Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Fresh Start: When Not to Edit, and Start From Scratch Instead

An editor by trade would have to be crazy or willing to commit career hari-kari to say there's ever a time not to edit. But there is a time two in fact when you're completely stuck for an idea and when you want an organic scene that tinkering with what you've got won't do.
Just do it - write!

One of the scariest things for a writer, especially one like me with a background in journalism or any nonfiction form, is to leave the familiar the facts, the outline, the first draft for the unfamiliar. Yet, only in uncharted waters is discovery made. Take that first example of being stuck for an idea. It could be for a story or a scene; it could even be for a character. Recently, a friend told me over lunch that she has a career military officer character for whom she needs to write a difficult scene that reveals an inciting incident from his past. Since she was having trouble with what the incident produced in his life, she was having trouble figuring out what could have precipitated it. My prescription? Just sit down and write it.

At first she looked aghast, but as she stared into space over a plate of pasta a mischievous grin spread across her face. "I have an idea," she said. "Want to know hear it?" "No," I answered. "Surprise me." The more she considered what might have prompted the officer to reach this crossroad in life, the more she looked forward to writing the scene. Writers, it turns out, can enjoy a surprise as much as readers. When the unknown becomes known, it becomes invention and ceases to be scary.

Another instance where you don't want to edit, or continue editing, is when you've written a scene that only becomes more stilted and contrived the longer you tinker. What to do? Stop editing and open a new document. Put the scene away and start writing. This was the advice I got from writer and teacher Peter Selgin on my first novel. "Consider this your master's thesis, put it in a drawer and start over. You know the story," he said. "Just write it." It was true; I knew the story. I was simply afraid of where starting over would lead, like when I learned to swim. To get beyond the shallow end of the pool and the shallows of the Atlantic off Fort Lauderdale beach, I had to let go and get my feet off the bottom. I've never regretted it.

Happy writing and happy Fourth!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Seeing Double, Triple: Getting Into Each Character's Head

There's nothing necessarily wrong with a scene where one character dominates, but there may not be enough right with it either. It's fine for one character in a scene to stand out, especially if he or she is the story's main squeeze. But if the character dominates every scene, or most throughout the story, try editing the scene once for each character.

Here's a case where the best way to learn is by doing. Select a scene from a story you're working on now or a scene you've been mulling over. Edit it first from the mind-set of the main character. Then edit from the mind-set of the next most prominent character on down the line until you've edited the scene once for each major character. The result will be a richer exchange with deeper characters who know and engage each other on a deeper level, and who may surprise the reader, possibly even the writer.

Here are a couple of caveats:
  • Don't view this as a major rewrite of the scene, but more of a way to refine it to reveal the essence of each major player, and some minor ones, too.
  • Don't let surprises throw you. Instead, step away from the work. When you return, if there still seems to be a major shift in character or plot, list the ways this will impact the story and where. Review the list to see if the changes are worth making.
Happy writing!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

MFAs: Why I Decided on a Master's

For years the idea of getting an MFA has been like a pebble in my shoe — I haven't always been aware of it, just when I stepped a certain way in the writing life.

Low-Residency MFA Handbook
To help me make up my mind, I asked six writer friends what they thought. Their answers ranged from "I would never have gotten an MFA if I hadn't wanted to teach" to "I think it's a great experience." I sided with the person who said he wouldn't have gone back and shelved the idea. Or so I thought.

I remained interested because whenever I wanted to experiment with writing or deepen the learning experience for my workshop students, I found myself wishing I were better read and more well-versed in the underlying reasons why techniques work or don't. I know why on instinct, but I came to believe instinct wasn't enough.

The nagging sense of more to learn wouldn’t leave me, as one of my more patient colleagues can attest (I pestered him often on his experience, which was quite positive). So I went to Poets & Writers' list of top 10 low res programs and whittled it to seven. I wanted low res because I need to work a gal's gotta eat and buy shoes.

Yet, even as I started getting packets in the mail, I thought, I won't do this it's too much time, too much money. I'll just review the literature and see what's offered. I put each packet in a clear plastic, legal-size envelope and ordered the Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students, a must-have by Lori A. May. I had planned a week off in April and decided to bring the information just for fun.

When I heard the forecast for the Connecticut shore was mostly drizzle and fog, I considered canceling. But I needed the time, and I certainly had reading material.

The first afternoon was sunny, so I laid by the pool and enjoyed the day, with all that information only a distant concept. Then came the fog. It rolled in like the fright scene in a B movie, so thick that when I went to the ocean in Watch Hill, I could hear the grinding surf but couldn't see it until I went out on the sand.

With its Brontëan feel, the weather was perfect for reading, and as I sat in the hotel room I realized my biggest concerns time and money might not be so big. First, it occurred to me that since I care for an older mom, I couldn’t select a program far from home. I also realized that if I jettisoned all projects except my day job, I would have time for the program. Then it dawned on me that the cost might be deductible. In a rush of clarity, the MFA looked possible.

I excluded four of the seven programs and considered only the three I could reach by car in three hours or less. Then I created an Excel spreadsheet with my own comparison chart. And I read Lori May's book, paying particular attention to how often she said, and I paraphrase, don't think you're getting away with anything by choosing a low res MFA. It's the same work, just distributed differently. Still, without all those projects, it looked doable.

I sent emails to the three program coordinators asking one key question for me anyway whether they required the GRE. None did. Then I considered the three Ps: price, proximity and program. At first I leaned toward one program, then another, then finally one I had initially dismissed altogether because it wasn't on P&W's list. Yet, the more I looked into it, the more I liked what I saw.

Fairfield University MFA
The program is Fairfield University's low res MFA in creative writing. It had everything I wanted and some things I hadn't noticed at first, like a book prize, an extra residency abroad (not required, but there if you want it; I like the one in Sicily and hope they keep it) and a payment plan. And it wasn't the most expensive program, not when I tallied all the fees not listed on the main web page of the other programs. It was like a third date with a decent guy the more I saw, the more I liked what I saw. When does that ever happen?

When I got home, I scrambled to apply. Why, I asked myself, was I rushing, especially since I didn't plan to attend until spring 2012. But, providentially, I churned out the requisite items, watched the video, contacted the program director, hustled friends for recommendations and sent the packet. When my accountant said the tuition could be deductible, I contacted the MFA director and said I might be able to enroll in 2011. I took slim encouragement from his response that he was glad I let him know.

Meanwhile, I decided not to say anything at work or at home. What an emotional rollercoaster. Some moments, I thought I had a good chance; other moments, I thought I was crazy. Then came the acceptance via email. I think one of my favorite words is "congratulations." But two confirmations remained — home and work. I needed someone to watch out for my mother while I was away the 10 days, and I needed approval for a block of the busiest time in our production schedule. I got both. Now I'm getting up to speed with the required readings, etc.

Amid all the flurry of excitement, there are specific reasons for going back to school at this comparatively late date in life. One is freedom. Not just from that pebble, but to leave what I know behind, the strictures of safe depths. Another is to go from craftsmanship to art. I don't know how to do that except to study with people who are already there.

Tip: For a full treatment on whether to get an MFA, visit Mary Carroll Moore's blog How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book, the post on Following a Different Path: Is an MFA Right for You and Your Book?