Saturday, October 25, 2008

Your "Real-Life-Fiction" Worldview

In her book Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider discusses a notion that sometimes, in order to fix the writing, we have to fix the author. She presents the example of a doctor who was quietly sexist in his writing - the male characters were bold and dominant and Doctor, and the female characters were meek and willing and on First Name Basis Only (I am simplifying this example - Pat describes the situation much better).


As I write and as I grade the writing of my own students, I'm coming to realize how greatly our personal biases affect our work. Often, these biases are so deeply ingrained that, as writers, we don't realize our own writing is flawed. For me, the toughest bias to overcome is the one regarding parents. When I write stories, the parents of my protagonists never come out well. I could discuss potential reasons why over the course of pages, but I know the fundamental cause: I have unresolved issues with my own parents, areas of my life that I am unwilling to discuss with those closest to me. Oftentimes, I turn to fiction as an outlet, thinking that I can "write my way" to inner peace.


Unfortunately, life is not so simple. Stories are not born in peace (not if you want good conflict, they aren't). The stories I write to come to terms with my own personal difficulties sometimes reinforce my biases. The parents I write about turn out to be flat, and the children are little better. Rather than crafting a poignant piece about parents and children discovering common ground, I often dig trenches of ignorance between between my characters. And it's not that trenches of ignorance don't exist in real life (they do), it's that literature is meant to reveal something deeper. As writers, our goal should be to get to heart of our characters, even the ones who are not nice and pleasant or even decent.


Of course, I'm making it sound as if only the people we don't like or understand are hard to write about. All true characters are hard to write. I'd love to go on and say that we should never "write about" our characters, that we should instead "write" them, as they are. This is of course hard. This requires an acute empathy not just for other people, but for ourselves, for our own inner struggles. It requires, on the one hand, an intimate personal understanding of the characters. On the other hand, we must let go of our sympathy to reveal the deepest, darkest facts about these characters. I've heard this described as "writing with empathy but without sympathy" (and I'm afraid I don't know who to attribute this to - I think I heard it in an interview on NPR).



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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Trying Something New

Yesterday, I wrote a new story. It had no guns, no light-saber-wielding hobbits, not even a time traveler. It started with a girl in a coffee shop and went on from there. I've never written about an ordinary person in an ordinary world sitting in a coffee shop - I didn't know what to expect. But then, who is ever truly ordinary? Can any human being be considered reliably normal?

The impetus for this story came from my MFA thesis advisor. I met her for the first time yesterday during our department orientation. As we all sat around the table - eight fiction writers, two of them faculty - we talked about what it meant to be in an MFA program. And my thesis advisor recommended that as we work through the next two years, we should each try to generate new work. We should be experimenting with new ideas, developing stories which may not succeed. As she said, a spectacular failure is better than always turning in "perfect" work.

Last night, I started with a girl in a coffee shop. Then her parents appeared. Then friends of hers outside. Someone had a prosthetic arm, others were playing Scrabble. I didn't know where any of it was going, but there were no laser cannons. No solar flares, no end of the world, no entropic heat death of the universe. I left out the standard plot drivers of speculative fiction (which I'm good at) and went with writing about the kind of people you might find on the street (which I'm not so good at).

Honestly, I was surprised. I ended up writing a story about an anorexic who is oppressed by her well-intentioned parents. Did I know I would write about this? Nope. Never would have predicted it. If I had predicted it, the story would have fallen flat. It would have been a diatribe about college and repression and the injustice of living. Maybe it still is. But I didn't know I was writing about those things until they happened. I didn't try fitting the story to any of the molds I'm accustomed to, and yet I ended up touching on themes that I've always wanted to write about. It even has a modicum of racial tension, something I've never had the courage to write about directly.

So is it good? I think so. The story works. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The characted changes, somewhat, over time. We have conflict. It takes on a side of life I understand strangely well, but haven't really written about, this drive to see students perform academically at all costs. More importantly, though, the story is unique. It pushes my writing into uncharted territory. I've proven to myself that I can craft a plot without resorting to the deux ex machina of overwhelming speculation.

This, I think, is critical for good writing. The reason that many stories in speculative genres like fantasy and science fiction fall apart is the lack of character-driven plot. A story is nothing without character - as human beings, we want to read the stories of other human beings. We want to understand our fellow travelers on this blue Earth. But when that Earth is about to be devoured by hungry nanomachines from Andromeda, we all know what the protagonist will (must!) do - save the Earth. And many speculative writers, unfortunately, fail to create characters who are nuanced enough to save the Earth in a "human" manner. We humans never simply solve a problem - we try to make the problem work for us. We try to make our lives fulfilling and secure. But when that asteroid is coming in and the atmosphere is boiling away, it's easy to ignore this. Sure, astronaut dude is saving the planet, but what about his wife and his kids and his parents and that roommate he had in college who still hates him for making the astronaut corps? The Earth's about to be crushed, man. We don't have no time to think about no hateful roommates.

This is why I'm so happy with my story from last night. I want to write science fiction - good science fiction. Character-driven science fiction. But in writing stories with themes from out-there, you have to first learn how to write the people down here. And I don't mean write about them - I mean write them into your stories, write them as people, write their lives as if they could happen. And as we strip away the trappings of speculation, as we get down to the bare bones of what makes these protagonists as real as people, we discover the personal plots that make our lives and our stories truly come alive.


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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I'm exhausted. It's 10:30, dinner won't be for another half-hour, and I haven't eaten since lunch. Somehow, I still have the restraint to avoid eating raw chicken.


I've been writing. Today I met my MFA thesis advisor for the first time. It was the large group meeting, everyone in fiction getting to line up names with faces, a very good but very quiet meeting. During this get-together, my thesis advisor, Alice McDermott, gave some very good advice. She recommended that we as students try out new work. She said that if we come up with an interesting idea at the coffee shop, we should go home and write it, to go ahead and give the new idea a try. The other faculty member present, Jean McGarry, seconded the importance of this. I'm not sure which one said this, but they said that it's better to turn in a spectactular failure than it is to have perfect, polished work all the time.


The note I posted a few days ago was related to this, but I was having a lot of trouble making it work for me. Part of why I decided to go the MFA route is because I wanted to learn to write better stories. Though I left it out of my MFA application, I've been writing science fiction for years. Too many years, I think. It's incredibly easy to develop ready-made plot when your protagonist has a laser pistol jabbed in her face. It might not be good plot, but at least we know what the protagonist will do - must do - in order for the story to continue. Assuming of course you don't want the ending to be medium-rare.


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Friday, August 29, 2008

Return from the Wilderness

Seriously, the past four months or so feel like I've been in the wilderness. I was only out of internet and phone range for eight weeks, but my work on the website and my writing and everything else literature related has been flagging terribly. It hasn't been happening. The pen had run dry, and I was busy.

For me, it's been a dry spell for writing, but so much fun in so many other ways. I've set up a new apartment in Baltimore, I'm starting on my MFA, and I'm surrounded by people who aren't just working at writing, but are working their lives around writing. I, finally, am working my life around writing. And it's a great feeling. But all these months leading up to it have been the exact opposite. Instead of writing, I've been...doing other things. I've lead science students on hiking trips through the forests of West Virginia. I've seen the 2.3 acre radio telescope at Green Bank - the worlds largest moving object on land, the most precise radio telescope on the planet. I've said hello and goodbye to nearly two hundred of my best friends. I've attended lectures on global warming and breast cancer and maple syrup disease. I've talked with friends I hadn't seen in ten years, given writing seminars, driven a U-Haul on Pennsylvania Avenue through D.C. during rush hour, chased people with water balloons...and of course I was the one who got wet...

What, then, does this mean for my writing? Have I given up my novels? Do I have to relearn the short story? Am I stuck now with writers block?

The answer to all of the above is no. I stopped my forward progress, but I didn't stop my writing. I've been writing snippets of things all summer - morning show ditties, impromptu songs for my girlfriend, 10-minute free-writes with science students. But none of these short works have been typed, none of them are "publishable" or even really manageable. They fill up notebooks of all shapes and sizes, pretty much whatever paper I had on hand at the time. It's unlikely that any of them will ever show up here or anywhere else online. There were, in fact, no Dagny stories, not a one (and if you know who Dagny is, you understand what this means...the word "payback" comes to mind...)

Often, as writers, we fall prey to this myth that all our stories must be good. We believe that we must craft every word to be if not perfect then at the very least great. Sometimes, we'll spend days and months and years worrying over the same story, trying to get the elements just right. We rebalance the plot, reconstruct our characters, deconstruct the setting and the mood and the tone of our stories. We revise the one story until we're tired of it. And to become professional creative writers - the kind of people who get paid for stories and poems - this process is crucial to future success. Publishers and MFA faculty want to see the best we have to offer. They want to see that we're worth the time to read. But for many writers, this process of revision gets confused with the process of creation. Oftentimes, we credit ourselves with growing as writers because we have made one story better.

Don't stop with one story. Experiment. Spend ten minutes writing something that you know you'll throw away. Skip the laptop routine and scratch out a few words that you won't share with others. With writing, an essential aspect of mastery is practice. As in any field, be it sports or science or music, we become good because we experiment. Every professional violin soloist spent years if not decades scratching out notes that would torture the human ear - and it's that practice which provided them the confidence and skill to be performers today. It is the same with writing. Just as no violinist would spend an entire lifetime playing a single concerto to the exclusion of all others, as writers we cannot afford to work on a single novel or a single poem to the exclusion of all else. There are too many techniques, too many ideas, too many facets of life to chain ourselves - and our literary careers - to the quality of a single piece. We must break ourselves of the idea that every story will be good and realize that experimentation is as much a process of elimination as it is a process of creation. We create, we judge, and we sift the gems from the sand. But trust me, there are no diamonds without a lot - and I mean a lot - of rough.

This said, let me leave you with a bit of guesstimation regarding my own work. In my apartment, I have an entire file box filled with stories I wrote before and during high school - thousands of pages of original, handwritten work. On my computer, I have my stories sorted by year - from 2002 until now, we're looking at probably twenty to a hundred stories per year. Some of these stories were meant as novels, some as novellas, some as shorts, some as still-births. One of the stories weighs in at 190,000 words, and it even has an ending. Out of these hundreds of thousands of words - actually millions of words spend for several hundred story ideas - I have about fifteen short stories that I'm happy with. I have one short novel that I'm happy with. I have half of another novel that I'm happy with, but it doesn't have an ending. And out of all this? One short, short story has been published so far - I earned $100 for it back in February. And why am I starting on a master in fine arts? Because I'm not that great of a writer. I want to be better. I want to learn what it will take to be better.

So as you write, remember to break out of the house every once in a while. Try that wild, off-the-wall story idea that probably won't work. Don't worry about wasting time. Don't worry about whether it's "worth" your time. All writing is worthwhile. All writing is worth producing. It might not be worth reading when your done, but that's okay. It's part of the learning. We cannot succeed until we learn how not to fail.


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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why We Write

The other day, the devil came and whispered in my ear “anything you want, you can have. All I want is the usual.”

The usual? My soul? Okay, devil, take my soul – just gimme a few more of those juicy publishable things I call words.

And so the devil, satisfied with this renewed bargain, allowed me a few more minutes of computer time while I – ever so excited – spewed on about my life in general. I wrote about my parents and my girlfriend and myself. I chatted – to myself, because some things cannot be shared – about the state of my future and the decisions that await. I made everything seem so dark and hopeful and twisted because it felt so right, so justifiable, so true.

And then I come back to this essay. This is shot number three at “why we write,” my contribution to understanding the motivation of the working writer. And by working I don’t necessarily mean publishing – I mean a writer who is putting pen to paper regularly, dripping blood and sweat through the ends of fingertips worn raw with typing. That alone is the qualification for a working writer – the closer we come to this ideal, the more the words will match our lives, the less room there is for imagination and the more sway we give to truth.

As I write this, I feel like a fraud. I feel like a lamb with a shotgun about to hunt down his own cousin so Mary can have a little lamb with her sauerkraut. I’m not a writer by trade – I’m a struggling human being. Forget the artist part of starving – I’ve spent my entire life scrounging for money. So I tell myself the experiences will contribute to my art – does that make me a writer? If it means dropping engineering to study English? If I then enlist in the Army to get money for grad school?

Currently, I don’t have enough money to marry. Buying airline tickets to meet my girlfriend’s family isn’t in the budget. But writers aren’t collections of money – writers are people who put pen to paper. Writers are dedicated souls who search for the meaning in life and then – harder still – do their best to share what they’ve learned without spoken words, without hand gestures, without lights or camera or CGI or even a hint of sound.

Am I a writer? Some days I feel more like a sellout. I take the easy way out in the name of “literature.” When I could have toughed it out and demanded a desk job, I allowed an injury to get me out of the Army. When I could have taken on some debt for that fifth year to finish engineering, I decided to graduate and get out. I see people talking and I’m too afraid to meet them. I see politicians argue and I’m too quiet to show that I care. I’m not a writer because I love it – I’m a writer because there’s nothing else for me, there’s no other way to get my words out to be heard. I don’t talk loud enough. I’m a guy, a male American, and I’m too afraid of my own voice.

So here I am telling you, another writer, my friend the reader, what it takes to be a writer. If I charged you a dollar, it would be fraud. But since this is free, it’s ethos. It’s the mythology of writing. It’s my contribution to the lore of the professional wordsmith. And you read this because you want to know why you should keep writing, you want to know why we all keep writing.

I can tell you this – I began writing in the seventh grade. It was a journal we were assigned to keep, a page a week for an off-campus class I was lucky to take. I don’t know now how I managed to earn a slot in this class, or why anyone trusted a seventh-grader to ride the train half-way across Chicago once each week to take this class and miss half a day of school, but this class taught me to write. It taught me to put personal words on the page. The teachers taught me to staple the pages in half for the days when I didn’t want to share my words. Later, when I read about Arthur the King and Frodo the Hobbit, I thought I could write the same kinds of stories. I thought I’d be like other writers, taking my personal life and weaving it into the worlds of heroes and dragons. I didn’t know what I was doing – I was fourteen. I couldn’t tell the nominative from the jussive if you held a gun to my broadsword. But still, in the nighttime hours, when my parents went upstairs and there was no trusting a teenager to cross Chicago by himself to see friends, the pen was there. Without classroom assignments, there was no need to staple pages shut. The trick was saving these pages from the fate of spring cleaning, when every useless toy and outdated scrap of homework met the dumpster. They were my precious thoughts, those pages, my personal publication for the audience of one. And still I save these story notes and journal entries from back then. They sit in a box at the side of my desk, pages and pages of incoherent scrawl I’m afraid to read for fear of heartburn. I wrote that? Ick! Thank God I learned to write before our home had a computer – it’s harder to back-up loose leaf. And vomit goes better on paper than mousepad.

Still, the writing happened. Somewhere along the way I learned the feel and the sound of words written well. It may have been the long summer days stranded alone in the middle of Chicago – I had the choice of biking down to the end of the block and back or reading a book. Going around the block – and out of sight of the house – required special permission. My brother was autistic, my buddy from two-doors down grew up on Playboy in an attic that smelled of cat piss, and visiting my friends from school required a parent to drive. The books ate the time. I spent days on Treasure Island with the pirates. Black Beauty was a dear equine friend. King Arthur was more than my hero – he was my inspiration, my guide for how to live, how to act, how to be.

Still, I produced more tripe. Piles of tripe. Great bound piles of pages that weren’t fit for bathroom reading. Even in college, I did this. Somehow I found my way into creative writing workshops, and somehow the teachers liked me. I don’t think it was the work so much as it was the way I listened. When they said my stories needed conflict, I stared at them and waited for the punch-line. When I presented my eight-hundred-word masterpiece for Intro to Journalism, the professor cut four-hundred words and said the rest needed work. Again, I waited for the punch-line. I was barely twenty – I had no clue what I was doing.

Still, I wrote. I wrote because my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t have understood my leaving her the computer. I wrote because my parents couldn’t understand ne’er-do-well English majors. I wrote because I was too tired to study math or physics or any of those other subjects. I wrote because I wanted the bad guys to win. I wrote because I was only a phone call away from being the bad guy to someone, somewhere.

I’ve spent the past three weeks asking myself why we write. Twice I've tried writing the answer, but the words didn’t flow. They didn’t ring true. I was asking the wrong question. I wanted to explain why writers write – I should have been asking why I write. It’s pointless for me to fathom the depths of your soul – I might understand a bit, but I can’t explain why you should write. I have enough trouble understanding my own reasons. Especially this week, when I’ve written hardly a word aside from this essay. I tell myself I want to write fiction and that I want to publish novels, but then my own chapters make me nauseous. I get headaches and vision loss and a serious urge to “go outside” at the thought of editing my own work for mass consumption. And don’t get me started on the thoughts of finding an agent or, worse yet, publicity. It’s not my vibrant social life that fuels my writing – it’s the vibrant writing which fuels the little social life I have. Except with my girlfriend – she’s foreign, so her English isn’t the best. We hold entire conversations involving two syllables and a helping of curry-fried-shrimp. And where did I meet her? Online. Through e-mail. With the words we share beyond sound.

And so, when the devil returns again – when it’s morning, and the sun shines, and I’m late for work – I’ll look deep inside and ask what comes next. Is it the writing, this craft of my voice made audible through print? Or is it the daily struggle of getting out and saying hi and smiling back?

Ask yourself – before you forget – about why you write. Ask yourself the meaning of the words on the page.

I say this, now, because next semester I start a new phase in my writing. In the past, I’ve written in the dark, on hidden notebooks, majoring in the wrong subject, short on cash, in the middle of Afghanistan. But now, suddenly, I will be paid to write. A university has decided to trust this kid from Chicago. The professors see great promise in my work. They look forward to meeting me. They tell me that they are fascinated by my life experience. They believe I will be a fine addition to their MFA program.

So write. Write as much as you can. Write until it makes you sick. And then keep going. Learn from the authors you enjoy, learn from your mistakes, learn from everything you can. But remember where you came from. Fix your motivation in your mind – and in your writing – now. Because it does matter. Because it shapes who you are and what you write. Because the depths plumbed with words begin with the vast ocean we call life. And the minute you forget where you came from, you lose everything worth writing for.


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Thursday, April 3, 2008

First Law of Delete

A great point brought up in one of my classes was the question of where to go next with a story. In writing, this question plagues everyone. No story is ever so complete that it can't use work, not even the million-copy bestseller. Every word we write, there's the question of which words to place next, which direction to take.

For this class, and in all your writing, I encourage you to remember the First Law of Delete - anything written can be deleted. If you don't like it, you can get rid of it later. If it's awkward, ugly, smelly, disgusting, or simply too horrifically beautiful, the delete key's always ready, always hungry.

I say this because often, as writers, we get caught up trying to make a piece "perfect." This line of thought actually hurts the creative process, especially during the rough-draft - this is one of the main causes of writer's block. For the assignments, feel free to read the prompt and then start writing. Write for fifteen minutes. If the words feel wrong, keep writing. Keep pushing forward. Oftentimes, it takes a few minutes (or even a few hours) to get in the groove - all those words that sound wrong are simply stepping stones to the right path, the slow curve of the on-ramp before you merge with the interstate.

Later, after the fifteen minutes (or twenty or thirty, if it's a good day), you can apply that First Law of Delete. And some days you will - there will be days when that whole fifteen minutes just doesn't work. But no worries. There will be other days when that awkward smelly no-good first paragraph becomes the keystone for a new plot you never saw coming. Embrace that plot. Enjoy it. And remember this irony: knowing you can delete everything helps you the stories you never forget.


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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fiction - The Unplanned Birth

In my workshop today, one of my writers touched on the fundamental difference between fiction and nonfiction. She said that she normally writes nonfiction, and that she’s accustomed to outlines and roadmaps for her writing. But she hasn’t liked the results of her planned fiction. She found that she likes the results of her freewriting, but that the process is scary – there is no planning, and editing is needed at the end. But still, the she likes the results.

Part of the reason freewriting inspires the creative process is that it forces the mind to write automatically. The result is that the words you produce are words you’re intimately familiar with. You begin writing about your life, about the things you’ve seen in life, even if the story is not a true story. And it works. It has the feel of truth, because in a deep way the words written on autopilot are truth – your truth. The life you’ve been living.

This is the funny thing about good fiction - it can't be planned. It's as random as our lives, as constant as the stars. Certain aspects of the human experience are accepted as absolute - the need for food, for example, or the strain and exhaustion that come with stress - but the events and decisions of an individual defy outlines. It's a strange phenomenon - generally, most writers avoid crossing back-and-forth between fiction and nonfiction. Before freewriting, I tried to control my writing. I wanted to “make” it good. I believed in working hard to produce the “perfect” story. But results of controlled fiction aren't good, let alone perfect. The characters are stale, the decisions pre-planned, the conflict watered down.

Fiction is not nonfiction. How do I know? Try writing nonfiction without an outline and good sources. That's just not a good idea, not for a longer work. The reader has to believe in the work, and for nonfiction that means believable, reputable facts. And these facts have to fit together tight as a jigsaw puzzle. To make the truth coherent, you have to sit down and plan it out, piece it together, see how every isolated piece matches with every other.

It's not that fiction's any different in that regard - the "facts" must still be "right," and they must certainly "fit together," but the source of these facts is a different place entirely. Some call it the heart, some say it’s the unconscious mind, others believe it's the soul. Tapping it, though, is hard. Allowing the disorder and the chaos of the inner mind to creep out onto the page is a process all by itself. And then telling your conscious mind – the part of your brain that stops you from giving embarrassing revelations at work – to step aside? For some, it’s inconceivable. I've met people who don't believe in freewriting and won't try it - they hold on to the control they have, choking their own creativity. It's not a pretty sight - flat characters, organized plots without purpose, antagonists who don't care about anything except owning the world.

When editors look for good fiction, they aren't looking for someone who can string words together in the "correct" way. They're looking for someone who can reveal a protagonist's inner hate, someone who can show the antagonist's hidden love, a writer who makes us appreciate life in new ways. As you push forward in your writing, make sure that you are learning to write from within rather than simply pen beautiful sentences. Don’t plan your novel to death – write it. Feel it. Express it. And then later, after the words are on the page, after you’ve bled your soul through the keyboard, go back and edit. Assert the control you didn’t need before. Make sure the grammar isn’t too ugly. But don’t do this until you’re done. Don’t edit until after the last line is written. If you’re tempted to edit early, tempted to “tweak” the story a little bit, just keep one thing in mind: you can always edit grammar. You can insert and delete characters and subplots in a finished story. You can even go through and emphasize a theme that didn’t get enough “air time” in the rough draft. But no matter how much you edit, you can’t revive a story without heart.


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Monday, March 31, 2008

Write Relevant Dialogue

Your story has just begun. The conflict is terrible, the plot superb, and the characters fascinating. It's time for the major scene, bringing together arch-nemesci in the same setting: the protagonist and antagonist. To pull off the ensuing confrontation, you'll need dialogue.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Setting to Illustrate Conflict and Character

I remember setting as the bread and butter of my days in Reading class. Setting was the most wonderful (and most analyzed) part of every fiction story we read. Were there trees? What did they look like? How do they make you feel?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Losing Your Voice

I don't let my mom read my stories. I once made the mistake of letting her read one, and then for years afterward she used that story as part of the reason why I shouldn't write. Granted, that one story had problems - many problems. The first glaring error my mom noticed was that the medical information was completely bogus. I had made up a disease and put it in my story, and my mom - a very experienced nurse - could tell right away that the disease had no basis whatsoever in fact. Besides that, though, the story didn't speak to my mom. She wasn't enthralled, wasn't thrilled, couldn't see those words showing up on a bookstore shelf.

As you work on your own writing, you want to make sure the negative opinions of others don't cause you to lose your own voice as a writer.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Elin O'Hara Slavick on Creativity

Today, National Public Radio's "The State of Things" featured photographer and activist Elin O'Hara Slavick. This was my first introduction to the artist, but her commentary provides very revealing insight regarding the creative process. One of her comments that sticks with me is the sentiment that if you look too hard for your memories, you won't find them. You have to rely on the memories that come to the surface, even if they're inaccurate or twisted by time.

During this interview, Professor Slavick also discusses her role in attempting to foster more peaceful - and productive - reactions to September 11th and the roles of social and financial concerns in the making of art. I highly recommend this program as a look at the artistic process. Although Slavick herself focuses on photography and social activism, many parallels can be drawn with writing.


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Writing through Distraction

Freewriting's open, free-form structure is great for the office, the beach, the classroom - anywhere you go that allows only snatches of time to write your story. Since the free-write is usually not intended as a marketable story, you don't have to worry about typos or smudges or whether you can concentrate enough to make the story "good." But it still takes concentration to write, especially to "get in the groove" and write fast.

This is where your real-world setting can pose some problems - the distractions around you may threaten to short-circuit your creative process.  Fighting the distraction often makes things worse - using these distractions to your advantage, on the other hand, can actually help generate new ideas.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cheeky Characters Write Themselves

Yesterday, I had the sad job of watching a story die on the page. It shouldn’t have died, I figured – it was the prologue. It had all the elements of a good prologue – a protagonist scorned, a world of injustice, the start of a very long journey. And yet the story stopped. I made it halfway to the end of prologue and found nothing more to write. This bothered me because the novel’s already half-written. After 42,000 words of novel, what’s a few hundred words of prologue? Why would it be so hard to write a stirring introduction to a story that’s already halfway done?

The problem was expectation. As I noted in “Hit Your Muse With a Rock,” expectation can kill inspiration where it counts most – on paper. As writers, we struggle with two expectations – we expect a certain quality in our words, and we expect a certain ability in ourselves. In good writers, these expectations are not necessarily in agreement, but they are in harmony. The writer expects that he or she can write, and the words produced generally meet the expectation of decent work. But most beginning writers face the problem of low self-esteem coupled with an intense desire to write something good, to write something incredible. The low self-esteem results from lack of practice, and the desire is a natural product of Barnes and Noble. Today, we are surrounded by good books. Even the second-tier authors we rarely hear of are very good writers. As human beings, we feel that we have to match their performance in order to join their ranks.

This expectation of great work kills the creative process. It turns writers into control freaks. We spent hours mulling over the meaning of a single line, lose precious minutes trying to decide between “he said” and “said he.” The momentum of the moment stalls as the process of writing gives way to the process of frustration.

Unfortunately, lesser expectation often creates the same problem. Yesterday, my prologue had little chance of greatness. I wasn’t looking for great – I was looking for an introduction, a way to explain the character who stars in my novel. When the story stalled, I shrugged and walked away. I figured inspiration would come to me, but it didn’t. The expectation that killed this work was a desire to mold the character myself, to control the outcome of this prologue to match the novel. I had turned into a control freak of limited scope, but the effect was equally devastating – the story stopped. The words ran dry. The prologue sat unfinished.

My story needs a prologue, so I’ll start it again. But on the second try, I will remember the cardinal rule of fiction – the best protagonists write themselves.

Now, you’re wondering how I can label this the “cardinal rule.” If I had a dollar for every “first rule of writing” I’ve heard, I wouldn’t need to publish to pay the rent. But the fact is, life is about conflict. Great stories are about conflict. Readers sit riveted because they want to know what happens next, because they can’t predict from page one the outcome of page two. But if you want to keep readers in their seats through page four hundred, you must maintain the same unpredictable tension on every page of the book, whether it’s page one, two, or three-seventy-three.

There are two processes you can use to accomplish this. In the first process, you can carefully plan out a riveting story and then write it. I don’t recommend this. Very few writers can pull it off. This method fails because the inner control freak gets free reign. In the outline, every plot twist seems simply stunning. But in the manuscript, as you’re trying to foreshadow and trying to build tension and trying to insert the critical plot twist – everything just like it says on the outline – the story stagnates. It sounds dry. It’s a lot of trying and not a lot of “let’s see what happens next.”

The second process is better. Start with your character, and then write. You don’t need to know exactly where you’re going to write a good story – in many ways, it’s better if you don’t. Pick your favorite fictional protagonist – I’m fond of Jane Eyre, myself – and think about what you enjoyed about that character. Was it the way the character reacted to the world? The words the character said? The way they always managed to do the “right” thing, even if it was unexpected or simply outrageous?

Characters don’t achieve this kind of free-spirited winner-take-all success through outlines. They become flesh-and-blood heroines through their own quirks and their own ways of viewing the world. They become realistic because the author allows the character the freedom to pick what comes next. Stories are about conflict, yes, but they are most riveting when they are about personal conflict, the kind of struggle that rocks the protagonist to her bones.

The prologue I couldn’t finish failed in that regard. I inserted my protagonist, but then I withheld the conflict. I made it a secret. She didn’t know that she was walking into a trap, or that she was about to start her long journey. She had nothing to do but stand and wait.

Readers hate waiting. And it’s a dull theme to write. I grew bored, and the writing stopped. When I start again – from the beginning – the protagonist will know the conflict. She’ll know what she’s fighting for – or at least what she’s fighting against. And I’ll have an idea of what the protagonist will do, but I won’t know. That part’s up to her. As a full-grown character, she has to make decisions. She has to be an adult because that’s what readers want to see – an adult making grown-up decisions regarding her own life, regardless of how twisted the world she’s written into.

So as you go forth and write, remember to ease up on your protagonists. Allow them the freedom to make the choices that you yourself would not make. If the protagonist wants to try something outside your plans for the story, go with it. Try it out. Let the characters speak for themselves. You’ll have more fun, as will your readers.


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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hit Your Muse With a Rock

There is a very healthy market of books on how to write and – more importantly – how to find inspiration. Every day, frustrated writers struggle with getting their characters on paper – they battle writer’s block and boredom and the conviction that the story isn’t worth writing. They rack their brains for ideas on how to liven the story, how to make it work, how to “find their muse.” And yes, many of them are sitting in the chair, hand on pencil, eyes on the page as they struggle, so it isn’t even an issue of taking the time to write. It’s an issue of making the writing fit the time.

Seriously, when your muse deserts you like this, hit her with a rock.

Blink. A rock? How can I advocate hitting an imaginary goddess of inspiration with a rock?

It’s simple. When a story stalls, that’s your invitation to write whatever comes to mind. You can begin with the most outlandish words you can think of. For example: “Muse, dear, I’m mad at you. I need a good story. Why aren’t you helping me? I’m throwing a brick your way.”

It sounds like a twisted form of on-the-couch therapy, but the key to this technique is that you write as you do it. Writer’s block is so harmful because it stops your desire to write. It halts the pen with thoughts of inadequacy. Hitting your muse with a rock is not the way to start the Great American Novel. What I’m advocating is a way to break that writer’s block. This probably won’t produce words you can use, and anyone looking over your shoulder might wonder at your sanity when the muse writes back with “Oh yeah? A rock? Is that the best you’ve got, writer-boy?” But this technique will get you writing. It will get thoughts from your mind onto the page, reopening the all-important path between eyes and pen.

This technique is actually a modified version of freewriting. Most writers use freewriting entirely off-the-manuscript. They find a fresh scrap of paper, scribble away for fifteen minutes or so to get in the head of their protagonist, and then they return to their typing. Hitting the muse with a rock requires no such interruption. As you sit before the precious manuscript with nothing to say, you duke it out with your muse right there. You type it onto your manuscript wherever it is you happen to be. Sure, the muse holds no real part in the story, but it relieves a lot of stress to throw rocks on paper. It loosens up the manuscript itself. Remember that writer’s block is the result of high expectation for the manuscript coupled with low expectations of your own abilities. Both of these impulses are wrong. A manuscript is never all-important – when you’re still at the stage for writer’s block, you’re sitting before a first or maybe a second draft. The story isn’t done yet. There’s plenty of room for change. Throw some bricks – you can always delete them later. A press of a key or a swipe of the pen restores the original work.

The secret, of course, is that you don’t need to throw bricks. You don’t need to involve your muse. As you develop this technique, you can focus it to meet the needs of your story. I discovered how much fun this can be during National Novel Writing Month, that wild month of the 50,000 word novel. For NaNoWriMo, the only requirement is word count, but getting that word count is hard. A week of writer’s block can be a deathblow to your work. To produce 1,667 words a day during the month of Thanksgiving and Christmas Shopping, every moment counts. You have to be focused and you have to be excited. The fingers must fly. So I began throwing rocks at my protagonists. Rocks, dragons, tanks, even a computer that was allergic to water. I tossed in absurd challenges, ideas that I would have never written had I taken the time to worry about the final product.

Strangely, the story I wrote worked. The protagonists fought back. Parts of the work seemed silly and ridiculous, I kept writing. The audacity of the story kept me in my seat – I never knew what would happen next, but I always knew I could find another rock.

There’s a reason why this technique works. Deep down, every story is about conflict. It’s about a protagonist facing a challenge and learning to overcome. Challenge on the page takes many forms, but you can imagine it as throwing a rock. Remember that your rock can represent any difficulty. It can be the prom dress that doesn’t fit. It can be the spooky neighbor who invites your protagonist to see the windowless basement after dinner. It can be the cute crush who’s too nice and too funny and to perfect for your protagonist to bear thinking about.

How does your protagonist respond to the rock? Does she duck aside, find her own rock, and throw it back at you? Or does she catch it in the stomach and throw up? Don’t think about it – write it. The key to this technique is to write every step of the way. Keep it fun. Pick an unusual rock, something that does not fit with the rest of your story. Has the heroic knight of the quantum order defeated the horrible space dragon? Give him the queen’s baby nephew to keep quiet for an hour. Has your heroine survived budget cuts and layoffs to become the executive vice president? Maybe her boss the vampire invites her to a round of midnight golf.

Remember, the goal here is not to write the Great American Novel. The goal is to break through writer’s block and to keep writing, to get the ideas free-flowing. Sometimes, you may discover an entertaining twist that you enjoy more than the original story. Other times, you’ll get a good laugh, reconnect with your characters, and then pick up from where you left off. The hardest part is letting go. You have to relax, ignore the expectations of greatness, and focus on your eyes and your fingers.

And, when all else fails, feel free to blame your muse. Just beware of the brick she’ll throw back.


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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Style and Popular Literature

One of my favorite writing teachers, Bill Henderson, addresses a fundamental question on his blog:

Are commercial bestsellers poorly written?


If you have a chance, definitely check out his post at TrueVoice - The Blog. I've included my response below, but there are several great perspectives on TrueVoice regarding the role of style in popular (and successful) fiction.

Style and Popular Literature

I'm afraid I have great respect for certain popular writers. The latest Harry Potter book was filled with dozens of horribly structured paragraphs, and there are some Stephen King books simply not worth reading, but I enjoy these authors. I appreicate what they can do with a character, how they can bring a story right up to the edge and somehow create a happy (and believable) ending.

At the same time, I have incredible respect for some of the literary short-story authors I've read lately. I can't remember their names, and I only remember their stories from which magazine I found them in (e.g. Georgia Review or Ploughshares). But these are stories I could not have read six years ago. I hated them, dreaded them. In college, the complex literary stories made me avoid the serious literature classes (quite a feat for an English major). I wanted to study creative writing - I didn't want to get bored out of my mind and then start pulling C's. I didn't understand story structure well enough then to appreciate what these stories accomplish. And what I understand now I learned from writing. Workshops taught me how to read stories in-depth, and I will never again enjoy my cherised "pop" novels which happen to be filled with run-on sentences and poor speech attribution.

Most readers, though, are like my mom - they don't write. Hand her Ann Rice and she'll pass the time; hand her Moby Dick and she'll talk about the ex-cousin-in-law who dropped out of his Ph.D. program. Readers like my mom enjoy a good story, and they rarely notice adverbs or participles that dangle into space. If they're good readers, they might feel queasy as the brooding superhero was saying his words darkly, but not always. To many readers, good writing is a product of deep thought. They think that "specificity of detail" means using phrases like "the fact that" and "he was verbed adverbly." They use these phrases themselves, and then they tell people like us (their friends/neighbors/bartenders who claim to be writers) things like "oh, yeah, I'm working on a book, too. It's about..."

Do I begrudge the bestsellers they're fame? Not really. They tell stories that are fun and witty and enjoyable despite transgressions of style. Honestly, I despise awards committees who slap labels like "A Genre Essential Book" on novels that lack either plot or fully realized characters. I worry about the editor who let it go when dozens of poorly-worded paragraphs in Harry Potter 7 crossed the desk. I feel robbed of my time when the books are bad and robbed of an even better read when the books are good but flawed.

Is style important? To us, certainly. To the typical reader? I'm not sure. I feel like an elitist saying this, but I remember the days when I could read a book without critiquing the word order on every other page. When I was younger, I had no patience for many of the books we call "literary." I read E.B. White because the book was about King Arthur, not because I understood the meaning of clean prose. Pride and Prejudice was a favorite because I thought Elizabeth Bennet was fun.

This, I think, is where the popular books excel - they develop characters who readers relate to. They provide compelling plots and exciting action to help readers quickly escape this world of work, taxes, and parking tickets. They reveal that it's possible to write a compelling story despite structural mistakes. It's the kind of trick I'm still trying to pull off.

In the meantime, though, I'll keep working on the fundamentals of style. I'm already much better at sentence structure than conflict, but there's always room for growth. When the day comes that I discover my compelling blockbuster story, I want the style to back me up all the way. I want the the story to read fast so the reader can dive in and forget that the images dancing through his mind are the product of black ink on white paper.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Journal Your Inner Character

For fiction writers, the journal is a complicated subject. Moments spent documenting one's own life can be viewed as a selfish joy, a way of procrastinating on "serious" work for publication. It can also serve as a portal to the inner self, a way of examining the human experience. From established authors, I have heard both sides. I once knew a poet who felt that spending hours and hours on a journal was a waste of time. Another author once wrote that journaling detracted from the creative energy she needed for her fiction. On the flip side, a very literary couple I know keeps dream journals. They write down all they can remember from their dreams. They've said that at first, it's hard to remember much, but the more you access these memories and write them down the more accessible they become. It's as if you can train the mind to remember those elusive thoughts which are normally relegated to the dustbin of waking.

I'm afraid I've never tried a dream journal, and the journals that I have kept of life have never been as regular or as thorough as I would like. Before I took writing seriously, journaling was an occasional aside to myself, usually a way to gripe on paper about the girls (or lack of girls) in my life. As I became a better student of writing, it annoyed me that my journal entries were so vacuous. Occasionally I made attempts to go "in-depth" with a particular subject - a family concern, for instance, or a memory that I very much wanted to cherish dozens of years in the future.

Unfortunately, desire plays a strange game with motivation. Generally, I've found that a truly vivid memory tends to burn itself into my consciousness, and the "lesser" memories tend to drift under the surface of my waking thoughts. This sounds normal enough, at least until I go back and read the journal entries. A particularly telling article was an essay I once for the one journalism class I took. "Why I Write," it was titled - even now, I can't remember having written it. I can tell it must have been late at night, though, and under a deadline - it has the sound and feel of a journal entry. The entire article revolves around the girl I "loved" at the time, a friend of mine who lived five states away and who I mostly knew through e-mail. "Why I Write," it was titled, as if her distance and our e-mails would be enough to explain why I put fingers to keyboard every day. But reading this essay again last week, I discovered a depth of feeling that I had forgotten regarding this friend. It's been years now since she and I last talked or e-mailed - we barely knew each other. But for a few months my junior year, she was the headline of my life, the front-page story of the day, the reason I looked forward to waking up and the reason I never wanted to go to sleep.

Am I proud of my journal entries? Not particularly. Are they honest? Sure. Do they reveal the inner depths of my character? Most days I hope not. But these brief records of life - of my personal life - reveal the richness of the human experience. They rest like slow-release time capsules, waiting for those brief moments when I have a chance to leaf through and read about the person I once was, the person I've always been. The details are always so mundane that I forgot them, but they were pivotal enough to write.

So now, as I contemplate another night of typing fiction or typing a journal entry, I have to reflect on what journal entries have actually done for my writing. I like to think that I am a creative writer, that the thoughts I put on the page are unique and uniquely mine. But the source of these thoughts is unclear. Are they subconscious meanderings, the deep waves hidden far beneath the surface? Or are they the steady breeze of the ocean air sending laughter like ripples across the bay? I have my guesses, and so do the psychologists, but no one truly knows the source of great writing. No one can bottle it, there is no formula, and selling your soul works only until the director calls "cut!"

So when you reach a point in your fiction writing that you cannot write more, a moment when you don’t know what your protagonist should do or think, it might be time for a journal entry. The words might not seem important, and you might never share them, but those words are your life. They are the front-page story of your day. And if you want to write stirring fiction, the kind of work that truly explores that hidden continent the human mind, then what better foreign correspondent will you find than your journal?


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Monday, February 18, 2008

Fiction 101 Workshop Curriculum

Fiction 101 - Introduction
Learning to write fiction provides a unique challenge to any writer. Unlike nonfiction, which is based on established facts, or poetry, which can be entirely imagined, fiction depends upon rooting an imagined story in reality. Good fiction allows readers to suspend their disbelief - for the duration of the story, readers believe in the story, they believe in the characters. It might be a story about vampires or it could be aliens fighting for control of Mars, but if it's well written the readers will set aside their doubts and allow the question that drives all imagination: "what if?"

In Fiction 101, we examine the fundamentals that allow suspension of disbelief. For this class, each student will write a prompt-directed story. First, we root the story with setting, providing a stage for all that occurs. Then we establish our characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, their conflict. We use dialogue to flesh-out the story further, to develop the conflict and reveal the sides of our characters that are not seen directly. Finally, we bring the conflict to a head and resolve the story.

Throughout this workshop, students will receive feedback from the instructor after each assignment. Through ongoing discussion forums, the instructor will provide topics for consideration and fellow students will discuss their progress. There will opportunities for questions and feedback throughout. At the end of the course, students will share their stories with classmates for critique.

Fiction 101 - Activities:

Setting - Set Location
Pick a Room that has strong memories for you. It could be your own room now, you're parent's bedroom, the principal's office, your grandfather's attic. It should be a room that holds personal meaning to you, a room from which you can draw personal connections. Describe this room. What's in this room? What's missing that should be there? How do the contents of this room represent it's inhabitants? How do the habits of the people affect this room, the way it's been laid out? The aim is 250-750 words.

Character - Pick a Protagonist
Imagine your protagonist in the room you've described. This protagonist can be someone you know, or a stranger who fascinates you, or simply someone you made up. Think about what your protagonist looks like. What does he or she wear? How do we see the life of this person in his face, in her hands? What does this person want or need most right now?

Now write your protagonist into the room. You may use first or third person narrative, but limit your point-of-view to information that your protagonist would personally know and care about. Your reader will see the story through this character's eyes. The goal is 250-750 words.

Conflict - Insert Antagonist
Insert character two. Consider how this character prevents your protagonist from fulfilling his or her needs. Why do your protagonist and antagonist hate one another? What topics will they never discuss? Write about this from your protagonists perspective. Write about how these to people avoid one another while inhabiting the same room. Remember that in developing conflict, you must continue to uphold setting along with descriptions of both characters. What are these two characters doing in the room? How do their actions display the turmoil? What do they say - or not say - to one another?

As you write this, you are revealing an important aspect of your protagonist. Make sure that you write about the key change that your protagonist must make in his or her life. Think about the lesson you want your protagonist to learn from this story. What plans does the protagonist make while sparring with the antagonist? Are these plans good or bad?

The goal is 500 words, but you can go longer.

Dialogue/Description - Introduce Outside Party
Dialogue is one of the most potent literary tools at your disposal. It is dialogue that drives scene by defining the relationships between characters. Description may indicate feelings and setting can influence tone, but the words that your characters exchange will leave the most lasting impression on the reader. Your characters must sound believable, and they must exchange information which drives the plot forward. For this exercise, your protagonist is still in the room, but the antagonist has left. Briefly describe why the antagonist has left - is it something the protagonist said? Or is it part of your antagonists plot to rule this world?

Insert a third character, a neutral party, someone who is not part of the conflict but should be aware of it. The first part of this exercise is the way your protagonist views the third party. What brief detail defines this third person? How does the protagonist think of this person?

Next, use dialogue to reveal who this character is. What does this person care about? Does the protagonist need to win this character as an ally? Does this person have valuable information for your protagonist? Or has the antagonist bought him off? Your protagonist is trying to justify his own point of view in the conflict with the antagonist - this dialogue is his chance to justify himself through words. The goal for this exercise is 500 words, but you can go longer.

Dialogue: The Three-Way
Uh-oh, the antagonist returns…and now we have a three-way dialogue. Remember that conversations consist of short sentences - everyone wants to be heard, even those afraid to speak. While your protagonist and antagonist are duking it out for supremacy, your third character will have his or her own agenda. What is this agenda? We don't know because we see the world through the eyes of the one protagonist only. Using dialogue, description, and your protagonist's intuition, reveal as much as you can about your antagonist and his relation to the third character. As in other exercises, the setting of the room continues to evolve - has anything changed in the room since assignment one? How does the change affect the arena of conflict? (e.g. if the AC goes out and everyone's sweating, will tempers be lost?) Remember that you do not need to resolve your story just yet - that's the next assignment. The goal for this one is 500 words or more.

Resolution: The Clean-Up
The key to ending a story is resolving the conflict. Somehow, the energy driving the protagonist's desires must dissipate. Does the guy get what he wants? Does the girl realize she needed something else entirely? Does our hero oust the antagonist from an ill-gotten throne, or has compromise postponed our battle? The goal is 250-750 words.

Looking Back: Revision and Critique
Now that you've completed your story, the final portion of the workshop is dedicated to examing what you've accomplished. Each student will complete revisions and submit a second draft of their story for student critique. The writing assignment for this portion is to provide feedback for fellow students. The instructor will lead the story critique with leading questions for each story and highlights. Ground rules will be maintained to establish an open and welcoming environment for critique.

Click here to Register for Fiction 101.

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Writing Workshop Curriculum

This week's posts are dedicated to laying out the curricula of the writing workshops to be offered here at 1-2-Writing. Each workshop will have a unique focus geared toward developing an aspect of your fiction writing. Through these posts, you'll be able to preview the courses and decide if you like my approach to writing. Although these posts are intended to provide the complete workshop plan, a workshop involves far more than just a curriculum. The keys to any successful workshop are instructor feedback, individual participation, and group cohesion. Workshops should be helpful, they should be motivating, and they should be fun.


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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Best King Arthur Book

The Once and Future King

by T.H. White


Fantasy - as a genre - suffers under the weight of its own legends. Hobbits have taken on a life of their own, spawning jokes and wisecracks that Tolkien himself would have never imagined. The stereotype of the Dungeons and Dragons acolyte who has no friends except the other players huddled around the cardboard map has made it's way now through multiple generations - I've heard D&D players as a group denigrated by college students to veteran army parachute instructors. There is a perception among some that fantasy stories are no more than an escape from the now, a way to ignore real problems while avoiding people.


To truly appreciate the fantasy genre, though, we must go back to the roots from which the legends came. Long before there were books, we've had heroes. Tired nomads huddled around fires telling the stories of the great men and woman who redefined society. Over time the tales grew old - names were misplaced, new castles replaced the crumbling forts, the achievements of a lifetime were condensed into the magical power of an instant. The role-playing games of today simply reflect the human urge to connect with heroes, to engage in mighty quests and accomplish superhuman tasks. Fantasy novels are indeed an escape - an escape from a society that provides little outlet for true heroism.


It is the rare novel which encapsulates the best of epic fantasy with the common frustration of the modern human being. The eternal quest of Arthur and his Round Table Knights is often viewed as a wholesome fantasy, a kind of "that's nice, now let's hold open the doors for the ladies" kind of story. We know of the quest for the Grail, and we understand that Lancelot - the greatest knight of all - betrayed his own king, but many consider this simply the stuff of legend. But what's the point? Isn't Arthur supposed to come back? If it was really true, I mean?


T. H. White's The Once and Future Kingaccomplishes a unique feat in the Arthurian realm - the novel truly humanizes the legend of Arthur. Unlike recent movies, which have relied upon changing the story itself and replacing the characters as convenient, White's novel remains true to the original Le Morte d'Arthur in terms of the legend. Where he varies the pitch is in the casting of his characters. We see Arthur progress from boyhood to adulthood and into the twilight of old age, and we experience the downfall of his own ideals. It's saddening toward the end, to see how the stubborn hope for that simple moral justice is itself a flawed ideal, but White writes so well that the eventual fall of Camelot becomes inevitable. This book, though good for all ages, is not written as a children's book. The very real failings of Lancelot and Guinevere are cast in an adult light. Death comes to the knights hidden by their shields, and White provides a faces for these men and their ladies.


Already a timeless legend of justice, betrayal, and the quiet hope for civilization gone wrong, the tale of Arthur the King is truly developed in White's novel. I highly recommend this book to any reader who wants to understand a magical world that is, in its own way, very real.





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Inspiration for Creative Writing

I once asked my classmates in an online workshop about their habits for "finding inspiration." I think I asked "what do you do to get in the writing mindset." The first response I got back was "You should strike that thought from your mind." According to my classmate, no one who wants to be a writer should wait for inspiration or "the right mindset" - you have to just sit down and write. The next day, our teacher chimed in her complete agreement. Writing, as she pointed out, is a daily habit.

Unfortunately, those weren't the answers I was looking for. Mostly I wanted to start conversation, but also I was looking to get an idea of the sort of writers my classmates were. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, and the reasons for why they write reveal a great deal about their personalities. Some write for catharsis, others for the sheer joy of words on the page, a few here and there for the sadistic pleasure of writing a horrible end to people they don't like (not that any readers here would do such a thing...right?)

But most writers don't exactly know why they write. I can give ideas as to why I write, but no one reason is "the" reason. But the tricks I use for inspiration, those are facts. For a long time, I only had simple tricks. Sometimes I'd take a break and watch a movie. Usually I had a good book sitting by my computer. Every once in a while, when nothing was flowing, I'd play a video game - I don't know why, but it helps.

But then I took a freewriting workshop. For those of you unfamiliar with freewriting, it's a way to channel your unconscious thoughts directly onto the page. To freewrite, you sit down and set a timer for maybe ten or fifteen minutes (you can go for longer or shorter, if you like). During those minutes, you write. You write fast. You write the first thing that comes to mind and the next thing that comes to mind and you edit nothing. Just let it flow. Outlandish, unusual, uncomfortable - whatever the thought is, get it on paper and move on to the next one.

From freewriting, I discovered a whole new meaning for the word "inspiration." Instead of waiting on an outside stimulus to "get my mind going," I learned that the greatest stimuli come from deep within, like the deep ocean waves you never see or feel until they come rumbling to shore.

I've taken a few freewriting seminars, but the course that introduced me was a week-long Amherst Method residency taught by Pat Schneider. Pat's Amherst Method is a complete package for learning to write from within - she incorporates freewriting with guidelines to maintain an open and accepting environment for her writers to share their work. If you can, I highly recommend taking an Amherst Method workshop with one of the many certified instructors nationwide.

If you can't make it to a workshop due to time and/or distance, Pat has two very helpful books on the Amherst Method. Writing Alone and With Others and The Writer As an Artist: A New Approach to Writing Alone & with Others are both great resources for getting in touch with your inner self through the Amherst Method. Also, I have heard very good recommendations for the works of Natalie Goldberg. Her most well-known book on this subject is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Written in 1986, this book explores Goldberg's own experiences with inspiration and how to capture it on the page - Pat Schneider recommended it to our class as a way to become immersed in the methods of freewriting.

If you have a chance, take a freewriting workshop or take a look at some of these books. And let me know what you think. What do you do for for inspiration? How do you get "in the mood" for writing? Or have you found a motivation that keeps you sitting at your writing desk every morning?



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Learn to Write Creatively

I saw a question online about how to start creative writing. It's a very good question, but even many writers fail to take it seriously. I think this is because most non-writers fail to accept the short answer - writers must write. Usually they must write a lot. So when someone comes up and asks how to start creative writing, many writers lack the patience to really explain where to begin.

The best way to start creative writing is to find a piece of paper or a napkin and start jotting down whatever comes to mind. If you have a specific story you want to write, start writing down what it's about. If you hear a snippet of dialogue in your mind, or you see something special about your main character, definitely write that. Anything you think of can become a valuable part of your story.

Next, start writing your story. If you're on a roll, just keep going on the same piece of paper. Write for as long as you can - if you only have five minutes at lunch, that's enough to get started. As long as you come back - even if only for a few minutes each day - you can keep building the story. Making a daily habit of writing will stimulate your imagination and help you take your story in new directions. Don't wait for inspiration - often, inspiration strikes when you least expect it, and the best way to find more is to put pencil to paper and to keep going until you get there.

Later, when you've finished your story, I recommend finding someone to share your story with. A parent, a friend, someone to give supportive advice. When you feel like you want to get more specific feedback on your stories, find a local writers' group or sign up for an online workshop. Fellow writers can provide helpful advice for how to improve your writing while also encouraging you to keep going.

The most important thing, though, is to keep writing. Even on days when you don't like what you've written or someone else doesn't like it, write some more. Every day is a new chance to develop your creative voice.


1-2-Writing Workshops Online
About Ryan Edel

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Beginning Writer Workshop

I'm trying out the free-lance writing life in Raleigh while bartending on the side. Ends don't quite meet, but I feel like I'm actually living my dream for the first time. It's a great feeling, even as I put in twelve-and-fourteen hour days at my self-imposed "office."

There's a drawback to "living the dream," however. After many years of trying to convince my parents that writing is what I'm meant to do, I've had accept that they don't quite understand. I'm sure it's a common problem though. For a beginning writer - as for the beginning artist in any field - it's hard convincing your parents that starving is the right thing to do. Starting this website, to my practical mother, would be an even more foolhardy endeavor. I'm attempting to teach writing while hardly established myself. I'm applying to MFA programs, but I don't have one under my belt just yet. From the perspective of the mother who expected her son to excel in engineering, I'm throwing away both time and talent to a lost cause.

Why, then, do I write? Why endure the questions? Why not give in and find something lucrative? I've always been decent at math, and chemistry never was very hard for me (at least not until I took engineering classes - that was fun...). Why should someone who could make a living in another field want to be a writer?

The simple answer is that I can't not write. When the chemistry became to hard, I used the structures to describe my science fictional space alloy. When the differential equations were incomprehensible, I wove the squiggles into the setting of a new story. When my own life stopped making sense, I wrote out what I could. It's become an unbreakable habit - incestuous, almost. When I get tired of working on whichever novel is in progress, I'll take a break by writing a short story. Sometimes I have to pry myself away from the keyboard just to make sure I get my requisite hour of air and sunlight. Somedays I don't make it outside before dark.

Naturally, I want to share this unusual passion for words on a screen - I'm launching an online creative writing workshop. The focus will be on helping beginning writers learn the fundamentals of fiction writing while building the confidence to really experiment with their work. It feels ironic, almost. I'm barely published - my first story will see print later this year. My other stories are still in the submission stages. My first half-decent novel needs a cover-letter before so I can hunt for an agent. And yet I want to teach others.

Like any writer, I know the milestones in my work. I have a feeling of when and why I learned certain lessons at certain times. And I've made some major breakthroughs recently - the writing is beginning to "click" like it never did before.

My "sudden" progress is a combination of thousands of hours logged at the keyboard and time spent in some excellent workshops. I've learned valuable lessons from other writers and begun applying these lessons to my work. These are lessons in writing that I can pass on directly. Just as importantly, though, I've taken a few workshops that didn't help me as much. I've met writers who provided bad advice. And I can apply the lessons from these less-than-helpful seminars to provide lessons that are better structured and feedback that is targeted to the differing needs of each writer.

I have two goals in these workshops. My primary goal is to lead writing exercises that will help writers see stories from the inside out. This involves critiquing the work of others, it involves writing stories to specific prompts, it involves viewing your own writing in new ways. My second goal in is to illustrate the key guidelines for teaching creative writing. I believe that anyone who can write well can teach, but teaching creative writing is itself an art. It is a complicated process that involves both an understanding of the art and a connection with the artist. Many of the best writers and teachers, unfortunately, are not both.

I believe that much of the problem is an issue of focus – the best writers often never teach until after they’ve become successful authorities in their field, and then they have no one above them to guide them in how to run a workshop. The curriculum I'm assembling now is designed to overcome this. Starting young, I believe that beginning writers can quickly grasp the essential rules of teaching craft. By mastering these rules, a writer becomes both better with words and develops an affinity for helping other writers. And it is this bond - the ability to see and understand a human being through the words on the page - that defines a true writer.


1-2-Writing Workshops Online
About Ryan Edel

Why Fantasy Novels are Overlooked

This blog post comes from my article "Why Fantasy Novels are Overlooked" posted on Helium.com.
Our waking hours are limited. In the free moments left to us after e-mail and dinner and getting the kids to bed, we do our best to be productive in our leisure. For many, this means skipping the dragons and ignoring the elves in favor of lighter fair – that unread copy of Macbeth, perhaps, or another shot at page twenty of Moby Dick.

Light-Hearted Look at the Hazards of Being a Writer

Light-hearted? There is nothing light-hearted about the hazards of being a writer. Every day, I hear voices in my head and feel compelled to talk back.

“No you don’t.”

What? Dag-nabbit, there goes another one. She’s a protagonist, I think…I’ve been trying to delete her.

“Don’t even try, bucko.”

So yes, it’s a serious condition, this mental deterioration which results from writing. The longer you work with the words, the more they begin to seep through you subconscious mind and take over the rest of your life. You begin to think of freedom of speech as a right and you try to enforce it, but then you have characters who begin to say terrible, horrible, unpublishable things.

“What, you think I’ll be like Jane Fonda? She only said the c-word. And it was only national television.”

Dagny, stop it – I don’t need to get banned from Helium because of you.

“What, you’re afraid of a fictional character?”

I’m not afraid of you, just afraid of what you’ll make me write.

“Well fudge,” Dagny mutters, planting hands on hips, glancing down at the polished handle of her plasma disintegrator, “how in the gosh-darned heck am I going to express myself? What, you call yourself a writer? More like a two-bit cyber-punk wannabe trying to drive traffic to some cheap-skate website.”

Like I said, it’s dangerous being a writer. Just when you think you’re safe, your fingers start typing out the n-word and the f-word and then all kinds of social norms get shattered in the name of literature. Before you know it, the Catholic Church is pounding at your front door while Homeland Security goons drag you out the back.

“Oh, you wish,” Dagny adds. “That only happens when you’re popular. I don’t think you have enough friends for that.”

Great. There it is, the greatest hazard of all, true death to the writer – self esteem so low that his own imagination fails to believe in him.

Dagny rolls her eyes. She would tap her foot on the ground, but I’ve been taught to never write in clich├ęs.

“Oh, it’s not that I don’t believe in you,” Dagny says. “It’s just that we’re tired of your whining.”

We? Who’s we?

“We, us, the rest of the voices. What, you thought it was just me down here?”

Ah crud. I suppose I could just go ahead and ignore the physical hazards, then – carpal tunnel, eyestrain, mental disfigurement.

Dagny crosses her arms. “Mental disfigurement? Are you making up words again?”

No, I’m trying to describe the act of jabbing a pair of scissors through my skull. Man, can’t I get even a few moments without you crazy inner monologues? I’m trying to express a serious point here about the hazards of being a writer.

Another voice pipes in – Jonathan. He sounds tired again, as usual. “Hazards?” Jonathan asks. “I think you have it pretty good.”

Right. Listen, Jonathan, I know you don’t understand that you’re fictional, but you should at least know that you’re only some dude in a novel. It’s your job to face down fire-belching dragons and homicidal robots. It’s called poetic license.

Jonathan and Dagny exchange looks. Dagny mimes the act of jabbing a pair of scissors through somebody’s skull – probably mine.

Listen, I tell them, sitting at a keyboard all day isn’t as easy as it looks. I get migraines from neck pain, and my wrist still hurts, so if you buggers could just go back to whichever part of my brain spawned you, then I’ll go on back to work.

“Um, correct me if I’m wrong,” Dagny replies, “but, ah, aren’t we your work? Aren’t you, well, kinda unemployed when we’re quiet?”

I said can it!

“He’s bitter,” Jonathan tells her. “He thinks he’d rather be fighting the dragons himself.”

“Oh really? Why don’t we let him, the ingrate.”

“Trust me,” Jonathan tells her, “if real live dragons were a hazard of writing, our wonderful author would have a lot more than scissors sticking through his head right now.”

Right, right…moving on, let’s see if there’s something else to write about…something safe…a nonhazardous channel. Maybe politics. At least there I can express an opinion without overruling by myself.

“You wish.”

“Shh! Come on, Dagny, we gotta let him pretend. He’ll stop writing if he gets depressed.”

“So?”

“If he jabs those scissors through his forehead we’re dead.”

Dagny again rolls her eyes. “Whatever.”

Monday, February 4, 2008

How to Write Compelling Characters

There is nothing - nothing - that will kill a story faster than a dull protagonist. I'm not talking about a character who sits at home with his mom on Friday nights eating popcorn while watching reruns of that morning's soaps (though that would, of course, be pretty dull). Worse than this is a character who sits at home and does nothing, thinks nothing, decides nothing. The kind of protagonist who takes life in stride and learns nothing. A dull character, indeed.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Make the Most of Writing Workshops

It has become very popular, now, to promote the ideal that all writing is worth reading, that all writing deserves a kind word. This attitude results from a very brutal fact about writing - good writing comes from deep within, and a scathing review is tantamount to cutting open the writer's soul. Many writers - especially writers just starting out - are not ready for this treatment. Many who face such critics end up hating themselves as much as they dread writing. Would-be careers are cut short before they've even begun.