Down to the Last Petal

 

Down to the Last Petal

I don’t give up easily, or maybe I just don’t let go easily. I often buy fresh flowers, the local grocery store variety ($4.99 a bunch). I pick up a few extra packets of  bloom extender, even though the flowers come with one wrapped into the cellophane. Most of the flowers are long-stemmed, so I start with a tall vase, then I begin a gradual process of clipping the stems every few days, putting the remaining flowers into a slightly shorter vase, and doing it all again until I am down to a few straggly blooms in a very short container. A couple of times I’ve reduced this process to one languishing blossom in a tiny bud vase.

Although I could buy a bouquet of fresh flowers weekly, I find I can’t give up on those slightly frayed petals that still offers potential. I’m the customer at the local garden center who digs through the clearance table and buys a desperate looking geranium for $1.00. I bring it home, repot it, and nourish it until it flourishes again. A few years later, when it is nothing but leggy stems, I regretfully consign it to the trash.

I don’t get rid of things that have gone hopelessly out of style or have lost their original purpose, although often I should. I also don’t give up on people in my life, even though they sometimes vex me to distraction.

So far, I haven’t given up on publishing, even though it is often a formidable challenge. You know what I mean if, inspired, you have written something you believe is good enough to be read by others. At which point, you are faced with three choices, although, I suppose, there are other, imaginative, options. Basically, these are the typical avenues to publishing.

You can do the “dance of the agents.” If you know an agent, or have any connection to one, then you might luck out. On the other hand, if you are going through lists trying to find a fit (and visiting forums that supposedly give you the lowdown on various agents), then you have a major task ahead. Once you finally narrow down your choices, put together your query letter, and hit send or slap a stamp on an envelope, the wait begins. Maybe they’ll respond; maybe not. Maybe it will be in a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a year or two. Or not at all. Should they want to read your work, the same timeline often applies.

You can try to contact a publisher directly, although that has become extremely difficult because most of them use an agent as a gatekeeper. Some of the Indie publishers allow un-agented queries, but many of them are small operations and overtaxed by their own generosity.

All of this makes self-publishing attractive, since you’d like to see your work out there before it is hopelessly dated, or you have visibly aged waiting to hold that book in your hand. Self-publishing holds it’s own terrors along with the advantage of instant gratification. Ask anyone who has gone that route. Print on Demand is quick and easy. Marketing is several full-time jobs, during which you aren’t writing at all, or very little.

Still . . . there is that last petal (or poem, or short story, or novel, or nonfiction work) that you just can’t abandon. Neither can I, and I’m looking forward to this summer when I can rescue a few  headed-for-the-trash petunias. I’m also polishing a manuscript; I’m not allowing it to die an early death either.

Coffee Spoons and the Prufrock Predicament

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was a difficult poem to teach to a classroom full of college students taking their first literature class. To lecture them on inertia–mental and physical–was pointless unless they could relate. What, if anything, would the following lines mean to them?

“Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”

I finally made progress by asking them if they were measuring their lives in beer cans or video games. At least two-thirds of the class perked up and began counting. It was a start.

It’s not unusual to regret, at least to some extent, that we haven’t measured out our lives as well–or as productively–as we would have liked. Although I’ve indulged in my share of meaningless occupations, I take some comfort in knowing my major distraction has always been a book, and I’ve learned much about people and the world from reading good fiction as well as some noteworthy nonfiction.

However, I wasn’t prepared for social media to be quite so irresistible. The result is that some days go like this: take my first cup of morning coffee into the bedroom; prop up pillows; turn on the television to catch the morning news; whip out my iPad to try to find a better news source; read the headlines; consider having my second cup of coffee at my desk and produce those 5-10  new pages according to my ideal writing goal.

So far, so good, but then I open the iPad again and see that little red flag indicating  I have new messages and posts that I haven’t seen. I’ve made a point of limiting my number of Facebook friends so I know every one of them, either as a family member, a good friend, a friendly acquaintance, or someone I met and liked. I consider most of them interesting and, usually, I am entertained or informed by their posts.

The hours fade away; the 5-10 pages become tomorrow’s project, and the posts multiply. I reply to some and answer messages. In an effort to stay on track with the writing, I don’t text unless under duress; I don’t tweet; I don’t do some of the other stuff (If I did, I could name it and not call it stuff.) But, the attractive distraction theory holds. Writing is work, frustrating work. Social media is play, and I like to play.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” Stephen King and Isaac Asimov agreed, both calling writing a lonely job. Even if writers socialize regularly, when they get down to the real business of writing, they typically isolate themselves and put in long hours staring at a computer screen or filling a notebook.

When it is just me and the keyboard, it’s easy to tire quickly and decide to take a short break, scan through whatever social media outlet I favor, and then get back to my work. But short often becomes long, and it’s hard to regain concentration. Is there a solution? If we want to be productive writers, with a reasonable output daily or weekly, how do we discipline ourselves to avoid these attractive distractions?

I’ve spoken with various authors about their writing habits, as well as  reading a number of “how-to” articles. The suggestions for disciplined writing practices range from disabling all social media on the computer and hiding the cell phone in the laundry basket, to renting an office with no media connection whatsoever. Those are drastic measures, and most working writers realize that, along with the negatives of an internet connection, there is also one really big plus–easy access to information.

In the mid-1980s, I was several years away from getting my first computer. At that time, I was working on a nonfiction book that involved a century-old crime. I only had court records of the trial, newspaper articles, and some family documents. When I needed to sort out the time line and verify other data, I found myself at the Santa Barbara library on a daily basis: recreating a calendar from 1899; getting measurements of two steam ships on the Missouri River in the late 1800s; researching the name of river towns; locating maps of various gold mining camps in Montana. It was time consuming and, sometimes, nearly impossible.

I’m grateful for the internet, and the staggering abundance of information that is available with a few keystrokes. But the downside is that entertainment is just as plentiful–and tempting.

The best thing I’ve found to keep the word count up is only planning one day at a time.

“Today I will write the next chapter, or the next page of dialogue, etc. Today I will work; tomorrow I will if  I feel like it.”

By not locking myself into a long-term, rigid schedule, I actually spend more time writing. The payoff is that one good day’s work tends to be a motivator to repeat the process the next day (the snowball effect).

It seems that when I am really engaged in a writing project, it becomes more interesting than the distractions. When that happens, the social media loses its fascination and receives scant attention.

Do you have a system that works to keep you on track?

AKA and the Hesitant Memoirist

Also Known As is not jargon limited to law enforcement. Many writers prefer to use a pen name, particularly if they wish to conceal their true identity. Protecting one’s privacy (not to mention dignity) is a strong motivator.

Occasionally, it’s a way to test the waters, to see if one’s writing is strong and effective when not tied to previous publishing success (J.K. Rowling writing under the name Robert Galbraith).

Some authors assume a gender specific name in the belief it will enhance their credibility or sales (Bronte sisters: Charlotte was “Currer Bell.” Emily was “Ellis Bell.” Anne was “Acton Bell”).

Sometimes, the birth name and the writing pseudonym are interchangeably (MarkTwain: Samuel Clemens). Occasionally, an author uses more than one name; for example, the mystery writer Ruth Rendell also published as Barbara Vine. Then there are names that just sound better, or easier to remember: Allen Stewart Konigsberg just doesn’t cut it like Woody Allen does.

Adopting a pen name can be useful when writing in a different genre–particularly if the new genre is frivolous or erotic?  It’s a way to have fun and still preserve your reputation with your “serious” audience. It may also be a way to protect your day job–the one that really pays the bills.

And then, there is the Hesitant Memoirist.

I’ve started a memoir a half dozen times; I’ve stopped a half dozen times. I suspect that most people, with a few decades behind them, have a “past” that might surprise those nearest or dearest to them. I find that there are incidents I’m not eager to share with my offspring.  Things I am embarrassed by, or at least consider an assault on my intelligence and self-esteem.

Many of us have asked ourselves, “How could I have been so (insert any word that applies)?”

Often, in looking back on our youthful decisions, we wonder why we made those choices; what strength or weakness in our character prompted us to act as we did. Were we given too much love or too little?  Were we raised by a struggling family with little money, or were we indulged? Were we looking for an equal in a relationship, or were we looking for an individual that would take care of us and protect us from the world? Were we victims of our own insecurities?

To answer these questions honestly, to take off the blinders and write a memoir candidly and objectively, is tantamount to running the Boston Marathon naked. And that’s just us; we may also be stripping others down to their underwear, even if we change names. But that creates another problem; when we try to protect others, we often misrepresent facts. Perhaps all memoirs are partially fiction, intentional or otherwise. Memory, after all, is slippery and can become distorted for a variety of reasons–not the least of which is self-protection.

I began a memoir ten years ago, but quickly realized that it was really about my parents and the first sixteen years of their marriage, so I changed to 3rd person and told their story. It will be published sometime this year, under the title A Chance of Today. That still leaves my own memoir hanging. Each time I’ve begun writing, I’ve hesitated and put it aside. I now realize that I need to find answers to specific questions. I’m not alone.

Many people I’ve talked with, who are in mid-life or later, have voiced a desire to write a memoir. Their reasons are varied, but the questions remain the same:

1) Why am I doing this?
2) Do I use my real name?
3) Do I change the names of others? Locations?
4) Will anyone be damaged, angered, distressed, or shocked by what I write?
5) Am I including anything that would slander or libel another? (We live in a litigious society.)
6) How candid am I willing to be? Is there any advantage to revealing closely held secrets?
7) Have I really fact checked myself?

I’ve developed some guidelines that I plan to follow; perhaps they will be helpful to you if you are contemplating your life’s story.

It seems that #1 is the only one we need to answer before beginning. If our “why” is for family, then our relationship with the members of our family will dictate the content of what we write. We need to consider values, beliefs, and family dynamics. Leaving revenge or ill-feelings out of the equation (never a good idea in a memoir), how do you want your family to see you–and how do you want them to see themselves through your eyes?

If you are writing your memoir because your lifelong endeavor has been to create, organize, or foster a philosophy, religion, movement, or institution, then your accomplishments and that of others will determine much of the content. Perhaps you were a volunteer in the Peace Corps and want to write your experiences (good and bad). Sharing your knowledge can be a valuable contribution.

On the other hand, if you are writing to publish, then you have to consider the appetite of the reading public. In 2016, not much is private or off-limits. I’ve read some astoundingly frank blogs lately, as well as browsed some memoirs that leave nothing to the imagination. But, the blogs have large followers, and the books are selling well. The question is how willing you are to expose yourself–or others? Are you prepared for the consequences? Is a best seller or a good review worth it?

Many candid memoirs are not harmful to a person’s dignity or reputation, but some can be. Consider what you want to reveal to colleagues, family, and friends. Younger family members often cannot comprehend that their parents were ever sexual, emotional beings–and they don’t want to be reminded.

Once you figure out the “why” of your memoir, it is easier to determine numbers 2 through 6.
If publication (and hopefully success) is the goal, and you are writing a “tell all,” then a pseudonym may be in order. Name changes (including locality) is also a safeguard. After all, most readers don’t care if you grew up in Kearny, Nebraska or Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s what happened to you that keeps them turning pages.

Number 7 is mainly to make sure you have names, dates, and events properly cited. Have you ever been enjoying a book, then had a “something’s off here,” moment and had to leaf back through the pages to try to sort it out? If so, you know how frustrating it can be. Spare your readers the aggravation.

It is easy to get chronology confused; you might remember a public event–at which you were present–taking place in 1988, but if it was 1987 or 1989, a reader who attended the same event will surely note it and doubt the veracity of your work. In all of my writing, fiction and nonfiction, I’ve learned to keep a separate document where I either outline names and dates before writing, or I update as I go along–usually both. It keeps me from making a number of errors, particularly in a longer work.

And my memoir? I’m still dwelling on number one. Maybe after writing a few more sample introductions, I’ll get it figured out.

Power(less)

Last Thursday, I began writing my next blog–a discussion about the hard decisions a writer has to make when committing to a memoir. How do we protect our dignity yet still tell the truth–or at least keep the fictionalized version to a minimum?  I’ll  post that soon, but in the meantime, a complaint about distraction (or why that blog still isn’t finished).

Everything about a warmer clime calls to me right now. First, you have to know that for the past ten years, we’ve lived in a rural setting; our house sits on a hill eleven miles from the closest town. Living out here was fun, initially, but circumstances change with professional demands.

On Friday morning, the weather reports were dire: freezing temperatures, snow accumulation, hazardous roads. Not different from what other areas were experiencing, but a bit more worrisome here, since we are serviced by a twisting, county road that doesn’t get first priority for plowing or sanding. Snowed in really means just that.

In keeping with Murphy’s Law, about 2 hours after my partner left last Friday (with his band for an out-of-state gig), the power went off while I was outside sweeping snow off the steps and cars. Naturally, I called the power company, since there is a fuse that goes out about once a month at a small church located a quarter of mile from here. Usually they fix it and we’re good until the next squirrel or bird attacks that particular fuse box.

Thirty minutes later, two really huge power trucks (the kind with pole rigs) show up in my driveway (digging a significant rut) and two burly guys get out and investigate the outside fuse box, the transformer on the pole, etc. They conclude it might be in the inside breaker box. They hesitate to come in because their boots are snowy/muddy.

I point out to them that this is an all-electric house; I will be alone here three days; the pipes will likely freeze; I have a damn cat that I can’t haul into a hotel in town; thus, my floors and their boots are at the bottom of my priorities. Just get the bloody power back on.  I knew where the new power box was, but it didn’t have a main switch so there must be another one. I call my partner on his cell and, although he was somewhere between Nashville and Chattanooga by then, in a van with noisy musicians, he heard his phone and, miraculously, answered.

With my new knowledge, I lead “Muddy Boots” into my resident musician’s room and prepare to find the electric box in his closet. But first I have to unload it because he uses the closet in the other bedroom for clothes and this one is stacked with music shit. Okay, we find the box, the main switch has tripped, “Muddy Boots” restores it and I have power, but he warns me the switch is old and can “go at any time,” to which, showing remarkable restraint, I say, “Okay” instead of “Simply fxxxing lovely.”

So far, the power is on and my floors are mopped clean. I’ll get to that other blog yet.

That Certain Slant of Light–On the Sixth Day

Whenever I am trapped indoors for an extended time, I think of Emily Dickinson.  Looking through the window, at mounds of ice and snow, I recall her lines,“There’s a certain slant of light/On winter afternoons/That oppresses, like the weight/Of cathedral tunes.” I wonder if, on those dark, cold days, she was inspired, or if–like me–she sulked and shivered. Did she pen those well-known lines then, or months later while enjoying a balmy spring afternoon?

For that matter, I wonder if Robert Frost, who wrote so glowingly of stopping by the woods on a snowy evening, would have really thought the winter woods were “lovely, dark, and deep” if he been trudging through the snow. It may have been a frosty, winter night that inspired him, but he wrote the poem in June 1922. Recalling snow as lovely is easier when one’s memories are softened by a gentle, summer breeze. Allegedly, he’d been up all night, working on a longer poem, and stepped outside, observed it was a glorious morning, and the poem popped into his head. He is reported to have said that he wrote about the “snowy evening and the little horse as if I’d had a hallucination.”

After six days in the house, there is something about the snow that is blanketing our property, and making our county road all but impassable, that is definitely oppressing me. I usually tell myself (when warned that a real blockbuster of a snowstorm is coming) to see it as an opportunity. The perfect time to marry myself to my computer and finish my British mystery, work on the sequel to my novel, or produce a new short story or essay. That’s what I tell myself.

Of course, it doesn’t happen.  Instead I bounce around the house, check social media, surf the internet (suddenly fascinated by some obscure article on the ruins of an ancient community or how water clocks were constructed), cook, eat, and read. Possibly cooking and reading are beneficial, but the other activities are simply evasions of my resolution to make the most of my forced confinement.

I do, however, write much more in the spring and summer. There is something about being at my desk in the summer–windows open, fresh air blowing through the house, birds singing, the smell of newly mown grass–that motivates me to put words on paper. When I’m happy in sandals and a comfortable tee shirt, sipping iced coffee, my computer suddenly becomes my friend again. Characters come alive on the page and ideas flow, in sharp contrast to winter when my creativity seems to freeze along with the water in the cat’s dish and the ice on the front steps.

It seems that, like a New Year’s resolution, my plan to take advantage of winter writing weather is, alas, a fantasy. Maybe from now on, when the snow falls and the temperature drops, I’ll simply make hot soup, wrap up in a warm throw, and read a good book. With luck, my characters are hibernating also and will emerge fresh and ready to grace my pages.

I hope you enjoy a writing season as well–a time when you feel motivated to breathe life into your words, and energy into your characters. And the rest of the time? Just live and make mental notes.

Baked Beans on Toast and Other Disappointments

I am an after-the-fact realist. Translated, a born romantic that has learned to accept reality, albeit not with grace. Two instances come to mind.

On an previous trip to Scotland, near Inverness, I spent a wet, chilly morning viewing medieval castles and trying to spot the Loch Ness Monster.  We found a small, warm cafe for lunch, and I was excited to see “beans on toast” on the menu. In my mind’s eyes, I would be served an inch thick slice of wonderful, just-baked brown bread, toasted to perfection, with a huge helping of oven baked beans, oozing with a rich, dark sauce. I was beside myself with anticipation.

What I received was a slice of thin, slightly-toasted white bread–the kind that can be condensed to the size of a marble if you wad it up. Accompanying it was a tablespoon of cold, canned pork and beans, placed precisely in the middle of the bread. I nearly wept.

A few years later, I planned a trip to the United Kingdom to spend an authentic English Christmas with friends who lived in the Yorkshire area. I fantasized what it would be like to experience a traditional Christmas devoid of plastic lawn decorations, artificial trees, tacky decorations, and the “buy-buy-buy” mentality that seemed to prevail in my home town. I wanted to get away from the commercialization and the over-the-top hype I found so depressing.

I pictured myself wandering through the small village where they lived, peering into beautifully lit shop windows contained quaint holiday scenes. I saw cozy afternoons before a roaring fire in a small pub, drinking a hot drink from a pewter mug, while locals came in, brushed snowflakes off their caps, and wished me a jolly holiday.

I saw myself sitting down for an elegant Christmas dinner, lit by softly glowing candles, while we sipped vintage wine from 100-year-old crystal glasses ( that were, of course, only used on that special day of the year). And, yes, I thought a Yule log would be burning in the deep-inset fireplace.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I’ll spare you the details; although, in fairness, the paper party hats and “crackers” did add a bit of zest to the holiday dinner. Clearly, Christmas in Merry Old didn’t live up to my romantic notion; rather, is was the world as it is, opposed to the world as I wanted it to be. Writing and publishing isn’t much different.

A week ago, I was on a panel with several other authors talking about self-publishing versus “being published.” We all wrote in different genres, and had different interests. One person talked about the value of social media; one referred to her sound marketing background. I talked about why it took a team (friends, volunteers or professionals) to bring a project to fruition. Most of the time was given over to a Q & A session with the attendees.

As I looked at the audience, I thought to myself, “There is talent there, and good books waiting for a reader.” I hoped their work would make it into print. I hoped they’d enjoy both intrinsic value and financial reward from their effort.  That is the romantic view. The reality is that only some will find publishing success.  Some will keep their faith and keep writing; others will turn to a different endeavor or creative outlet.

Yesterday, while browsing at a book store, I gravitated to the sections that held the type of books I like to write–and like to read. The shelves and tables were heaped with the latest offerings. As a reader, I was delighted. As a writer, nothing can be more intimidating than looking around a large-chain bookstore and seeing the sheer numbers of books–knowing that along with the “hold-in-your-hand” books, a vast number of ebooks are also available. Is it romantic or delusional to believe your first–or next–book might join the ranks of the best-selling new releases? Which notion should you hold onto while you click away on the keyboard or fill the pages of your notebook?

I just read The Martian. I don’t know if Andy Weir expected the book to become a best seller and a film. My guess is he didn’t. Rather, I suspect that as a self-described “lifelong space nerd,” he simply wrote about a subject he loved, in a field he knew. Did he have a romantic or a realistic idea of how the book would be received? Hard telling. But, he must have believed in himself–and what he was doing–to plan, plot, develop, write, rewrite, and put it out for the universe to accept or reject.

I still think that someone, somewhere in the world, serves savory baked beans on superb bread,  just as I believe there’s nothing wrong with being a romantic, as long as we accept the reality that sometimes follows.

Best Wishes to All My Readers for a Joyous, Peaceful, and Healthy Holiday Season

The Pawnshop, the Ring and the Book

Not the epic poem, the Ring and the Book, made famous by Robert Browning, just a minor event that might become the plot of a novel one day.

It all began in a pawnshop.  I was in Colorado last week, spending a few days in a small town situated in the Wet Mountain Valley, between the Sangre de Cristo Range and the Wet Mountains. While walking down a main street (actually, the only main street), I went into a several small shops that carried Native American jewelry, mostly silver and turquoise. Some of it was lovely, but I wanted something different, with a narrow band–the kind of ring that is so comfortable you forget you are wearing it–that would translate when I wasn’t in a pair of boots–or in the American southwest.

My companion wanted to buy a ring for my birthday; I told him that was a great idea. The only problem was the few rings I liked were too large. Then, I saw the pawnshop across the street. There, the proprietor produced several trays of rings, mostly diamond engagement rings, wedding band, or rings with sparkly, colored stones. And, of course, turquoise set in wide, silver bands.

Tucked into the corner of a black velvet tray, almost invisible with it’s black stone and narrow band, was a vintage ring, clearly Native American workmanship, with an oval onyx nestled next to a delicately crafted silver leaf. Could it possibly fit? It did. Perfectly! I was almost giddy, and not from the 8,000 foot altitude of the town.

The proprietor said it was a consignment. I hope that whoever sold it, or once wore it, liked it as much as I do. When I wear it, I’ll think of the unknown artisan who made it–and take care of it for the person who wore it before me.

You may be wondering what this can possibly have to do with writing.

I used to think that it was important to constantly study the market, follow sales figures, be alert to trends, peruse best sellers, and keep up with celebrity authors. That can still be helpful if your work falls into a popular category or has the potential of being the next big hit, but what if you are writing just because you like to write. What if writing is therapy for you, like painting or hiking is for someone else? What about the “little” books, the simple stories, the observational poems. Those moments of inspiration that are “comfortable” to wear.

I don’t imagine anyone will ever look closely at my small ring and remark on it, if it is noticed at all. But, someone cared about it when they created it, and I will enjoy it when I wear it. Why should writing be any different?

Can’t a story, a book, or a poem simply mirror the inventive urge of its creator? Isn’t it enough that someone will take pleasure from reading it?  When we find a piece of poetry or prose we like, do we care how many copies it may have sold? Maybe, sometimes, we should write just to write; share just to share; create just to give substance to an idea.

And Browning? He found a soiled, yellow book while casually rummaging through a stack of old books at a flea market. He was intrigued by the contents that detailed a murder trial and thought it might be a good basis for a poem, but let in languish for four years, even offering it to other writers. Then, magically, he produced a 21,000 line poem that still has scholars scrambling.

Wear Beige and Keep Your Mouth Shut: How to Survive a Writing Critique

“Wear beige and keep your mouth shut,” was the advice my 85-year-old father gave me when I lamented that I thought my son and future daughter-in-law were too young to get married, particularly since they were still in college. Never mind that I’d married even younger (although that hadn’t worked out too well). I took his advice, and they not only took their degrees, but went on to earn advanced degrees, raise children–and stay married.

I’ve since learned that the art of keeping my mouth shut–or at least filtering what I say–is an important element in working with other writers. Unless you live a solitary writing life, and only communicate with your agent or publisher, you’ve no doubt encountered writers of varying talent and dedication. You have been asked to read paragraphs, chapters, and occasionally a tome that staggers the imagination. Were you to honor all these requests, you would be lucky to have time to write a grocery list, much less attend to your unfinished manuscript.

While there are tactful ways to decline random requests, you may owe allegiance to writers with whom you have a relationship. If you like and respect them and their work, you will be caught in a bind that requires you to be supportive and honest at the same time. These expectations are often at odds.

Egos can be fragile. I used to tell my college freshmen-composition students to “Separate your ego from your writing. See it as a skill that a coach is helping you improve, not unlike hitting a tennis ball.”  I assured them that their essential personality, and worth as a human being, was not tied to how well they strung a series of words on a page. Still, I find that even when I try to follow my own advice, or work with others, it can be difficult to give and receive criticism.

Note: I use the term criticism as a neutral, meaning evaluative, not pejorative.

That’s why, when I’ve participated in writing groups, I’ve tried to distinguish between helpful, constructive, criticism and the marginally soul-destroying comments that some people seem hell-bent on mouthing.

Some writers are happy and confident to work solo and not share their work with anyone other than an agent or publisher. There’s nothing wrong with that. But others want to have that second set of eyes evaluate their work. If you find you want the opinion of other writers, or avid readers, you can choose to show your work to one reader at a time–at different stages of your manuscript–or you can read to a small, dedicated group.

For a half-dozen years, I presented workshops with a writer’s organization, IWWG, that held a yearly, week-long writing conference. In the evening, we would hold open critique sessions so people could read what they’d written that week. Some were veteran writers; others were revealing their work for the first time. Some were extremely talented; some were just finding their voice; all were vulnerable to an extent.

I’ve been on both ends of the critique spectrum. In either case, it’s crucial to keep your perspective and choose your words carefully. A friend of mine, who has read my manuscripts so many times she’s probably memorized them, always offers her criticism in gentle terms of advice. For example, one of her best lines is, “Have you thought about . . .?” That is usually followed by a suggestion on word choice, eliminating awkward phrasing, correcting an obviously confusing section, fleshing out a scene, eliminating superfluous details or back story.

Occasionally, a member of a group will take umbrage at what someone has written, usually a religious, political, or philosophical point of view they disagree with–and are determined to argue at length. They are usually looking for an audience, and are eagerly awaiting an opportunity to vent their wrath. Get rid of them; they don’t belong in what should be a supportive atmosphere.

Then, of course, there is the nitpicker. They look for errors–any kind–that allow them to showcase their knowledge and/or command of the language. What they tend to overlook is that the writers are often presenting first drafts, and are well aware they don’t have a clean manuscript. The nitpicker’s talent is being wasted at this stage–not to mention annoying the rest of the group.

If it is the last draft before submission, then a writing group is probably the wrong place to present it anyway. What we need, at that point–and should appreciate–is a willing nitpicker, one who will do a thorough and competent job of copy editing. If you have a friend or acquaintance who volunteers, you are lucky indeed.

So what can a reader or member of a writing group do to facilitate and encourage others?

Understand the writing experience of the individual who has offered their work for examination. A novice writer needs encouragement. There is always some aspect of the piece that is deserving of approval or admiration, even if it is only a great adjective or line of dialogue. Build on potential, not on flaws. Encourage further development of ideas.

If the work is by a skilled writer, your evaluation might address the theme, the mood, or the intent of their work, as well as comments on particularly arresting imagery, metaphor, or other more subtle features.

Choose your words carefully. For example, while it may be true that the piece is loaded with clichés, realize that younger people may not have heard a term enough to realize it is a cliché.

If it is too much of a “I remember grandma in her rocking chair,” and sentimental to the extent of being saccharin, suggest including it in a future memoir.

If the writing is a sermon, or an ethical or political statement, suggest the writer look into specific publications that feature essays of that nature.

Don’t overdo your criticism. Most of us can take helpful criticism in small doses, remember it, and do something about it. Too much at any one time and we become overloaded and, often, discouraged. It is common to make the same sort of writing blunders consistently; thus, once we are aware of a bad habit or weakness, we will usually look for it ourselves.

Respect the writer, praise what is praiseworthy, offer helpful suggestions for the rough spots in the manuscript, and demand the same when your work is being evaluated.

When it’s your turn to be the subject of a critique, consider the readers. What do you know of their background and experience? One type of reader might give you a formal, literary assessment. Another might judge the material on whether or not it’s a page turner. Another may simply identify with a character or a situation.  In other words, “Where are they coming from?”  Determining their expertise and mindset will help you choose from their remarks: embracing the useful, disregarding the rest.

What I try to do, with varying degrees of success, is to stay objective, even if I disagree with either the evaluation or the way it which it was delivered. A standard reply is, “Thanks. I’ll make a note and think about that.” Later, when I look at the notes (change word, expand, unrealistic dialogue, too many adjectives, etc) I usually see the wisdom and frequently make changes and corrections.

One of my friends and readers is a lawyer; her legal training and fine eye proved invaluable when she proofed my work. Another friend understands the local culture more than I ever will; her insights are on target every time. Yet another said she enjoyed my novel so much she didn’t realize it was a proof copy with a half dozen mistakes not yet corrected (I liked that response a lot!).

I think the best we can do is be open to suggestions, try really hard to separate our ego from our writing, strive to improve, and . . . always . . . remember to trust ourselves.

The Lonely Heart and The Biscuit

 

In this case, mine was a lonely heart searching for a biscuit recipe. More specifically, the biscuit recipe. Some explanation is required. I have always loved Carson McCullers’ writing, particularly The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Long before I’d ever been to the South, the early morning scene in the book–where Mick takes a cold biscuit for her breakfast–fired my imagination. Good books do that.

I pictured myself getting up on a summer morning in some southern state, wandering to the kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee and rummaging in the breadbox for yesterday’s biscuit, then sitting on a veranda (large, old, slightly shabby house with trailing wisteria vine), and listening to the birds heralding the day. Perhaps another early riser walking by would say something to the effect of, “Going to be a scorcher today,” and I’d nod wisely.

Such is the scenario the book suggested to me. Now, I am more or less living in the South (depending on where you draw the northern border) and have been defeated consistently in trying to produce a passable biscuit. My efforts usually result in flat, dense disks that resemble hardtack.

When I wrote my novel, Nothing’s Ever Right or Wrong, and wanted to represent a young woman on a rundown farm, with limited means and no handy artisan bakery down the street (let alone in the nearby small town), I had her baking biscuits–a lot of biscuits.

Last fall, I was doing a workshop on editing, called The Soap on the Rope Mistake. It wasn’t a grammar/spelling/punctuation workshop, but rather one on avoiding common pitfalls in our manuscripts. While discussing the importance of keeping our own habits, desires, and proclivities separate from those of our characters, I explained that although I had Stella baking biscuits on numerous occasions, it was natural to her situation. I assured my audience that it definitely wasn’t me; I couldn’t make a decent biscuit if my life truly depended on it.

Around fifty people were in attendance at the workshop, many of them authors. I talked with a half dozen after the presentation. One woman, waiting patiently, handing me a slip of paper with the simplest biscuit recipe I ever seen, and told me I didn’t have to go through life biscuit challenged.

I thanked her, put the slip in the notebook, and forgot about it. This spring, I did another workshop, this time on memoir, and discovered the same woman was present. She asked if I’d ever made the recipe and I told her, “Not yet, but I will.” This morning, I tried it. To my astonishment, I made a pan of perfect biscuits that tasted as good as they looked.

What does this have to do with writing?  In writing, as in other endeavors, it pays to keep an open mind when we are offered suggestions that might improve our work. Sounds simple, but sometimes, when we believe we know what we are doing, and have a tender writer’s ego at stake, we dismiss–even occasionally resent as interference–the guidance that is offered to us. In working to overcome my occasional resistance to advice, I’ve learned:

1) The people who offers constructive criticism, advice, or insight don’t have to be fellow writers or  literary critics; they can be  bricklayers, nurses, farmers or stockbrokers. They can be any age, gender, religion, culture, or political leaning. They can be highly educated or marginally literate. Whoever they are, they know about things that we don’t; they’ve lived moment we never will; they’ve experience emotions that are foreign to us; they have something to say and, if we intend to write about their world, we better listen.

2) If other writers offer to read or edit your book, don’t be surprised if they to give in to the urge to rewrite phrases, sentences, even paragraphs. It’s an occupational quirk. Before becoming irate that someone is tampering with your precious words, make a cup of tea and regain your objectivity. Maybe they are right? Maybe they do see a more succinct or dynamic way to convey an idea. Maybe not, but consider the possibility.

3) Don’t shoot the messenger. If your manuscript is returned to you bleeding red ink (think intensive proofread), and you find out you violated one of the common rules of punctuation, grammar, or syntax, curb your impulse to scream, curse the copy editor, or go into deep denial.

It happens–even when we know the “rules” but, for some reason, have developed a mental block to the point that, no matter how many times we’ve done our own proofread, the errors have remained undetected. At this point, you may need something stronger than tea to regain your objectivity. Thank your editing friend and fix the errors. Your hurt pride may take a bit longer, but it’ll heal and you’ll be grateful in the long run.

And me? Tomorrow morning, with temperatures in the high 90s, I will pour a cup of coffee, rummage in my cupboard for a day-old, cold biscuit, sit out on my deck, and salute all my reading friends, copy editors, Mick, Carson McCullers, and the woman you passed me that magic slip of paper.

Crop Black Recipe

Rewriting Reality

It’s next to impossible to ignore breaking news, even for dedicated writers who resolve to leave the newspaper folded, the television and radio silent, the tablet or phone unchecked. One way or another, the news of the day creeps into our consciousness. Unless we live a hermit’s life, ensconced in a cave, we know that over the last few weeks two convicted killers escaped from a prison in upper New York State. We know lawmakers have made landmark decisions, resulting in celebrations, protests, speeches, and posturing. People have carried out brave acts as well as foolhardy ones. We know innocent people have died. We know fires have ravished communities in the West. We know record heat has baked part of the nation, while other areas have floated on flood waters.

If we are writing fiction, it can be difficult to ignore the real world while creating an imaginary world in our stories and novels. Reality creeps into our psyches and our work, often to the point of distraction.

One solution is to use the news in a creative fashion. Writers frequently adopt major events, particularly tragedies such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as a setting or backdrop for their fiction. Sometimes those events mirror their characters’ actions, sometimes they are only used to establish a public mindset. Terrorism, extreme weather, crime, and dramatic stories of survival are all fodder for the writer, as are the humorous articles, the world of celebrity, and everyday miracles.

But, how many times have you read a news article and immediately formed an opinion, thought of ways to solve a problem that has been presented, or imagined a different outcome. My father, who lived in a far simpler time, used to use the term “sidewalk engineer,” which is similar to the more widely used term “armchair quarterback.”  Not a flattering designation, but also not a bad activity for a writer. Often, the news can inspire us with a plot idea based on our response to actual events. The moment we say, “What I would have done is . . .,” we are forming plot, action, and resolution.

Case in point: After the recent escape of the two convicts from the Clinton Correctional Facility, I imagined what I would do if I was one of them and wanted to escape and blend into society. I studied the photos. Sweat, the younger man is ordinary looking, with unremarkable features. Wearing the right business apparel, and swinging a briefcase, he could walk down most major city streets and, if noticed at all, would appears to be an office worker going to or from his job. Matt, the older man, with heavy features and probably a fast-growing five-o’clock-shadow, would have a harder time, but give him a hard hat and a lunch box and he could pass by unnoticed as well.

Frequently, when we see symbols that identify people by profession, we often don’t take a second look. Fiction, however, allows us to take liberties with the reality of what is perceived, so we can discover what is hidden just below the surface. Identity, motive, method–all can be changed with a few keystrokes.

No one wants to plagiarize or be accused of wholesale copying a news event and calling it an original plot. A “What would I do. . .?” moment, based on a single act or situation, is neither. Drawing on our knowledge and experience, to realize a different scenario, is simply a writing tool. If a blank computer screen is your nemesis today, turn on the radio, flip on the television, or pick up a newspaper and let the ideas flow.