Tag Archives: critique

Ideas are Overrated

People often ask writers: where do you get the ideas for your stories? And I say: ideas. Blah. So overrated.

I’ve blogged about this before, but still find myself slipping into the idea-trap. Recently while reading slush-pile submissions for a literary magazine, I found that other writers slip, too. It’s a sure recipe for rejection.

On some level, stories will always be filled with ideas, of course, but when an idea is important, the reason it’s important—its value—is that beneath it, there is a deeply-held emotion. The idea matters on some fundamental emotional level, and it’s the emotion that readers connect with. The books we like most are the ones that speak not to our heads, but to our hearts. Continue reading

Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Novelist Elmore Leonard passed away this month, leaving behind forty-some books and his “Ten Rules of Writing.” I agree with every one of his rules (if you disagree, leave a comment, and we’ll chat), and have printed them below. My favorite is his tenth, a tip I heard years ago: try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Yes, Elmore! Thank you.

But first, a caveat about Leonard’s rules: they apply to the polishing stage, not the drafting stage. While we’re working on a first draft, we should break these rules with abandon.

When I was young, I didn’t appreciate the vast difference between first drafts and finished manuscripts. If my high school teachers understood writing as process, they didn’t let me in on it. They gave me writing assignments, and I gave them finished pieces. Period. Some were decent, and some not, and along the way, I figured I’d never make it as a writer because my stories didn’t measure up to my standards. As crazy as this sounds to me now, I used to think people were either born to write or they weren’t, and I wasn’t.

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer

Now I know that writing can be taught. In a blog post this month, author Marion Dane Bauer refutes the old truism that “you can’t teach writing.” You can! Over the past decade, I’ve learned a ton from awesome teachers who are also writers of fiction. One difference between an MA program in literature and an MFA in writing is that in addition to critiquing fiction, MFA students must write it.

Many of today’s teachers get that writing is a process, and they’ll often ask to see a first draft. Later they’ll request a revised version, and some time after that, a finished story or essay. This is a good thing. When you let a piece of writing rest, your brain keeps working on it. What appears brilliant one day might sound awful a week later. Words you thought perfect, you later recognize as downright wrong (I used to confuse ambivalent and ambiguous, and rarely caught the misuse in a first draft). But no problem, right? We have computers. The problem comes when writers think they don’t have the time or fortitude to handle the revisions.

So I give you Leonard’s ten rules, but if you’re currently in the process of drafting new scenes, you should stop reading right now. Come back when you’re ready for the revision stage.

I found this version of Leonard’s rules on the website of St. Louis TV station KSDK. Leonard elaborates a little on each rule, so click here to read more. Happy writing, y’all…

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

IN SUMMARY: “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”

Voice and details

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

My agent nixed the novel I finished drafting earlier this year, and it’s taken me a couple of months to process what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. I’ve been brainstorming new characters, a setting change, and a different plot direction, but it was while reading Tom Hanks’ recent obituary of Nora Ephron in Time Magazine that I stopped flailing for possible solutions and found my direction. Voice and details. That was the essence of what made Ephron’s writing so good. Okay, and she was really funny. But voice and details. That’s where I need to go.

What I find interesting about the critique-process is that readers can often tell when someone else’s writing isn’t working, but cannot always pinpoint exactly what’s wrong or why. Kudos to my agent for not providing direction other than telling me to try again. I’m guilty of giving writer-friends suggestions for ways to fix problems, and many times a critique-group buddy of mine (or a professor in the MFA program at Vermont College) has flagged a particular paragraph in my writing and offered suggestions–quick fixes. But often these sorts of suggestions don’t ring true because the problems run deeper than a sentence here or there. The take-away is that something isn’t working, and in my case, that something has a tendency to come down to voice and details.

If You Want to Write

When I’m enamored with plot, my characters tend toward the generic, toward derivations of characters the world of fiction has already seen. When I’m lost in the world of my characters, my plot suffers. So much must come together to make a novel work! In this case, I thought I’d crafted a pretty good plot, but the characters weren’t ready for prime time. In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland wrote, “the more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.” Voice and details. I’m headed back to my writing desk to dig deeper into my characters, listen for their voices, and let go of my plot. I need to let the characters drive the plot.

The writing process continues to humble me, and for that, I’m ever so grateful.

The structure of a novel

In the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, John Stazinski (page 29) bemoans the tendency of MFA programs to concentrate nearly exclusively on the short story at the expense of the novel because it’s too time-consuming to workshop complete novels. Thank goodness Grub Street is now experimenting with a novel-revision class to fill the gap.

VCFA logoLucky for me, VCFA was not one of those MFA programs. In the first few semesters, there were limits to the number of pages I was allowed to submit for critique/review, but in the final semester, the complete draft of a novel was welcome. It was an intense final semester. My faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, required multiple re-writes of my novel—never mind line edits. The focus was on structure—on the intersection of the story arc and the emotional arc—on Big Picture elements of the craft.

Now I can’t read a novel without marveling at and dissecting its structure. Of course writers need to learn how to craft engaging characters and settings with mesmerizing descriptive details. But plot matters! A well-conceived story arc is just as necessary as beautiful prose.

Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for example. He intentionally deviates from the classic climax-and-denouement structure with brilliant results. Early chapters are labeled “before” and later chapters “after” and the life-changing moment occurs in the middle, leading to a denouement that at first glance appears too long. But no. The climax is not that moment-in-the-middle, but comes when the protagonist realizes he can’t live fully if he remains stuck on life “before Alaska” and “after Alaska.”  The structure Green has given to his novel is the very structure the protagonist is struggling to escape.

Or take Uma Krishnaswami’s delightful The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Her theme involves life’s coincidences, and she presents the story from the points of view (close-third person in alternating chapters) of one protagonist and multiple secondary characters. Readers glimpse a postal carrier here and a Bollywood movie star there, and in the end, of course, the characters’ lives intersect. But it’s the structure of the novel in multiple POVs that makes the intersection work.

It’s one thing to know the story you want to tell, and another to figure out how best to tell it. Such is my current quandary. Last week I completed the draft of a novel, and I’m now letting it rest so that I can return later with fresh eyes to ask: what structure—what sequence of scenes—will provide maximum dramatic tension for my readers? Right now I’ve got one viewpoint in part one and another in part two. But will alternating the points of view (the way Uma did) serve this story better? Hmm. Thank goodness I have early-level reader-friends willing to critique an entire novel, not simply ten or twenty pages at a time.

For the love of Vemont College of Fine Arts

Voice. Sympathetic characters. Narrative pace. Dialogue tags.  Emotional arcs. These are the sorts of topics we tackled at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  In January 2011, I graduated from the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults there, and I’m going through serious withdrawal.  Maybe blogging will help…

Vermont is a place where critique doesn’t mean line-edits, but means discussing theme and desire-lines and narrative structure and how a writer intensifies or slows the pace.  It’s a place where students are encouraged to play while being pushed to write the novel that comes from the heart—the one only you can write because it’s so you—the one so personal and particular that it touches on the universal—on what it means to be human.

Vermont changed me.  It changed my writing.  It changed the way I read.  During residencies, we called it our own little Narnia.  Such a magical place. In this blog, I’ll only skim the surface, and will apologize in advance for my “you had to be there” tone which is so hard to block, because, well… yeah…