Tuesday, April 13, 2021

JEWEL or JUNK?

 

Reflections on First Drafts

 

There is a notion floating in writerdom that first drafts are garbage, bad, something to be overhauled, repaired and refurbished  beyond recognition.

In other words, “a sh---y first draft,” as Anne Lamott put it in her book about writing, Bird by Bird.  (She has a whole chapter called Shi—ty First Drafts.😳) It’s a brilliant chapter, as is the whole book. It’s part of her battle cry against paralyzing perfectionism, and in that sense, I concur.

 

But here is where we part. I have a much-published writing friend who said it differently, and I’m in his camp. “The first draft is where all the important stuff happens: Characters created, their actions emerge from an unformed blob of earth, and a rough shape of a story materializes. The rest is akin to a fine sculpturist working on refining the shape to make a beautiful polished marble figure.” 



All my stories changed some in revisions. But THE STORY was there in the first draft. So were the happiest creative moments, most of which I experienced while first drafting. No matter how many missed plot turns, absent descriptive ambience or typos, (to be worked on in revisions) these first drafts were not garbage. They’re the real deal.

 

Junk? Na-ah. First drafts are jewels in need of TLC and a fine polishing cloth to shine.




Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Literary Characters from One’s Real Life

 

Question: How many of your story characters are from your real life?

Answer: All of them

Answer: None of them

Answer: All of the above

 

My late father, a man who lived an astonishingly rich life and also possessed great writing talents, was often urged to write his autobiography. He refused, saying autobiographies are always exercises in self-justification, and in many instances also in self-beautification. He preferred fiction because he thought it more honest.

 

After penning quite a few fictional stories, I find that I agree with his assessment of fiction. The writer’s truth is in them, though it is not “just as it was in life.”

 

I trust these truths, and would even go so far as to call them self-evident,* at least in a roundabout way. *(With apologies to the brilliant wording of the United States Declaration of Independence)

Yes, even cute animal picture book stories are really people you know. Think of Aesop’s fables.

Now you got it.



Tuesday, March 30, 2021

SELECTING THE NAMES OF CHARACTERS

 

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

From Romeo & Juliet by Shakespeare

 

        What’s in a name?

        Actually, a lot. (Sorry, Juliet)

 

Depending on the type of story, character names can be allegorical, (rife with meaning alluding to their function, such as in biblical narratives) a play on class and setting, (think of just about any romance story) or a tickle to the funny bone.

 

There is overlap in these naming categories. I think Dickens played on the humorous as well as class distinctions. J. K. Rowling does the same with some of her characters. But no matter the intention, the effect is for a name to be evocative.

 

There are times where a story doesn’t call for strong and piercing name choices. But I would never waste the storyteller’s opportunity to make a tale come alive with banal choices like Dick and Jane, which, come to think of it, may have been chosen specifically for a banal effect. They are “every girl and every boy,” I suppose. Not characters in the sense writers aspire to create.

 

Some choices are personal, as in a grandma writing a story using her grandkids' names. As such, they are fine for self-publishing home consumption. I’ve written short stories using the names of my nearest and dearest, which have meaning to me only. But from some years’ distance, I can see that for general audiences I have wasted the opportunity to layer every word by not choosing in a writerly way.

 

So back to Juliet: Love who you love, my sweet, and let your names not keep you apart. But for certain know that William Shakespeare chose your names with care.



Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Must Writers Feel Emotions Strongly?

 

One may ask the same question in the title^ about actors or fine artists. Where in the artistic process and being does emotionality fit?

 

Seems to me that the subject is not how much the creative person feels, but how much empathy they have for others' feelings. Unless the writing is entirely about self, the power to put oneself in another’s overalls is key.

 

In addition to enhanced empathy, there’s something called mirror-touch synesthesia, where others’ physical sensations are literally felt in one’s own body. Some quantified version of this is operative in good writing.

 

There is a price to pay for being an empath. Just take a look at artists. The talented ones cultivate ways to express what they sense, thus producing books, painting, and theater performances. But this comes after the first principal: feel another's joy but also devastation.

 

Ah, the joys of being human.




Tuesday, March 16, 2021

What Are Common Traps for Aspiring Writers?

 

The question is evident in plenty of interviews, posed to published authors. It’s a variation on “what would you tell your younger/pre-published self,” or “what advice would you give young’uns,” period.

 

I posit that the question itself is wrong. An “aspiring” writer is one who never writes but has a yearning to be a writer. Don’t’. Be. That.


We are what we do, truly. 

 If you write in a semi-regular way, you are not aspiring; you already are a writer. What the questioner means is “aspiring to be published.”

 

“Be published” in the passive tense, means someone else is publishing your writing. Self-publishing is not an aspiration, because it’s also something that is entirely in the writer’s hands and requires a credit card. Either you do it or you don’t. Don’t aspire; just do, if that’s the way for you.

 

Back to the title. My not humble enough view is that the most common trap for one who wishes (i.e. aspires) to write is they don’t do it.

WRITE.

Down with aspiration. Onwards with perspiration.




Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Talking to Younger Self

 

You’ve heard the question, no doubt. If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?

Process isn't just the thing. It’s everything.


I find it more relevant to tell my young’uns (the ones who are in my life and occasionally want to know what I think) that they are already living “the life.” This is it. Destination is the illusion. You never get there, unless by “there” you mean death, which we all get to.


It sounds grim but it isn’t. Goals are just a way to go, not a destination. This means there is no reality to the elation of reaching or deflation not achieving a goal, because we live on the road.


I know this feels counter intuitive to many who are raised to think of concrete goals.


Put another way, using the metaphor of a marathon for any goal— if I dream of becoming a marathon runner, the very act of training is the experience, the real thing. I will eventually run a marathon or not. Then the act of running is the thing. If I complete the marathon, that is the thing. If I don’t, I’m having that experience of something not completed, and it is the thing. In the rare event that I win the marathon, I’m experiencing that, and it’s the thing.


No matter what, I’m living the life. Younger self: this is it. The thing.




Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Does Writing Energize or Exhaust You?

 

A good friend who is a prolific reader but doesn’t write asked me a variation of the this post's title question.

Hers was more along the lines of “do you love to write?” or maybe “do you need to write to be happy?”


I thought of an answer one of my favorite authors gave to the question. Polly Horvath is a master whose prolific output would suggest she lives to write. When asked if she loves to write she said, “I love to have written.


That about sums it for me as well. Before any first-drafting day, no matter if it’s a novel or a picture book, I feel anxious in a vague way. I recognize this feeling as a sort of fear. Fear that I can’t, fear that I don’t have it in me, fear that if I don’t I never will again.


Then I sit down and write. After the day’s self-assigned output, I have a feeling of calm that I now recognize as a sort of peace. I might even liken it to a calm version of bliss.


So there it is: I love to have written.


It also answers the question in this post’s title. I am drained but also filled. I am exhausted and energized at once.


Anyone who confronts fear and comes out the other end knows this feeling.



Monday, February 22, 2021

Have You Ever Gotten READER’S BLOCK?

 

Writer’s Block is a famous phenomenon even those who never write fiction have heard about. It’s depicted in movies about writers and plenty of writing memories. Biographies and fictional writing characters speak of it. The irony that they write about not being able to write doesn’t escape me.

 

I haven’t had writer’s block, and my only explanation is just that I say NO to it. I’ve had days when in the midst of first drafting a novel I am seized with fear that I just can’t do it. At least not now. Maybe not ever.

But then, I make myself sit and do it. I write, and that’s that.

 

I tend to agree with another writer who concluded that the so-called writer’s block, if prolonged, isn’t a specific writing malady. It is clinical depression as manifested in people who write. For others, clinical depression robs the very zest for living. Everything feels flat and pointless. In a writer, this becomes a sense they have nothing to say and can’t write.

I’ve been blessed not to have had clinical depression to date.


But I have had Reader’s Block. Those are periods when I’m unable to focus on reading. I don’t mean reading articles or short blog posts or letters. I mean reading good literature. I pick up a book I normally would relish reading, and find that I. Just. Can’t.

I’ve observed that, for me, these periods are not ones of the doldrums, but rather periods when exciting things (either good or stressful) are taking place. Something happens to my ability to dig in and focus on more demanding reading.

 

This whole pandemic thing-a-ma-jig has been such a period. I managed to read one good novel, but it actually took the same sort of “just do it” I enlist for days when writing threatens to challenge. I also managed to write, because that “block” isn’t allowed by me. But reading continues to be a challenge.

 

I hope this reading block lifts, and soon. If you’ve ever had it and got through, let me know how to kick it to the curb.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Most Difficult Part

 Different folks struggle with different stretches. We’d be gingerperson-cookies if this weren’t so. But then, there are the life patches that we have in common and find challenging.

For many who write stories, the middle is the hardest part.

I used to feel alone in this until I began communicating with others. Some call it the muddling middle, which is just what writers would do for such— conjuring a nice alliteration.

But why should the middle of a story be so hard?

Part of it is the way we train ourselves to come up with roaring bang-up first line/paragraphs. This is essential to hook the reader/listener. Okay, Check. ✔


Then, there’s the matter of the ending. Pure pantsters (writing without any plan by the seat of their pants) may find endings daunting. Most storytellers know the beginning, the protagonist’s challenge, and (get ready for this---) the end. Check.✔

 
The end is a bookend to the beginning of the protagonist’s quest.


I heard John Grisham respond to a question about writer’s block by saying he always knows the ending before he even starts on a new novel, and so he must envision how to get there and avoid the blocking bumps. Along that bumpy part, you must do everything not to lose the passengers/ readers.


This brings up the most challenging part: all that middle. The meat of the tale. The how to get from the beginning to the end.


Beginnings and endings take care of themselves. Middles don’t. Middles are the hardest part.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

WHAT IS THE FIRST BOOK THAT MADE YOU CRY?

 

I found this question on an internet post about questions that are not clichéd, which you might want to ask writers.

Unlike these questions below: 

Where do you get your ideas?” (Here, there and everywhere) “What is your writing process?” (Butt in chair no matter what) or “What advice do you have for writers?” (Write, period.) 

These three are nice questions, but they are not interesting because they've been sprinkled about all the way from Ho-humVille to SoozzzzBay. 😴


So on to the better questions list. The one about the first book that made me cry jumped at me.


Many books have made me cry. But the first? The very first?


Obviously, this isn’t a factual research question. The memory of a one or two year old can’t be reliable. A two year old may cry out of fear or shock, and I sense the question is about a different sort of crying, empathetic sadness.


Which brings me to the first storybook that gave me this experience, and the answer is as clear as it is easy for me. Hans Christian Andersen’s THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL made me cry at the age of four, and does to this day every time I re-read it.


When I read it to my kids, DD would stare into my eyes to see the waterworks begin, because they always did. I would tell myself that I know the story and I will not cry this time, but invariably and inevitably, I did.


This story breaks all the conventions taught today in kidlit workshops: It ends sadly, the main character dies, people left behind do not “change” and the narration is much more “tell” than “show.” Yet newly illustrated versions keep popping up. {It’s good to remember to let go of these conventions in the service of great literature.}


I’ve never been to Copenhagen, but in lieu of paying homage to a great storyteller there, I sat on the knee of the master when I last visited Central Park in New York.



Above all, a writer must know empathy. I owe Hans Christen Andersen the empathetic strain he awakened in me all the way back when, and to this day.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Below the Surface

 

This morning, while steaming milk for coffee, I removed the sort of skin that formed on the surface before using a whipper to make a homemade variation of latte. The moment I did that, the memory of an old relative, long gone, popped into my mind.


I noted an oddity about myself that had been there for years, but I never filed before. I steam milk every morning, and remove this layer, Lactoderm, from its top every time. The memory of this relative comes before me every time I do this, but rarely at other times.


For the first time, I’m not only noting this, but also wondering why it is so. There is no connection between the surface of steamed milk and this person. Or is there? If there is, my conscious mind can’t access it.


In the midst of revising on my next novel, it occurs to me that such little details pointing to subconscious patterns are essential to writing rich characters. In fiction, we have to make these patterns rise to the surface. The reader will be unsatisfied if we just note them and leave them there without explanation.  


I may have to use my storytelling imagination to build the tiny bridge real life doesn’t.


Fiction is so much tidier than life. In fact, the act of writing is itself an effort to tie up loose ends.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

AUSTRALIA DAY

 

    My wall calendar tells me today is Australia Day.


To Australians, it marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, which is the beginning of the country of Australia we know now.


To me, it’s a reminder of a classic. Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.


First published in 1972, it’s still a best seller and an iconic text. Alexander, an American kid, is having such a bad day that he thinks moving to Australia will solve his predicament. It’s logical, in the way kid logic works. Australia is far away. Australia is upside down, in the southern hemisphere. Australia is shrouded in otherness and it’s “not here.”


Many adults never outgrow this sort of thinking. When “here” is hard, “elsewhere” will be better.


At the end of his terrible no good day, his mother assures Alexander that tomorrow is another day and, besides, there are bad days “even in Australia.”


I’ve never been to Australia, but my Aussie friends and acquaintances gave me the impression Australia is culturally rather similar to the United States, especially when compared many other parts of the world.*


Viorst’s choice here is poignant, because there is no running away from challenging times. There’s only moving forward, for tomorrow is another day.


 *(Incidentally, in the Australian and New Zealand version of this book, Alexander wants to move to Timbuktu, which I find less successful. He could have wished to move to the United States for a similar effect. )


This kind of Australia Day I can celebrate, and do every day. The assurance that tomorrow—  everything is possible.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Are We There Yet?

 

You’ve heard the question, and likely asked it yourself.

“Are we there yet?" ask the children, sitting in the back seat of the car.

“Are we there yet?” asks the dog, waiting for the next feeding.

“Are we there yet?” asks the writer of the editor, hoping the last revision nailed it.

 

The question reminds me of the late great Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a professor of chemistry and a religious philosopher. He said to be wary of anyone who tells you when the messiah will come, for the messiah is always coming but never there yet.

 

After the year we’ve had, I hear this question almost daily. If not from others, then inside my head.

But then I remember Leibowitz, and answer myself. We are always on the way, never there.

 

Living in the moment.

©by Shelagh Duffett



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Double and Triple-layered Lives

Say you found out someone you were related to and thought you knew well turned out to have been a major spook? Not a little cog in a big machine, but an honest to goodness give-away-the-store (i.e. vital national security) sort of spy?

 

That’s what happened to me about half a year ago. Someone (now gone from this earth) turned out in now-released documents to have spied for the K.G.B. on the state of Israel. He wasn’t just “someone,” he was a member of the Israeli Knesset, (think of the American Congress or Senate) and a member of the most security sensitive committee there at the time of becoming, what the documents describe, “ a K.G.B. agent.”

 

He was also a published poet and a founding part of the state. Go figure.

 

All this is only a bit surprising. Put another way; upon reflection, some pieces fell into place.

 

And all this is a crisp reminder that fictional characters must be layered, too. They have the presentation all can see, the presentation only the closest to them see, and the layer no one sees. 

Truth is richer than fiction? Right. But the storytellers’ control of their characters means we must never forget to have this third most hidden layer present in some form, even if it’s never explicit on the page.




P.S.

Passive construction in this post is deliberate. Hidden operators and hinted obfuscation in actions require this vagueness. 😎

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Should a Writer Have a Website?

 

The question of what sort of web presence a writer should have comes up regularly on chat boards.


I’m not a fan of shoulds. If you’ve read my past posts, you probably know that. I won’t deny the discomfort I felt when I first made a website with my name domain. Touting one’s work and personal self feels weird and also somewhat unseemly.


But I also think there’s gigantic cognitive dissonance in wanting to be published (i.e. make public) and at the same time wanting to personally hide.


Unless you dream of doing a J.D. Salinger act, which means writing a classic and then disappearing as an ever-growing mystic aura radiates from the mention of your name, writing to publish means having some public presence. This is true for traditionally published authors, aspiring writers, and even more for the self-published who effectively become publishers and marketers.


While social sites are nice places if you like such hangouts, there is no substitute for a site you control under your own name. I think this post by agent Jennifer Laughran says it well, in her own take no-prisoners verbiage.

 

A few common reservations you can wipe off the deck immediately:


*It doesn’t have to cost much, though free options are not as good for various reasons. There are many inexpensive options that won’t force ads or a domain of the hosting company.

*It doesn’t require hiring a professional web designer. Nice to do (and worthwhile) if you are independently wealthy or already successfully published. But most web hosting services have templates that are intuitive and even non-techies like me can work with.

* It doesn’t have to blow anyone’s socks off, like the sites of famous bestselling authors. Start small and plain, but start.

 

Your website, under your own domain name, is your bit of real estate in the digital world. It’s a place to see you, (photo, please) your books if you have any, and a way to connect.

 

Of course, you don’t have to. You don’t have to write or publish anything. You only have to eat, drink, sleep, and try to be kind to others. But if you wish to share your work, get thee a website.



©From Author Vashti Harrison’s site