Writing with Feeling

I read a submission guideline the other day that sliced novelists into ‘beginner’ and ‘experienced’ using the following cleaver:  “you may consider your work for the experienced category if it has been critiqued by people other than friends and family.”

I get it.  Your wife’s going to tell you it’s great.  Family harmony vs. weak characterization … harmony wins, right?

Well, that’s all well and good as a general case.  However, my wife Beverly is not a general case.  She is an educator of many facets … kids, science outreach, young (we’re talking preschool through elementary), old (adult to ancient).  And, in all those facets, writing has been her central organizing idea. Here’s a reminder from her current writing course that rang a bell with me (hehehe):

Wearing a Suit and The Oxford Comma

I went to a shiva yesterday for a friend’s mother.  It was in the evening.  A bit uncertain about dress, I wore a conservative suit and a tie.  When I arrived, I realized most of the people were more casually dressed.  A bit embarrassed, I mentioned to a friend that I felt overdressed.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  You’re never overdressed in a suit.”

And yes, this does relate to writing.  Modern punctuation trends seem to be minimalist to the point that one is occasionally confused (as in “Let’s eat Grandma.”).  My tepid response to this trend has been to drop the series comma before ‘and.’  The editor says No … stick with the Oxford comma (red, white, and blue).  The publisher can always take it out.  But one is never overdressed in the Oxford comma.



Plot Complexity and the Value of Regularity

A fine Minnesota writer, William Kent Krueger, plans his mystery novels out in detail, I’m told.  He is well known for going to a diner each morning and writing.  His stories are detailed and coherent, and his prose is clear and finely balanced.  His Ordinary Grace won the 2014 Edgar for best novel.  Clearly, he knows what he’s doing.

Kent Krueger was one of the founders of one of my Minneapolis critique groups, Crème de la Crime, although he has left the group under the pressure of success.

One of my several conceits when I began writing seriously several years ago was that writing is an organic process.  We plant the seed of a character, and the character grows through the story.  The story must have an arc, and main characters must grow through the arc. Ahem. Like many of the other conceits, that one is true but not sufficient to justify waiting for inspiration to carry me away on its gassy clouds.

I’m not a person who thrives on having a regular schedule.  I feel guilty about that in a number of areas of my life, but I always have excuses: those immediate quotidian issues and tasks … groceries, dentist, car service, getting the books back to the library … seem to jump in front of writing.

I mention all of this because I am realizing how important regular writing is.  The more complicated the story, the more important regularity becomes.  In my third novel, of which I’ve drafted perhaps a third, the plot has, as they say in the bi’ness world, a lot of moving parts. If I were clever like Krueger, I’d be writing every day, which would keep the plot details in my head at all times and prevent the egregious plot mistakes I’m trying to backflush.

Too late for a true New Year’s resolution, but I hereby resolve to write on a more regular schedule.

John Grisham and Beethoven’s Ninth

John Grisham, thanks for setting me free.

I’m in three writing critique groups.  Twenty or so regulars beethovenand some great writers.  We focus down on plot, character voice, technique.  I occasionally worry about over-analyzing everything I read.  Like in college when I had that course in music that took Beethoven’s Ninth apart note by note.  I still don’t like to listen to it.

So, here I am, worrying about whether it’s okay to name a character who turns out to be minor, whose point of view (pardon me, perspective) I should be in, when I pick up Grisham’s latest, The Whistler.

Damn.  He starts the story pretty much the way my own most recent novel starts, which is boooooring, according to a substantial minority of my readers.  Chapter 10 has a short paragraph in which we see the world through the eyes of three different characters.  A stone no-no.

And, guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  The story moves nicely.  The characters are interesting.  The plot is straightforward, but it has me in the palm of its hand.  I kept turning the page.  Finished at 1:30.  In the a.m.

In the hand of a skilled writer, the rules become plastic.

I know I have to cleave closer to the rules than Grisham, but I’m glad to see that writing rules are guidelines, neither prescriptions nor proscriptions.  Maybe some day, I’ll get out of the straitjacket.

But I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Art, Wisdom, and the Comics

Sally ForthI must admit that I glance at the front page of the paper, scan the news of the day and go to the comics page for wisdom.

So, here you have it.  We writers often miss this truth, vainly trying to lock the reader into our own special vision.

(from www.sallyforth.com)

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!



Writing and sculpture

Wood sculptor

Roughing out

My father was a sculptor in wood.  I remember him saying, “The wood has a story.  It’s my job to let it out.”  I was six or seven, but those words have stuck with me.

I have been working with a fine editor (see Kopp Editing Services) on the first part of my second novel.  As I was hacking away at the prose, chopping a sentence here, a participle there, I saw my father working.  His chisel was at first roughing out the block, revealing the grain and density, finding the story.  Maybe because all writers are suckers for metaphor, I realized as I read through the margin notes and suggestions, the first draft is that roughing out.  Rewrite teases out the shape, and editing provides the fine adjustments my father made to his sculpture with the gouges, skews and v-groove chisels that gave the the piece character.

There is something to be said for that metaphor.  When I began my first novel, I thought I would write a draft, then line edit.  (After all, I’m a good writer, I thought.  Got B’s in college from the writing teacher who was reputed to believe, “A is for God, B is for me, and C+ is for the best of the rest of you.”)

Pelican Sculpture

My father saw a pelican in this piece of wood

That first time, I got the same result a woodworker would have gotten by jumping to fine detail before the roughing out was finished.  Now, on the second novel, after more experience and the help of three critique groups, I believe it’s time to take out the gouges and skews.  So I sent the third pass off to my editor.

Writing Dialect, Writing Sex

As an ardent student of the craft of writing, I keep getting these blasts of insight from what other people do. Which brings me to a taxi ride to the airport in New York years ago.

There I was, on the way to LaGuardia. Back then, driving cab was often the province of all sorts of artists. My driver, an articulate middle-aged black man, began to talk about the more salacious aspects of life as a cabbie. It turned out that the monolog was an extended sales pitch for his self-published book. He had a stack of copies on the front seat. Fascinated by a gifted storyteller, I bought a copy.

At home, I read it … most of it. The sex scenes were graphic (the lady who asked him into her apartment while she searched for money, then gave him a particularly enjoyable tip … and the contortionist in the front seat). But the book was, well, boring. The stories themselves did not quite justify the difficulty of reading them. On reflection, the writer confronted two difficult challenges at the same time: Writing dialect and writing about sex.

The great majority of the copy was written in New York Harlem dialect. The old adage, “We all sound stupid when we’re talking” is true and demands careful balancing of authenticity without the pauses, repetitions, y’knows we all are prone to. That’s doubly true when one is writing dialect. Faulkner is a great writer few people read because his prose is so buried in dialect. Flannery O’Conner does better. My taxi driver, no doubt striving for authenticity, flopped.

Then there’s sex. With apologies to the heaving bosoms and rippling muscles that are Romance Novelmandatory in certain sub-genres of Romance, sex is hard to write. My taxi driver went for authenticity and detail, reminding his readers that describing the purely physical aspects of sex is like trying to explain how a Rube Goldberg machine works (with lubricity). A member of one of my writing groups did a much better job with a very few words of free verse, reminding us that the suggestion of ecstasy paints a picture in the reader’s mind that’s much better than a step-by-step, groan-by-turgid-groan recitation.

I never did finish that cab driver’s book, but now, all these years later, it taught me a great lesson.

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me.  The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.

The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).

Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.