Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Writerly Virtues Part 3

The road to publication (to use a very tired cliche) isn't a sprint -- it's a grueling marathon.  For every endorphin high you briefly experience along the way, there will be miles and miles of discouragement.  If you're normal, you'll have recurring moments when you're tempted to call it quits.  The important thing is to make sure those moments don't turn into something more permanent.

How many times have you heard someone say "I tried to write a book once"?  Or how about "When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a writer!"  Somewhere along the path, there's a place where the pack thins out.  Somewhere farther ahead, more would-be writers will quietly drop out of the race.

This being said, one of the most vital virtues any writer can possess is the quality of perseverance.  Doors will be slammed in your face.  Some might even hit you squarely in the nose.  If you're a true writer, you'll pick yourself up, wipe off the blood, and start writing again.

It helps if you're stubborn.  Every writer should mix a little mule DNA in with the rest of his genes.  Creativity alone isn't enough to keep you in the race.

Did I say it's a marathon?  Think of how long it takes to write a manuscript.  Add a few months away from it to give yourself creative distance.  After four months away from one of my projects, I've started some polishing and "minor" revisions.  I've now spent approximately thirty hours on thirty pages.  I still have 280 pages left to go.

Perseverance is what really tired, really determined authors eat at the end of a long day. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writerly Virtues Part 2

If I could give one piece of advice to young writers (crusty older ones like me, too), it would be this:  Never stop learning!

Not all of us have the time or money to attend writer's conferences or work on MFAs; but, like any professional, writers should be constantly studying and improving their craft.

The day I made up my mind to seriously pursue publication was the day I planned a trip to the public library.  I don't recall the titles of the books I checked out, but I invested a good deal of time reading about plot, characterization, and setting.

One early title I still remember is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  If you read only two books, I recommend theirs and Donald Maas's gem, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.  Writers Digest's Write Great Fiction collection is another excellent resource, and, for teen writers, I suggest Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter.

The next step is to study the writing of authors who've demonstrated their mastery of technique.  During the Middle Ages, aspiring young artists sought apprenticeships with master sculptors and painters.  You can't become your favorite author's apprentice.  (All right.  You can try, but I doubt she'll go for it.)  But you can analyze writing technique and personal style as you read her novels.

While reading Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, I found myself marveling at her enviable ability to create unusual details.  I particularly loved the following descriptions:

While describing a visit to a seaside pub:  I could eat my shame for dinner, it's so thick, but I take the back door and leave Brian Carroll behind.

Describing a bathroom:  It's a tiny room, just big enough for a tub and a toilet and a washbasin if they're very good friends and don't mind rubbing shoulders. . .

During a trip to confession:  I wipe a tear off my cheek.  It's a very cunning tear, because I didn't even feel it coming.

Not only are these details out of the ordinary, they also create a distinctive voice for the story's feisty heroine, Puck.

From Allie Condie's Crossed,  I learned a few things about using irony to heighten tension.  Even before Ky and Vick realize the new "villagers" will be girls, a reader can anticipate that Ky will escape the village shortly before Cassia's arrival.  The stage is set for Cassia's disappointment and the inevitability that she'll attempt to follow Ky into the Carving.

The third stop along a writer's educational path is potentially the hardest.  In fact, some of the most successful authors find it impossible.  This is the kind of improvement that comes from listening to the suggestions of your agent, your beta readers, or an editor.  It involves swallowing your pride and seriously considering the merit of their criticisms.  If you're fortunate enough to be published, it might also involve learning from reader reviews -- the positive and the negative.

Anna DeStefano calls writing a "hard-working, digging-deeper-until-you-get-it-right, you're-going-to-need-to-learn-how-to-work-with-a-team, job."  (Click here to read her full article.)  In other words, no writer is an island.  If you want to write something that will sell, you're going to need the input of others.

Hopefully, no one reading this will ever become so sure of her or his abilities that she or he can't continue to learn from others.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Female Characters and the Readers Who Love Them

A characterization guest blog from the Word Nerd. . .

After sending them for A.C. to use in his blog, I realized that my posts about characterizations featured only males as examples of multifaceted, interesting, complex characters.  Surely there are some female characters out there that can be held up to similar scrutiny.  I'd like to think that the difficulty in creating complex female characters lies in how complex women are in real life, but I'm afraid it's due more to misunderstanding and even misogyny on the part of society.  In fact, it's a sad commentary that, here in the early 21st century, this even has to be an issue.

Women are pulled in so many directions and sent mixed signals by modern society regarding career, children, education, appearances, aging, and even personality.  Assertive, opinionated women in politics or on television are often vilified.  (You know the word they use.  It starts with a "B".)  Thirty years ago, a TV news anchor named Christine Craft was fired from her job for being "too old, too unattractive and wouldn't defer to men."  She was 37 years old at the time.  I don't know what's more horrific here -- that a person in her 30's is compelled to file an age-discrimination lawsuit or the idea that a female news and sports reporter had to be deferential to men in order to appeal to the viewing public.

Go to your newsstand and count how many men's fashion magazines are on the racks.  Then count the ones aimed at women.  There are far fewer magazines for men, and even they don't simply deal with skin care and accessorizing.  I remember when I was a teen and my dad subscribed to Esquire.  It wasn't uncommon to find featured articles by Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer or one of Lloyd George's grandsons.  I haven't seen anything by Anne Tyler or Amy Goodman showing up in Glamour or Good Housekeeping.  Once in awhile, we're thrown a bone with a two-page article on health care or reproductive issues, but those are rare and, though relevant, keep the worldview pretty narrow.  Don't look for a meaty article on foreign policy or history because you won't find it.

Instead, women in America are bombarded with images of size-0 airbrushed plastic figures, gooey romances, celebrity gossip, and cake recipes.  Of course I like cooking and make-up and shoes, but I feel insulted that these editors and publishers believe that's all there is to me.  American pre-teen and teen girls are glutted with princess and "damsel-in-distress" stories and told "boys won't like you if you. . . (get good grades, kick a soccer ball better, have your own opinions)"  As a teacher, I see it every day:  girls who dumb themselves down because they don't want to intimidate their friends or alienate boys.  Suddenly, what they think of themselves takes a back seat to what their peers think of them.

I am seeing eight-year-old girls who should be riding bikes and getting dirty sitting in the nail salon having a set of acrylic nails put onto their fingers.  Once I saw a little girl in Target who couldn't have been older than four with expensive salon streaks in her hair.  When we begin at such an early age teaching little girls that nails and hair are more important than brains and hearts, it makes it difficult for them to identify true role models when they read or create them when they attempt to write fiction of their own.

Literary archetypes are another problem.  Female archetypes generally fall into three categories:  The Good Mother, The Bad Mother, The Soul Mate.  Women are defined by their relationships, by whether or not there are children or a man in their lives.  One thousand years of Roman rule where women were chattel and a thousand more of Roman influence on government and society haven't helped the situation any.  There are thousands of examples in mythology and folklore that present women as conniving and vindictive.

How to create a female character who isn't conniving and selfish, a princess, or a Mary Sue?

Stay tuned.

(See Lynne's blog at

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Writerly Virtues

Yeah, I know.  'Writerly' isn't a real word; but it got stuck in my head, and I couldn't get it out.  There are, however, certain virtues every writer needs to adopt.  One of these is patience.

I don't say this because I'm patient.  On the contrary, I struggle with it like a man in a python's coils; but every time I get in a hurry, I receive a painful wake up call.

Consider the revision process.  I've read somewhere (and somewhere else and somewhere else again) how important it is to let a manuscript simmer on the back burner a few months before starting the final revision.  I hate this!  The moment I've typed the last period, I'm itching to sprint for the finish line.  This is always a big mistake.  A project's baby scent needs time to fade.

But my story is beautiful!  It's the best novel ever written!  How could any agent or editor not fall in love with it?

After endless months of focusing on one project, writer's myopia sets in.  The only cure for this is time and distance.  After a painful two or three month separation some of my manuscript's perfection always seems to mysteriously drain away.  A simile I couldn't part with now sounds cheesy.  What at first felt like a wonderfully intense, pulse-pounding scene now reveals itself as lackluster and sluggish.

Even with the help of a topnotch beta reader (Thanks, Lynne!), I still need time to distance myself from a project.  Why am I lecturing about this?  Because, yet again, the wake up call has come.  With a little nudging from an excellent agent, I've found that a supposedly 'finished' project could be far more than it already is.

There's an upside.  After a two or three month hiatus, it's always a joy to rediscover a story and see it with new eyes.  If history repeats itself, the new way will be far better than the original.