Archive for writing tips

The Shape of Fiction: Structuring the Novel

Posted in The Literateria, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 02/03/2017 by Janet Fitch

On Feb. 10, I was invited to speak on a panel about the Shape of the Novel with Christian Kiefer (The Animals), with whom I frequently teach at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers,  also Jeff Jackson (Mira Corpora) , Esme Weijun Wang  (the Border of Paradise) and Kirsten Chen (Soy Sauce for Beginners).

Like most writers, I am fascinated by the shapes the novel can take. What a commodious form it is.  It encompasses everything from straightforward chronological  stories– from the 19th Century novel in third person, Anna Karenina say, to the more contemporary and voice driven version first person variety, like Sapphire’s Push, to braided narratives like Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible–where the story is handed off between stories or characters, each advancing the work further. It’s a shape popular among writers, because it’s so useful. It gives us somewhere to go when we’ve exhausted  a certain narrative burst–we can hand it off to the next character’s story line.

There’s the retelling of a story from the point of view of a minor character (The Wind Done Gone, Grendel) and the Rashomon-style narrative, where the same territory is readdressed by  a number of different points of view.  A work like the Alexandria Quartet involves many of these shapes. The first book, Justine, is Darley’s story,  but the second book, Balthazar, interlineates the first one, “here’s what you didn’t know at the time”–like Rashomon. The third book , Mountolive, goes back and describes how the situation came to be (prequel), and the fourth, Clea, moves the narrative forward again.

There are novels made up of single sentences, like Markson’s work–Readers Block is my favorite–and Carole Maso’s Ava, and novels that are one single sentence, like Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch. There are novels that are closed universes (Pynchon’s novels, especially Gravity’s Rainbow) where everything comes around again, and there is no ‘outside’ the system.  There are epistolatory novels–novels in letters like Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The White Tiger, and novels in diary form, like Diary of a Madman and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and novels with framing devices (an older character thinking back in time, say, like Evening by Susan Minot) or a past story and a present story like A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Then there are novels which begin with shape as a game.  Mark Danielewski’s genre-breaking visual novels  the multivolume The Familiar,  House of Leaves and Only Revolutions all contain literary and visual games.  Only Revolutions, for example,  has 360 pages, 36 lines per page, and eliminates whole categories of vocabulary in support of its protagonists, young his-and-her gods in the making. So no religious words, no structural words, no interior words. I loved the way that the two narratives begin, his and hers, one at either end of the novel, and cross in the middle.  You read through and then you flip the book over and start again.

The ultimate gamester is the Oulipo group’s Georges Perec, the one who eliminated the letter e from his novel A Void–which called for a tremendous discipline, as e is the most used letter in the French alphabet, and precludes the use of “the”(le) or “I” (Je.) The Void was not only  the absence of ‘e’ but also the story of an absent person the others search for. The obstruction absolutely shaped the story. In his novel Life a User’s Manual, stories arise from the examination of the contents of a French apartment house, rooms visited on a grid via the knight’s move, with hundreds of obstructions–which he saw as “a machine for inspiration.”

So the shapes and obstructions and rules writers set themselves  aren’t there to frustrate themselves but as challenges and  prompts to the imagination.  In Joyce’s Ulysses–very loosely based on the Odyssey–each chapter was written in an entirely different style.  Rabih Alameddine’s I, The Divine is a novel comprised all of opening chapters as a woman tries and fails to tell her story in various ways.  On the flip side, John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman gives us three different endings.

With many of the more innovative shapes of novel, the reader has to learn how to read the novel as they go.  That is certainly the case with Danielewski’s typographically intricate works, and notoriously with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where the reader must decide whether to read the text and the footnotes concurrently, or get to the end of a chapter and go back for the footnote, or read all the way through, and then go back and read the footnotes all the way through.

There’s the nested novel, like Cloud Atlas, stories within stories–I call this the Sargasso Manuscript novel, from the movie where each character tells a story, and then that story is interrupted by the tale of a character within that story–going down seven layers and coming back out. Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days was an interesting example of the same-ish story being told three times, in three different genres–ghost story, noir thriller and sci fi. His novel The Hours was more a braided story, but elements of each story bleed into the others.

And don’t forget the novel in verse, which I think is enjoying a comeback due to the openness of young adult fiction to new genres and mashups–many popular young adult novels are written in verse such as Ellen Hopkins’ Crank which will result in an adult audience which isn’t as doctrinaire about genre as past generations. In the adult category, novels in verse can be anything from the tight meter and rhyme of Vikram Seth’s San Francisco novel Golden Gate–Onegin stanzas they’re called, in homage to the greatest of all novels in verse, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin–but there’s also the looser, more narrative free-verse werewolf novel Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow.

And I’m reaching to describe the brilliant motival technique of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano, which I’ve always called the Spiral Novel. This novel is shaped by the buildup of images (motifs), like a Beethoven concerto–you get the image or phrase once, then it comes around again and gains power with each repetition, as more emotion and resonance adheres to it. (Like the first time Oaxaca is mentioned, it’s just a place. Then 40 pages later, he says, “Oaxaca meant divorce.” after which every time it’s mentioned, it gains more gravity.) There are hundreds of images and phrases like this whirling around in the book–the feral dogs, the barranca or crevasse which runs unpredictably through the landscape, the Peter Lorre movie Los Manos d’Orlac ) repeating and repeating as it whirls tighter and the images grow ever more dense with meaning  until the whole thing explodes inside your head.

For myself, I’m working to shape the reader’s emotional experience. So I work mostly on what I call the symphonic level–like a longer piece of music, or an opera. I want to have big thunderous moments and quiet ones. I want to have the full chorus singing their lungs out, and then a solo, a duet, a trio. Then chorus again. I like to follow an interior scene with an exterior one, day with night, active with meditative-and keep changing it up.  I’m mostly thinking, how is the reader experiencing this?

Wish you good writing!

 

On Editing as Improvisation, a review

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , , , on 11/30/2015 by Janet Fitch

I can’t stop thinking about a book I read this summer, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch, especially the portion on revision. In honor of all the writers editing their work this winter, I wanted to share this wonderful book with you, specifically about its treatment of the revision process.  Good luck to all of you, I wish you good editing!

The right book at the right time saves lives, and man, you can say that about Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch

The thing about play in art, is it’s a sign of strength to spare, wind to spare, like someone running a marathon who breaks out into a pirouette. Sometimes working on a long project, the task just seems monstrous–like trying to build a gothic cathedral all by yourself. This book is a reminder, for a writer in long form, that it’s not stone on stone, a heavy, exhausting thing. That play, like the free jazz that the violinist author Nachmanovitch loves, makes heavy work light. That there are other ways to solve problems, other ways to approach the page, and that improvisation, the lightness of it, the in-the-momentness of its playfulness, IS the ‘air that falls through the net’ that Neruda describes.

Here’s my favorite part — on editing.

“In producing large works… we are perforce taking the results of many inspirations and melding them together into a flowing structure that has its own integrity and endures through time…. We arrange them, cook them, render them down,digest them. We add, subtract, reframe, shift, break part, melt together. The play of revision and editing transforms the raw into the cooked. This is a whole art unto itself, of vision and revision, playing again with the half-baked products of our prior play. …

“Editing must come from the same inspired joy and abandon as free improvisation…. There is a stereotyped belief that the muse in us acts from inspiration, while the editor in us acts from reason and judgment. But if we leave our imp or improviser out of the process, re-vision becomes impossible. If I see the paragraph I wrote last month as mere words on a page, they become dead and so do I…

“Some elements of artistic editing:1. deep feeling for the intentions beneath the surface; 2. sensual love of the language; 3. sense of elegance; and 4. ruthlessness. The first three can perhaps be summarized under the category of good taste, which involves sensation, sense of balance and knowledge of the medium, leavened with an appropriate sense of outrageousness….”

I will definitely put Free Play on the shelf right next to The Art Spirit within arm’s reach of my writing desk, to remind me about the air that falls through the net. I can’t be reminded of it enough.

 This review of Free Play  first appeared on my goodreads page. 

The Two Essential Rules for Historical Fiction

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , , on 06/18/2013 by Janet Fitch

I’ve been working on a chapter in my novel set during the Russian Revolution, trying to depict the rather complex politics of the time, and it’s horrible. Unreadable.  And yet, an essential part of the history.

Just after the Bolshevik takeover, there was an long-planned general election which the Bolsheviks permitted. But when the elected body was finally seated (and the Bolsheviks didn’t win a majority,) they closed it down after one session.

That sounds simple, but there were some complex politics that went along with it, that people at the time thought very significant. And I’ve been having such trouble… the chapter’s absolutely leaden, textbook-y. Even I wouldn’t read it if I came across it in a novel.

Oh, maybe it was just me. Maybe it really wasn’t so bad. I tried it out on a very smart but not particularly politically-savvy friend, who confirmed its unreadability.

Damn!  I feel like Tolstoy trying to deal with the issue of agrarian reform in Anna Karenina.  Nobody cared about it but him.  They just wanted to get on with the story.

Unfortunately, you can’t write about the Russian Revolution without addressing the politics. This was a specific time, with specific political parties… Arrgghghh!!! No wonder everybody writes about the Siege of Leningrad or the fight for Stalingrad, with its good guys and bad guys–and nobody writes about the Revolution.

What’s a writer to do?

Then I remembered the two rules of writing that  specifically apply to the writing of historical fiction. I’ve taught these very rules over and over and over again. Now they are going to save my life.

Rule No. 1:  Write in Scenes.  No boiler plate, no textbook language to ‘explain’ what’s going on.  You have to have a scene where some issue naturally comes up as part of the scene, where people might argue points. Or someone will see something that brings an issue to mind.  But it has to be part of a live scene, with weather and time of day and light and smells and sounds and conflict between characters.

How could I have forgotten this?!  Because I’d been too focused in trying to explain the complex situation.

And further saving my life—

 Rule  No. 2: There should only be enough exposition (explanation, information) for the reader  to understand this one scene.  Not all of Russian history.  Not a bird’s eye view of the election and the political situation and the seating of the Constituent Assembly.   THIS scene. THESE people. THIS particular brawl or bread queue this morning. What’s up Boris’s nose TODAY.

Having remembered those two essential rules, I know I can go back and bring this awful chapter to life, in a way that even my history-deaf friend can follow the action and have some idea why the revolution progressed as it did.

Good luck with your own historical fiction! Always remembering, as I forgot yesterday, that you’re still writing fiction, that the history is only your setting.

Young Writers Get Answers About Writing

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , on 07/18/2011 by Janet Fitch

For the month of July, I’m doing a  guest spot on Figment, a website for young writers, answering a slew of questions–I was only supposed to pick one, but all of them dealt with interesting issues, so I tried to answer them all. This week, the questions centered on technical issues, such as character development and orchestration and how much information to reveal, how to handle landscape–I was impressed!

Here’s the whole post:

When you develop a character, do you prefer to have it all planned out or have the basics down and discover more about the character along the way? For example, do you make the character react to situations based on what you have decided on the character, or do you have the character react however and that now becomes what the character is like? (Annie)

The latter.  I never have much planned out when I start writing, I learn about the people as I go along. I usually start with a character or a situation that has some energy to it–that works like a spring or an engine.  You wind it up and let it go. In the case of Paint it Black, I started with a character and a situation, a girl whose boyfriend has committed suicide, and whose mother blames her for the death.  In the case of White Oleander, I started with the character of Ingrid Magnussen, a very particular person I knew would cause a lot of problems for herself and the people around her.  Then I discover more about them as the story unfolds.

But sometimes you have to adjust the characters–because sometimes they have to things you need them to do for the sake of the story, so that they can hold their place, dramatically.  For instance,  in Paint it Black, Josie Tyrell began as a much quieter, more vulnerable character, but it just felt wrong, more wrong as time went on–and she wasn’t able to stand up to Michael’s mother.  She just collapsed. I needed her to be stronger so she could hold own better.

Often I write for a while and find I’ve exhausted what I know about the person, then I go back and ask myself a number of questions about them, their lives, their families, their dreams, their quirks.  Physical details, like illnesses in childhood, scars, colorblindness, allergies… Psychological details, like phobias and favorite classes in high school, hobbies and books and politics, their sexuality, … and sociological details like the kinds of families they come from, their work, and what kind of workers they are, if theyr’e clean or messy, things like that.

I’ll even sometimes have a conversation with the character and ask them questions about themselves.  ”Why do you hate Jenny?”  ”What was your worst birthday?”  I’m nutty enough that I really believe they talk to me.  For instance, in White Oleander, I couldn’t figure out what Astrid’s problem was. I could see through her eyes, but I couldn’t see her.  I talked to her and asked her what her problem was… we sat on a park bench together, and she put her head in my lap and said, “Janet, I am so lonely.”

My characters are more real to me than a lot of the people I know.

How do you know how much information to give the reader to make him/her think but not enough to make him/her bored? I enjoy books where the author gives little clues or foreshadowing, forcing me to figure things out, yet when I try this in my writing, most of my readers tell me I need to add more detail. Where is the line between a poor reader and a great writer? (Erin McLaughlin)

This is a matter of taste, and i don’t mean that lightly–I mean as a writer you have to develop a sense of taste.  You want to give people enough information that they can understand what’s happening in the scene, but only that much. You want them to lean forward, so to speak, to catch the next clue. It’s like the person who sits next to you on the plane and starts telling you his life story. It’s interesting for the first five minutes, and then you want to know less… and less… and less, until you put on your headphones and pretend you’re asleep.

On the other hand, I hate the purposeful withholding of details, usually for the sake of a “big” reveal. It’s a terrible idea–because in holding back that one detail, you often stopper up your own imagination.

In general, if your readers ask for more detail, that’s a good clue. Sometimes we go overboard in trying to be subtle… every writer’s different this way.

Sentence and word variation is generally considered desirable if not downright esential for a good story/poem. On the other hand, many good stories contain motifs or other recurring images or words that pop up throughout the story. How do you include meaningful themes and motifs in your stories without compromising it’s pace through repetition? (Meredith Hilton)

Good, interesting sentences and use of motifs don’t necessarily slow anything down.  What I, as a reader, love best is the double pleasure–of wanting to race forward to know what HAPPENS and also wanting to linger and reread that sentence again because it was so glorious.  That creates a tension that’s the most delicious reading of all.  Repetition–again, it’s a matter of taste, and I mean the writer has to develop a sense of taste, when too much is too much.

What genre do you think is best to write when you are in a silly mood? (As in, feeling like painting your face green, wearing a yellow suit and going crazy.) (Violet 11)

I’d probably go for a fairy tale.

Do you think it makes a writing more interesting to combine styles and genres within characters/books? (Emma A.)

I don’t mind genre-bending, but all good writing is interesting, I don’t think genre-bending makes anything more or less interesting, just different.

What different genres have you played with in the past? Are there any genres that you would like to explore in future stories? (Jordan the Boa)

I’ve written screenplay, I stink.  Generally, I write long fiction, but also short short stories  like the ones in my blog, and poetry.  I don’t write drama but I always think of my stories in terms of drama, in terms of scene.  I’ve done a few sci fi stories, fantasy… I’m pretty happy with that assortment.

In your opinion, is it possible to hook people in with a dark writing style, or do you think this scares too many people off? (Maekir Vilemist)

I always write in a dark style, except in short fiction.  I think the trick is, to have a little humor in there too, so people have a moment to breathe out–so there’s some dimension, or what painters call ‘chiaroscuro’, which means light and dark. But scaring people off… what people?  Not everyone likes chocolate either. The important thing is to make a chocolate bar that people who like chocolate will adore.

What style of writing is best; third person, second person, or first person? (Zara Olympia)

It depends–third person lets you look around more. First person brings you in close, feels very immediate. Third is more sophisticated. First is more urgent. Second is sort of a novelty item.  I wrote White Oleander in first because the character had a  fine vocabulary from her poet mother. I wrote Paint it Black in third because, although Josie Tyrell was a bright and observant thinker, she was also a high school dropout, and her vocabulary wouldn’t have been able to express the interesting thoughts she had.

Where do you get most of your ideas? Like do you visit certain places and get inspired? Or was it other writers? (Ariel G. Martinez)

Out of the blue.  It was like people asked Chekhov what he was going to write next. He picked up an ashtray and said…”Hmm, maybe I’ll write about this.”  YOur stories are inside you. Start anywhere. On my blog, I use an exercise called The Word as a basis for my short shorts. Most of my writing has come out of one of these exercises.  Sometimes I”ll write from a photograph or a piece of music… but the ideas are inside–the exercises are just a way to get to them.

Throughout all of your adventures, while wearig a cape and the such, how do you find what you want to write in the time you have to do it? (including inspirations, incentives, etc.) (Roberta Shapiro)

The thing that’s funny is that a writer’s life is actually pretty quiet.  I sit down and work every day, it’s just what I do.

How do you like to describe the setting? A giant description of it is kind of boring, so would you kind of sprinkle some details in when they seem fit and slowly develop it like that? (Annie)

Yes, exactly. You sprinkle it in. Think of the landscape as a spell you’re casting, a spell that starts to dissolve as soon as you you cast it. So you have to keep creating it, keeping it vivid and in front of the reader. you have to find various ways to describe the same things, or other details about the same landscape, to keep that spell going. Great question.

Have you ever worked with poetry? And if so, do you prefer more descriptive and showy poetry or basic clear language in poetry? (Annie)

Yes, I always work with poetry.  As a reader–my favorite poets are Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot, Anne Sexton, but I love Anne Carson (Beauty of the Husband) , Carl Sandberg (The People Yes), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Joseph Brodsky (To Urania), Diane Wakoski (The King of Spain), Howard Nemerov, James Merrill, Blaise Cendrars…

How do you create your characters? Do you people watch? Are they inspired by the looks/personalities of the people around you? (Tori Scott)

Usually my characters are like people in a dream–they’re all pieces of myself.  I’m working something out by setting them loose in interaction with each other.  But I use the looks and personalities of people I know for the forms they take, gestures and way of speaking, often I find pictures of people who remind me of–that’s what Michael looks like, and that’s Ingrid.

If you had/have children would you/do you alter your writing style to something they would read? (Tori Scott)

I do have a daughter.  And no, I would not alter my writing style. This is who I am.  I need to say what I need to say.

Do you have any tips for writing a good action scene? Also, what are some things that should be avoided when writing an action scene? (Dashiell Graci)

Not too much interiority in an action scene.  People think when their hands are less full.  Also, an action scene is still a scene–something has to happen, where the character can’t ever go back to the way things were before.

What are your thoughts on writing scenes that interest you most at the time, instead of in chronological order? (I mean skipping over less important scenes and then coming back to them.) (Krista Ogilvie)

I do that all the time.  I think its brilliant. Often you find you don’t need the other things at all.  You don’t have to have the character wake up in the morning, the reader can figure that for himself.

Do you write daily and, if so, how do you keep it up? (Alex Loomis)

I do, even if it’s just 15 minutes, to keep it alive. I do it because I have a hunger to express myself.  I do it because I love the puzzle of it.  Because I’m compulsive.

What do you generally think of stream-of-conciousness stories? What tips do you have for those who write them? (Meredith Hilton)

I love them.  the tip is–the more interesting the mind, the better, the more memories, the more variety of thought.

Which genre do you think is most likely the easiest to write? (Regie Lavon)

Depends on the writer. I find the short short story easiest, also bad poetry.

First of all, I absolutely adore both White Oleander and Paint it Black! *Ahem* Anyway, now that I’ve got that out of my system. One thing I’ve noticed when reading both books is that there doesn’t seem to be an antagonist, of course there’s someone who is the root of the problem but there isn’t an outright enemy. Is this intentional or does it just sort of happen that way? (Charlotte Donaghue)

The thing to remember is that nobody’s a villain to themselves. We all have reasons from our own point of view. Be fair to your villains and you’ll have a really interesting story, because sometimes your protagonist will see their point of view.  Just before they attack.

What inspires you to write your stories? (Aly Lovegood Harris)

The greatness of other writers.

What specifically made you want to become a writer? When did you first start taking an interest? And what would/do you do outside of writing? (Michel Momeyer)

I’ve been a lifelong reader, but I didn’t decide to be a writer until I was 21.  But I lived more in my books than I lived in my life, and my sense of what was “real” was never very firm.  Outside of writing, I read, I love a great intellectual conversation, I love to travel, I love printmaking and graphic arts, collage, artists books.  I’m always interested in people.  For work, I’ve done a lot of publishing related jobs, and jobs in the graphic arts.  I’ve been a manpower temp, I’ve done a lot of journalism.

Do you have any tips to help us writers? (Zina)

Sure. I didn’t come to writing knowing what I was doing. I had to learn almost everything. I try to help other writers so it won’t take them as long as it took me.

What made you want to write the kind of books you do? (Zina)

Reading. Some of the greatest pleasures of my life have been lying there on the couch reading something so vivid and emotional and real, my real life just disappears.

When did you discover your love of writing? (Zina)

I learned to read when I was four.  I guess you could say that’s when I started.

How did you emotionally handle the idea of another author adapting your work for film? Several people have expressed interest in adapting my work for the screen, but I have grave concerns for how it will be interpreted. (Arianna Sexton-Hughes)

Once your work is written, nobody can change that.  So it’s not like they can really screw anything up.  I look at a movie as being another person’s work of art–based on something I’ve written, but it doesn’t have to be the same. It just has to hold together on its own terms.

What are some of your most uncanny inspirations? (Holly Blackwood)

It’s all sort of uncanny. That you can, say with The Word exercises, take a word like CANE, think about it, and then end up with an entire little world.

Where are your favorite places to write? (Holly Blackwood)

I write at home normally. If I’m stuck I’ll take my computer to a coffee house where there’s no INTERNET!!

In general, what advice would you give to teenage writers (if you could travel back in time, what would you tell yourself)? (Holly Blackwood)

/I would say, write a LOT.  And don’t imitate movies or TV.  I would say, read great books. If you know all the words in a book you’re reading, if you don’t have to look up anything, you’re reading books that are too easy for you.  You should come across at least one unfamiliar word every few pages.

How do you know when your manuscript is done? Not simply finished, but edited and revised? (Erin McLaughlin)

That’s a great question.  When you change things and change them back, you’re done.  When you change things and they’re no better, just different, you’re done.  When you’ve let a couple of people you really trust and respect read the work and listen to their critique and do the edits, then you’re done.

In your opinion is it more important to be a very good dialogue writer or a description writer? They are both key elements to a story but which should be stronger? (Ali Renee)

Have to do both.  Which is more important, your left leg or your right?

Do you ever think back after a book is published and think about what you might have changed? (Holly Blackwood)

Mostly sentences, rather than scenes.  When I read my books in public, I always edit them.

Taco shells: hard or soft?
^this is a ligit question, as I’m asking which INSPIRES you to write more? See how it all fits in? xD (thefrankie)

Soft.  Flour.

What do you think are the most important qualities a writer should develop and why? (The Oak Tree)

Obsessionality.

Do you do this completely organized version of writing a book with a whole plot diagram, or is it more spontaneous? (The Oak Tree)

Spontaneous. Though when I’m rewriting, I sometimes diagram to get more a grip on the proportions of what I’ve done.

Do you think it’s easier to write short stories or novels? (Holly Blackwood)

Different for different people. I’m a novelist who sometimes writes short stories. I know people who are short story writers who sometimes write novels.  Gene Kelly was a pretty good singer for a dancer.

Have you ever been discouraged about writing and wanted to quit? If so, what do you do to get past that? (Kayla M.)

No.  I get discouraged but quitting was never in the cards.

Do you ever have a specific type of music you have to listen to when writing or thinking of an idea? It seems rather hilarious, but I find myself listening to Selena Gomez. I find it helps me think of the most interesting ideas! I’d love to know what you prefer! Is it Classical, Rock, Pop, just wondering! :) (Pooja Kini)

I listen to things that pertain to what I’m writing. Right now I’m listening to Russians reading poetry in Russian, just for the sound of it. Sometimes Russian men’s choruses.  In Paint It Black, I listened to some very sad songs, because sometimes I was in a cheery mood and had to write a very sad scene!

Parenting Tips for Writers

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , , on 12/02/2010 by Janet Fitch

A former writing student, April Davila (www.aprildavila.com), is having her second child, and asked me if I could submit a piece about writing and parenthood for her blog. Could I submit a piece? Oy, could I submit a piece! I thought you’d like to see what I came up with. (And do check April out–she blogged about doing a month without Monsanto products that was hair-raising, she’s a fantastic writer.)

My old writing teacher, Kate Braverman, used to say that writing and being a mother WAS the sound of one hand clapping. I think that pretty much covers it. But I assume you had the kid anyway. Well, paradox is good for you. So now what are you supposed to do?

1. The Baby Swing. This was my salvation in the first year as a parenting writer. Get the one with the whacking D batteries–not the hand crank, that’s for amateurs. Put the baby in there, and guaranteed, 45 minutes to get some work done. Do not feel guilty. The kid needs the sleep.

2. Give up on cleaning. Triage your precious spare time. First, write. Next, take care of anything animate–kid, spouse, dog. Only then, turn your attention to the inanimate, and only when you absolutely have to. Give up gardening.

3. If you have help for a few hours, leave the house. It will remove the temptation to do the laundry or wash the dishes.

4. Find a mother’s helper babysitter. This is a junior high kid who can use a few bucks and will keep your toddler amused while you’re home. Be prepared for your child to love that kid more than you.

5. Don’t be a prima donna. If you have a few minutes to write, grab them. When I first started writing I couldn’t work if someone was anywhere in the house. Then I couldn’t work if someone was in the room. Once I had a kid, I could work at Grand Central Station. Just give me 15 minutes, that’s all I ask.

6. Encourage young artists. Art projects are a godsend. “Draw me a spaceship, honey.” There’s five minutes, ten if you’re lucky… Get them to include details, like rivets and eyelashes. Don’t forget to expand the assignment. “Draw me the inside of the spaceship.” “Draw me the controls of the spaceship.” “Draw me the planet the spaceship comes from.”

7. Five more minutes. You will be amazed what you will allow your kid to do to get just five more minutes of working done. Why do they always want to draw on the couch with the Chanel lipstick? Why can’t it ever be the Maybelline? When you need five more minutes, you too will be saying, “Looks good, honey.” (see no. 5)

9. Bedtime should be inviolable. Make sure there’s an early enough bedtime that you can see your spouse for an hour, and then go to work for an hour or two. Even if you have to go to bed after your spouse. Suck it up. You both wanted to be parents.

10. Forget gourmet cooking. You’ll learn to make something pretty good out of semi-prepared stuff from Trader Joe.

11. Deflect guilt. Embrace the concept of the Good-Enough Mother. Keith Richards left his kids with Anita–by comparison, you’re mother of the year.

12. Keep sports to a minimum. Do not enroll your child in more demanding activities than you can reasonably cover without feeling resentful of losing your working life. Art classes are once a week. Soccer practice is three times a week. Do the math. (And do not feel you have to pay attention to your kid while you’re sitting there–a well-known book critic and I met at YMCA kids’ swim class when I saw her annotating an advanced reading copy. You’re just the driver.)

13. Books on tape. A great way to get some reading done while you’re nursing or driving kids around.

14. Take notes. Someday you will forget all this, and need to write a scene using an hysterical nursing mother.

15. Dads get more respect. Accept this sad fact. My daughter’s friend had a work-at-home songwriter father. She would look at the closed door of his studio and whisper, “Shhh, Dad’s working” like he was doing open heart surgery. On the other hand, my own closed door was opened fifty times a day with requests like “Mooooommmmmmm, will you pin this?” or “Mooooooooooommmmmm, why does Daddy have a penis?”

And friends will call you, not your male colleagues, who are working–to do errands, have a chat. To tell them you’re writing seems only to indicate that you’re free to have lunch/pick Johnny up at the babysitters/listen to their breakup with their boyfriend. The important thing is to REFUSE. If you don’t value your time, mama, no one else will. It’s only going to get worse.

Ergo, if you can possibly get out of the house to work, do so. Even if it’s just into the backyard. In the treehouse. With the ladder up.

16. Other Mothers. Don’t overlook this great natural resource. Other Mothers like Disneyland, Other Mothers will take your kid along with theirs to see those crappy movies about Christmas and stuff. Other Mothers aren’t working on a novel. Of course, you’ll have to reciprocate eventually–like taking their kid on New Year’s Eve, say, or for their anniversary. But overnights are way less of a pain than shlepping kids around and sitting through Snow Dogs. Kids keep each other amused. You’ll get some writing done.

17. Earplugs and headphones. Parents are notoriously cued into the tone of distress in a child’s voice, the sound of things crashing in the kitchen and so on. Headphones are a godsend. Take them off every half hour or so just to check the tenor of things, make sure nobody’s crying. (They’re also great for drowning out the sound of the spouse’s TV show and/or incessant nattering about his or her day at work etc.)

18. Childproof everything. DUH. The better your childproofing–and the sturdier your sense of indifference to a royal mess–the more you will be able to concentrate.

19. Get your kid a library card. Do it as soon as she can understand what a story is. It’s important to instill respect for the written word, so she grows up having some idea how cool you are.

20. Got Discourse? Make sure to have intellectual conversations with adults on a daily, or near daily level. Facebook isn’t enough. You have to keep your vocabulary above the high school level, and talking to four year olds all day isn’t going to help.

21. Teach about commercials. Teach your children that advertised toys are crap, shilled food is garbage and that advertising is capitalist hypnosis, designed to artificially stimulate demand. I used to chant, “You need it, you want it, you gotta have it” with my daughter during the kiddie commercials. Ask your child, “how big do you think that [fill in the crap toy in the cereal] really is?” He’ll show you ten inches tall. Tell him to look at the hand that’s holding it, to look at the thumbnail.

This serves a twofold purpose–one, it keeps your time and patience from being swallowed up by whining demands to purchase an overwhelming array of crap, and second, well– hey, you’re a writer. Last time I looked, most of us were still paying off our student loans.

22. Share rejections with your child. Model how it is to be a determined, creative person–how every week, people say ‘Does Not Meet Our Needs at this Time’ to Mommy, and she shrugs it off. “Screw them,” Mommy says, and keeps on going.

23. You have a right to create art. Think of your writing as a child, one which will die without your attention. It’s a child that no one else can care for. It will only eat if you feed it. Someone else can make Kraft Mac and Cheese for your kid just as easily as you can. But no one can write your book for you.

A Few Thoughts About Dialogue

Posted in Writing Exercises with tags , , , , on 07/20/2010 by Janet Fitch

I had a letter from a reader who asked me to talk a bit more about dialogue.

It’s hard, I’ll tell you that. It’s the hardest thing in writing. But it’s also the thing that editors look at–as a sure gauge of a writer’s level of accomplishment.

Pay attention to great dialogue. When you read a something that really works, bear down on yourself and ask, what’s going on here? Analyze it like it’s a boxing match. Who’s up, who’s down and how do you know? Who won? When did you know they were going to win, when would you have put your money on Character A vs. Character B? Get used to reading the subtext. That’s dialogue.

Note the mix of landscape and voice, the cross loyalties. What’s said and what isn’t. The less said the better.

I guess the most important tip about dialogue is this:

Dialogue is only for conflict.

It’s like a racehorse, it can’t just carry any old thing, the pots and pans and old tires. You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, all that yack. It’s just for the conflict between one character and another. That’s it.

So if characters agree, you don’t need dialogue! If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything. That’s what narrative is for.

Also, great dialogue in fiction isn’t screenplay. In fiction you can just tell us what people are thinking, they don’t need to say the obvious. In fact, the most interesting fictional dialogue has people thinking one thing and saying another. That’s what gives your scene dimension, and it’s super fun to do.

The question in dialogue is always, who wins and who loses. Who is putting pressure on who, and how.

Dialogue works best in short bursts, three or five lines, then go back into the other tools of writing–landscape, internal thought, memory, observation, gesture and so on.

Keep it short. People don’t generally speak in full sentences. And nobody gets to make a speech, unless it increases the tension of the scene–where I’m waiting to see if you’re going to get me on that plane and don’t dare interrupt your long story about your grandmother’s prize apple pie.

No meet and greet. Start the dialogue when the conflict starts. The rest is easily covered in narrative. No “business.” “Want a cup of coffee?” No. I don’t. Ever.

Every person speaks differently, because every person is different, so their speech reflects their vocabulary, their rhythms, their interests, their age, their level of optimism or pessimism. We’re physically different, we take a different breath. Some people are quick, they interrupt, they gush words, others are slow, they stop, they consider. Some are indecisive, they wander off.

Think of your characters as being played by the best actors in the world. Nobody wants to be the straight man. Give them all dynamite lines. Nobody should ever say, “What?” “What do you mean by that?” A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.

And keep the world going. The world doesn’t stop in its tracks as your protagonist speaks. You have to keep all the plates spinning.

Gesture is just as important a part of dialogue as the spoken utterance. Everybody who has traveled to a foreign country knows you can get along knowing not one word of Chinese or Hungarian. The gesture, vocal tone and facial expression is more telling than words.

Don’t be afraid of silence. Whoever controls the silence controls the scene.

finally, remember that the reader is the recipient of all dialogue. So don’t have one character tell another something we already know. Just summarize it in narrative.

There are so many components of good dialogue, so many subtle ways it works, I can only lay out a few tips here I hope will help you along your way.

Wish you good writing!

10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone

Posted in Writing Exercises with tags , , , , , on 07/08/2010 by Janet Fitch

1. Write the sentence, not just the story
Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb
Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went, looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to really lift some weight for you.

3. Kill the Cliché.
When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself, “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.
Most people write the same sentence over and over again. The same number of words–say, 8-10, or 10-12. The same sentence structure. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8 words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word shorties. If you’re generally a 20 word writer, make sure you throw in some threes, fivers and sevens, just to keep the reader from going crosseyed.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses
A dependent clause (a sentence fragment set off by commas, dontcha know) helps you explore your story by moving you deeper into the sentence. It allows you to stop and think harder about what you’ve already written. Often the story you’re looking for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you uncover it.

6. Use the landscape
Always tell us where we are. And don’t just tell us where something is, make it pay off. Use description of landscape to help you establish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by describing the world around the character. Look at the openings of Fitzgerald stories, and Graham Greene, they’re great at this.

7. Smarten up your protagonist
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.


8. Learn to write dialogue

This involves more than I can discuss here, but do it. Read the writers of great prose dialogue–people like Robert Stone and Joan Didion. Compression, saying as little as possible, making everything carry much more than is actually said. Conflict. Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes
What is a scene? a) A scene starts and ends in one place at one time (the Aristotelian unities of time and place–this stuff goes waaaayyyy back). b) A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted. c) Something happens in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

Wish you lots of inspiration and every delight,
Janet