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Archive for the category “writing”

Even our best teachers can give us bad writing advice

“Here’s a writing craft tool that you can remove from your toolbox and throw away: description. It’s the stuff that most readers skim. Even when deftly done using the five senses it’s a lead weight. It isn’t needed anymore.” ― Donald Maass

I have one of Donald Maass’ writing books on my shelf. It has some of the best writing advice I’ve read. But, if he’s going to suggest we need no description, he should have stopped and imagined a few things before saying something so flippant:

  • Characters without any physical characteristics–height, weight, eye color, hair color, clothing styles–because the reader learns that through description.
  • Characters who live in unknown houses and who drive unknown cars. Yes, description tells us such things.
  • Monsters we have to take on faith because without description we don’t know whether or not they’re really scary and capable of hurting the protagonist. Same thing can be said about the bad guys and bad women.
  • Imagine being blind to everything in the story. Imagine the characters also being blind because without description, they can’t even imagine what the people they’re talking to (or about) look like.

We seldom need lengthy descriptions like those we found in the old novels many of us had to read in high school. Maybe you read a few of them too, books in which the author started describing a palace and its grounds on page 17 and was still describing it on page 27. I’m glad most books don’t carry on about the looks of things with several thousand words at a time.

Maass’ advice contrasts sharply with those who advocate so-called “thick description,” description that’s multilayered and tells us more than one thing about a person, place or thing.

Maass also suggests that good fiction should be entertaining and about something that matters. I agree. The depth of stories that matter can come from a lot of sources, including the theme, plot, characters, and dialogue. Frankly, I think if a clever author weeded out every single descriptive word and phrase in an otherwise masterpiece of a novel, Maass wouldn’t like the result. Few people would.

Malcolm

 

Are writers outsiders?

“Writers are outsiders. Even when we seem like insiders, we’re outsiders. We have to be. Our noses pressed to the glass, we notice everything. We mull and interpret. We store away clues, details that may be useful to us later.” – Dani Shapiro

I’m not sure the answer is a simple yes or no.

In contrast to Dani Shapiro’s statement, Joe Bunting in Are the Best Writers Insiders or Outsiders? says, “Perhaps the insider/outsider question is a false dichotomy. If Cormac McCarthy can write masterpieces in his solitude and Salman Rushdie write them while dating supermodels and going to international parties, then maybe it’s not about being in or out. Perhaps the secret is to never stop being you, whether or not you’re inside or outside.”

Maybe Joe Bunting’s “you” can change personas and step into the mix and be a part of it when necessary or watch from the sidelines and observe when necessary. Or, maybe it comes down to whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, facile or clumsy in social situations, or easily moves between a huge number of friends or feels more comfortable spending most of his or her time with a small group.

We’re always observing, I think. To some extent, that puts us somewhat outside. We do store away clues, as Shapiro says. In Bunting’s post, it’s not surprising to read that J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are among the outsiders–far outside, as it turns out. Or, that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Mark Twain were considered insiders.

When I read an author’s novel, I don’t know if s/he’s an insider or an outsider in any social group, town or career. I might leap to conclusions if I thought about it and consider those who write literary fiction to be outsiders and those who write romances and thrillers to be insiders. But, I might be wrong.

Perhaps insider vs. outsider doesn’t matter. Maybe the true consideration is: who do you need to be to write what you want to write?

Personally, I need quiet. I don’t want every week to be filled with dinners, barbecues, parties, movies, and day trips. That’s what works for me. Maybe you need a lot of activity, friends trooping through the house 24/7 and a full dance card, so to speak. If it works, what more could one want?

The late William Trevor (“Love and Summer”), a prolific Irish writer believed that “writers were outsiders, that they had no place in society because society was what they were watching.” I can understand the feeling even though I’m not convinced all writers feel this way.

If you’re a writer, how do you feel about this? (Yes, I know, maybe the insider/outsider discussion is about as meaningful about the old debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.) But I’m curious. Can you “make the scene” and still write about it or do you have to stand amongst the wallflowers and watch it before you can write about it?

Malcolm

 

Writing Craft: Staying out of the reader’s way

The intention of the writer of a novel is to guide readers into a dream-like state where the story comes alive in their minds, and they forget about everything else. Including – especially including – the fact that there is an author manipulating their emotions. Every time any reader is for any reason made aware of the presence of an author writing the story, that reader is tossed for a brief moment out of the emotional bond you have been working so hard to create.

via Make Your Writing Invisible – Indies Unlimited

The best authors and writing teachers have been saying this for years. Gordon Long approaches the idea a little differently in the way he leads into the paragraph I’ve quoted here. One way to allow his ideas to sink in, is to look for his examples of what you shouldn’t do while your reading novels in your favorite genre. Once you start noticing the flaws, it will be hard to “un-see” them. That may impact your pleasure reading for a while. But not forever because you’ll get used to putting up with authors’ mistakes and getting past them–unless they’re your own which aren’t too broke to fix.

As usual, helpful advice from Indies Unlimited.

–Malcolm

 

Lead readers to the water OR force them to drink?

“Different people will take different things from the story. I want to encourage readers to think rather than tell them what to think.” – Graeme Simsion (“The Best of Adam Sharp”) in a May 3 bookreporter interview.

What do you think?

Do you want to be led to the meanings behind an author’s characters, plots and themes? Or, do you want the author to tell you what it all means?

Author’s website photo.

When you read the classics,  you’ll sometimes find an authorial voice lurking directly or indirectly throughout the story, commenting on what’s happening. For example, in reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence again for the first time in years, I have to smile at the gentle mocking narrative in which Wharton makes it quite clear how she feels about the so-called upper class in New York’s society of the 1870s.

Yes, it’s fun to see that when I look back on a classic but, other than in satire, overt opinions from the author of a novel are generally frowned upon today. You can easily see them for what they are when something snarky is said about a character without any attribution. There’s a big difference between writing, Bob and his friends never looked for guidance from a supreme being because they thought them knew it all AND writing, Sam and his brother often said that Bob and in friends never looked for guidance from a supreme being because they thought them knew it all.

The first version is the author’s opinion that “forces you” to drink in what s/he thinks. That’s a weak way to write. It’s a little better to have another character say it or think it. It’s much better to show (in this case) Bob and his friends talking and acting in ways that lead you, as the reader, to the conclusion they have no need for God.

I enjoy puzzles in the books I read and write. So, the fewer tips from the author, the better I like it. Other readers, from what I hear, prefer a few hints as long as those hints aren’t too blatant.

Of course, if you want a bit of satire–and can remain consistent without throughout your story–you can write, Gentle Reader, are you beginning to wonder if Sam think’s he created the Lord in seven days?

Otherwise, strong hints bother me. In fact, they make me feel like the author is (a) Too lazy to keep his/her beliefs out of the book and/or (b) Thinks I’m too stupid to figure what the deeper points of the story are.

How about you? (Please don’t tell me you skip to the end of the book first to make sure the main characters don’t end up dead!) Are you in the mood for hints or puzzles?

–Malcolm

A contest that wants work outside the box

The Unclassifiables Contest is officially open. This is our third year of reading manuscripts that don’t quite fit the rigid labels of prose or poetry. Send us work that blurs, bends, blends, erases, or obliterates genre and other labels.

via The Unclassifiables Contest is Now Open – Arts and Letters

Writers are often constrained by the rules of the genres they favor. When a genre is involved, it’s hard to think or write outside the box. So it’s nice to find contests, magazines, and publishers who want you to think outside the box.

So here’s an opportunity to bend the rules or forget the rules. The deadline in July 1.

Malcolm

Where do you get your ideas – a few examples

As any writer who has ever given a talk will know all too well, there is one question which is invariably asked. Where do you get your inspiration? Or, where do you get your ideas?

via Inspiration – Ann Swinfen

This is a well-thought-out post about some of the sources of writers’ inspiration. It cites examples and authors’ books to as examples.

Sometimes authors know where their ideas come from. Sometimes they really don’t know for sure. You may enjoy the inspiring look at inspiration.

Malcolm

Muse’s thoughts: if it hurts you, then write about it

The late, rough-and-tumble author Harry Crews once said in an interview, “I don’t think it takes much perception, or very keen sensibilities, to see that it takes great courage—I know it’s me saying this and what it makes me sound like, but I don’t care—it takes great courage to look where you have to look, which is in yourself, in your experience, in your relationship with fellow beings, your relationship to the earth, to the spirit or to the first cause, or whatever—to look at them and make something of them. Writers spend all their time preoccupied with just the things that their fellow men and women spend their time trying to avoid thinking about.”

I agree. In some ways, this comment answers the question: where do you get your ideas. My answer is “from what bothers me.” Many authors feel the same way. They write about the issues they’re trying to cope with. Sometimes personal experience is involved and needs to be sorted out; or the issue is something on the national stage the author thinks is unfair.

I’m reading a novel about an investigative reporter whose boss sent her to a small town to investigate a crime very similar to one she experienced herself. She knows her boss understood that in getting to the bottom of what happened and why, she will come to better understand what happened to her. This is one reason many of us write about what we write about.

I wrote The Sun Singer to better understand self doubt, Sarabande because I disliked assaults on women, my two conjure woman novels because I needed to come to terms with the Florida of my youth, At Sea to better understand my tour of duty aboard an aircraft carrier, and Mountain Song to sort out why the young woman I planned to marry ran away.

I don’t think these rationale make writers vain because it (the writing) isn’t a bunch of words about us. Those words tell stories with psychic links to what we’ve experienced or wondered about. I don’t know if Crews is right when he says that others avoid thinking about such things. I tend to doubt it. But writers approach such things head on and try to make compelling stories out of their own trials and tribulations.

–Malcolm

Are you writing for immediate impact or to create a legacy?

In an interview in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan) said that a well known male writer friend is “always talking about how he wants to leave a legacy with his books, and I’m always talking about how I want to create energy in the present tense among other mammals and I could give a shit about a legacy … What I’m finding is, I am more interested in the intense, temporary energy books create.”

Up until Amazon and self-publishing made it easier for more authors to see their books in print, I’m guessing that more writers thought about legacy than immediate impact (other than getting on the bestseller list, perhaps). After all, we grew up with the idea of a writer’s legacy because most of the books we read in school were part of the writing legacy of a famous author; after that, many readers shifted over to current well-known writers who are creating a legacy now.

Several things seem to have changed. First, self-publishing has made getting words into print so easy that I see a lot of writers rushing books into print, trying to create instant bestsellers, publishing free books for the purpose of capturing readers’ attention and then directing them through links in the book to the books the author is charging for, and basically trying to keep a roller coaster of writing and promotion and platform and mailing lists constantly growing and building.

I’m not convinced those authors are thinking ahead to such things as legacy; it’s almost like they’re in a mad rush to build a following. And then, maybe, once they have it, they intend to shift over to writing books that will last and be their legacy.

The other thing is Donald Trump’s election and the campaign that led up to it. This has stirred an interest among both mainstream GOP and mainstream Democrat writers to create novels, plays, poems and nonfiction that matter now. These writers are– like Yuknavitch, perhaps–so focused on the polarized political climate and how it impacts their core values about diversity, big business, the environment, immigration, education, birth control and other issues, that they want books that focus on these issues right now in the present.

I’ve thought about the idea of immediate impact lately because there’s such a push amongst writers for all of us to get involved in writing something with a tie-in to current issues. I realize that I don’t do that. Sure, I make a few comments on Facebook (and usually get burned for saying anything), support various environmental and social service groups, and occasionally post things on my other blog about environmental issues. But my fiction hasn’t changed with Trump’s election any more than it would have changed with Hillary Clinton’s election–or anyone else’s election.

I care about the political issues and have an opinion about them. Most people do. I’m just not moved to write about it. As for a legacy, no, I don’t care about that either because short of having Oprah call me out of the blue, my books will be forgotten soon after I depart for the writing room in the sky. I’m realistic about that. So it comes down to just telling stories, hoping people like them, and in being aware that something in this story or that story might impact how a person feels about my stories’ themes.

That said, I tend to agree with Yuknavitch’s point of view because it seems to me that consciously trying to create a legacy destroys the experience of writing a meaningful story in about the same way that posing for hundreds of selfies destroys a person’s involvement in the tourist locations they’re visiting. Legacy creation probably ruined a lot of otherwise promising careers because those who approached storytelling this way were overly particular and/or restrained because they imagined what their words would look life when they were engraved in stone. In a way, those writers are like the politician who always minds his words because a camera might be recording him as he speaks.

Of course, we may end up with both immediate energy and a legacy if we don’t try to force the issue.

FREE KINDLE BOOKS

Carrying Snakes into Eden (two short stories) and The Lady of the Blue Hour (short story) will be free on Kindle April 22 through April 24, 2017.

–Malcolm

 

 

Amazon UK Kindle Storyteller Award

The Amazon UK Kindle Storyteller Award is open for entries. The Kindle Storyteller Award is a new literary prize recognising newly published work in the English language across any genre and includes a £20,000 prize.

via Amazon UK Kindle Storyteller Award – Indies Unlimited

This looks like a great opportunity if you have a potential Kindle Direct Publishing manuscript ready or almost ready. The big plus, in addition to the award, is the publicity. That can be a nice boost for your writing career.

Thanks to Indies Unlimited for posting this.

Malcolm

On location: Liberty County Florida

Traveling to the Florida Panhandle today.

These “On Location” posts show my rationale for choosing various place settings for my books. They’re not gospel! They might not even be viable rationale. But, I post them anyway as indirect tips for other writers to consider as they decide how to choose place settings for their stories.

I used Liberty County in my books Eulalie and Washerwoman, Conjure Woman’s Cat, The Land Between the Rivers, and Mountain Song. It’s Florida’s least populous county with easy access to the Apalachicola River, the forbidding Tate’s Hell Swamp, the Gulf Coast, and Florida’s “Garden of Eden” trail, along with many square miles of swamp land and forests.

Why I chose the county

  1. River Styx in Liberty County – Florida Memory Photo. Needless to say, place names like this one are made to order in a conjure book.

    I grew up in the adjacent Leon County (Tallahassee) and spent many hours of Boy Scout camping and family day trips at sites in or near the county. I was not only writing about what I know, but about a very diverse and unique landscape with rare trees, rare wildlife, and an environment that’s off the beaten trail of the kind of development and tourism found in the peninsula section of the state.

  2.  My two conjure woman books lent themselves to a small-town environment in the part of the state known as “wire grass country.” That is, it was more natural to place a conjure woman in a far-away piney woods part of the state than a more populous area. The area also had a variety of legends, remnants of Indian settlements and their recurring cultural influence, and a small-town, insular world view.
  3. My old friend, the late Gloria Jahoda wrote a book about this part of the state called The Other Florida. For my purposes of telling a magical realism story, I wanted an area that was about as “other” as one can find. Her book also included legends that I grew up with, making them a lot easier to refer to in the story than the legends of a place I’d never visited with legends that would have been quite foreign to me. To some extent, magical realism uses legends and tall tales about a place as though they are real. These not only add ambiance to the book, but give readers from Florida bits and pieces of information they’re already familiar with.
  4. Florida, in years past, had a very strong KKK presence, a presence more pervasive in outlying areas. Since both of my conjure woman books pit a woman of magic against the Klan, this made the location a viable and historically accurate place for such a story even though I created a fictionalized small town to avoid any hard feelings (or law suits) with the residents and governments of an actual town. I named my town Torreya, after Florida’s unique and highly endangered tree that grows in this area and nowhere else.
  5. While my conjure books were set in the 1950s, The Land Between the Rivers at the dawn of time, and  Mountain Song in the 1960s, the area–when compared with major tourist destinations and development–is still remote. This helps an author do research because many of the attributes of the place in years gone by still exist today.

I consider a story’s place setting to be a very integral part of the fiction I write. If you like strong place settings, perhaps you will go through some of the same thought processes as I did when you choose the country, state, or town for your novel or short story.

Malcolm

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