part 2 – Writer’s Logic

Guess what?! The font of advice from the MFA pit just keeps spouting! More valuable info from an actual MFA in Creative Writing mentor to actual MFA students! This week we’re looking at writer’s logic, that little voice in your head that shouts, YES! KILL HIM! I DON’T CARE IF HE’S THE BEST CHARACTER YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN! HE MUST DIE! DIE, I SAY! Mwwwahhhha-ha-ha!! Anyway, this student was having thesis issues, as they couldn’t figure out what direction to take their characters, who were turning out static and one-dimensional. Consequently, the student couldn’t get comfortable with the thesis they were already fifty pages into. I suggested at maybe they weren’t really into the story, that maybe they should consider on writing in genre-that seemed to be the focus of most of their reading (MFA programs have a LOT of reading in the student’s genre or concentration) So they took me up on that idea, but still…
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I’ve been reading your pages and I’ll get back to with comments this weekend, if not before. The important thing is you’re more comfortable with this story, and that’s good. It means you’re finding which genre is right for you. And  you’re right—you will get to a point where the story just pours out of you. The characters will be telling YOU what they want to do. That’s because by that time your story will develop its own logic, and the characters will start acting the way that you designed them to act. Their actions will seem more realistic to how they would react in certain situations. If one character likes to think things through, they won’t suddenly act rash. You will know what direction to send them in as you’ll know that’s how they would handle a certain situation. The same thing with plot elements. You will know intrinsically what the end result will be, because the logic of your story will drive the plot in a certain direction. I’ve heard writers say, “Oh no, I think I have to kill Character X.” They don’t want to, but event sometimes force your hand, and it wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t. “X and Z have to fall in love.” Because if they didn’t, your story wouldn’t make sense. In essence, you’ll just know. I maybe have said this before, but this is why I don’t believe in Writer’s Block. It’s not that you’re stuck. It’s just that you’re fighting the logic of your own story. If you let it flow like it should, it almost always works its way out. The key is not fighting it. When you don’t, chances are your plot will free up and your story will start flowing again.

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And I have to tell you that my advice to this student has seemed to have worked up. They’re well over halfway into the new book and genre, and the story is indeed flowing well. It may turn out I’m just the best writing mentor ever!
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The book (lurking) under the bed

If you’re like me, you probably have a book under the bed that hasn’t seen the light of day for quite a long time, and there’s a damn good reason why it’s there. Of course I’m speaking metaphorically when I say under the bed, as most digitally-attuned don’t do paper anymore, and haven’t for a long while. But there was a time when all submissions were typed, tucked in a box, and sent off to New York either Postal Book Rate (cheap and snail-ly) or FedEx (for we oh-so-serious writers), only to have it returned immediately, or a year later after idling awhile in the publisher’s slush pile, a crookedly-photocopied form rejection tucked in the box. To make your repudiation hit home even more, your opus was returned in your own postage-paid box. I say this quite fervently, there’s nothing that’ll give you all the  worse feels than having financed your own dismissal. So after being denied, rebuffed, nixed, and bounced, what can you do with this creative disaster, this repudiated pariah, this literary Loch Nessie,  other than hide it with the other monsters under the bed?

You can have good cry or a  primal scream, and after a good drown in wine or chocolate or Cheetos, figure out why it was under-the-bed-worthy in the first place. Or you can let it molder under your bed or in your hard drive your flash drive or your cloud, and dig it out some time later, and rework and update it until it’s resubmittable again. Though if you do, let me add a few words of caution.

Sometimes editors or agents will give you what’s called a “good rejection,” offering what they found not to work and what would, and maybe even adding they’d take another look after another going over. Sometimes this can work, especially if the ed/agent likes your writing style but wants to see how you rework it first. Often they’ll give your tips, but often they won’t, and there’s no guarantee they’ll take it in the end. It’s the chance you take, because you can get caught up in an endless cycle of revision, especially if the ed/agent wants you to take the book where you may not be adept at. There are writers I know of who were even willing to write outside their comfort zone just to pander to an editor’s taste, ending up in a genre they have no business writing. As hard as it is to accept, some books just belong under the bed, as some just can’t be updated, the original concept may be too trite or convoluted, or your writing style may have changed. Or–and this is a distinct possibility–your skill may have advanced to the point you’ve outgrown the book. Yes! You may be too good for yourself.

So do we go spelunking under the bed and give what lurks there another go? Only you can answer that. Nothing is as comfortable as the familiar. Though nothing is quite as exciting as discovering the newest version of yourself.

Come on already

It’s snowing today in New Jersey. Just as it was snowing last week. And the week before. And the week before that. In fact it’s been snowing every week for the whole month. Sometimes twice. Here’s my picnic table, covered with plastic on my deck, still uncovered for the season because I don’t remember the last time I saw sun. On the East Coast, we’ve had four Nor’easters, three in the last two weeks. Yesterday was the first day of spring, and two days ago, my husband absconded with these daffodils from the neighbor’s backyard. (So lovely, aren’t they? Everything illicit always is! )The yard should be full of them by now, but Spring seems to be on hiatus until nature gets done with it tantrum. Maybe its just getting back at us for ignoring its maintenance so long. Like cleaning up after ourselves when we take a dump on it, for not respecting it, for not putting our money where our drain pipe is. Makes me wonder what it looks like in Paris this spring, where the rest of the world seems so much more in accord.

Tips from the MFA pit – Part One

Readers of this blog may have noted I teach in an MFA in Creative writing program. From day one students work on what will eventually become their thesis, as well as study the history of their chosen genre, their work process, and a few other writing subjects. Along the way, I dispense advice on all of the above, and dang it! if now and then I’m just chock full ‘o wisdom. I’d like to share a few of those pearls, and what follows is ACTUAL ADVICE FROM A REAL-LIVE MFA MENTOR! To a real-live student (who shall remain nameless lest anyone find out she’s actually listening to me…) Today’s entry is on craft, starting with a lesson on those pesky Voice Tags, and ending with what’s commonly referred to as “Info Dumps…”

VOICE TAGS
You say you hate using voice tags. Well, I don’t know of anyone who loves using them! The thing is it’s not the voice tag itself, as much as indicating in some way who’s doing the speaking. You can also do this by including an action or a reaction by the speaker. For example:
Lana fell back against the bed. “I can’t believe how tired I am.”
“There’s no place to go, so I may as well go home.” Then she closed the door behind her.
Or in a conversation…
Jane knew better than to argue with her sister. Amy, as the eldest,
always believed she was right. But when Amy said she’d rather stay home, Jane took it as the last straw.
Jane stared at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“You better believe I am.”
“But what about the kids?”
Amy shrugged. “They’ll have more fun without me.”
When you have a back-and-forth dialogue, it’s understood that each character takes a new line. You introduce the first character (Jane), then it’s understood, from a previous line of prose (Jane knew better…) that this would be a two way conversation. You just can’t let it go on too long without indicating the speaker, as the readers lose track and it becomes confusing.
Actually, you can write a whole book without using a voice tag doing the above. But sometimes you just have to use them. Especially in action scenes when you want your writing to be more immediate. Too much description can slow the story down. With action, you use short, clipped sentence to show immediacy, and strong voice tags add to the mood or action.
“Shut up,” he snapped, slapping her.
“Yes I’ll marry you!” she cried.
“I’ve never met anymore like you,” he whispered, his voice hot against her ear.
If you find yourself thinking hard and long about which voice tag to use, then you’re using too many variations of them. Use “said” for a statement, and “asked” for a question. Too many variations become clunky, and they draw attention to themselves. After a while, “said” and “asked” become invisible, and that’s what you want. In essence, only use them it its absolutely necessary for clarity.
CHUNKS OF INFORMATION
As I noted before, you want your reader to ride along for the discovery of your plot, and if you “tell” it instead of “show” it, you’ll have your reader bored by page two. This is absolutely essential: you need to grab your reader on the first page. Even better than that – in the first paragraph. The first line. You can’t expect your reader—or an editor or an agent—to wait until Chapter Six for your story to take off. Because what you’re asking is for them to have all this background information in their head that they need to remember BEFORE they could follow your plot. It’s like asking them to learn how to read all the manuals on how to fly a plane before they could ride in one. Divulge your information on a need-to-know basis. Reveal the information as the characters live it. Don’t rob your readers of the delight of discovering it for themselves.

Six of one and a half dozen of the other

Fabulous fiction writing (you know, like the kind I do), just doesn’t magically appear on the page. It’s built around a frame of six major elements, each one essential to the over all narrative. Want to know what they are? I thought you’s never ask!

The Six Major Elements of Fiction

  1. Character — A figure in a literary work (personality, gender, age, etc). E. M. Forester makes a distinction between flat and round characters. Flat characters are types or caricatures defined by a single idea of quality, whereas round characters have the three-dimensional complexity of real people..
  2. Plot – the major events that move the action in a narrative. It is the sequence of major events in a story, usually in a cause-effect relation.

Conflict –  Plot usually involves one or more conflicts, which are problems that need to be solved. The “movement” towards a solution is what drives the narrative forward, and is what occupies most of the protagonist’s time. The more rewarding plots are often built around mental, emotional and moral conflicts.  Plots involving physical conflict, war, exploration, escapes often contain the most excitement and suspense.  Here are the major types of conflict:

  1. Man’s struggle against nature
  2. Man against man
  3. Man against society
  4. Man against himself (i.e. a portrayal of an inner struggle)

The first three types are said to be external conflicts, while the last one is internal.

  1. Point of View — the vantage point from which a narrative is told. A narrative is typically told from a first-person or third-person point of view. In a narrative told from a first-person perspective, the author tells the story through a character who refers to himself or herself as “I.” Third –person narratives come in two types: omniscient and limited. An author taking an omniscient point of view assumes the vantage point of an all-knowing narrator able not only to recount the action thoroughly and reliably but also to enter the mind of any character in the work or any time in order to reveal his or her thoughts, feelings, and beliefs directly to the reader. An author using the limited point of view recounts the story through the eyes of a single character (or occasionally more than one, but not all or the narrator would be an omniscient narrator).
  2. Setting –- That combination of place, historical time, and social milieu that provides the general background for the characters and plot of a literary work. The general setting of a work may differ from the specific setting of an individual scene or event.
  3. Style — The author’s type of diction (choice of words), syntax (arrangement of words), and other linguistic features of a work.
  4. Theme(s) — The central and dominating idea (or ideas) in a literary work. The term also indicates a message or moral implicit in any work of art.

Got it? Now get writing!

Seriously Snark

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