Tag Archives: MFA

What’s an “objective correlative,” huh?

 

 

The other day while reading Raymie Nightengale by Kate DiCamillo, I hit a passage that from a craft of writing perspective was so good—so well written—it stopped me cold. I marveled at the technique, and knew in an instant I’d have to blog about it. So here we go. See what you notice in this excerpt from pages 5-6. We’re in the point of view of a young girl named Raymie who’s in a baton-twirling class with a teacher named Ida Nee. Standing next to Raymie is a girl who says…

 

     “My name is Beverly Tapinski and my father is a cop, so I don’t think that you should mess with me.”
     Raymie, for one, had no intention of messing with her.
     “I’ve seen a lot of people faint,” said Beverly now. “That’s what happens when you’re the daughter of a cop. You see everything. You see it all.”
     “Shut up, Tapinski,” said Ida Nee.
     The sun was very high in the sky.
     It hadn’t moved.
     It seemed like someone had stuck it up there and then walked away and left it.

Oh, my gosh. Stop. Isn’t that great? (Or do you think I’m crazy?) Notice what DiCamillo does. Or what she does not do. She does not follow Ida Nee’s rebuke with Raymie’s opinion about Ida Nee. She does not tell us Raymie’s feelings. Instead, she describes what Raymie looks at.

As a reader, what do you feel?

How do you think Raymie feels?

The brilliance of this passage is the way DiCamillo trusts the reader to get it.

T. S. Eliot

DiCamillo has used a creative writing technique with a rather obtuse name: the objective correlative. T. S. Eliot elaborated on this technique in a 1919 essay called “Hamlet and his Problems,” and when I was an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, author and faculty mentor Tim Wynne-Jones lectured about it. The essence of the technique is this: in order to communicate to readers what your character might be feeling, describe an object, situation, or set of circumstances that correlates with the character’s emotion. Don’t identify the emotion; let the reader infer it. Eliot undoubtedly incorporated into his writing objective correlatives with more sophisticated language than what DiCamillo uses in Raymie Nightengale, but regardless of voice, style, or vocabulary, the effect is the same: the author stirs emotions in the reader without telling the reader what to feel. When done well, this technique is a highly effective tool in the show-don’t-tell toolbox.

If you want to read more about objective correlatives, I’d recommend this essay by a student at Carson-Newman University, and this explanation on the NeoEnglish website. See if you can revise passages in your current work-in-progress, removing words that name characters’ emotions and replacing them with objects or situations that communicate the mood or feeling in the scene. Write it well and readers will vicariously experience what the characters do. Good stuff.

Happy writing!

Write with wonder

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma

In a July 2016 article in Toronto’s Metro News, writer Richard Crouse recounts a joke told by world-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a new documentary called The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble:

A little boy says to his father, “When I grow up I want to be a musician.”
“Sorry son,” the father replies, “you can’t do both.”

Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty mentor Jane Kurtz retold this joke during her January 2017 lecture, and lucky for me, I was on campus to hear it! For eleven days I worked as a Graduate Assistant, attending the lectures in exchange for helping make the residency run smoothly. I had a blast. Now back home, I’m digging deeply into characters’ emotions and trying to tap into more of my childhood experiences—into both a sense of wonder as well as uncertainty and disappointment. Growing up wasn’t easy. Would you want to have to grow up again? I wouldn’t.

But to wonder again? Oh, yes. To be playful? Curious? To live on the cusp rather than believing I’ve already arrived? For my fiction to work, my characters need to live on that cusp. And if they must go there, I must go, too.

Yo-Yo Ma celebrates his “access to wonder.” Crouse also quotes Ma as saying, “I’m drawn to what I don’t know versus what I do know.” I love that. Children spend more time not-knowing than knowing. They explore. They try and fail and try again. Some learn to laugh at their failures, and some cry, and I wonder how it is that some manage to shrug off disappointment while others wallow in it. I don’t have an answer. I’m giving myself permission to wonder, to play, to not know (and by the way, VCFA faculty mentor Martha Brockenbrough gave us permission to split infinities, and for more on that, you’ll have to read her grammar book). I’m going to sit with uncertainty and try to put words to what I feel, not unlike the way Yo-Yo Ma puts music to his feelings. Well, ha! My writing certainly won’t be anything like what Ma can do with a cello. But hey, I can try, right? And I can wonder and believe and practice and hope and…

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Continue reading

Crafting Nonfiction for Young Readers

I met Winifred Conkling in 2009 when we were students in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and today I’m thrilled to feature her reflections on the craft of writing. Winifred is the award-winning author of numerous books and articles for adults and children, and her newest book, Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery, comes out today from Algonquin Young Readers.

A.B. Westrick: Winifred, welcome!

Winifred Conkling: Thank you for inviting me, Anne.

ABW: Passenger on the Pearl is a heart-wrenching story that hooked me on page one. I can tell from the sidebars and source notes that you researched the life of Emily Edmonson and her contemporaries extensively. So my first question is how you distilled down what must have been a mountain of primary sources, and decided to begin the story where you did (with Emily’s mother’s fears about bringing children into the world)?

WC: I always struggle with where to start a story. You’re right, I started the process by reading piles of source material. I finally decided that the most natural way to frame the story was to focus on Emily’s birth into slavery and to end with her marriage and the promise that her children would be born free. In my background reading, I was devastated by the quote from Emily’s mother, Amelia, who had fallen in love but refused to marry, saying: “I loved Paul very much, but I thought it wasn’t right to bring children into the world to be slaves.” I am the mother of three, and I can’t imagine what it would feel like to know that my children would be destined to face the horrors of slavery. I know that young readers are familiar with the idea of slavery, but I wanted to make the suffering personal.

ABW: Well, you certainly did make it personal. Her suffering drew me in—it’s an excellent opening. Now let me ask some more about those primary sources, and about research in general. Research can be mesmerizing, and at the same time overwhelming. Do you have any advice to help writers recognize which sorts of historical nuggets make for great stories, and which to leave behind? In so many words, I guess I’m asking: why this story? Why Emily Edmondson? What was it about Emily that made you decide to tell her story rather than, say, the story of one of her brothers? Or the captain’s story?

WC: My first draft of Passenger framed the story around Emily and her sister Mary—the Edmonson sisters—who remained together throughout much of their journey. The problem with this approach is that Mary died as a young woman and I wanted the narrative to continue to Emily’s work as a teacher in Washington, D.C., as well as her later marriage. By focusing on a single character, Emily, I was able to more naturally complete the story and end with the birth of the next generation.

We struggled with Emily vs. Emily-and-Mary when designing the cover art. The front cover of the book shows Emily in the moonlight with the Pearl in the background. The art wraps around to the back where we see Mary and others who were also making their way to the ship. The intent was to emphasize that this is Emily’s story, but she was not alone.

Also, the choice to feature Emily was based on the primary sources available. Because of the family’s association with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lives of the Edmonsons are well documented; Stowe had much to say about them in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I’m glad you asked about the captain’s story. I loved his contributions, and we are fortunate that we have his autobiography available. (It was released by Project Gutenberg, e-book #10401-8.) His story is fascinating in its own right, but I had to resist the temptation to tell too much because this project was Emily’s story. I tried to share the relevant highlights and to let readers know what happened to him; he spent four years in prison as a result of his efforts to help seventy-seven enslaved people find freedom.

ABW: Through the first half of Passenger, I felt genuinely worried for Emily, and turned pages to find out what happened to her. I was totally caught up in her plight, and to be honest, I found the sidebars distracting. But somewhere along the line, a shift happened, and by the time I was well into the second half, I was lingering on each sidebar. So let’s talk about those sidebars! What went through your mind in crafting them? Were they part of your idea for this book from the start?

WC: I love sidebars. There are so many interesting bits of history and things to explore and explain that would slow down the plot but remain important for the reader to know. The main narrative tells the story—what happened to Emily—while the sidebars give the reader the background that deepens their understanding of context and history. Some readers will no doubt blow right past the sidebars to follow the story, and that’s okay. Others will stop and read them in order, which does slow the narrative flow, but helps to answer questions the reader may have along the way.

It’s not the just sidebars: The photos also interrupt the text, but I love them! The photos convey information and they remind the reader that this is nonfiction—these are real people and this is part of our shared American history.

I know some readers find sidebars distracting, but I think they serve an important function in nonfiction text. I didn’t set out to write a book with lots of sidebars, but as I wrote, they seemed inevitable.

ABW: Yes, and I admit that once I knew Emily’s story, I went back through the book and read the sidebars that I’d blown past on the first read-through. You have a lot of interesting tidbits there.

Now a question about proposals because I hear nonfiction writers talk about them: Did Passenger begin with a book proposal, and if so, what did that proposal look like? How long was it? Were the sidebars part of the first draft that your editor saw?

WC: I did not write a book proposal for Passenger. I knew I wanted to write about Emily—or Emily and Mary—and then I went to work. The structure changed several times in the process of writing and rewriting. The first draft I sent the editor did have sidebars, and we added some and deleted others along the way.

ABW: Was Passenger on the Pearl always the title, and if not, what were other titles under consideration?

WC: My original title was Ransomed: Emily Edmonson’s Escape from Slavery, but my editor didn’t like the word “ransomed.” (I liked it because to me it conveyed the idea that money was paid for the freedom of someone who was unjustly held captive.) We also played around with the title Forever Free, but we dropped that one, too. Titling books is tricky business, and I trust that the editors and publishers (and their marketing teams) have a better handle on it than I do.

ABW: Your 2011 book Sylvia & Aki (Tricycle Press) won the Jane Addams Book Award for Older Readers. Congratulations! It was also historical, but on the advice of your editor at that time, you wrote it as “fictionalized history,” explaining that your editor “thought it would be more engaging to tell the story in a novelized format.” Now that you’ve written Passenger as nonfiction, would you reflect on the differences? I’m particularly interested in your reflections on the craft of writing. How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction? Did you prefer the process of writing one more than the other?

WC: Thank you — and congratulations to you, too [on Brotherhood receiving the Jane Addams honor]!

If I could do it over again, I would write Sylvia & Aki as nonfiction. The story is true; the only fictionalized parts involved the creation of dialogue. For that book, I interviewed Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, the subjects of the book, and they both reviewed the text for accuracy before publication. The editor for that project believed that young readers would find it easier to relate to the story by presenting it as fiction with created dialogue.

Frankly, I struggle with this issue, and I think it’s an important question for authors to consider when writing stories that can be told as either nonfiction or fictionalized history (which isn’t the same thing as historical fiction, which I think of as a work of fiction set in the past). I don’t believe an author has the right to make up quotes. To me, quotation marks in nonfiction mean that the words—the exact words—can be traced back to a legitimate, contemporaneous source. That’s one of the main things that differentiates fiction and nonfiction; in nonfiction we don’t get to make up what was said or what happened.

When there are rich primary sources, I prefer writing nonfiction. It is an honor to be able to report and tell the story of history. That said, I also love historical fiction, especially when the historical period deepens and defines the character (like you did in Brotherhood). I don’t think one format is better than another; I think what is important is to be true to the format you have chosen as an author. Don’t leave the reader questioning whether a story is fiction or nonfiction.

ABW: Any final comments or words of wisdom for aspiring authors?

WC: Write the stories that haunt you. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, focus on the stories that captivate you. Those are the ones you’re supposed to tell.

ABW: Oooohhh, that’s just what I need to hear because my current work-in-progress is frustrating me, but I do feel called to write it—the story haunts me. So thank you for reminding me of that! And thank you so much for your insights today.

Revision Is The Best Part

The worst part of the writing process is the blank screen, the white paper, the emptiness, the limitless possibilities. The best is revision. Once I’ve scribbled a few words, I’m onto something, and when I let myself revise those words—moving paragraphs around, deleting extraneous junk—it feels great. Like cracking a Sudoku puzzle. Hahaha. (No, really.)

These days, I’m deep into revisions on a new novel and my manuscript is a mess. I love working on it, although I often wish it wouldn’t take so long. I decided to look back at an early version of Brotherhood to remind myself just how far that novel came—how bad it was early-on, and how much it improved. This gives me hope. Here’s the 2009 version of my opening scene:

Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging. Bam, bam, bam. Somebody is banging so hard the walls are rattling.

“Mrs. Weaver?” a man shouts.

My head hurts. I open my eyes. I’m in my bedroom. The light is early. A chicken squawks. Peep-peep, is that you? Jeremiah is stretched out asleep in his britches.

“Open up! Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice is flat and nasal. It’s not from around these parts. It’s Yankee.

I hear shuffling in the house. Mama is up. Peep-peep and Poke are squawking. Shoot. Is somebody hurting our chickens? I should check on the chickens. I roll off the mattress. I run to the windowsill. I am not awake. Am I awake?

“Shoot!” I cry.

There’s a boy looking in my window! He’s wearing blue. Blue cap. Brass buttons. Blue uniform. Musket on his shoulder. “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Ouch. Cringe-worthy. Choppy. This version repels me more than it engages me. While I like the way I was able to get inside the head of this character, I feel irritated by that closeness. As a reader, I don’t want to stay inside this head for three hundred plus pages.

Here’s the revision, completed in 2011 and published in 2013:

The first sound Shad heard was the squawk of a chicken. Then the thud of a fist on wood. Bam. Bam. Bam. The hollow walls rattled. A man’s voice. “Mrs. Weaver?”

The light was early yet, and Shad glanced beside him. His older brother lay asleep there in his trousers—right there on top of the white cotton ticking. Hadn’t even changed into a nightshirt. Shad nudged Jeremiah’s shoulder and heard his brother grunt, but he didn’t wake.

The thud came again. Bam. Bam. “Mrs. Weaver? Official business of the government of the United States. Open up!” The voice was flat and nasal—not Virginia-born.

Shad nudged Jeremiah harder this time, but still his brother didn’t rouse. He rolled off the straw mattress, feet on cool dirt, and headed for the window. But at the sill, he jumped back. “Lord!”

There was a boy maybe Jeremiah’s age—seventeen—maybe a tad more—blond like Jeremiah. He stood on the other side, only inches from Shad’s face. Navy blue cap. Blue uniform. Brass buttons. Musket on his shoulder. He said, “Going somewhere, Mr. Weaver?”

Notice that I added details to ground the reader in the setting. I revised from first person, present tense to third person, past tense, pulling the reader out of the protagonist’s head, and providing a welcome distance while staying true to the character. I slowed the scene down.

Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt

My publisher never saw that early version of Brotherhood. Before I queried agents, I’d already revised the whole shebang, adding details, changing tenses, cutting some scenes and digging deeply into others. I had help doing it, thanks to the MFA program at  Vermont College of Fine Arts. Instead of telling me to shelve the manuscript because it was so bad, my 4th semester faculty advisor, Kathi Appelt, taught me how to approach revisions, how to dig deeper, how to turn a mess into a novel.

Re-reading my bad early version makes me feel good. Encouraged! My current WIP is messy, but it’s coming along. If I didn’t love the process, I wouldn’t keep going. But I do love it. I live for it. Spending my mornings writing fiction keeps me sane through my afternoons and evenings. And when I have something to work with—something to fix rather than starting from scratch—that’s the best of all.

Point of View

This month I’ve been drafting chapters with points of view (POV) that alternate between characters. This is a challenge to write. And a joy! And a frustration. Each day when I sit to work on a scene, I re-read my notes on that day’s POV character’s musings and backstory to get inside his head. Not only his head, but into his body. I get up and pace and try to imagine that I am he.

2 boysYes, he. I’m writing boy characters. One of these days I’ll force myself to wrestle with the reasons I find it so difficult to write girl characters. I probably need psychoanalysis to get at the root of it, and I’m not sure I’m up for that! In the meantime…

This alternating POV-business has great potential. It forces me to reveal only those things that the POV character knows. Not revealing other tidbits creates a sense of mystery. Switching points of view introduces dramatic irony; the reader learns facts from one character that another character doesn’t know.

I like this. And while I’m trying to remain patient, accepting that the rewriting will take a while, I admit that right now, the revisions feel endless! My tenses (present and past) are all over the pace, and I’ve shifted from first person to third and back again. It is one crazy process, lemme say. I’m not sure which points of view will survive the final edits, but for now I’m trying not to think about the later stages. Even though I’ve completed a first draft of the entire novel, this manuscript is still in an early stage.

If I hadn’t gone and gotten an MFA in writing a few years ago, at this point I might be tempted to shelve this draft and start something else. But one thing that the MFA taught me was that there are no shortcuts. At least, when it comes to my process, there aren’t any. Voice and POV can make or break a novel. Here’s hoping my revisions will make this one work.

Writing a Novel in Verse

Listen to these lines from the first page of Caminar, Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse:

Our village sat in the folded-between,
in that spot where you pinch something sacred,

to keep it still.

Our mountain stood guard at our backs.
We slept at night in its bed.

This book mesmerized me. Its lyrical beauty quickly transported me to the jungles of Guatemala with its owls and soccer-playing children and military men looking for older brothers, old enough for signing papers, and one day…

Soldiers Set Up Camp
That year before the rains began, they came
in jeeps, with tents for sleep,
set up camp outside our village.

I couldn’t put it down. I loved Carlos, the young protagonist of this story, and I just had to get inside Skila Brown’s head to hear about her process in writing a novel in verse. I wanted to glean tips for tackling this art form.

A.B. Westrick: Skila, thank you so much for doing this blog interview. Carlos’s story captivated me from page one, and stayed with me long after I finished reading. I find the idea of writing a novel in verse to be daunting. Can you tell me which of the poems you wrote first? What part of Carlos’s story became your starting point, and how did the story evolve during the course of writing?

Skila Brown: Anne, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog! The first poem that came to me was “Guerilla Rain.” The poems that ended up following that one in the book came next. Often I would write 3-5 poems in a spurt, and on the next day, I’d write verses that would appear in an entirely different section of the book. Writing out of order is fun and frustrating—in equal parts. But Carlos’s story, for me, started with the arrival of the guerillas. I knew this was about a boy whose village got targeted simply because the rebels had passed through.

ABW: There’s a lot of white space in Caminar, and each poem packs a punch, encouraging readers to imagine villages and villagers, paths through jungles and cornfields, wide-eyed owls, a boy translating between Spanish and the local dialect, etc. You left a lot to the imagination of the reader (which is great). I wondered about the process of choosing what images to put into the book and what images to leave out. Would you reflect a little on that, and especially on what you left out and why?

SB: There were many images I wrote about and later removed from the story, because I just felt they were too violent. For example, I had a conversation where Miguel described to Carlos a scene where a woman came to kiss the feet of her dead husband when a nearby soldier slashed a machete against her back. She lived. But the baby strapped to her back did not.

When I first started writing the story, I wasn’t sure of the age range of the reader. Once I realized that Carlos’s story was really a coming of age story, I wanted the novel to be accessible to younger readers. I felt like it was really an upper middle grade story, and I wanted to make sure that nothing in its pages would be too hard for an eleven year old to digest.

I think poetry is a great tool for talking about hard topics exactly because it leaves the reader some space to interpret as s/he will. We can linger over a poem and insert our own images into the white space that surrounds it, calling upon the emotional experience we have to connect us to the story. Or we can read it quickly, get the facts of what happened, and move on. And that, I think, opens up the story to a broader audience.

ABW: Tell me about your revision process. How many times did you write these poems?

SB: This varied from poem to poem. My process for this book (and the novel in verse that I just finished) was to write a draft of a poem in a notebook by hand. Usually I’d concentrate on content only in that draft, although sometimes the poem would come to me as a poem—maybe a particular sound element I wanted to play with or the form I wanted it to have on the page. Days later, or whenever I felt like it, I’d give it another read and see what I thought. Sometimes I wasn’t ready to act on it, but other times I’d read it a few times and begin to see where the poem was, rewriting it into another draft. Sometimes that only took one step. Other times I’d play with a poem 3 or 4 or 5 more times before I’d settle on something that felt concrete. When I got to that point, I’d type it into the computer.

I kept doing that until I had about 60% of the poems finished and I could start to see the shape of the story. Then I printed them off and spread them out on the floor and saw what was missing, what holes I needed to fill. Once I had a complete draft, I began the story revision, but even in that stage, I was still revising and tweaking poems line by line, word by word. Some poems seemed to scream out Done at a certain point and others always felt like I could keep playing with them to make things better—or at least different. It’s hard to know when to stop!

ABW: I think the ending of Caminar is great, and I don’t want this interview to be a spoiler, but could you talk a bit about that ending? When you started writing the book, did you know that you wanted to end it that way?

SB: I knew early on that Carlos was going to have a choice to make at the end of the book, and I knew what I wanted his choice to be. But I didn’t plan on the soldiers making another appearance in the book. A friend and early reader said to me, “Skila. You are protecting him. This ending needs more action. You need to bring the soldiers back.” And she was right.

ABW: I love your blog post about Carlos’s mama making tortillas, so I’m including the video you linked to. This is great!

ABW: Novels in verse are really popular right now. Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for writers who want to tackle this form? How much of a background in poetry does a writer need in order to feel confident writing a novel in verse? Before you wrote Caminar would you have used the word “poet” to describe yourself?

SB: I’ve been writing poems since I was seven, but I’ve never been brave enough to call myself a poet. Even now, it makes me squirm to do so. But I think that’s part of the problem that you’re hinting at here. Most of us are a little afraid of poetry. It feels intimidating—like we need a license to do it.

My advice for anyone thinking about writing a verse novel is to go read a giant stack of them. Then jump in and give it a try. I don’t think verse is the best tool for telling every story. But for some stories, it can be a powerful narration.

ABW: I love the cover design! I know that authors often don’t get much say in their books’ covers, and I was wondering how that process went for you. Did Candlewick offer you a choice of cover designs (and if yes, what sorts of design(s) did you turn down in favor of this one)?

SB: No one loves this cover more than I do. I honestly want to blow this up to giant-size and hang it over my mantel. It’s truly stunning and like nothing I had envisioned for the cover. Matt Roeser is the creative genius at Candlewick who gets credit for that. Early on I saw two possible covers—this one and a completely different one that used a photograph of a mountain. Honestly the second one was just as I had pictured it in my mind and there were things I liked about both covers when I was asked to weigh in.

Everyone at Candlewick wants to involve authors as much as possible on every part of the process. (It’s such a great house!) I offered up my thoughts about each, but said I had complete faith in whichever they chose, because they are the experts on that and not me. Initially I think they went with the other cover. And I tried to forget about those beautiful greens and leaves. But a month later they were back to the current cover. (I was secretly very, very pleased.)

ABW: Thank you so much for taking time to reflect on your process in writing Caminar.

SB: I love thinking about my writing process, so this chat was loads of fun!

For more information about Skila Brown, and to read an Educator’s Guide to Caminar, check out her website.

Exquisitely crafted poems are the basis of an unusually fine verse novel…”
–Horn Book, starred review

“…a much-needed addition to Latin American-themed middle grade fiction.”
–School Library Journal, starred review

Skila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana. Caminar is her first novel.

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.