Tag Archives: Writing

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!

Throw away your thesaurus and use these words instead

Yes, Biden won. He did. That’s reality. (YIPPEE!! btw). But at least for the present, I’m tired of being a pundit. I’d rather be a writer instead. But I’m too exhausted by the last few weeks to rub two coherent thoughts together (See? Even splitting infinitives). Then I saw this on a social media site, and it’s exactly what I need today. See how many of these words you’ve actually used in your writing. I for one have used several, but my absolute favorite of the list has to be cattywumpus. I have no idea what it means, maybe something akin to kerfluffle, but I’m definitely going to have to find an occasion to use it.

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.

Tips from the MFA Pit – Part 9

Hello class! It’s a new school year, and with it comes a new edition of Tips from the MFA Pit, actual advice to actual MFA students. This edition is on Deep POV versus Internal Dialogue, and all advice is from my brain alone, and NOT the official voice of anything outside my head. So please feel free to add a large grain of salt!

Let’s look at Deep POV before we get to Internal Dialogue. Both are intensely personal. You’re literally putting yourself into the character’s shoes. When you write within a character’s POV, you can only see what they see, and all the other character’s actions are just what that character can hear or observe. Deep POV goes beyond that. It’s what they feel, how they react, their gut feelings of pain, pleasure, anger, calm. It’s also how they react cognitively, psychologically and physically to another person, a situation, what’s said, observed, etc. For example:

Lauren opened the front door, the hills rolling out before her. Her fingers tightened around the knob and her pulse raced, tears flooding her eyes as Tom’s car rounded the last curve. Her heart burst with joy. He’s here.

If you’ll notice, no one outside Lauren herself could feel her pulse racing or burst with joy. They could observe her fingers tightening or tears flooding her eyes, but what she feels internally – or the reasons for it – is hers alone. Then we come to the last sentence – He’s here. That’s Internal Dialogue. It’s things that could be said orally, but are kept inside the character’s head.  It’s the difference between feelingJoey knew there was no way he could talk his way out of this – and saying to yourself – I’m sunk.

A best practice, at least the way I see it and no way is this a rule, is to use Deep POV more and keep Internal Dialogue to a minimum. Using Internal Dialogue too much is like “telling” not “showing.” When you’re in a character’s POV, you want to know how they are feeling inside, or what would be the point of being in their head? Usually it’s best to keep the internal dialogue short so it has more of an impact, and most publishers place it in italics to separate it from the Deep POV. It is ALWAYS limited to the character whose POV you’re in, and it is always in first person.

Words of wisdom indeed! Till next time — keep writing because ===> WRITERS WRITE!

De-inspiration

I’m back again after a long non-vacation, as what constitutes a break these days? When we get one, we’re largely in the same place, revolving in the same space we’ve been taking up for close to six months now. The college I teach at has gone remote, except for the fewest of disciplines that must meet in on campus, abet physically-distanced, masked, temperature-checked and documented for contact tracing. I get to work behind the desk that’s long spawned my source of income–and served as a jumping off point for my attempts at writing beyond my pay grade. (Hey editors — if you’re out there listening, I’m still at it.) After awhile you get to wonder whether it’s all worth it, writing in this environment. You wonder when it will all lift, and with it your mood and your inspiration.

Funny, that months ago I found myself falling into a rut. I’d get up, go to work, come home, grade grade grade (the real work of a writing teacher), attend to household things, write. In between I’d sprinkle in going out to dinner, meeting up with friends and family, shopping, movies, and occasionally, there were conferences, lectures, and club meetings, and a sprinkling of short vacations. Most were repeat events, things I’ve done in the past, but however enjoyable, there was little variation. Oh! for something exciting to happen! I’d lament, as anything out of the ordinary would be welcome to shake me out of the slog my life had become. Then–and I remember the exact day, March 13, the last day before Spring Break was to begin–I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I ought to stay home. That day was a Friday, and the day itself couldn’t be more portentous. It was more or less the day New Jersey drew into itself and suddenly the world, my world at least, shut down.

For six weeks I didn’t leave my neighborhood, the first week not going further than the end of my block. After two weeks in, my husband an I took a ride to a dairy farm a mile or two away. The early spring dampness hung chilly and dank over the fields, doing nothing for my mood, but it got me out of the house, so even the manure smelled sweet in its rankness, but at least it was outside and not in my backyard. Without anywhere to go, I read and read, binged Mad Men, Schitt’s Creek, and Outlander, kept to a rigid exercise schedule.

I never cooked so much in my life, big complicated meals full of sauces and cheeses and all kinds of veggies, via Shop Rite at Home. We got so many deliveries from Target the back of my husband’s van became filled with cardboard boxes that never did make it to the packing shop who always had taken our used boxes before (back before they believed they carried the virus). My kitchen and closed in porch filled with fresh fruits and vegetable from another local farm where you texted in your order for curbside pick-up, and because of shortages all around, our meals consisted of what we could glean. When the glean was fat I’d make cookies out of whole-wheat flour, filled with dried fruits, coconut and dark chocolate, energy food I’d tell myself. I made heavy pound cakes I’d toast and slather with butter, homemade ice cream, and soups so thick a spoon would stand up. I’d scour The New York Times cooking section for new and ever-complicated recipes, which I’d start preparing not too long after lunch. I’d make banana cake, rice pudding, home made apple and cranberry sauces. At one point I realized I’d made every bit of food we put in our mouth for two months straight, and the idea so horrified me, we planned on taking the enormous step to get take out for my birthday in May. Takeout Chicken Francese had never been so good.

Then as the weeks wore on, somehow the pressure got a bit lighter. I ventured out to the supermarket for the first time, left the state to visit my sister, took a day trip to the shore,  finally got my hair cut. While the virus picked up in other parts of the country, it calmed down here in New Jersey, and life returned to a kind of new normal. We wore our masks, kept our distance, Zoomed, and washed our hands, and spent a lot of time outside. Before long I submitted one book to my agent, then made the decision to start another next. Which leaves me where I am today, thinking: How does one write in a pandemic?

I’ve discovered something odd: that as much luster as my day-to-day has lost, that no matter how many times I’ve been depressed and lonely, wondering when the perennial touchstones of my life will return, I know that retreating into a world I create will never fail to bring me joy. That losing myself in that world brings me purpose, knowing it is possible to venture into faraway places by never leaving your desk. I’ve learned that after all these years of varying success, writing is something I’d still do even if I never have any success at all. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but maybe it really is more about the journey. That’s not to say I wouldn’t argue with an eventual destination or two. Even amidst this pandemic, with all its restrictions, there are still places I’d like to go.

The Write Path

Little nippers driving you crazy? Not with their presence–we’re all addicted to their charms by now, aren’t we? (Huh? Huh?) What I mean is with their constantly upstaging you with their creativity. All those poems and essays and cute little short stories they dash off like skipping stones in that lake too crowded to safely socially distance in. So you sit there, seething, stuck in that same para while they toss off so much casual genius, you’re more than ready take a hammer to your laptop and concede the Pulitzer to the young’un.

Okay, take a deep breath. Sooner or later the pandemic will be placated and yes–you’ll get you muse back, so stop being jealous of the kid. They inherited their genius from you after all (you have my permission to keep telling yourself that). So why not develop it so they can make the big literary bucks, and take care of you in style in your old age? Isn’t any better place to do that than the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program!

The Young Writers Program offers tools, resources, and community access to help young writers and educators set ambitious creative goals and tackle projects year-round! Each year, over 100,000 young writers under 18 enjoy our youth-friendly writing space, progress tracking tools, and Young Novelist Workbooks. Educators can support student skill development with our free Common Core–aligned curricula, online classroom management tools, and motivational classroom materials.

So get motivated! Your kid already is! Check out the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, and who know? Maybe they’ll be able to show you a thing or two about showing that muse who’s boss!

Chameleon Submissions REVISITED

Another in our continuing series of “if it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying again.” Okay, so you’ve proofread that manuscript and spiffed it up. Now it’s time to finally pitch it. But to who? And AS what? Sometimes a submission can fit into multiple genres. Sometimes it shouldn’t. Especially if you’re not sure just what it is, because you’re not writing the best book you can–you’re writing to market. And that’s something you shouldn’t EVER do…

The number one thing an emerging writer needs to do is finish the book before they could even think about putting it out for sale. And when I mean finish, I mean the book needs to be the best it can be. Definitely NOT first draft, but all the plot holes worked out, characters real, breathing and transformed at the end, conflict apparent and resolved, and a satisfying conclusion. After that, the book needs to be edited and proofread (edited means all those items I just mentioned worked out, whereas proofread means no grammatical, spelling, or formatting errors). Then and only than can you think about submitting it to an agent or an editor for publication. Sounds logical, right? But there are some authors out there that take that concept and think in the inverse. And that, my dears, is never going to get you what you want.

There are some new writers that troll such sites as Manuscript Wish List or MSWL to see what agents or editors are looking for. Or toss an idea out there to Twitter pitch parties like #PitMad without even having started the manuscript. Often when writers do this they’re testing the waters, looking to see what agents and/or editors are looking for, then writing a book to those specifications. Bad idea! Because then you’re not writing in a genre or sub-genre you’re adept at and interested in –you’re writing to the market. And when you’re good at writing gritty adult detective fiction and write  dystopian middle-grade instead well…you just may come out with the literary equivalent of finger painting–a hopelessly amateur attempt.

Now, I’m not saying a writer can’t change genres. Some authors write in several. But writing a different genre to branch out and expand your skills and scope is quite different than simply writing to what you hope will sell.  You’re not looking at writing as a craft to be honed and polished. You’re looking at the book you produce as product.  Reminds me of an author talk I was at once where they referred to their novels as units. Writing like that is only going to make you one thing — mediocre.

Look, we all want to sell, be a New York Times bestseller reaping accolades and royalties we need a Brinks truck to drive home from the bank. But writing to market is not the way to do it. You do it by writing the best book you can. If you do, the accolades–and the royalty checks–will have to run to catch up with you.