Thursday, September 29, 2011

the stages of sharing

A question I am often asked is at what point in the process a writer should share his/her writing with others. My answer is that it often depends on the writer, as well as the purpose for sharing at any particular stage.

There are some writers like myself who are quite wary of sharing their writing with anyone, regardless of what stage it's in, draftwise. Actually, I should clarify my own position on this. It's not that I'm reluctant to share my writing with anyone, it's that I'm reluctant to talk about it. With the exception of a small few, I don't even tell people the title of my work-in-progress, much less what it's about. Andre Dubus III likens this to opening the oven door too many times to check on the cookies baking. Imagine yourself showing your friends: "Look at these awesome cookies I'm baking!" as you explain each ingredient and how you measured them out and what you added and what you took out and perhaps you should've used pecans instead of walnuts and you hope they'll turn out chewy and not too crispy, etc. All the while that oven door is open, and the cookies aren't baking, to the point that they never get done. I tend to agree with this. Too much talking about your idea, your story, your character, etc. saps the energy and process of creation. If you've talked it all out, then what reason is there to write the thing?

When I do talk about the content, I'm usually consulting someone for insight or assistance (perhaps it's someone with an expertise that the character shares, or someone who can help me map out a cause-effect scenario), and I keep that inner circle to a bare minimum. Sometimes I just need to talk out character motivation and direction out loud -- just like therapy, the very act of my talking it out reveals the information that I need. My WILS co-author, Sarah Girrell, is a great person to talk to about such things since she has such a keen awareness of my writing style and approach to character, and she's a good listener.

At some point during the drafting process, however, a writer needs feedback. I know all too well how daunting it is to show someone an unfinished draft, especially in the early stages and especially when you know it's not working. You can't help but fear judgment from your peers, judgment that you're really not that good after all. But I also know how useful this feedback can be and how, when coming from the right person, can actually psyche you up to revise, do better, and enjoy it. Again what I show and at what stage, depends on the person and the purpose. I have no problem showing Sarah a rough draft of anything I'm working on (and yet, I still feel the need to apologize profusely to her for how bad it is). For others, I'm more comfortable showing drafts that have undergone some revision. Lately I've been sending a good friend chapters from my work-in-progress after I've revised them, and it's been good for my ego as well as my process--he gives me encouragement and praises me for what works (not having seen them in previous incarnations), and he also points out things I often don't notice, minor details that make a major difference. He's not a professional writer, but he knows me pretty well.

What about writers groups?

I've participated in several writer's groups over the years, and have had both positive and negative experiences with them. The right group will motivate you, keep you accountable, and provide constructive feedback on a regular basis while keeping your ego in check. Another great thing about groups is the aspect of getting to see other people's writing. Aside from the community aspect that is so important for writers (after all writing is, for the most part, a solitary act), seeing other people's drafts can almost always give you insight into your own. By seeing what works and needs work in someone else's draft, you return to your own with new eyes, seeing things you didn't see before, or perhaps seeing them with a fresh perspective, which can only aid the revision process.

And then, there are "beta-readers." A beta-reader reads your "finished" manuscript -- that is, you've revised and edited it considerably -- and provides you with specific feedback to determine what, if any, additional revision/editing needs to be completed before it's ready for submission or publication. This could be as simple as making sure you haven't changed a character's last name halfway through the story or keeping the timeline consistent, or it could be as challenging as re-examining a main character who isn't resonating with readers or eliminating a key scene that doesn't work. For me, beta-readers are crucial to the process, and it's important that you choose your beta-readers carefully. I go with a few people who are either well-read or well-written, people who might have a special expertise related to the story, and those who will give me honest, thoughtful, respectful feedback. It turns out these people are my close friends or my twin brother, but that's not to say you should only show your friends.

Do I take every suggestion and make every change suggested to me? No. Writing is a series of choices--you must be comfortable, confident, and accept the consequences of every choice you make. You'll never be able to please every reader, but you have to be satisfied at the end of the day, when your book is finished, printed, and published, and there are no more opportunities to revise.

And so, I invite you to reflect on these questions: Do you share too much of your work-in-progress, or too little? Are you choosy about with whom you share or talk about your writing? Should you be more choosy, or less? Are you afraid of criticism? Are you too controlling? Is a writer's group right for you? If you're currently in one, is it the right group of people for you? Are you one to provide feedback to others? If so, do you give the kind of feedback that you would want to receive?

I wish you well in all stages of your process.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

the reality of writing

I'm sitting in a coffeeshop right now and have been staring at this blank Blogger box for the duration of at least two Beatles songs. (I can't help but sing the harmonies. ) Usually I take the week to think about the upcoming blog post. Sometimes I'll take a book about writing, open it to the table of contents, or just any ol' page, and choose an aspect of the writing process.

But right here, right now, I got nuthin'. Just George Harrison singing "Taxman".

And yet, I don't want to write another post about writer's block, especially mine.

But this is the reality of writing sometimes. Sometimes you sit there and stare at the screen, waiting for inspiration. You think, hope, pray that if you sit still enough, quietly enough, patiently enough, it'll show up.

But sometimes it doesn't. And the next Beatles song plays ("Ahhh, look at all the lonely people..."), and you wonder how the hell this could be happening -- you were on fire yesterday, your hands couldn't keep with your brain.

This is the reality of writing sometimes.

So I decide, I'll just sit here. And I'll finish my vanilla chai and enjoy these Beatles songs, and smile at the thought that they probably had their days in the studio when it just wasn't happening for them, either. I'll type the next word, and the next, and let it be what it is. I'll write another blog post next week, and the week after that.

I'll just keep writing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 years: my annual peace message

We remember the day. The dazzling blue sky. The tranquility of the morning, interrupted by a thundering fireball.

We remember the stories of two men carrying a woman in a wheelchair down countless flights of stairs in a burning building, of one person jumping on another to shield him from debris, of strangers in tears and locked in embraces, trying to make sense of the senseless.

We remember firefighters and police officers running into, not away from, the towers as they leaned and shook.

No one stopped to ask whether the person they were helping was Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or atheist. No one refused to rescue another because of their sexuality or race or stance on abortion. None of those strangers embraced on the condition that they disclose their income.

It was the grace in the midst of the suffering, the realization that we had so much in common. We were not nationalistically united, but collectively humanized. It was the only thing that brought us some comfort. We were all in this together.

Then came the anger.

Anger is a part of the grieving process. It was not wrong to be angry. It was not wrong to want vengeance. Our brothers and sisters and parents and children and spouses and friends and lovers died. Some channeled that anger into art. Into music. Into stories. But the policy, unfortunately, channeled the anger into war. It acted on that desire for vengeance rather than the desire for justice.

Our collective humanity has suffered so much more in the last ten years as a result.

What if the ultimate act of justice was nonviolent? Could that be the way to defeat terrorism? The Civil Rights movement proved it could. Gandhi proved it could.

We need a remembrance for this day. We need a remembrance of our collective humanity, where the lines of religion, gender, race, political ideology, sexuality, and class revealed themselves to be transparent, if existent at all.

My message today is to honor the day by practicing random acts of kindness. Refrain from political rhetoric, jingoistic nationalism, and glorification of war. Read a book. Watch a Frank Capra film. Eat something chocolate. Forgive someone who needs your forgiveness, even if that is someone is you. Apologize to someone you've wronged. Say thank you as much as you can.

I pray you'll find grace in the midst of the sadness and suffering on this day of remembrance, even if just for a moment. I pray you'll reconnect to our collective humanity. I pray you'll know peace. I pray we'll all know peace.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

it's all about the words

My favorite class in grad school was Stylistics; that is, the study of writing style, or how words are put together. Each week the professor would give us a text—a set of poems, some ad copy, short fiction, etc.—and we'd analyze the number of words, sentences, commas, words in italics, words in sentences, one-syllable words, two-syllable words, and so on, never quite sure if what we're attempting to explain made any sense, or quite fully grasping the phenomenon of a finished piece of writing.

The exercises were especially fun: making lists of our favorite words (sound familiar?); putting together words from those lists in no particular order (ostentatious cookie bunny), and yet feeling compelled to make meaning somehow; guessing which word lists belong to which of our classmates. We learned rhetorical stylistic devices (amplification, antithesis... I always seem to remember all the A- devices first, probably because I learned them all alphabetically). We also occasionally had to read extremely dense texts about metaphor (I'd rather get my eyes lasered... hey, a metaphor!). Perhaps the best assignment was our mid-term, in which my professor gave each of us a short story, cut off halfway through. Our job was to write our own completion to the story in the style of the author so flawlessly that she wouldn't be able to tell where the original author left off and we picked up. Moreover, we had to submit an accompanying analysis both of the original piece and our own.

I nailed that one. But it took constant re-reading, analyzing, studying.

By the end of the semester, I couldn't read the label of a cereal box without thinking about it in stylistic terms. How do these particular words, and the order they're in, contribute to the rhetorical purpose of the reader? How do they persuade the reader to think, feel, act, keep reading? Why these words?

At that time my brother, a musician and producer, had created a website containing his discography and a short bio. He had asked me for feedback on the site's layout, visual appeal, etc. As part of my feedback, I told him that his wife did a good job with the bio. Shortly after, he called me.

"How did you know she wrote the bio?" he asked.

I proceeded to do a mini-stylistic analysis. Because English is my sister-in-law's second language (actually, I think it's her third), I noticed a preciseness in the grammatical structure of the sentences. I also noticed she'd used the word steely as part of the description of my brother's musical style—it wasn't a word I'd ever seen my brother use in his own writing.

When it gets right down to it, it's all about the words.

There's a difference between ire and irk. There's a difference between sad and blue, between mad and manic. There are times when the f-word is absolutely the right word, and other times when just plain ol' f-word suffices.

And I don't care what your K-12 English teachers told you: ain't is most definitely a word.

As writers, it's our job to put the best words together, in the best order (and I just replaced right with best both times), with the right rhythm and cadence and meaning (should I change that last right as well?). We achieve this by studying the style of our favorite writers. I know that Aaron Sorkin, for instance, likes the word feckless, and Nora Ephron doesn't like the name Thelma. I stole the phrase “paused for a beat” from Richard Russo, and occasionally try to mimic Stephen King's “folksiness”. I pay attention to other things, too--use of em-dashes, repetition, italics, numbers.

Says Sam Seaborn on The West Wing: “Good writers borrow from other good writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” I never set out to write like Aaron Sorkin or any of my other favorite writers, but just as I hear the influence of The Beatles in my brother's songs—a drum fill or a guitar sound or a particular harmony—so occasionally will a reader find a Sorkinism, a Russoism, and so on, in my novels. And yet, my brother's style has become inherently his own, as has mine.

One last style story, again musical: Eric Clapton was recording the From the Cradle album and was listening to the track he'd just laid down, shaking his head in dismay.

“What wrong?” asked the producer.
“I don't like the way it sounds,” said Clapton.
The producer looked at him incredulously. “I don't understand, it sounds fantastic. What's wrong with it?”
“It just sounds like me playing a Muddy Waters song,” said Clapton. “I wanted it to sound like Muddy Waters.”
The producer said, “That's exactly why it sounds fantastic. We've already heard Muddy Waters play it. Now we wanna hear Eric Clapton play it.”

Learning the style of others is important. My brother Ritch learned to play guitar just like Eric Clapton, all the while developing the style of Ritch Lorello. My brother Mike can produce the Jeff Lynne sound practically better than Jeff Lynne can; and yet, he has perfected his own repertoire. (And the ultimate compliment? Producers hire other keyboardists and ask them to play it like Mike Lorello would!) In the end, however, don't try to write like Fitzgerald, Welty, Grisham, Sontag, etc. because you think doing so will sell more books. We've already read those guys (I considered replacing guys with authors for the sake of political and gender correctness, but it didn't sound like me!). Don't try to be “the next” anybody. Read. Read more. Play with the words. Put them together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and see the picture that forms. Then write it the way you would.

Need a start? Try making a list of your 20 favorite words, in no particular order. Better yet, make it 50. Then let the games begin.

In fact, please do share some of your favorite words here.