Monday, June 20, 2011

Writing Without Writing

Roman Wall, London
This week has been what I thought was an off-week.  I've not spent any time in the library, have done no research and hardly any writing, apart from my regular journal entries.  I have spent almost the entire week in some park in Bloomsbury: Russell Square, Gordon Square, Tavistock Square, St. George's Gardens.  I've been reading novels and listening to experimental music.  I've been musing, fretting, crying, and feeling the cool rain on my face.  I've walked through Kensington drenched in the rain, in fact, from head to toe.  I've walked through the City, leading a group of bored twenty-somethings along the ancient Roman London Wall.   I've spent hours sharing thoughts and ideas with my best friends, 4500 miles away. 

But I have accomplished nothing.

And right there, that's the lie, do you see it?

The truth is that I have accomplished a great deal this week.  I have seen and felt and thought. 

It's true I have a project due in a week and I haven't written a word, until today that is.  Today I've already typed 1000 words, and I'm still on a roll.  I was frustrated with myself all week long because I had nothing to show, no time researching, no time writing, and so no words.  I forgot that I had in fact been writing all week long. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Critique Partners: Gift from Heaven or Necessary Evil?

Writing can be a lonely process but it doesn't have to be a solitary one. Every writer is a member of a larger community whether he or she wants to participate in said community. I haven't always been particularly gung-ho about jumping into the community of fellow authors because I'm a loner by nature--and most writers are. Writers also tend to be very, very controlling. When most of them learn about my partnership and collaboration with Vivien Dean, reactions tend to be a combination of shock and intrigue. Collaborating? On a book? How is that even possible?!

"I'd never be able to do that," they tell me. "I'd be too afraid of what they'd do." Or something along those lines. The subtext of fear at relinquishing control to somebody else is always present. I think that fear is also present when the subject of beta readers and critique partners comes up. I've noticed there's a strange dynamic at work, both sides wary of offending the other, the author trying not to take the feedback personally, the beta reader doing her best to phrase everything in a delicate, but positive manner.

Monday, June 13, 2011

5 Questions to Ask Before You Submit to an Agent

You've finished your novel, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to face agents. Not quite anyway. Here are five important factors to consider before you start submitting your manuscript to an agent.

1. Do I have a hook?

Also known as the elevator pitch. Can you summarize your story into one sentence? Is it an interesting sentence? Is it so interesting that it would stand out among a pile of thousands of other queries? Your hook needs to clearly state the conflict and the stakes. A man is about to commit suicide when an angel shows him what his town would be like if he had never lived. What's the conflict? A man is so tortured (doesn't matter by what) that he wants to end his life. What are the stakes? A man's life and apparently the future of an entire town. Who are the characters? The man, the angel, and on the periphery, the entire town (they'd have to be otherwise who would care about what happened to them, right?).

2. Do I have a platform?  

It used to be that you would have to publish some short stories in respectable magazines or journals before you had a real shot at an agent. Nobody offers that advice anymore--because most of those magazines and journals are now defunct and even if they weren't, the book buying public sure doesn't read them. These days you need to have an online presence, you need to be able to reach thousands of people, and you need to prove that you're not going to fade into the night. Taking the time to keep up a blog and a decent webpage is a wise investment.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lindy Takes Some Photos

Our youngest sister, Lindy, just graduated from the University of Utah with a BA in Gender Studies.  We think she's brilliant, but we might just be biased.  We asked her to write a post this week on some of her creative endeavors in the last year and she decided to showcase some of her photos from her Digital Photography class.  Enjoy! 

I took an Intro to Digital Photography course last semester because a friend of mine was teaching it and I thought it would just be a fun last course to take before I graduated. Well, I discovered that I actually enjoy taking photos! I was nervous about my skill level at first because a lot of people around me had professional SLR cameras that take beautiful pictures, and I just had a little Nikon. But, as the course continued my instructor told me that I was doing well and she was so happy that I was actually trying to compose photographs, and not just take snapshots like some students in the class. I realized that my anxiety over these photos was unwarranted. I knew the fundamentals of how to take a good picture and I did not need an expensive SLR camera to do it. I just had to jump in and take pictures and keep taking pictures until something works, so that’s what I did for each assignment, and it worked out pretty well.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wanna Be a Writer? 5 Things Every Writer Must Do to Succeed

Today my sister asked me an interesting question and I was at a loss to answer. How does one start writing fiction? I wrote my first story when I was four. It's one of my earliest memories, so I don't really remember starting. I knew the alphabet, I knew I wanted to tell a story, so I wrote a story. After that, I literally never stopped. So, how does one start writing fiction if one hasn't ever tried before? Clearly it's possible. Many, many successful and brilliant authors came to writing late in life. Probably they were successful and brilliant because they waited until they had something to say.

If you're feeling a little nervous or unsure about your future as a fiction author, below is a list of five things I've learned from a lifetime of writing that I feel are essential for success. Feel free to add to the list in the comments!

1. Read. A lot. Read some more. Read, read, read.

But don't read for pleasure and don't read like a lit student (and let's face it, you probably are a student of the humanities). Read like a writer. How does the author handle dialogue and action tags? Is it realistic? How does the author balance narrative style and characterization? How does the author handle pacing? Did the book begin in the right place? What's the rhythm of the language? Is the descriptive passages florid or tight? Where are the exposition dumps? When do the major plot points and plot twists happen? What works for this book? What passages do you wish were yours? Then read some more. Read across your genre, read across subgenres. Always read. Read, read, read.

2. Watch Movies.

Good movies or shitty movies, they're all helpful. Movies are essentially pure plot. They're all approximately the same length (90-120 minutes) and we all recognize the beats and rhythm of a narrative told in this way. Watch terrible movies with long unedited scenes, ridiculous dialogue, exposition dumps, plot holes, and offensive assumptions about people in general and the viewer in particular. Watch popular movies that everybody loves but aren't high art (the summer blockbusters, Lucas and Spielberg, etc). Watch foreign films, art films, independent films. Think about how they use plot and dialogue to move the story forward and keep you engaged.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Right Beginning: Grab the Reader by the Throat, the Heart, or the Balls.

Avoid 5 Plotting Mistakes By Using Scenes is a brilliant post that you should go read right now. I'll wait, it won't take you long, and I'm declaring it required reading if you're a writer.

There. Read it? Good. It's great, right? It's simultaneously obvious (of course you don't want to be predictable!) but extremely informative and helpful. Do You Start One Story But Finish Another is my favorite section. It cuts through all the crap and gets to the heart of today's topic--beginning in the right place. Sometimes it's difficult to find the start of your story. Most likely, you're starting too soon (and if you're tacking on a prologue you're probably starting years and years too soon). It's critical to begin the story in the proper place for two reasons.  First, pacing. Somewhere in your mind, whether you're a pantser or a plotter, you have to be aware of the pacing of the story. Starting in the wrong place can throw off your pacing and ruin the rhythm of the entire story. The second reason is audience. You need to grab the reader by the throat, the heart, or the balls, and never let go. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

PEP Rally: Ideas for When You're Stuck


The productivity activity this week might seem pretty rudimentary, but trust me, it’s not as easy as you might think. A few weeks ago, in my first PEP post, I talked about keeping a time diary to see where you are wasting time doing other things that could be spend writing. I suggest you take a day or several days to try that out first, but you don’t really have to if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands. Once you see where you are free, take a sharpie and block out an hour or two, more if you’re lucky, where you pledge to do nothing but focus on your work. Create a fake contract with your old Crayolas, sign it, and tack it up on the wall for you to see every time you think about opening just one more game of solitaire.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: In Leah's Wake

Life got in the way and I almost didn't have the opportunity to read this book, much less finish it and write a review. But I set aside two days to focus on it, and I'm glad I did. It was worth those two days. It was worth much more than that. In Leah's Wake is beautifully written, haunting, fascinating, and a book that has a lot to say, a lot to teach you, without getting preachy. Since we're all about editing around here, I wanted to talk about a few things that really stood out for me.

Terry Guilano Long did two things exceptionally well with this novel. First, deep POV. Sometimes deep POV is a hard concept to keep in mind when writing, but she pulled it off perfectly. She switched between several POVs within the family, and even one cop who is in the position to view the family. Whenever she switches, it's with purpose. The reader learns something new about the characters, or the world. We may learn new information about a past event or understand how one event greatly impacted the lives of the family in startlingly different ways, for example. We learn there is a thread of memories, of intimacy and love, good times and bad, binding this family together, and sometimes the greatest tragedy is that they don't see that. But we can.

Writing With Purpose: Why Do You Write?

If somebody asks you why you write, you’re supposed to say “why do you think I have a choice?” or something equally witty that conveys everything it means to be a writer while actually not saying anything at all. As I’ve mentioned before, you have a choice. You always have a choice, even if it feels like you wouldn’t be able to function if you didn’t get to write regularly. So take the time to ask yourself that question and leave off the automatic responses that removes your agency and autonomy.

Why do you write?

What’s your purpose?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Happy Birthday Lindy!

Once upon a time there were two adorable little girls named Haley and Jasie.  They were sweet, playful, funny, and never got into trouble of any kind.  They frolicked in the fields with puppies, read books, told stories and were very happy. 

Then, one fateful May morning Lindy was born. 

And life was never the same.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Golden Age for Women Writers?

"So, if we may prophesy, women in time to come will write fewer novels, but better novels; and not novels only, but poetry and criticism and history.  But in this, to be sure, one is looking ahead to that golden, that perhaps fabulous, age when women will have what has so long been denied them--leisure, and money, and a room to themselves" Virginia Woolf, "Women and Literature," 1929.

I am currently sitting in my own room (in Bloomsbury, I'd like to add), with the entire day ahead of me and devoted solely to writing.  It's true I borrowed money to be here, but it's all in my own name and it's government subsidized, and when I go back to the US in a couple of months I'll have a fellowship waiting for me.  No amount or degree of education has been out of my reach.  I am currently working on a project that unites literary criticism and history, and all of the major scholars in my field are women.  I just spent an afternoon with a  woman who is so dedicated and intelligent, and who has leisure time, her own space and her own money, that she will quickly rise to the top her field.  My sister and countless other women I know write for a living.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

This is About Your WIP (you know the one I mean)

There’s a file on my hard drive called fivemurder. It was created in 2006. Three apartments ago and at least four computers. But this file hangs on, showing up in later permutations as Gone and GoneDraft2. Both of those were last modified about 15 months ago. Unlike other WIPS on my computer, I haven’t forgotten a single detail of this story. I still remember exactly where I was when the story first occurred to me, I still remember why I named the characters what I did, and how excited I was to write it, and even what I planned to write. Right now, it’s about 33,000 words. It’s been about 33,000 words since early 2007.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing With Fear

I think you have to be a little bit crazy to be a writer. Jasie, Lindy, and my husband Jaime have all told me at various times that they’d love to write something, but they’re afraid for some reason. Maybe they fear whatever they write will suck. Maybe they fear that they’ll only waste everybody’s time with the attempt. Maybe they fear whoever reads it will mock them. Maybe they don’t want to put too much of themselves on paper for anybody to read--and worse, anybody to understand. Maybe they don’t know how to begin, don’t know where it should start, don’t even know what their ultimate purpose is. They think I don’t understand their fears because I write all of the time. Every day. And when I’m done writing, I send it out to the world, either through publication or my private journal.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"There's a Skirmish of Wit Between Them": A Review of Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate

Last week I went and saw Hamlet, one of my favorite plays and one I have seen countless times, at the Globe in London.  As we were standing there in the yard I read in the program (over someone's shoulder) that the episode of Doctor Who where they meet Shakespeare was partially filmed there.  That was a little too much for me and I got a bit swoony.   Yes, that is precisely the kind of geek I am.   When a friend mentioned she had bought tickets to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing I knew I would have to go.  I found a ticket, but it was £75.  That's about $115.  My hesitation didn't last very long and I bought the ticket for last night's performance at the Wyndham Theatre in the West End.  I might not be able to eat lunch for the next couple of weeks, but it was definitely worth it.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finding Your Writing Process

It’s tricky blogging advice for writers. I never realized how tricky until I actually started keeping this blog and thinking about what I know and what I can share, and further realizing that what works well for me might be just that. Something that works well for me. Nothing drives this fear home more than thinking about the Writing Process (when I use caps like that imagine discordant chords on the piano).

What is the Writing Process? Do you have one? How do you find one? Is it working or is it hindering you? Should it be something natural or should you impose a structure onto the process? What’s the point of it? What’s the point of any of this?