Tag Archives: Writers

Summer Break

woman-reading-vintage-drawing-1564317818gY6

It’s been a long school year, and it’s still not over for me, as I went from Fall to Winter Interim to Spring, and now smack into the Summer semester. Those who work 9-5 jobs (or whatever that is these days) may not feel a scintilla of sympathy for me when I say this, but the myth of instructors being off in the summer never met an adjunct college professor. Summers without work are summers without money, so we keep working right through, in condensed semesters that during the regular school year would be 14 weeks, now cut down to five, with all the same material to cover, and the grading coming three times as fast. In between all of this, I’m working on an edit of a book while my agent shops my latest (bites nails, cross your fingers). In any event, I’m a bit fried, so I’m taking a few things off my plate while I wind down Summer I before heading into Summer II. As well as taking a couple of quick mental health weekends out of this office where I’ve spent too much time this pandemic year. (Really, really, REALLY sick of these four walls!)

Okay, enough the the bitch and moan. Enjoy the summer, and I’ll see you in August. Just don’t forget, writers write, so get cracking.

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 12

Looks like it’s the end of the semester, though I have just enough time to include one more tip from the MFA pit. I know I haven’t been very timely about passing them on earlier, then two weeks apart you get two, but it’s been a very busy semester, and all of a sudden you look up and BOOM – it’s almost summer. Well, not quite, but close enough in college time. Anyway, this week’s tip look at two topics, the question of character growth over the course of a narrative, and how much info to disclose along the way. Get my side of the argument, then you decide…

Most writing instructors will tell you that a protagonist – or an antagonist – need to show growth over the course of a book. You’ve discovered a read can still be enjoyable and engaging without it. But even if there is no growth, there should be change, in the sense that we get to know their motivation, or perhaps they do, over time. They may not change or alter their behavior, but perhaps they alter someone else’s. Hannibal Lecter certainly wasn’t going to change in The Silence of the Lambs, but he sure as hell changed Clarice. And there’s no doubt that a good villain is just as enjoyable – sometimes more – than a hero. I suppose more than anything, there has to be movement, in one way or another, not only with the story unfolding, but also in the way the story evolves. And in how much is disclosed to the reader.

I’m a firm believe in only disclosing information on a need-to-know basis. Let on what is essential in telling your story while still keeping the reader guessing. Unless we’re writing in omniscient narration, we’ll shouldn’t ever see “Little did Alex know, but he was about to…” This is not Stranger Than Fiction (one of my all-time favorite movies). Drop those breadcrumbs, let the reader feel like they’re part of the process. One of the best books I ever read that did this was Burden of Proof by Scott Turow. When the murderer was finally revealed I literally gasped. I was surprised, but all those breadcrumbs tumbled into place. Each step toward the eventual conclusion, or the solving of the crime, has to also fall in line with the logic of the person acting it out. No “deus ex machina” or Dickensian surprises. The actions taken by the protagonists and antagonists have to make sense both to the characters’ personalities as well as make sense to the story. It’s okay to surprise your readers, but make sure their gasp is one of delight, not disbelief.

Until next semester — happy writing!

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 11

Once again another edition of real-life writing in a real-life MFA program. As we’re approaching the end of the semester, I’m giving some advice to a mentee in genre writing, who’s address the topic of writing humor, among other things, like reentering the world after lockdown…

I think we’re all suffering from Spring Fever in all in variant forms. Down here in Jersey, every branch and stem burst out in buds this week, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching my husband drool and drip from every exposed orifice. Plus Monday, I had my first COVID-19 shot. I must admit, I was a little nervous (never enough not to get it), but I’ve had very little side effects beyond some arm soreness from the injection site, and feeling a bit draggy the next day. I go back in three weeks for my second and hopefully, will be equally lucky  that time. It’s going to be weird to not have to be on-guard constantly, and the world seems to be growing a bit wider every day. Makes one wonder how we’ll be reflecting on – as well as writing about –  this past year in the years to come.

Speaking of reporting, Carl Hiaasen recently retired from his long-time position as columnist and report at the Miami Herald. His final column bemoaned the sorry state of journalism, and as much as I love his writing, I couldn’t bring myself to read it, so depressed as I am at the decline of local news. My first two years as an undergrad were spent as a journalism major, and although I’ve always saw reporters as something mythic, I could force myself, at that tender age, to be pushy enough to actually become one (I don’t think I’d have a problem with it now). In any event, Carl Hiaasen is equally adept at writing pathos as he is comedy, but what I really admire about him is the wonderful way he writes dialogue. The man’s a master at it, and if you take away anything from his writing, it’s how he can push the plot along with it. And yes, he’s funny, laugh out loud sometimes, and as preposterous as his plots can be, he somehow makes them believable with the seamless way he weaves reality into it. Florida, it seems, is his first love, and he never strays far from it.

Funny you should mention funny! Humor is DEFINITELY harder to write than serious. We can always summon up feelings of sympathy or danger or even love, but making something laugh is probably the hardest thing out there. So take it as a great compliment if someone says you’re funny. If you weren’t, they most likely wouldn’t mention it at all. Actually making someone laugh is like inducing an involuntary reaction. It’s a talent and if you have it, by all means, indulge it!

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Who’s funny? Am I? Sometimes I am when I try to , and other times I am when I’m not. It’s all subjective, but one thing it can’t be is forced. If it is it just comes out pathetic, and there’s nothing funny about that!

yeah, it’s hemingway, but it’s also ken burns

I was always charmed by the legendary story Papa Hemingway created on a bet, the most succinct yet heartbreaking flash fiction of all time, told in just six simple words:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

What tragedy! What pathos! But then I found out it was complete bullshit, as the story behind the story couldn’t be substantiated. Still, it was a good tale on both sides, and a good choice of carefully chosen words, and if he didn’t create it then someone else surely did. Moreover, it’s an excellent example of Getting Right to the Point. In a literary sense, that was definitely something Ernest Hemingway was an ace at

There’s certain labels you hang on Hemingway when you think of the man or the myth: adventurer, serious drinker, womanizer, the ultimate in toxic masculinity. I’ve had a hard time thinking about the way he dealt with women, Martha Gelhorn, especially, and the way he portrayed some of his female characters. Still, I’ve always respected the parsimonious way he writes, no flowery Faulkner, he. Just straight-to-the-heart or jackhammer prose. I’ve tried to emulate it it though fail often. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

Or miss the new miniseries by Ken Burns on PBS starting next week: Hemingway: The Man. The Myth. The Writer Revealed. I‘m always interested in a writer’s process, as it helps me understand my own. Also because I can use all the help I can get.

Diagnosis: Writer – Five Sure-Shot Symptoms

vintagetypewriter_93579-758x485Okay, I’m being lazy. I’d rather repeat this old post than think of something original. But it’s a good post, and I’m right in the middle of revising something I wrote years ago, so this re-posting an old post fits perfectly into my writing life right now. Even so, it does offer some valuable advice, not only to you, but to those irritable people who keep interrupting you to say, “What is it you do in that room all day’?” Arrrgh! So this should help you answer them. Because the first step to a cure is to admit you’ve got an addiction. But in this case, a very good one. Read on…

No, you’re not crazy, even though your friends and family think you are. Even so, you have to admit that at time, you do seem a bit “off.” Still, how do you measure crazy against what accurately borders on obsession? I was thinking of this last weekend while lunching with some fellow writers, wondering whether they’re afflicted with similarly bizarre affectations, or if I was I suffering in silence. Odd or not, it’s made me realize that dammit, I must be a real writer, because although I’m not cutting off an ear or anything for my art, I sure am suffering some peculiarities. Such as:

1. Post-it Note Addiction – It’s true. I carry them everywhere. I have pads of them on my desk, in my purse, in the pocket of my course binder. I whip them out to jot down lines of dialogue, character descriptions, plot lines–even the premise for this post. They’re all over the place in my office, and when I’m on  the road and inspiration clocks me, I jot down my genius and stick them to the inside of my wallet so I don’t forget. By the way, they’re also good for shopping lists, as you can stick them right in front of you on the inside of the shopping cart.

2. Drinking Hot Liquids Cold – During the winter months I usually have a cuppa something at my elbow while I’m writing, but I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I actually sipped it while it was still hot. Usually the cream’s left a sheen on the coffee, or the tea’s soaked down the string to the tag, an “accident” puddling on my desk, whatever’s in the cup long, gone cold. The opposite effect is true in the summer, when I never seem to sip anything cold: the ice just a memory, the glass dripping condensation. I should probably just yank a bottle out of the cabinet and forget about it. Either way, it all ends up the same place: room temperature.

3. Vitamin D Deficiency – My last routine blood screen had everything come back normal except my Vitamin D level. Apparently deficiencies of this vitamin, which is created by sunshine, can cause depression, chronic fatigue, weight loss (I wish), diabetes, heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis. In addition to a disease I thought went out with the nineteenth century–rickets! “It’s not unusual to see decreased Vitamin D levels in the winter,” my doctor had said. “But yours? Don’t you even step out on the porch?” All right, I guessing the LED glow from my laptop isn’t enough, so I suppose it’s supplements until the snow melts and I’m hitting the sidewalk again.

4. Plot-related Memory Loss – Has this happened to you? You’re driving along, trying to work out what exactly Protagonist A is going to leave on Protagonist B’s doorstep, and the next thing you know you’re sitting in the parking lot at work, with no idea how you got there. Or you’re in the shower and you’ve just thought of the perfect setting for your heroine’s vacation. But there’s this bottle of conditioner in your hand, and you can’t remember if you washed your hair first. Whether you’re staring at blank walls or losing threads of conversations, it’s not early dementia–it’s Plot On the Brain. And trying not to think about it only makes it worse. Better to lock yourself in the closet and get it down and over with.

5. You Do It Anyway – This I have found the most telling. You’ve written a bunch of novels, a dozen short stories, more than a few essays, innumerable blog posts, even kept a journal for more years than you’d care to own up to. And although you’ve had some limited success, though nowhere near where you’d like to see yourself, you keep doing it. You finish one piece then start another, because you know if you don’t your axis will tilt and forget the Vitamin D–you’ll feel a deficiency worse than if all the chocolate in the world suddenly disappeared. You can’t help yourself, even on the days when that rejection shows up in your inbox, you still want to do it. You’ll cry and curse and hate the world for stopping you from doing what you can’t seem to give up. But then all of a sudden that perfect line plants itself in your head, and you’re back to doing it anyway. You’re so pathetic. Maybe. Maybe not. But oh man, sometimes it’s such a bitch being us.

Okay, enough whining. Back to work.

 

Writing in the time of pandemic

I haven’t said much about the virus in the months that we’ve been locked down and out of our normal lives. Mostly because I’m not one to give oxygen to something so disruptive, as maybe it’s best to ignore the worst and carry on. But it has been disruptive and it has been the worst. I haven’t been on campus since Spring Break, and teaching college remotely is a bullshit substitute, long lost of it’s novelty of biz-cahz uptown and yoga pants downtown. I miss the the color and variety of campus life, I miss the one-on-one interactions with my students, I miss my zany colleagues, and let me tell you, I even long for those interminable committee meetings. (Even shrinking my Zoom screen to play “Spelling Bee” or Free Cell is dull next to inter-departmental drama.) As bad as my campus being compressed to the confines of my 10 X 12 home office, that’s not the worst. Not by a major long shot. It’s the loss of my writing mojo.

One would think with the shrinking of my social life, I’d revel in the time left over to create. That all those evenings and afternoons I spent in exterior pursuits could now be devoted to the interior ramblings of my imagination. If it only were that easy. After spending the greater part of the spring and summer polishing off and perfecting my latest novel to send it out on the market, I’ve been made painfully aware of the dismal prospects of getting it sold. One would think that editors, locked out of the offices, the cocktail parties, the author events, etc., have nothing better to do than read and revel over each and every one of our magnum opi. But let me tell you, that is an assumption I was a fool to make.  This business is tighter than ever, and with so many people self-publishing, mid-list books are no longer much of a priority. Not that I think selling isn’t still a possibility–oh don’t get me wrong. Persistence always pays out in the end. I’ve sold before, and I will sell again. But the unoccupied mind is a fertile playground for despair, and one imagines all kind of scenarios, and most of them hardly uplifting. And that wreaks havoc on creativity, especially when you’re trying to work on The Next Greatest Thing. You’d be surprised what a frenemy the Pandemic becomes, as a wholesale excuse to flee the dreaded Empty Page for Netflix. (Watched “Queen’s Gambit” in just two sittings last week!) So what does one do when the writer no longer feels like one?

You want answers? Comfort? Companionship? You’ll get none of it out of me. Well, maybe that’s not true–companionship maybe, as I have a feeling I’m not in this alone. Although most fiction writers pride themselves on the ability to build vibrant worlds out of nothing, they still need reality as an engine for creativity. And because of that, we’ve also been known to live too vividly inside our heads conjuring up all kinds of horribleness. I’ll never finish this book. Who am I to think I’m a writer? No one will ever buy this crap. If I send this out it’ll only get rejected. I have writer’s block. I’ve lost my imagination. I can’t write. I never could. I suck.

Yeah, that’s me, and I suppose that’s been you at one point or another, and never more than now. But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves.  These are extraordinary times. I’ve even heard them compared to World War II in the sacrifices we’ve had to make, the pain we’ve had to endure, the doctors and nurses and essential workers our fighting men and women at the front. It’s hard to concentrate on fantasy when a trip to the grocery store has all the potential of making our worst nightmares come true. Maybe we need to give ourselves a break, redirect all that bad energy into good. Give grandma a phone call. Send a tray of cookies to the local ER. Drop a box of groceries at a food bank. Donate to your favorite charity.  Your writing life will come back to you. There are others whose loss is much more concrete.  In the meantime, between now and the vaccine, there’s still room enough in our heads for hope–and even perhaps a dream or two.

HUMOR FOR COPY EDITORS (AND PROOFREADERS, ENGLISH TEACHERS, ETC.)

• An Oxford comma walks into a bar where it spends the evening watching the television, getting drunk, and smoking cigars.

• A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.
• A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
• An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
• Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”
• A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
• Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.
• A question mark walks into a bar?
• A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.
• Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Get out — we don’t serve your type.”
• A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.
• A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
• Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.
• A synonym strolls into a tavern.
• At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar — fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.
• A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.
• Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapses to the bar floor.
• A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.
• An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.
• The subjunctive would have walked into a bar, had it only known.
• A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned a man with a glass eye named Ralph.
• The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.
• A dyslexic walks into a bra.
• A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.
• A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.
• A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
• A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony.

DUH! it’s nanowrimo!

I CANNOT believe it’s 18 November, and I forgot to give my annual plug for National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo! Maybe because I’m so swamped with grading and thesis reviewing I don’t have time to write myself. Fine writer I am! I still should find the time to jot down something (well, maybe that’s what THIS is. But still. NaNoWriMo is still the greatest thing ever, because even if you’re not planning on starting a new novel, you can still use it to continue on with your current work-in-progress, spiff up an old one, or give yourself a virtual kick in the pants. Or as they put it…

Every story matters.
Let’s start writing yours.

Writing a novel alone can be difficult, even for seasoned writers. NaNoWriMo helps you track your progress, set milestones, connect with other writers in a vast community, and participate in events that are designed to make sure you finish your novel. Oh, and best of all, it’s free!

Yes, free is always a good thing. And so is the sense of community you get . There are local chapters as well, so you can keep that community spirit all year long, with the great events they sponsor. There’s even Camp NaNoWriMo for the youngsters. In any event, it’s never too late to get started.

Now–get that butt in the chair and start creating some genius!

Word counts that make you feel inadequate

I found this online and it made me feel so inadequate (temporarily) that I just HAD to share it with you. I hope it either spurs you into action, or you’re already so infinitely superior you scoff at such meager amounts. Either way, get to your keyboard, you’re wasting time with me.

writing outside your brain

I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you. You have this fantabulously good scene inside your head, practically playing like a movie, so you run to your keyboard and write it down, the words shooting to the screen like rivets, convinced you’ve just birthed genius. Exhausted by the effort, you save and exit, pondering the multitude of ways you’ll expand on it next time. But when you go back to it, whether the next hour or day or week, it reads like something out of a kindergarten class. The transitions make no sense, the characters are running into each other, the continuity seems out of a time warp. What happened to your genius?

The inability to write outside your head is one of the most common causes of angst I see with my young writing students. Oh–no angst for them–for me is what I mean. They don’t see anything wrong because until I point it out, that scene is playing in their head just as fresh as if the action were taking place right in front of them. But what they don’t realize is that there’s blanks they have to fill in, like facial expressions, reactions, settings, time of day, transitioning from one place to another, who this person is they’re suddenly talking to and how they relate to the scene. Then there’s technical things that may relate to a character’s profession or action they’re currently in. Like what is that tripod or data set or NMR tube is for. Sometimes what a writer doesn’t realize is your reader may not understand what comes so clearly to you. I say to my students that sometimes you have to explain things like your are writing to kindergarteners. With the average news site at a sixth grade level, sometimes you just have to dip a bit lower.

This doesn’t mean you have to dumb down your writing. That’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m saying is that sometimes your writing needs you to step back and let it simmer for a little while, so when you go back to it you can look at it with a fresh eye. Sometimes you need to forget it just a bit, to see where you need to fill in the crack. Like mortar, it’ll only make it stronger.