Monday, August 12, 2019

The Human Touch: The Benefits of Writing Longhand

In the era of cell phones, tablets and microcomputers, writing longhand may not come naturally or easily, but there are benefits to mind, body and story.

One benefit of writing by hand is a closer mind-body connection. Using a favorite pen and journal to record ideas, to expand later or just for yourself in the moment, slows the thought process and gives the mind an outlet for those thoughts through tactile sensation. The benefits of list writing, for example, include more than just creating reminders; they also include a sense of release, from the moment the first item appears on the page.

Writing longhand also helps minimize and even eliminate distractions. Not only are you not online (at least not directly), you’re also focusing more directly on the page and the written word. This degree of concentration slows the writing process to enable your imagination to more fully envision and record images, which can lead to better-developed concepts, scenes, characters and stories.

When writers concentrate more fully on their work, they also become better writers, because they’re more aware in real time of their word choices and the effects of those choices. This is called “listening to the work” and trains the writer’s ear to hear the differences between, for example, active and passive voice, and to notice the betterments of using fewer and more precise words to tighten and strengthen stories, whether fictional or real life.

When writers take time to “hear” to their work, they also focus less on fixing it, which yields greater freedom to explore a theme or topic in organic way. When we’re not continually in editing mode, we give ourselves a chance to discover what works in our writing, what doesn’t and why. As a result, we gain mastery over our work and confidence. This helps us learn faster. So if you like to learn by doing and by trial and error, as I often do, longhand is a great way to gain, use and increase your knowledge.

Of course, there are also clear benefits to using a device for writing. First, the process produces text faster and easier than writing longhand. Most programs even correct you as you write, and you can use the program’s spellcheck, grammar check and thesaurus without stepping away from your work. Once you create a piece, it’s a lot easier to save and upload it to work on later, virtually anywhere (pun intended). Of course, you can carry a pen and paper nearly anywhere, too, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of a device to create, edit, save and rework a writing project. These advantages make devices more than convenient for creating first drafts and meeting deadlines.

In reality, you don’t have to make a once-for-all choice of longhand or device for your writing. Each style or project tends to create its own parameters, such as time constraints, energy level, type or style of writing, personal preference and mood.

When I was growing up, for example, I preferred writing longhand for journal entries and poetry. I still do. There’s something inherently pleasing about opening a journal, especially a new one, taking out a favorite pen and sitting down to write on a pristine page, like first footsteps in snow. For me, it’s a way to uncover and explore my thoughts and emotions, especially when something is happening in my life that I want to examine. Those instances deserve the human touch, through sufficient time and close attention.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

What Pain Can Teach: Writing of and Through the Tough Times

Whether we write fact, fiction or both, pain informs and can enhance our work. To make the most of what we’ve endured, however, we must be mindful of what and how we write.

Many artists create their best pieces from the pyre of suffering. Beethoven went deaf at 45; Georgia O'Keeffe struggled with depression. Author David Foster Wallace struggled with depression and addiction. Artists work through their pain, around it, with it, from it. To make the most of what we’ve endured, we might consider the advice of author Dorothy Sayers in her essay “Why Work?”, and allow our experience to “serve the work”.

Born in Oxford, England, Sayers is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but in all endeavors Sayers believed that while many feel that work, in whatever form, ought to serve the community, there is a “catch” in this line of thinking. Her reasoning as a person of faith was that there is a “paradox about working to serve the community”, and there are three reasons why this is true. First, a person can’t “do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it.” Second, “the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community.” Third, if you aim to serve the community, “you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand—and you may not even do that.”

In her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner made a similar observation about checking the community pulse on what to write. “People who try to figure out what’s hot and re-create it are as close to delusional as you can get. Once a trend is actually identified it is usually too late; your work will be regarded as opportunistic, as jumping on the bandwagon…” While some writers may be altruistic enough not to consider the potential return on their investment before they start writing, once a thing is written and received, or not—for the community is not awaiting with baited breath the words of the writer’s imagination—that is the moment when the writer realizes just how much of what he or she has written was not for the work—meaning the integrity of the project—but for the sake of a response. Even where there is a legitimate public demand for treatment of a particular topic, where is the artistry in putting the cart before the horse?

So what about us? Should we write of our painful experiences? If so, how? Moreover, why? If we do decide to explore a difficult experience, should there be parameters or guidelines to enable our writing to benefit us and others without bringing harm?

I know a writer with a chronic health condition who eventually decided to record the experience via an essay on a national website. What made this person write of the condition and share it that way? First, in researching the topic, the writer learned of alternative medicine options whose treatments were helpful. This made the writer think, if these helped me, they could help others. Since the information wasn’t yet mainstream, efforts to surface it did help others. Just as important, maybe more so, by that time the writer was talking about the topic with friends and family. In other words, the time was right, not just for the topic but for the writer.

I also know a writer who wrote about sexual assault and found that writing about the incident helped her and others. So what made her take this big step? First, she was inspired by the bravery of one of her students to write of a similar instance. Second, she tested the story on friends before sharing it widely. Surprised at how many people echoed her experience and encouraged her, she gained confidence that sharing it widely could help still more people: those who have endured sexual assault and close to them. In this example, the steps she took were both incremental and affirming.

These two examples, both about writing nonfiction, share several commonalities:

  • The writer wrote not only for personal gain but also for others.
  • The writer selected a trustworthy medium related to the topic.
  • The writer wrote the story when the time was right, and first put the writing aside to consider what to do with it before sharing it.
  • The writer had a trusted friend, someone with firsthand experience, read the work before the piece was sent and shared.
  • The writer tested the experience on a smaller local audience before going global. Once on the web, it’s forever, or at least it feels that way.

If you don’t want to write about a painful experience directly as nonfiction, you might consider fictionalizing it. One way to do this is to consider the emotional truth of what happened. In other words, what was the lesson learned, and how might it become the theme of a poem, flash fiction, a short story or a novel? If you write fiction and have been through a difficult experience, and the further one goes along in life, the more one goes through, you might allow your experience to inform, not dictate, the work or its direction. The points above regarding nonfiction writing also apply to fiction.

There’s no rule that says a writer has to write about a painful experience and share it with others. We can write about what happened and decide not to share it. Either way, what we write, how we write it and who we are because of what we’ve been through can be enhanced by what we’ve experienced.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Sharpen Your Prose by Imitation and Innovation

The sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and it’s a great way to learn how to write better, too, long as you bring originality to the process.

Once upon a time, there was an annual writing contest called the International Imitation Hemingway Competition, also known as the Bad Hemingway Contest, where writers could submit a “really good page of really bad Hemingway” in the clipped, minimalist style of the Nobel laureate. There were only two rules for the competition: Entrants had to mention Harry's Bar & Grill, one of Hemingway's favorite haunts, and their stories had to be funny.

Whether for competition or practice, the savvy writer might go a step further and try out Hemingway’s iceberg theory, which he learned in journalism and retained in writing fiction, where a story’s meaning has greater impact when buried under the surface of the work, with just enough significance visible above the waterline to point to more beneath. Practicing this approach helps writers sharpen and condense their prose toward a subtler and stronger overall impression on the reader. The next step then is for writers to discover and use their unique voice in conveying the stories and topics that excite them most.

Several years ago, I attended a Connecticut Authors & Publisher’s Association Writers Conference and had lunch with four longtime literary agents who represented both fiction and nonfiction. As they began talking among themselves, I became a fly on the wall, listening as they described the challenges of sifting through hundreds of queries a day. Yet, what the agents lamented most was less the work of responding to email and more the dearth of fresh ideas—for novels and nonfiction. No one bemoaned writers using classic themes for their stories or popular nonfiction topics for their books but that comparatively few writers took the time to develop these ideas using fresh perspectives.

One classic novella employed innovatively for film was Joseph Conrad's 1899 Heart of Darkness as inspiration for the 1979 epic film Apocalypse Now, on the Vietnam War. Even with a different setting and era than the original work, Apocalypse presented both a familiar archetype and an original story, on the complexities and human cost of war. While there’s nothing new under the sun, you can bring your original take to an old favorite.

As an exercise in originality and intentionality, you might choose a favorite story, song or film and craft a paragraph describing how you would “remake” the work in your style, from your viewpoint. You can use the ideas of others by imitation; just make sure to give them your unique spin.

Happy writing!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Keep That Day Job and Keep Writing, Too

Many writers, aspiring and established, believe the ideal job is to write—all day, every day. But there are advantages to not having writing as a day job.

It sounds counterintuitive, but having a job as a writer isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Hemingway said journalism was a great way to learn the craft of writing, long as you got out in time. What did he mean? If you work as a writer, especially in a demanding career like reporting, you could burn out sooner than later.

Having a job other than writing also lets you use a different mental skill set, meet new people, get a change of scenery and pace, and receive an income. And having the stability that comes from a regular paycheck and benefits can give you a sense of a security that helps make writing less stressful.

Another positive is that your work may enable you to develop a specialty that even if it doesn’t relate directly to your writing now could do so later, in surprising ways. Acclaimed poet-author Cortney Davis was a nurse before becoming a poet, and her work in healthcare not only informed her poetry but gave her a unique perspective and topic to write about.

Whether or not your work includes writing or leads to it, you’re gaining transferable soft skills, for example, sticking to a project from start to finish or tackling thankless and challenging tasks. You might also learn to solve problems by creating outside-the-box solutions that stimulate your creativity. Then there’s the skill of showing up, which isn’t glamorous but is far more valuable than people realize.

But what do you do if you work at a dead-end job that doesn’t offer many advantages? Or what if you have a job that has advantages but does little to inspire you? In cases like these, a little initiative goes a long way.

First, make time — to read, write and collaborate. One way to read well and widely is to join a book club, online or in-person. Also, stay in touch with those who enjoy reading and writing. And do write. You might start by journaling about your day and jotting down story ideas. Keep a running list, and set aside time to develop your ideas. And look for ways to collaborate with other writers. You might meet at a local café, bookstore or library for dedicated writing time. You might also join—or start—a writing group, in person or online.

Regardless of your day or night, with a bit of effort you can stay inspired. Even if your job doesn’t relate to writing now and won’t ever, having work that keeps you from flexing your writing muscles or expressing your ideas can stimulate your longing to write.

The very absence of writing opportunities can draw your heart in that direction.

To help you on your journey, these websites offer free databases of writing opportunities: Association of Writers & Writing Programs, NewPages, Poets & Writers, The Writer, The Writer’s Chronicle and Writer’s Digest. You might even try a writer’s residency by researching ResArtis.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Making the Most of a Writing Event

Attending a writers’ conference requires time and energy. These tips for before, during and after attending a conference or other writing-related event, especially those that include workshops, can help you make the most of the time and create a foundation for what comes after.


Before the conference:
  • Faculty: Research your faculty workshop leaders, and prepare a list of questions about your work and the craft of writing in advance. Also research other faculty, in case you want to talk with them.
  • Panels and keynote: Research the panelists and keynote speaker, and bring your questions to the Q&A sessions. If time runs out, you may be able ask questions afterward.
  • Website: Study the conference website, especially the resources sections, for helpful information. Keep checking the site for updates.
  • Workshops: Carefully review all the information from your workshop leader, to learn as much as possible about the art and craft of your chosen genre.
  • Registration: Arrive early to get a feel for the event and to meet your fellow writers, the faculty and the coordinators. Also carefully review the information in your registration packet.

During the conference:
  • Networking: Get to know your fellow writers, the workshop faculty and conference coordinators. Exchange business cards, promotional materials and contact information with others so that you can keep in touch. Compare notes with other writers about what you’re learning.
  • Book and resource tables: Visit the faculty and other book tables for examples of work by the experienced writers at the event. Also visit the resource table to collect as much information as you can.
  • Readings: Attend the readings of other writers. You'll be surprised at what you learn. And if the conference offers an applicant open-mic session, consider signing up to read your work. This will give you practice reading before what is, hopefully, a mostly friendly audience.
  • Panels and keynote: Meet the panelists and keynote speaker, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Workshops: Keep any reading lists your workshop leader provides. Read and retain all the workshop handouts. Where you need clarity about feedback or other workshop information, be sure to ask questions. Before you leave the conference, aim to have some idea of the next steps to take in your writing life.

After the conference:
  • Collaboration: Consider collaborating with a trusted fellow writer. Also consider working with a faculty workshop leader (yours or someone else) after the conference.
  • Networking: Keep in touch with your fellow writers and others you meet during the conference.
  • Feedback: Give the workshop feedback you receive from your faculty leader and fellow writers time to gel. Your workshop leader provides a worthwhile overview and details on how to improve your work, as do your compatriots, especially if a particular critique arises more than once. You fellow writers also bring another key perspective to the table — that of your prospective audience.
  • Next steps: Consider making a list of next steps for after the conference, and ask your faculty workshop leader for guidance on this. Ask the conference coordinators about the best resources to meet your writing needs. Considering creating your own writing community, and seek opportunities to stay involved and active in your writing life. Check the conference website for final information.

If making the most of a writers’ conference sounds like it involves more than just inspiration, it does. But consider this: “Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work.” Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One

Happy writing!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Reveal Your Characters Through Their Dilemmas

A great way to capture reader interest is to give the main characters of your short story or novel a dilemma that forces them to discover who they really are.

To make the most of this technique, consider these key elements:
  • Creating effective scenes
  • Depicting characters who are unaware of something critical 
  • Developing a character who has died
It has been said that first we make our choices then our choices make us. This is no less true of fictional characters. There’s nothing like being faced with a problem with far-reaching consequences to find out what you’re made of. When you give the people in your stories a life-altering problem to solve, you give them an opportunity to explore and discover who they are, warts and all.

To do this effectively, consider which major problem your main character must solve. Which problem will best drive plot, affect the other characters and serve the story?

To make this technique effective, each scene in your story must reveal more about the characters and advance the plot. In short, what do readers know after having read a scene that they didn’t know before? If the scene doesn’t build on the one before, to expand the reader’s knowledge, then it isn’t a real scene but needless repetition.

Another consideration is the paradox of depicting a character who's unaware of something crucial, for example, a wife and mother who’s always on the road for work and is unaware that her marriage and family are in shambles. The paradox for the writer is that although the character is unaware, the writer must be intimately familiar with these realities and depict them in a way that deepens the characters and propels the story with each new portrayal. In short, the character can be clueless in certain situations but she’s clueless for a reason, and it’s the writer’s job to artfully show why that is.

One major problem a character may face is one we face, too. What happens when someone important to us dies? One way to depict a key character who has died is through self-expression, for example, though letters or journals the person has left behind. In the tech age, cellphones can act as sound and/or video recording devices. However, in each of these techniques, the character is doing the telling or showing. And they may or may not be a reliable source.

A more powerful method is the recollections of others who knew the person. How do they remember her? What do they think of her now that she’s gone? What kind of legacy has she left behind? What were her secrets? Why did she keep them? What feelings does her memory evoke in others? To learn a masterful treatment of these questions, read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, either again or for the first time, to study how the author used other people’s memories, which varied from lionization to loathing, to reveal who Rebecca was.

Like a series of witnesses called to testify to the person’s true character and motives, this treatment allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Of course, the selective memories of others and their responses to those say as much or more about them as about the character, but that’s the point. The testimony of others is an effective way to depict a character who has left this mortal coil, with the added benefit that the portrayal is even stronger because the character is a haunting presence perpetually waiting in the wings.

Whether you’re writing flash or family saga, your characters aren’t who they are based solely how they grew up or where they live. They’re also who they are based on their choices, and that’s usually how they’ll be remembered.

For questions on depicting characters and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rearview: How and When to Use Backstory Effectively

Ah, backstory, that bane and blessing of the writer's existence. The questions writers in all genres often ask are what details about the past to include, how much to include and where to include them.

One definition of backstory is events that aren’t happening now but had a part in creating them. According to award-winning author Peter Selgin, “Whatever beginning we choose, there’s always another behind it, and another behind that.”

To use the backstory craft element effectively, writers of fiction and nonfiction can consider these three guidelines: Avoid putting it at the beginning of a piece. Use the right medium for the message. Aim for balance.

Backstory doesn't usually work at the start of a story because it slows the reader. Imagine a rail station master who announces a schedule delay then delivers detailed reasons why. While the information may explain long service will be out, especially in an emergency, what's usually first in importance is when you'll reach your destination.

Another consideration in effective use of backstory is the right medium for the message. Common fiction options include flashbacks, current scenes and dialogue. In nonfiction, you can include paragraphs explaining the history that led to a current event, for example, memories from an interviewee. But how can you tell which option is best for your project?

The answer depends on how much information you need to convey and how important it is. It’s generally best to convey only what's relevant to the piece and to present the information succinctly. This way you won’t slow the momentum of the work or bog readers down in a sudden influx of past events.

To decide which medium is best, consider where you are in the overall narrative. Do you need to slow the pace? Consider a flashback or informative paragraph. Do you want to build suspense? A smattering of dialogue or mini scene could be effective. As an analogy, take the ellipsis, which conveys words said but not recorded. In using backstory, pare down what you put into your medium to the essentials.

Another guideline is not revealing too much too soon. Instead, sprinkle bits and pieces of prior events throughout the narrative, to advance the story and reveal more about the people in it. And keep in mind that backstory can include elements as subtle as a scar on a woman's hand to a scene between a dying father and his daughter.

So, what's the perspective on backstory in a nutshell? Put it in the right place at the right time using the right amount of detail. Select the container as you'd select a gift box; pick the one that best fits what you're giving. Use only the information you need most at that point in your piece.

Resources:
For questions on backstory and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.