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October 13, 2014
Getting those creative wheels spinning productively
One of the things I miss most about no longer being able to blog on a consistent basis -- if not every day or week, then at least as often as I'd like -- is constant interaction with aspiring writers and their questions. The Author! Author! community asks such trenchant questions, you see. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not always seen by the excellent many with the time to read only the most recent posts.
One misses quite a lot that way, from a blogger's perspective: even when I'm not posting fresh material, I'm often answering questions quietly behind the scenes. Reasonably enough for a blog with archives as extensive as the ones at Author! Author!, great questions frequently appear in the comments on posts weeks, months, or even years old.
That doesn't mean that the issues raised might not be of every bit as much interest as those upon which I have written more recently. Take, for instance, a comment reader Firma asked some months back:
First of all, I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.
I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing; however, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.
Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!
A very good question about a problem that plagues a great many writers, right? Indeed, it may well sneak up upon all of us from time to time: hands up, everyone who has ever staged at a blank screen or page, feeling it taunting you to fill it up.
I do indeed have a number of suggestions, but first, let's talk about why this species of writer's block annoys so many, and why it's so hard to overcome. Heck, while we're at it, let's also take a swing at why, compared to more major forms of I just can't seem to write today! syndrome, it's comparatively little discussed in writing circles. And when it is, the sufferer is very often made to feel that a lack of dedication, patience, or even story must be at fault.
Just to clear the air: none of those explanations are necessarily true. Plenty of highly dedicated aspiring writers with the patience of medieval saints apply themselves to stories that would knock your socks off -- and still find themselves staring helplessly at that blank page for the first twenty minutes of every writing session.
Darned frustrating, even if you didn't have to fight tooth and nail, as so many committed writers do, to free that writing time from other obligations. No one needs to remind you that you could have used that time more productively. So I have an idea: let's all agree that informing a writer acutely aware of a ticking clock is, at best, redundant.
At worst, it's kind of cruel, isn't it? Good writers, after all, tend to be rather sensitive people: to paraphrase H.G. Wells, it takes a mind unusually open to stimulus to produce strong sensations on the page. (Actually, he was talking about matters below the waist at the time, but it's still a useful principle, is it not?)
Instead of nagging Firma -- who, I think we all can agree, has been doing an awfully impressive job of nagging herself -- to use her time better, let's dig into why she and hundreds of thousands of other writers experience difficulty jump-starting that writing session. Part of the problem, in my experience, lies in the expectation that every last second a writer spends with a manuscript should be productive, as if the writing process consisted solely of slapping words on a page. To be fair, there's certainly a lot of external validation of that attitude; heck, there's even a month every year devoted to exhorting folks who haven't found the time to sit down with their stories for the past eleven months to write a whole novel in thirty days.
Why, that month is coming up very soon, isn't it? What a remarkable coincidence.
As any established author chafing under a deadline can tell you, pressure to produce X number of pages within a short time frame has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. Even if the deadline in question exists only in the mind of the writer -- an obligation that can be as nebulous as plan to finish that chapter by the end of the week, or a commitment to try to write X number of words in any given writing session -- finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer may not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch. For many, many writers, the biggest challenge emerges from the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.
It’s conquering the fear of starting.
If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. Almost invariably, those newer to the game blame themselves, as if falling prey to writer's block were a question of character. (Experienced writers know better: they blame the unreasonableness of their deadlines. But that's another story.)
The demons of self-doubt can be deafening, can't they? Especially for a creative mind looking for an outlet. Stumped writers worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to justify taking time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don't start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.
Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are, after all, trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them. By contrast, since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury.
Which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t. Not if the storytelling urge is really in your blood.
That last sentence made half of you feel guilty, didn't it? I'm not surprised: in the throes of writer's block, even encouraging statements can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”
Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer's job description. The pros call it processing.
So do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.
As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason they can't quite define, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.
I’m not going to lie to you –- if you find that you’re not cozying up to a computer on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.
Again, I could parrot other writing advice-givers, blaming every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/DVR/iPod/TiVo/other electronic distractions, but honestly, we live in a world. Things happen. I would be the last person to advise you to be less aware of what is going on around you.
Mr. Wells' sensitive nervous tissue, you know. Anyway, chances are that by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, and so forth.
I could also echo William Faulkner's famous advice to Eudora Welty, when she complained about how difficult it was to find writing time while taking care of her ailing mother: I believe his plan involved a window and a flinging action. Somehow, however, I can't feel that urging you to defenestrate your nearest and dearest would free your mind from clutter when you next pulled up a chair to your writing desk.
Besides, where would that leave you when you wanted to take Mr. Wells' advice literally? Ponder that, please, until we meet again in Part II.
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October 13, 2014
Overcoming those bare-page blues, part II
All of that being said, and as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.
If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)
But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.
So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.
If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)
Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It may seem suspiciously simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the moment you sit down to write.
As in every time you sit down to write. Not just the same album -- they still make those, right? --but the same song. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.
Do select something you like, because it's going to be your book's soundtrack for a while. And do pick more than one song to play -- always in the same order, please. It's fine to create a playlist, or you can listen to the same CD beginning to end. You're going to want at least half an hour's worth of music, enough to play in the background until well past the point at which your brain generally starts switching into writing mode.
Here's the trick, though: if inspiration does not come winging to you immediately, don't do anything else but write. Stay there in front of that blank screen and think about your story. It's fine to write something other than the scene you planned, as long as it remains within the world of your book. Go ahead and write character sketches, if you like. Brainstorm an outline for a future scene. Write a hunk of dialogue that doesn't currently have a place in the storyline. Picture taking your protagonist and antagonist out to a four-course meal at the restaurant of their choice. It's up to you.
Oh, stop groaning: it's better than berating yourself in silence for those first ten minutes of trying to write, isn't it?
What you may not do, if you want to give this experiment a valid try, is plan out other books in your series. Don't write on another project. And, of course, don't give up and start answering e-mails. Don't surf the net. Don't check Facebook.
I'm serious: don't do anything else for at least half an hour. The time is going to pass slowly, but don't give up. It doesn't matter if you're bored -- in fact, for the purposes of correcting the problem, it would be great to bore yourself in this manner.
Why, you ask in horror? You're prompting the creative part of your mind to get cracking -- and that you're willing to sit there until it stops resisting getting to work on the darned interesting book you're writing.
"But Anne," I hear the blocked cry, and who could blame you? "Won't this take a lot of time? I mean, I've already been flogging myself mentally for not beginning to write the instant my writing time begins -- won't this just feel like punishing myself further?"
Ah, but isn't part of the problem that your creative urges have been taking their time to start flowing? This is a way to make it pellucidly clear to those pesky Muses that you are indeed committed to your writing process -- not merely to the story itself. There is a difference, you know, on the composition level, necessarily so if what you are writing is a book-length piece.
Why? Well, contrary to what the hobgoblins may have been hissing at you in the wee hours, no author, no matter how gifted, writes an entire book in one sitting. (Not a good one, anyway.) Nor do talented authors typically whip off a first draft that's published as is. That means, in practice, that committing to writing a good book entails a long, hard effort over time.
"Aha!" the part of your brain eager to procrastinate announces triumphantly. "In other words, what I do today doesn't matter. Maybe, if I resist plunging into the task of writing, the rest of my mind will get frustrated and decide to do something else."
Sound familiar? And see why it might take a firm resolve to keep staring at that blank screen to convince that truant portion of your mind to stop skylarking?
Both the wait time and the musical repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing -- and with spending some serious time not doing anything but writing. That in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. Be consistent, and do be prepared to keep it up for a good dozen writing sessions, to set the pattern.
"But not forever, right?" you ask nervously. "I'm not committing myself to a lifetime of listening to nothing but John Denver's greatest hits, just so I can write productively, am I?"
Naturally, you can play other music later on, but I would recommend always beginning with the same song for at least a few months. Until your brain has become accustomed to snapping immediately into creative mode, not yielding to the temptation of playing something else in those early minutes. You want the message to sink into every synapse: hearing this means it's time to write.
Stick with it. And do be aware that if this trick works -- and it usually does, if a writer gives it a solid chance -- you will forever associate that music with the book. There are worse fates. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric's without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.
Do I see some timid raised hands out there in the ether? Yes? "But Anne," some of you murmur, "I'm already pretty easily distracted; that's part of my problem. Hadn't it occurred to you that if I don't write to music, that might have been a sensible, deliberate choice?"
It did, actually; thus the swiftness of my answer: it actually doesn't matter what your getting-started-writing ritual is, so long as you perform it consistently. The point is to provide all of that sensitive nervous tissue with a set of nonverbal clues that it's time to get down to writing.
You're a creative person -- experiment. If music's not your thing, try lighting the same scented candle just before you sit down to write, if you can do it safely. (Make sure it's set in a fireproof holder.) Burn some incense. Drink a particular flavor of tea. Always wear the same pair of socks.
At least for the duration of that particular writing project. You might want to set up a different set of stimuli for your next book. Why? Well, it will help you at revision time: a fringe benefit of establishing a ritual for the first draft is that it can make getting back into that book's mindset a snap.
"Oh," the creative parts of your noggin will shout, "that's Alice Cooper singing Cheek to Cheek. It must be time to write about the planet Targ again."
And another forest of hands has sprouted. "But Anne," timorous writers everywhere protest, "I'm willing to try these wacky things, because I'm desperate. I can't even begin to imagine how crazy it's going to drive my spouse/significant other/neighbors/particularly judgmental cat to hear All the Single Ladies six times a week, but I'll risk it.
"I'm scared, though: what do I do if this doesn't work for me? Hand myself over to the hobgoblins of self-doubt then and there?"
No, no, fearful ones; this certainly isn't the only way of approaching the problem. My sleeves are positively stuffed with fresh cards to toss into the game.
Before I start whipping 'em out, though, I would like to ask of you coping with the writer’s-block blues: what other ways have you been experiencing it? Dead-of-night self-critique? Backspacing over half of what you've written in a day? The impulse to toss completed manuscripts into the nearest geyser?
There are many different strains of the phenomenon, after all, and sometimes, coming up with a specific diagnosis provides half the cure. Feel free to share yours with me at Author! Author! or on Facebook.
And, as always, keep up the good work!
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May 9, 2014
A trick that was old by the time the talkies rolled around
No time for a long-winded missive today, campers, but I could not let the occasion pass without posting a few words. What occasion rises to the mandatory observation level, you may well ask, eyeing both the lapse between this and my last post and the undeniable fact that Author! Author!'s older posts are still, alas, unhappily plagued with extraneous symbols? Participating in a species of conversation all too common behind the scenes in publishing circles.
It tends to run something like this: someone whose job it is to read submissions, all day, every day (except, of course, on those days she invests in skimming a few hundred queries at a sitting) quietly goes nuts while reading the 531rst submission of the month. Grounding her no doubt expensively straightened teeth to an extent that her former orthodontist would deplore, our Millicent -- for yes, it is she, everybody's favorite agency screener -- she vents her frustration upon a sympathetic friend while she is waiting in line for her latté.
"It's happened again," she murmurs into her phone. "Three submissions in a row in which the text asserted that what was going on was…wait for it… just like something in a movie!"
Having been savvy enough to call a fellow professional reader, she's sure to meet with sympathy. Calling me, however, might not have been the best choice. "I know, I know: it's maddening to see writers rush to use the same metaphor, over and over again. But you must admit, it isn't those three writers' fault that you happened to read their submissions back to back."
"Not their fault!" Predictably, Millicent burns her lip on her too-hot latté. "Everybody knows that saying something happening on the page was just like a movie is bad writing."
I can't resist teasing her; we've had this discussion too many times. "It depends upon how the sentence using that tired old concept is constructed, doesn't it? I could imagine it being expressed very prettily."
"Fine. I'll send the next fifteen manuscripts that use it to you, so you can compare their delightful sentence structure."
She's laughing by the time we hang up, but I must admit, she has a point. As anyone who reads for a living could tell you -- particularly agents, editors, and the screeners they employ, all of whom by necessity must read manuscripts one after another, due to sheer volume -- nothing quite makes the mind scream like spotting the same phrase, concept, or metaphor crop up repeatedly, page after page. When those pages happen to belong to different manuscripts, the frustration can be even greater: after the fourth or fifth time in a week, even the most literature-loving Millicent can start to wonder if half of the writers in the English-speaking world gathered someplace secret five months ago, to agree upon what the cliché of the season will be.
Hey, there are fashions in writing, just as in anything else that requires taste to appreciate. And, just as in runway fashion, once an innovative author hits the big time with a unique offering, the pros are used to seeing dozens -- nay, hundreds -- of copycat submissions flooding their inboxes shortly thereafter.
At first, that can be exciting: it's no secret that publishers often attempt to capitalize upon the success of a bestseller by bringing out similar books in short order. Which makes sense, right? A certain group of readers have already demonstrated that they like that kind of book; why not offer them similar titles?
Actually, there's a pretty good answer to that: after what can be an astonishingly short time, however, the readership for a particular type of story can, well, get tired of it. Perhaps more to the point for those trying to break into print, the Millicents tasked with screening all of those remarkably similar stories can begin to find them a bit predictable.
And those Millies are not the only ones. "Another Twilight knock-off?" their bosses exclaim. "This one had better have an awfully different spin."
The rapid rise and fall of bestsellers and their followers is too well known in literary circles to raise many aspiring writers' eyebrows these days. Come closer, though, and I'll let you in on a little professional secret: that's not the kind of repetition that causes Millicent to fling aside a submission, rend her garments, and rush out the door for a coffee refill. It's seeing how many otherwise original, well-written manuscripts utilize precisely the same standard comparisons and hackneyed phrases as those that are neither prettily constructed nor particularly unique.
Seriously, it's kind of startling to spot on the page. A pro will be reading along, enjoying a good story well told, when she's abruptly confronted with a paragraph like this:
Ambrose staggered, stunned by the force of the blow. The world wavered before his eyes, as if he were watching an old movie and a flashback was just about to begin.
Nothing wrong with the writing there -- so why might that last clause send Millicent's hand automatically reaching for a form letter beginning Thank you so much for your submission, but I'm afraid it does not meet our needs at this time? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an hour ago, she had just rejected a manuscript containing this gem?
Mignonette clutched her head, trying to make sense of it all. It was surreal. She felt as if she was in a movie.
Leaving aside the relatively rare editorial pet peeve regarding how often narratives describe perfectly comprehensible scenes as surreal -- not nearly so often as they label a situation utterly devoid of irony as ironic, admittedly, but still, frequently enough to become annoying -- is it really so hard to understand why the lingering memory of Mignonette's affection for film might color Millicent's perception of the freshness of Ambrose's reaction to the blow?
And a thousand writers' hands shoot into the air. Yes? "This is ridiculous, Anne," film aficionados everywhere grumble. "Why shouldn't two writers embrace the same comparison, if they write about it differently? Feeling like you're in a movie is a fairly common experience, after all; eschewing writing about it would be akin to declaring that depicting a character drinking milk an instant-rejection offense."
An excellent argument, grumblers, but part of the problem is that so many manuscripts don't write about it differently. Even in conversation, it was just like a movie is a cliché for a reason, after all: in everyday life, people tend to describe what you rightly point out is a common feeling in the modern world in a common way.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't one of the primary goals of developing an individual authorial voice not to express things precisely like everybody else does? And don't we writers pride ourselves upon presenting our readers not merely with a mirror held up to their own lives, accompanied by a transcript of what they already hear, but our own personal take on reality, phrased in a way that is like no one else's prose?
Do I sense writers of third-person fiction leaping to their collective feet, shouting, "Yes, by gum! Down with hackneyed phrases and concepts!" while those of you who spend your time crafting first-person narratives sat on your hands? I'm not entirely astonished: writers of first-person fiction and memoir frequently work under the principle that if good first-person narration reads as though an actual human being might conceivably have said it out loud, and if most people incorporate clichés into their everyday speech, then loading a first-person narrative with clichés is only being true to life, right?
Well, arguably. It can -- and all too often does -- result in a narrative voice that sounds not like a specific individual, but just anybody. Millicent is also confronted with this kind of opening many times a day:
Oh, my God, I can't believe it. I'm sick of this. The gall of some people! I'm so over it. I'm out of here.
Believable verbal expression? Oh, yes. But I ask you: what do those stock phrases actually tell you about this narrator? Or about the situation, for that matter?
Hackneyed phrases and concepts are, after all, generic. That's why polite exchanges so often bore readers: by definition, those phrases that everybody says in particular situations convey no individualized meaning.
Did I just hear some eyebrows hitting the ceiling? I kid you not: as delightful as courtesy is to encounter in real life, it can be stultifying on the page. Take a gander:
Kendrick held out his right hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Pleased to meet you, too," Ghislaine said. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Yes, the weather is nice. Oh, here's Maurice. How are you, Maurice?"
They shook hands like old friends, as indeed they were. "Fine," Maurice said. "How are you?"
"Oh, fine. Ghislaine, this is Maurice."
Maurice shook her hand. "How are you?"
"Fine. How are you?"
Longing yet for death's sweet embrace? What if you had read similar personality-free conversations eight or nine times today?
Ponder that dreadful fate, please, until we meet again in Part II.
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May 9, 2014
The screen goes wavy...AGAIN, part II
How did the pondering go? And why are you brandishing those pitchforks?
"Oh, come on, Anne," polite people everywhere scoff. "Everyone understands that these are stock phrases -- but that's the point, isn't it? By having the characters spout courteous clichés, the narrative is letting the reader know that these are nice people."
Perhaps, but surely, that's not the only way to demonstrate their many sterling qualities. If Kendrick complimented Ghislaine on her fetching frock, would he not come across as a pretty nice guy? If she were rushing back from her volunteer work with homeless children, pausing only briefly to exchange pleasantries before her shift at the leper colony began, might the reader not gain an inkling of her other-orientation? If Maurice had just experienced the loss of his beloved pet ocelot, would you consider her rude if he mentioned it?
Actually, that last one's not the best example, as Millicent would hasten to tell you. She could not even begin to estimate how many times in any given week of screening her tired peepers fall on a scene like this:
"How are you?" Kendrick asked.
"Fine." Maurice drew his sleeve across his eyes. "Except my beloved pet ocelot, Coriolanus, has just passed away."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Kendrick said. "Oh, here comes Ghislaine. Ghislaine, Coriolanus died!"
"Oh, Maurice!" she exclaimed. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
I could go on and show what the policeman on the corner, all seventeen of Maurice's coworkers, and his great-aunt said upon hearing the news, but you're sensing a pattern, right? I've said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: just because people say something in real life doesn't mean that it will make good reading on the page.
Or, to put it another way: strong dialogue doesn't need to sound like everyday speech to work in print. It's needs to be more interesting than everyday speech.
If it's to impress Millicent with its originality and beauty, that is. After hours of too-polite dialogue, imagine what a relief it could be to read an exchange like this:
Ghislaine realized that she knew the man tugging on her arm. "Why, Kendrick, you look just awful!"
"I feel as if my guts have been ripped out." He managed a brave smile. "Haven't you heard about Maurice's ocelot?"
Her intestines squirmed with anticipated horror. "What's happened to Coriolanus?"
"Killed in a freak basketball accident. He was prowling along the top of the backboard, and a rogue shot knocked him to the ground."
"Oh, my God!" Ghislaine cried. "It's just like something in a movie!"
Oh, so close! Millicent was just settling in for a nice, interesting read, and the manuscript had to throw up a red flag. It might not be the final red flag for this submission -- you would want to find out why there's an ocelot in this story, right? -- but in most professional readers, Ghislaine's cri de coeur would at least elicit a roll of the eyes.
Were there other problems on the page, though, it might well prompt a cry of "Next!" Remember, it's Millicent's job to thin the submission pile. Her boss, the agent of your dreams, can only take on a few new clients per year; naturally, there's a heck of a lot of competition for those spots.
That being the case, is it truly sensible submission strategy to decorate your manuscript with that observation about how the ongoing situation resembles what one might expect to encounter on the big screen?
Do I hear some cries of despair out there in the ether? "There you go again," frustrated writers complain, and who could blame you? "You're just accepting Millicent's claim that everybody knows that the movie comparison is bad writing. At the risk of repeating the grumble from earlier in this post, doesn't it all depend upon the writing?"
Yes, of course -- and no. You see, good writing doesn't exist in a vacuum; readers of every stripe tend to read more than one author in their lifetimes. They have come to expect the work of one author to differ from every other's.
And they're right to expect that: imagine how boring life would be if all well-written books sounded as though they had all been written by the same person!
In an agency, publishing house, or even within the context of a writing competition, good writing doesn't magically rise to the top of the submission or entry pile. To get to it, Millicent and her ilk read through everything else. Since a submitter cannot control the order in which his work is read, it really doesn't make strategic sense to rely upon the hope that his use of the movie trope -- or any other commonly-employed comparison or phrase -- will not pass under a screener's eyes immediately after somebody else's attempt to do the same thing.
Even the best of literary devices can start to seem overused with repetition after all. Think about Millie's screening day for a moment. What kind of pretty prose do you suppose greeted her over the morning's first latté?
She ran through the bleak forest, her long, red hair streaming behind her. Were those dogs she heard in the distance? Why had Fidelio placed her in this horrible position?
No time to wonder -- those villagers with torches would catch up with her any minute now. If she'd been the monster in a Frankenstein movie, she couldn't have been in more danger.
Come on, admit it -- you're starting to tire of the film references. And although I'm certain it doesn't feel that way, so far, only four of the examples in this post have contained it.
Yes, really. This comparison gets old fast.
Picture, then, how Millicent's weary eye must twitch upon catching sight of yet another iteration of the same concept. Especially if the next manuscript in the pile read like this:
Silvia couldn't believe it -- this was all so surreal. She didn't even feel like herself: it was like she was watching herself on television.
In response to what fully a quarter of you just thought: no, Virginia, referring to television instead of a movie wouldn't lessen the negativity of Millicent's reaction. She would merely think that the writer of that last one didn't get out as often as the writer of the one before it.
She would have a hard time justifying sliding either page under her boss' nose, and not just because, like any experienced professional reader, the agent for whom Millie works may safely be assumed to have seen the movie/television/music video comparison thousands of times already. Like many publishing professionals, that agent may also feel a certain resentment towards movies, television, music videos, and new media for taking up time that right-minded people used to devote to reading.
But it didn't occur to our submitter to say that Silvia's surreal experience was like something in a novel, did it?
Still not convinced? Okay, I'm dropping all pretense: there's one other reason that Millicent might hesitate to overlook this particular red flag on the page. This next example is infected with a mild case of the phenomenon; see if you can spot it.
Ricardo ducked behind the nearest desk, gasping as if he were about to have a heart attack. What a great movie this chase would make! Except that no one would believe it.
Yes, this passage contains the dreaded movie comparison, but did you catch the secondary problem? Essentially, what a great movie this chase would make! is a review of the scene currently in progress: not only is the narrator telling the reader that this chase would be exciting on the big screen -- the text goes so far as to say that the result would be great.
If Millicent and her kind cringe when they spot a hackneyed phrase or concept in a submission, they see red when they think a manuscript is indulging in self-review. "It's not your job to tell me how great you are," she's likely to snap at the manuscript. "It's your job to show me. And it's my job to decide whether you're great, good, or so-so."
The moral here, should you care to know it: it's a heck of a lot easier to impress a professional reader with good writing that's original than good writing that strays into overused territory, either in terms of wording or concept. Stock phrases and comparisons might sound right in the privacy of your writing studio -- as well they should: people actually do talk in clichés. But by definition, clichés are not fresh; clichés are not original.
And trust me on this one: that cliché about how the current scene is like a movie ceased causing agents and editors to exclaim, "Wow, I've never seen that on the page before!" approximately two and a half years into the silent era.
Maybe it's time to give it a rest. Instead, why not startle and delight Millicent with an insight and phrasing only you could have produced?
It's worth a try, anyway. Keep up the good work!
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February 24, 2014
Please raise a glass (or three) to my 1600th post!
Good news, campers! After an unplanned hiatus, Author! Author! is once again back online! It's quite a relief, I must admit.
The shenanigans that caused the site to go dark have left some residua that will take me some time to clean up, but the important thing is that the archives and ability to comment are once more available to members of our little community. Three cheers, and keep up the good work!
A few weeks ago, while I was deep in the throes of contemplating what subject I should tackle for this, my 1600th post at Author! Author!, a non-writer -- or so I surmise, from the bent of her discourse -- abruptly flung a rather profound question in my direction. It was, happily for today's post, one of those questions that would never, ever occur to anyone who had devoted serious time to courting a Muse.
"You've been blogging for 7 1/2 years on the same subject?" she gasped, practically indignant with incredulity. "You've posted hundreds of times, haven't you? It's only writing -- what could you possibly still have to say?"
I know, I know: I was sorely tempted to laugh, too. From a writer's or editor's perspective, the notion that everything an aspiring writer could possibly need or want to know about the ins and outs of writing and revising a manuscript, let alone how to land an agent, work with a publishing house, promote a book, and/or launch into one's next writing project, could be covered adequately in a mere 1599 blog posts borders on the absurd. Writing a compelling book constitutes one of the most challenging endeavors life offers to a creative persons mind, heart, and soul; it's not as though there's a simple, one-size-fits-all formula for literary success.
At the same time, I could hear in her question an echo of a quite ubiquitous compound misconception about writing. It runs a little something like this: if people are born with certain talents, then good writers are born, not made; if true writers tumble onto this terrestrial sphere already knowing deep down how to write, then all a gifted person needs to do is put pen to paper and let the Muse speak in order to produce a solid piece of writing; since all solid pieces of writing inevitably find a home -- an old-fashioned publishing euphemism for being offered a contract by an agent or publishing house -- if a writer has been experiencing any difficulty whatsoever getting her book published, she must not be talented. Q.E.D.
With a slight caveat: all of those presumptions are false. Demonstrably so -- egregiously so, even. Just ask virtually any author of an overnight bestseller: good books are typically years, or even decades, in the making.
What could I possibly still want to say to writers to help them improve their manuscripts' chances of success? How long have you got?
We've come a long way together, campers: when Author! Author! first took its baby steps back in August, 2005, in its original incarnation as the Resident Writer spot on the nation's largest writers' association's website, little did I -- or, I imagine, my earliest readers, some of whom are still loyal commenters, bless 'em -- imagine that I will still be dreaming up post for you all so many years into the future.
Heck, at the outset, I had only envisioned a matter of months. The Organization that Shall Remain Nameless had projected even less: when it first recruited me to churn out advice for aspiring writers everywhere, my brief was to do it a couple of times per week for a month, to see how it went. They didn't want me to blog, per se -- in order to comment, intrepid souls had to e-mail the organization, which then forwarded questions it deemed appropriate to me.
As your contributions flew in and my posts flew up, I have to confess, the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless seemed rather taken aback. Who knew, its president asked, and frequently, that there were so many writers out there longing for some straightforward, practical-minded advice on how to navigate a Byzantine and apparently sometimes arbitrary system? What publishing professional could have sensed the confusion so many first-time writers felt when faced with the welter of advice barked at them online? What do you mean, the guidelines found on the web often directly contradict one another?
And what on earth was the insidious source of this bizarre preference for the advice-giver's being nice to writers while explaining things to them? It wasn't as though much of the online advisors actually in the know -- as opposed to the vast majority of writing advice that stems from opinion, rumor, and something that somebody may have heard an agent say at a conference somewhere once -- were ever huffy, standoffish, or dismissive when they explained what a query letter was, right?
That rolling thunderclap you just heard bouncing off the edges of the universe was, of course, the roars of laughter from every writer who tried to find credible guidance for their writing careers online around about 2006.
Yet the officers of the Organization that Shall Remain Nameless were not the only ones mystified that there was any audience at all for, say, my posts on how to format a manuscript professionally. Or how to give a pitch. Or how to spot editor-irritating red flags in your own writing. They actually tried to talk me out of blogging about some of these things -- because every writer serious about getting published already knows all of that, right?
So why precisely did I think it would be valuable for my readers to be able to see one another's questions and comments? If I was so interested in building writing community, they suggested, why didn't I join them in transforming what had arguably been the writers' association best at helping its members get published into a force to help those already in print find a wider audience? Wouldn't that be, you know, more upbeat and, well, inspirational than giving all of that pesky and potentially depressing practical advice?
Almost a year and many brisk arguments about respect for writers later, I decided to start my own website. That enabled me to turn Author! Author! into a true blog, a space that welcomed writers struggling and established to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and, sometimes, their often quite justified irritation at the apparently increasing number of hoops through which good writing -- and, consequently, good writers -- were being expected to jump prior to publication.
Oh, those of you new to searching for an agent have no idea how tough things were back then. A few of the larger agencies had just started not responding to queries if the answer was no -- can you believe it? Some agencies, although far from all, agents had begun accepting e-mailed queries, but naturally, your chances were generally better if your approached them by letter. And I don't want to shock you, but occasionally, an agent would request a full manuscript, but send a form-letter rejection.
Picture the horror: a book turned down, and the writer had no idea why!
Ah, those days seem so innocent now, do they not? How time flies when you don't know whether your manuscript is moldering third from the top in a backlogged submission pile, has been rejected without comment, or simply got lost in the mail. Sometimes, it feels as though those much-vaunted hoops have not only gotten smaller, but have been set on fire.
Let's face it: the always long and generally bumpy road to publication has gotten longer and bumpier in recent years. Not that it was ever true that all that was necessary in order to see your work in print was to write a good book, of course; that's a pretty myth that has been making folks in publishing circles roll their eyes since approximately fifteen minutes after Gutenberg came rushing out of his workshop, waving a mechanically-printed piece of paper. Timing, what's currently selling well, what is expected to sell well a couple of years hence, when a book acquired now by a traditional publisher would actual come out, the agent of your dreams' experience with trying to sell a book similar to yours -- all of this, and even just plain, dumb luck, have pretty much always affected what readers found beckoning them from the shelves.
But you'd never know that from most of what people say about how books get published, would you? Ponder what you have learned along the way, please, until we meet again in Part II
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A R C H I V E / H I G H L I G H T S
Part II: yes, but what does this mean for my manuscript?
originally posted: February 23, 2014
To hear folks talk, you'd think that the only factor involved was writing talent. Or that agencies and publishing houses were charitable organizations, selflessly devoted to the noble task of bringing the best books written every year to an admiring public.
Because, of course, there is universal agreement about what constitutes good writing, right? And good writing in one genre is identical to good writing for every type of book, isn't it?
None of that is true, of course -- and honestly, no one who works with manuscripts for a living could survive long believing it. The daily heartbreak would be too painful to bear.
But I don't need to explain that to those of you who have been plugging away at writing for a while, do I? Ah, the many learning experiences of the writing life. I'm sure you recall vividly how you felt the day when you realized that not every good, or even great, manuscript written got published, my friends. Or has that terrible sense of betrayal long since receded into the dim realm of memory? Or, as we discussed over the holidays, does it spring to gory life afresh each time some well-meaning soul who has never put pen to paper asks, "What, you still haven't published your book? But you've been at it for years!"
Now, you could answer those questions literally, I suppose, grimly listing every obstacle even the best manuscript faces on its way to traditional publication. You could, too, explain at length why you have chosen to pursue traditional publishing, if you have, or why you have decided to self-publish, if that's your route.
I could also have given that flabbergasted lady who asked me why I thought there was anything left to say about writing a stirring speech about the vital importance of craft to fine literature. Or regaled her with horror stories about good memoirs suddenly slapped with gratuitous lawsuits. I could even, I suppose, have launched into a two-hour lecture on common misuses of the semicolon without running out of examples, but honestly, what would have been the point? If wonderful writing conveys the impression of having been the first set of words to travel from a talented author's fingertips to a keyboard, why dispel that illusion?
Instead of quibbling over whether it's ever likely -- or possible -- for a first draft to take the literary world by storm, may I suggest that those of us who write could use our time together more productively? For today, at least, let's tune out all of the insistent voices telling us that if only we were really talented, our work would already be gracing the shelves of the nearest public library, and settle down into a nice, serious discussion of craft.
Humor me: I've been at this more than 7 1/2 years. In the blogging realm, that makes me a great-grandmother.
At the risk of sounding as though I'm 105 -- the number of candles on my own great-grandmother's last cake, incidentally; the women in my family are cookies of great toughness -- I'd like to turn our collective attention to a craft problem that seldom gets discussed in these decadent days: how movies and television have caused many manuscripts, fiction and nonfiction both, to introduce their characters in a specific manner.
Do I hear peals of laughter bouncing off the corners of the cosmos again? "Oh, come on, Anne," readers not old enough to have followed Walter Winchell snicker, "isn't it a trifle late in the day to be focusing on such a problem? At this juncture, I feel it safe to say that TV and movies are here to stay."
Ah, but that's just my point: they are here to stay, and the fact that those forms of storytelling are limited to exploiting only two of the audience's senses -- vision and hearing -- for creating their effects has, as we have discussed many times before, prompted generation after generation of novelists and memoirists to create narratives that call upon no other sense. If, at the end of a hard day of reading submissions, an alien from the planet Targ were to appear to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener and ask her how many senses the average Earthling possesses, a good 95% of the pages she had seen recently would prompt her to answer, "Two."
A swift glance at the human head, however, would prove her wrong. Why, I've seen people sporting noses and tongues, in addition to eyes and ears, and I'm not ashamed to say it. If you're willing to cast those overworked peepers down our subject's body, you might even catch the hands, skin, muscles, and so forth responding to external stimuli.
So would it really be so outrageous to incorporate some sensations your characters acquire through other sensible organs, as Jane Austen liked to call them? Millicent would be so pleased.
If you'd really like to make her happy -- and it would behoove you to consider her felicity: her perception of your writing, after all, is what stands between your manuscript and a reading by the agent or editor of your dreams -- how about bucking another trend ushered in by the advent of movies and television? What about introducing a new character's physical characteristics slowly, over the course of a scene or even several, rather than describing the fresh arrival top to toe the instant he enters the book?
"Sacre bleu!" I hear the overwhelming majority of hopeful novelists and memoirists shouting. "Are you mad? The other characters in the scene -- including, if I'm writing in either the first or the tight third person, my protagonist -- will first experience that new person visually! Naturally, I must stop the ongoing action dead in its tracks in order to show the reader what s/he looks like. If I didn't, the reader might -- gasp! -- form a mental image that's different from what I'm seeing in my head!"
Why, yes, that's possible. Indeed, it's probable. But I ask you: is that necessarily a problem? No narrative describes a character down to the last mitochondrion in his last cell, after all; something is always left to the reader's imagination.
Which is, if we're being truthful about it, a reflection of real life, is it not? Rarely, for instance, would an initial glance reveal everything about a character's looks. Clothes hide a lot, if they're doing their job, and distance can be quite a concealer. And really, do you count every freckle on the face of each person passing you on the street?
You might be surprised by how many narratives do, especially in the opening pages of a book. Take a gander at how Millicent all too often makes a protagonist's acquaintance.
A lean man loped into the distance, shading the horizon with his length even from eighty yards away. Tall as his hero, Abe Lincoln, Jake's narrow face was hidden by a full beard as red as the hair he had cut himself without a mirror. Calluses deformed his hands, speaking eloquently of years spent yanking on ropes as touch as he was. That those ropes had harnessed the wind for merchant ships was apparent from his bow-legged gait. Pointy of elbow and knee, his body seemed to be moving more slowly than the rest of him as he strode toward the Arbogasts' encampment.
Henriette eyed him as he approached. His eyes were blue, as washed-out as the baked sky above. Bushy eyebrows punctuated his thoughts. Clearly, those thoughts were deep; how else could she have spotted his anger at twenty paces?
His long nose stretched as he spoke. "Good day, madam," he said, his dry lips cracking under the strain of speech, "but could I interest you in some life insurance?"
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this description, as descriptions go. Millicent might legitimately wonder if Henriette is secretly Superman, given how sharp her vision seems to be at such great distances (has anybody ever seen Henriette and Superman together?), and it goes on for quite some time, but she might well forgive that: the scene does call for Henriette to watch Jake walking toward her. Millie be less likely to overlook the five uses of as in the first paragraph, admittedly, but you can't have everything.
Oh, you hadn't noticed them? Any professional reader undoubtedly would, and for good reason: as is as common in the average submission as...well, anything you'd care to name is anywhere it's common.
That means -- and it's a perpetual astonishment to those of us who read for a living how seldom aspiring writers seem to think of this -- that by definition, over-reliance on as cannot be a matter of individual authorial voice. Voice consists of how an author's narratives differ from how other writers' work reads on the page, not in how it's similar. Nor can it sound just like ordinary people talk, another extremely popular narrative choice. For a new voice to strike Millicent and her boss as original, it must be unique to the author.
The same holds true, by the way, for the ultra-common narrative practice of blurting out everything there is to know about a character visually at his initial appearance: it's not an original or creative means of slipping the guy into the story. It can't possibly be, since that tactic has over the past half-century struck a hefty proportion of the writing population as the right or even the only way to bring a new character into a story.
Don't believe that someone who reads manuscripts all day, every day would quickly tire of how fond writers are of this method? In Part III, I shall give you a taste of Millicent's luncheon, so to speak.
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Part III: let me see! Let me see!
originally posted: February 23, 2014
Ready to be appalled? Excellent. Call to mind our last example, then take a peek at the next few paragraphs of the opening of Henriette's saga.
She backed away, her brown suede skirt catching on the nearby sagebrush. She tossed her long, blonde hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes, just the color of the trim on her prim, gray high-necked blouse, so appropriate for the schoolmarm/demolitions expert that she was, snapped as strongly as her voice. A pleasing contralto, when she was not furious, but Jake might never get a chance to hear her sing.
"On your way, mister," she hissed, adjusting her two-inch leather belt with the fetching iron clasp. Marvin had forged that clasp for her, just before he was carried off by a pack of angry rattlesnakes. She could still envision his tuxedo-clad body rolling above its stripy captors, his black patent leather shoes shining in the harsh midday sun. "We don't cotton to your kind here."
An unspecified sound of vague origin came from behind her. She whirled around, scuffing her stylish mid-calf boots. She almost broke one of her lengthy, scarlet-polished fingernails while drawing her gun.
Morris grinned back at her, his tanned, rugged face scrunching into a sea of sun-bleached stubble. His pine-green eyes blinked at the reflection from the full-length mirror Jake had whipped out from under his tattered corduroy coat. It showed her trim backside admirably, or at least as much as was visible under her violet bustle. Her hair -- which could be described no other way than as long and blonde -- tumbled down her back, confined only by her late mother's cherished magenta hair ribbon.
Morris caught sight of himself in the mirror. My, he was looking the worse for wear. He wore an open-collared poet's shirt as red as the previous day's sunset over a well-cut pant of vermillion velvet. Dust obscured the paisley pattern at the cuff and neck, embroidered by his half-sister, Marguerite, who could be spotted across the street at a second-floor window, playing the cello. Her ebony locks trailed over her bare shoulder as her loosely-cut orange tea gown slipped from its accustomed place.
Had enough yet? Millicent would -- and we're still on page 1. So could you really blame her if she cried over this manuscript, "For heaven's sake, stop showing me what these people look like and have them do something!"
To which I would like to add my own editorial cri de coeur: would somebody please tell this writer that while clothes may make the man in some real-world contexts, it's really not all that character-revealing to describe a person's outfit on the page? Come on, admit it: after a while, Henriette's story started to read like a clothing catalogue. But since it's a novel set in 1872, long before any of the characters could reasonably have been expected to watch Project Runway marathons, could we possibly spring for another consonant and let the man wear what most people call them, pants, instead of a pant?
Does that slumped posture and defeated moaning mean that some of you manuscript-revisers are finding seeing these storytelling habits from Millicent's perspective convincing? "Okay, Anne," you sigh, "you got me. Swayed by the cultural dominance of visual storytelling, I've grown accustomed to describing a face, a body, a hank of hair, etc., as soon as I reveal a character's existence to the refer. But honestly, I'm not sure how to structure these descriptions differently. Unless you're suggesting that Henriette should have smelled or tasted each new arrival?"
Well, that would be an interesting approach. It would also, I suspect, be a quite different book, one not aimed at the middle grade reader, if you catch my drift.
Your options are legion, you will be happy to hear: once a writer breaks free of the perceived necessity to run a narrative camera, so to speak, over each character as she traipses onto the page, how to reveal what appearance-related detail becomes a matter of style. And that, my friends, should be as original as your voice.
If my goal in blogging were merely to be inspirational, as Author! Author!'s original hosts had hoped, that would have been a dandy place to end the post, wouldn't it? That last paragraph, while undoubtedly possessed of some sterling writing truths, did not cough up much actual guidance. And you fine people, I know from long experience, come to this site for practical advice, illustrated by examples.
For insight into how breaking up a physical description for a new character can knock the style ball out of the proverbial park, I can do no better than to direct your attention to that much-copied miracle of authorial originality, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. To render this example even more frantically literary, I have transcribed these excerpts from the 1908 F.F. Collier and Son edition (W. Blaydes, translator) Philip K. Dick gave me for my eleventh birthday.
Why that particular edition, for a reader so young? Because the Colliers had the foresight to corral another novelist in whose work Philip had been trying to interest me, into writing the introduction. Henry James was considered a real up-and-comer at the turn of the twentieth century.
Feeling sufficiently highbrow? Excellent. Here's the reader's first glimpse of the immortal Emma Bovary:
A young woman, clad in a dress of blue merino trimmed with three flounces, came to the threshold of the house to receive M. Bovary, whom she introduced into the kitchen where there blazed a big fire. The breakfast of the household was ready prepared and boiling hot, in little pots of unequal size, distributed about. Damp clothes were drying within the chimney-place...
That's it. Rather sparse as physical descriptions go, isn't it, considering that this novel's account of this woman's passions is arguably one of the most acclaimed in Western literature? Yet at this moment, set amongst the various objects and activities in M. Roulaut's household, she almost seems to get lost among the furniture.
Ah, but just look at the next time she appears. Charles, the hero of the book so far, now begins to notice her, but not entirely positively.
To provide splints, someone went to fetch a bundle of laths from under the carts. Charles selected one of them, cut it in pieces and polished it with a splinter of glass, while the servant tore up sheets to make bandages and Mlle. Emma tried to sew the necessary bolsters. As she was a long time finding her needle-case, her father grew impatient; she made no reply to him, but, as she sewed, she pricked her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth and sucked.
That's a nice hunk of character development, isn't it? Very space-efficient, too: in those few lines, we learn her first name, that she's not very good at sewing, and that she's not especially well-organized, as well as quite a lot about her relationship with her father. Could a minute description of her face, figure, and petticoat have accomplished as much so quickly?
But wait: there's more. Watch how the extreme specificity of Flaubert's choice of an ostensibly practically-employed body part draws Charles' sudden observation. At this point in the novel, he and Emma have known each other for two pages.
Charles was surprised by the whiteness of her nails. They were bright, fine at the tips, ore polished than the ivories of Dieppe, and cut almond-shape. Her hand, however, was not beautiful: hardly, perhaps, pale enough, and rather lean about the finger joints; it was too long, also, and without soft inflections of line in the contours.
His being so critical of her caught you off guard, did it not? Clever, that: it introduces a crosscurrent to the trajectory of the narrative. But to see what happens next, you'll have to read the rest of the post here, I'm afraid.
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A B O U T T H E A U T H O R
Anne Mini grew up in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard in the Napa Valley. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, writing for Let's Go, and composing back label copy for wine bottles, she spent several years teaching Plato and Confucius to frat boys at a large, football-oriented university. She has since gratefully given up academia in order to write and edit full-time. Her memoir, A Family Darkly: Love, Loss, and the Final Passions of Philip K. Dick, won the 2004 Zola Award. She has also won numerous writing fellowships, as well as being a finalist for an NEH Fellowship. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. She currently lives in Seattle, writing and book doctoring for good writers.