Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Remembering Your First Love: The Amateur Writer

When writers fall out of love with the habit of writing, it may be because we've forgotten our first love.

Whether or not a writer is published, or has been published recently, there’s a sense in which all writers should retain an amateur standing. The word amateur can mean anything from one who has a taste for something to a lover of something. It can also mean a dabbler, as opposed to a professional. Regardless of a writer’s status, all writers are, in this sense, continual amateurs, because we’re always learning from other writers and ourselves.

While there are almost as many reasons as there are writers to stop loving the craft and art of writing, one way to squeeze the love out of the relationship is to let it become more about obligation than discovery and joy. We start focusing on what we have to do or should do, and all by deadlines, often self-imposed, that often get pushed further and further into the future the harder we try to meet them.

Regardless why the love has been lost, one way to rekindle it is to take the pressure off. Open a page and write. Even if the process begins largely with lament, at least the words are there. Reawakening the real pleasure of writing often comes afterward, from tinkering with the words and discovering new methods of expression, even in a grousing journal entry well-written.

What’s keeping you from your love of writing?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Writing Well in 2015 - Take a Tip From a Memoirist

One of the best pieces of advice an editor can give a writer is to write; an even better recommendation is to write slowly, consciously, reflectively. That's how memoirists write, and one way fiction writers can bring a deeply reflective quality to their
work is to evaluate every word for precision, context, clarity and revelation. Here are some examples:
Clarity helps both writer and reader
  • Precision: Rather than use common nouns or noun phrases, consider more specific choices. For example, if you're referring to the area just above the upper lip, use dent, divot, groove or philtrum.
  • Context: Even original descriptions can be generic. To avoid this, consider using descriptive words or phrases that suit the context. For instance, if you're writing about a seamstress, choose words and phrases to describe the setting that relate to the art and craft of sewing.
  • Clarity: Sometimes, what's clear to the writer isn't clear to the reader. For example, how a character responds to a life-changing event hinges on who the character really is, and how mature he is at that point in the story. Make sure your character's response to an event is consistent with who he is and who he is becoming.
  • Revelation: Each word choice should reveal something to the reader about the story, plot, characters and setting.
To make the best use of the slow-writing technique, start small, with a sentence or paragraph; then move to a scene or chapter. To check for overwriting, wait a couple of days; then reread the section. You may find some cumbersome language, but you may also find that you're revealing more to yourself and your readers as you write. Generally, it's easier to trim writing than expand it. This is especially true when there's enough substance to trim.

What project are you working on now that could use a bit more precision?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When Revising Your Prose, Take Time to Tinker

For better prose, take time to tinker
A great way to become a better writer is by revision, and concentrated revision yields faster and more noticeable results.

Taking time to self-consciously tinker with your prose can yield more progress than hours at the keypad because you’re paying attention to the before and after as you write, and learning what works and what doesn’t in real time. More importantly, you’re learning how phrasing works and why, and that yields a repeatable technique, and a repeatable technique will stay in your writing toolkit.

Here’s an example of the tinkering approach:

Before:
The highway to the beach was bathed in sunlight, and the temperature in the car was getting hotter and hotter. Jim wiped his forehead and rolled the window partway down. He couldn’t see the shore from here but could feel it.

After:
The road to the shore shimmered in the summer sun, and the temperature in the Kia was rising like a kiln. Jim wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and rolled down the window. He couldn’t see the Sound from this flat strip of asphalt but could feel its pull like an outgoing tide.

To tinker with your prose, select a descriptive paragraph, and revise it slowly, sentence by sentence and word by word. Do the same with a short scene. This technique also helps settle the mind for improved focus.

Got editing questions? Share them via Word for Words. Happy writing!

Monday, August 18, 2014

When Nothing Is Lost, Novel Writing and Henry James

If you’re looking to enhance your storytelling, consider this advice from novel writer and essayist Henry James: Be a writer on whom nothing is lost.

James’s style in Washington Square (1880) reveals characters and story more by telling about them than showing them in scene and dialogue. Yet, the author clearly knows the people, setting and era, and knows how to present them in a way that has broader thematic appeal.

In the craft essay "The Art of Fiction," James advises, "Write from experience, and experience only …” He then adds, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" However, there are two important caveats: It’s better to write from experience than with it (think fiction versus reportage), and if a writer is to be someone on whom nothing is lost, he or she must have first closely observed the world in order to gain that experience, and must have analyzed with some accuracy the experience gained.

The triad of experience, observation and analysis is similar to Bob Dylan’s description of the creative process as involving observation, imagination and experience. If we merge Dylan’s insights with James’s, we have the following:
  • Mine your past experiences, and look for new encounters.
  • Don’t just see what you’re looking at; observe it.
  • Analyze what you observe, and consider how it applies to the world at large.
  • Write from your experience not with it by letting your imagination create the fiction. Washington Square is based on the true story of a jilted heiress whom James heard about through a friend.
For more on Henry James and his work, visit PBS. Also see Henry James’s "The Art of Fiction" at Washington State University.

What story are you writing that could benefit from the wealth of your experience, observations, analysis and imagination?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

“Some of the Best Stories Are Yours”

Some of the best stories are yours
A few posts ago, we covered how to mine family history for stories. Using similar techniques, you can mine your life for stories, too.

Reviewing your personal life for story ideas can be an emotional experience, but those very emotions can signal a story worth telling. In considering your options, ask yourself:
  • What aspect of this event in my life would others find most interesting and instructive, and why?
  • What turning point occurred as a result of this that forever changed my life?
  • What pivotal incident led to the event — the one without which the turning point wouldn't have occurred?
  • What was the main outcome?
  • What were the secondary and tertiary outcomes?
  • What were the most important consequences for me and those closest to me?
To fictionalize your story, ask yourself:
  • What if the main person in the story was of a different race, ethnic background and/or gender?
  • What if the turning point occurred at an earlier or a later stage of life?
  • What if the pivotal incident occurred in a different setting?
  • What if it was a different incident altogether?
  • What if the event’s main outcome was the opposite or vastly different from what happened?
Taking these considerations into account and changing the story accordingly should alter the plot, characters and ending, maintaining the story’s integrity while taking it into the realm of fiction.

The key to this approach is having an affinity for and/or experience in how you make the changes. For example, if you alter the setting, do you know the new locale? After all, truth is still stranger than fiction.

Tip: To spice up your story, consider this adage from John Updike. There's the story you're afraid to tell others and the story you're afraid to tell yourself. That's the one to write.

What aspect of your story are you afraid to tell?

Happy writing!

Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer, editor and teacher. Her book is Now What? The Creative Writer's Guide to Success After the MFA.

For one of the most instructive workshop-based writers conferences, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference 2014.

For queries, contact Word for Words, or visit Word for Words. For in-depth tips, visit the Online Workshop.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Rich and Royal Tapestry of Umberto Eco

Mysterious flame of memory
I’ve been reading The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco for weeks now. Granted, I’m reading it as a book on tape while driving to and from teaching writing classes, but it’s a long book and Eco’s writing is notoriously dense, as is that of many Italian writers. In this novel, what’s most impressive are the connections he makes between memory and identity in this story of a brilliant amnesiac, Senior Bodoni, who can quote everything from Nabokov to Eliot all with enviable ease, yet in losing his sense memory as a result of an apparent stroke has lost himself.

In gradually gaining the sensory knowledge that memory supports, Eco brings to life such otherwise mundane objects as a jar of mustard and a clove of garlic using his own intricate intellect, as revealed through Bodoni, whose very name is a form of writing, the font known as Bodoni. Yet, not so mundane in the story is the recurring metaphor of fog, especially the gray fog for which the city of Milan is known and in which Senior Bodoni perpetually finds himself.

Amid the angst of a man who knows much except himself, the concepts of name and the process of naming go to identity and more, because what Bodoni is trying hardest to remember is his first love. Isn’t that what all of us, in one way or another, seek to do as we return over and over again to memory and to the meaning we long for in the elements of daily life?

What love are you trying to recapture, perhaps in your writing?

Friday, February 28, 2014

First-Ever "Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA"

Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide
to Success After the MFA
 
Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA 

Kudos to a great group of contributing writers, chapter editors, marketing folk and new publisher, Fairfield University Press.

Welcome to the first multi-genre writer’s guide authored, edited and published exclusively by writers for writers, including co-author and co-editor Adele Annesi.

Graduates of writing programs and all serious writers will find this blend of practical advice and creative inspiration a unique, comprehensive and indispensable resource filled with essays and editorials, articles, instruction, checklists and glossaries — all designed to help aspiring and established authors thrive as lifelong writers.

Based exclusively on real-world experience, Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA shares wisdom, instruction and time-tested tips for making writing a permanent part of your life — whether as career, hobby or anything in between.

Visit the Now What MFA site for news and updates from this new paradigm in guidebook publishing.

For updates on what's next in writing, visit Adele's Amazon Author page.


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Thursday, February 13, 2014

International Best-Selling YA Author Cantrell on Writing a Sequel

Julie Cantrell
I met award-winning young adult author Julie Cantrell while writing for Southern Literary Review when she was managing editor. Since then, Cantrell has received two Christy Awards (Debut Novel of the Year and Book of the Year) for her novel Into the Free, as well as the Mississippi Library Association Fiction Award. The novel is also one of five finalists for the University of Mississippi community reads selection.

The story also became a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, and an international bestseller, thanks to its Dutch readers. After strong reader support, the sequel, When Mountains Move, has hit shelves. Here, Cantrell describes how she conceived of and developed the new novel.

How did the idea for the new novel arise?
When the debut novel, Into the Free, went through edits, we cut a lot from the ending. I always wanted to tell more of Millie’s story, and I’m grateful the publisher gave me an entire second book to explore the next phase of her life. I’ve enjoyed seeing what happened next for Millie, and I hope readers will, too.

In what ways did writing this latest novel differ from writing your first one?
When I wrote the first book, I never intended to show it to anyone. So I was completely free to write without any fears or limitations. It was a beautiful creative experience. Of course, we went through major edits with it, but the original draft was born without those concerns.
 
With the sequel, I had a tight deadline and the added pressure of following the debut novel without letting down those readers. When I found myself worrying about reader expectations, future reviews, marketing plans, etc., I would try to take a step back and remind myself to enter that artistic space again, as I had with the first one, and to leave the rest of the details out of my mind frame. It was easier some days than others, but I did try not to let any of those concerns affect the process of putting the story on the page.
 
What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
Try to write without ever thinking about who might read it, how they might react, or whether the book will be successful in terms of sales figures, reviews, etc. Write as if no one will ever read it. I believe that may be the only way to dig down deep enough to write with raw honesty, and that applies to fiction, too. I mean, even if you aren’t writing about your life or the way you see the world, you still have to be able to write honestly about the character’s life (lives), without worrying that you might offend someone or break a conventional social rule, etc. That’s the beauty of any form of art … you can bypass all the norms we live by in the real world, and just let your brain have some fun.
 
For more on Julie and her work, visit Julie Cantrell, as well as Into the Free and When Mountains Move.