Tag Archives: VCFA

Trust the Process

I’m pushing… pushing… pushing through weak writing to create new scenes before revising/perfecting the old. First drafts are always full of bad writing, and it’s oh-so-tempting to revise. But instead, I’ve pasted this message at the top of my Scrivener screen:  You do not yet know this story, so keep writing scenes, keep digging deeper into these characters, keep throwing obstacles in the paths of their desires, and see what transpires…TRUST THE PROCESS.

I have to thank Melanie Crowder for her blog post last month about trusting the process. And a thank-you to Sharon Darrow for telling me to think of adverbs as place-holders. We pepper them all over our first drafts. But later, at revision-time, it’s best to pause at each adverb. Take it out, roll it around, toss it up in the air, scatter it across a garden, and see what sprouts. Sharon didn’t say all of that, exactly, but you get the idea. Adverbs tell a reader what to think. Strong nouns and verbs take readers inside scenes and invite them to think for themselves.

I love revision-time. The blank page is what frightens me. Stalls me out. Chokes me dry. Just this week Kristin Swenson asked me about beginnings… how do I go about beginning a new project? I don’t have a good answer. I agonize over beginnings. Virginia Pye told me that between projects, she watches lots of movies, craving narrative, absorbing stories…

coffee cupI met Melanie and Sharon at VCFA, Kristin and Virginia in Richmond, VA. My writer-friends and acquaintances inspire and encourage me. They hold me accountable. Writing is hard! But at the same time, if I fail to begin a day by writing, I’m irritable. Some people begin with a cup of coffee, but not me. Before coffee, before breakfast, before daylight, I write. I pull on leggings, cozy socks and a sweatshirt, then flick on a space heater and a small desk lamp with a florescent bulb that starts dim and brightens as it warms. I pick up a spiral notebook and a smooth, fast pen, and I write stream-of-consciousness—at least three pages worth, thanks to Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” suggestion—a practice I began more than ten years ago when I read her book, The Artist’s Way. I throw away sluggish pens, and when the notebook is full, I throw it away, too, and start a new one. I rarely read my stream-of-consciousness rants. My first writing of the day isn’t about the words on the page so much as it’s about freedom and flow, breathing and release, waking and opening up to possibilities…

No matter how bad the writing, it’s always a good morning when I begin with free writing… Then I sigh, make a cup of coffee, stare at a blank page, thank Anne Lamott for her Bird by Bird advice (shitty first drafts), and remind myself to trust the process…

Getting into character

During one of JRW’s twitter-chats (#jrwc12) with upcoming conference speakers, we were posing questions for Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of Fingerprints of You, and she tweeted that she’d spent four years getting to know her characters. Four years? Ouch. I’d hoped to have a second novel under contract before my first appears, but I’m not so sure I’ll meet that goal. I’ve been struggling with my next novel, wondering whether my story works, and fearing I might have to banish it to a drafts-folder.

But Madonia’s comment gave me hope. Rather than lamenting that sometimes it takes as long as four years to write a novel, I’ve felt relieved. It’s okay! I don’t have to beat myself up over the next one not yet working. I’m breathing deeply again. I’m not under contract. I can take my time. Pfew. If it takes my characters four years to reveal themselves to me, well then, that’s what it will take. Implicit in my deep breaths is a new confidence that it will happen. Getting into CharacterI’d been rushing the writing, and now I’m slowing down and re-learning how to trust the process.

This past week I’ve been reading Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, an approach to novel-writing based on techniques in method-acting. I’m trying out her suggestion to interview my protagonist, and the kid is talking up a storm. Few if any of his ramblings will make it into the novel, but in absorbing his world-view, I hope I’ll be able to make his presence on the page authentic. Let’s see if I can do it… Let’s see if it takes me four years…

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.

Starting from scratch

A few weeks ago I finished the first draft of a novel for 4th-5th grade readers, and set it aside (later I’ll return with fresh eyes and revise). While in this lull between projects, I’ve devoured books and added a few titles to my Great Reads lists. But I feel antsy. When I don’t spend at least a couple of hours writing each morning, I get cranky. At the same time, the thought of beginning a new novel overwhelms me. I know how long and involved the process is. How much writing gets thrown out. How the characters have ideas of their own—ideas that don’t always mesh with mine—and I have to be patient and listen, listen, listen.

socksRight now I sense the seed of a new story, but it hasn’t yet germinated. Like a burr in my sock, it’s rubbing, and it feels good to scratch at it, but I know I have to let it rub me raw in order to get at the emotions, desires, secrets and fears that will drive the next novel. (Geez, why couldn’t I have been born a comedian?)

I turn to my bulletin board of inspirational tips from faculty and trustees at Vermont College of Fine Arts:

I read and re-read these quotes, and I sigh and nod and free-write and day-dream and pace and say, “thank you.” Thank you.

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.

On Joy

A while back, fellow VCFA alum Lindsey Lane asked if I had a favorite quote about writing—and I did—and in January she posted mine in the “Quotable Tuesday” column in her blog, The Meandering Lane. After doubting myself and my writing last week, what a joy it was this week to re-read what I’d sent to Lindsey. My favorite quote comes from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard:

Annie Dillard

One of the few things I know about writing is this:  spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.  These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.

 

This idea that something more will arise for later… that creativity begets creativity in the same way that love leads to more love, that it’s a growing thing, not something to hoard but something to give away because in the giving, somehow it grows into something even greater than it originally was… this is what excites me about writing. It’s what gets me up in the morning—this sense that I don’t yet know what might come of today’s writing. When I approach my writing with a sense of anticipation, of joy, of vulnerability because I’m opening myself up without knowing what I’ll find… I fall in love with the process. Again and again, I fall in love. It’s not about the finished product (well, yes, it is in the end, but it’s not along the way), but about the process of getting there.

For me, something about writing is therapeutic. It is spiritual. The process gives me a great sense of fulfillment. Now, I’m not talking about the business of writing. I’m talking about the process of creating something from nothing, a story from a blank white sheet of paper. I’m talking about wonder. About awe. About possibility, itself. About grace. About allowing my body to become a vessel through which a story tells itself. No, I’m not smoking anything funny while I’m writing this! I’m talking about joy. When I read Annie Dillard’s essays, I feel joy. That is what I love about writing.

On Doubt

The blank page glares at me. Stark. Judging. Waiting for brilliance, not blather. The pressure is almost unbearable. First there is guilt—who am I to spend my mornings writing when there are children starving in China? Africa? Virginia? What a luxury it is to write. How indulgent. Then there is fear. What if the next story I write isn’t any good? But what if it is good? My inner critic won’t shut up. How arrogant to think that I might bring forth something out of nothing, offer form to the chaos, give meaning to the void. Ha! But I want to produce literature. The idea ushers in doubt and I languish beneath heady thoughts rather than digging deep into moments—scenes—details where a sense as simple as smell can trigger dangerous emotions.

Ron Smith

In December my friend, poet Ron Smith, in his Commencement speech to English Department grads at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that “all good literature is about what it means to be a human being—one who perceives through the senses, one who reasons, one who feels—and who intuits that these things are not really separable.”

Before VCFA I wouldn’t have fully understood what Ron meant. My writing earned rejection letters with lines such as, “I have not been able to establish an emotional connection with your main character.” Now post-VCFA, not only do I understand, but as the blank page beckons, I brace myself, knowing where my writing must go. Before me on the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven void—the whiteness so pure it could be snow or starlight—I glimpse a shadow. No, wait, it is sweat. See? There—warping the surface…

The Liebster Award

A little love came my way recently. Richmonder Marci Rich, who writes The Midlife Second Wife, nominated my blog for the “Liebster Award,” a recognition of bloggers by bloggers. A condition of Award-receipt is that I, in turn, recognize five blogs that I love—five blogs that each have fewer than 200 followers. It’s a lovely little way to encourage blog traffic while identifying blogs that shine and speak to us. Thank you, Marci!

My first thought was to award The Liebster to fellow craft-of-writing bloggers, but there’s a blog I follow that isn’t about writing, per se, and I just have to start with that one:

1. Written by Pam Watts, whom I met in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Strong in the Broken Places shakes me up and makes me think. Abused as a child, Pam decided to write her blog “to help the lives of children living through adversity. It’s about abuse and neglect and homelessness and any other number of really tough issues children face in our society today. And it’s about what we as children’s book people can do to help them.” Her posts remind me of the many ways literature can make a difference in a kid’s life—how the books we write really do matter. Thank you, Pam!

2. Almost every time I read Valley Haggard’s posts, I’m struck by the honesty of the writing. By her willingness to dig deep and speak truths I’d feel embarrassed to admit. I’m still working hard to overcome my mother’s mantra: don’t-air-your-dirty-laundry. When I read Valley’s writing, I feel exhilarated. It’s daring. Exciting. Freeing. Her writing invites me to loosen mine, to get real, to dig deep, to experiment on the page. Thank you, Valley!

3.  Another blogger whose writing helps me loosen up is Shann Palmer, author of the chapbook, Change. Her blog, Shann Palmer says, is all about poetry. Some of her stuff is fun, some serious, some playful, some hateful. Always honest. “If I can do it, you can do it,” she tells everyone. “Try a poem a day. Just try it!” Shann’s encouragement is contagious, and gets me to take off my critical-lit student hat and relax. Play with words. See where they take me. Have fun. Again—such a freeing blog to read. Is there a theme here? I love blogs that invite me to loosen up and experiment with my writing.

4. Then there is Lindsey Lane who writes The Meandering Lane “because a writer doesn’t always go in a straight line.” A playwright, author of Snuggle Mountain (Clarion 2003, and available as an iPhone/iPad app), and fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts alum, Lindsey is another writer who strokes my creative side. From Austin, Texas, she blogs about the writer’s life and how we have to face our fears and step out on thin, bendy branches to find a whole new point of equilibrium in our stories.

5. My fifth Liebster Award goes to Kristi Tuck Austin’s River City Fiction, a blog in a bit of a hiatus now, but soon to be back with book reviews and more. Kristi writes about her experiences connecting with readers, authors, librarians, and booksellers in Richmond, Virginia. Currently drafting her own novel, Kristi will be coordinating James River Writers’ 2012 professional development series, The Writing Show, a monthly panel of speakers waxing eloquent about the craft and business of writing. Stay tuned…

Thank you, all, for making the blogging world more fun, dynamic, and creative.

Details, details, details

The smoky odor from a too-hot furnace…a hint of honeysuckle…the racket of bullfrogs—these were the details that brought last week’s writing to life. I had an idea for a scene, but I found myself pacing instead of writing. Ideas are oh-so-heady, so thoughtful, so conscious, and as the scene continued to elude me, a bit of VCFA wisdom came to me: brainstorm the sensory details. Make the subconscious conscious—the smells and sounds (not so much the dialogue, but the other noises—running water, tip-toeing feet, rattling tires, inner-thighs rubbing fabric against fabric). Taste the air. Feel the ground.

I hadn’t yet decided on the exact location for this particular scene. So I got a map, then stalked the location via Google street view. I realized a creek ran beside the road in this scene—not that the creek mattered to the characters, but it was there—the mold and decay along the bank, the crayfish hidden under rocks, the wet earth. When a minor character appeared, I smelled the smoke on his trousers. As the sensory details emerged, so did my protagonist’s misgivings, his awkwardness in strolling down a street where he didn’t belong, and the scene began to write itself…

While a student at VCFA, I’d read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, and it’s probably time for me to re-read it, time to get back inside my entire body when I write, not simply inside my mind and its grand ideas. I can think my way into almost anything. But can I taste it? Can I dream?

Non-linear writing

While I was drafting this post, my son peered over my shoulder, and said, “Mom, TL:DR: too long; didn’t read.” Haha. OK, here is the TL:DR version. My writing process is messy and scattered. Nonlinear. How’s yours?

Last week I began drafting a sermon I’ll give at Ginter Park Presbyterian on August 28th when our pastor is on vacation. I’ve never preached before. The text is Exodus 3—Moses and the burning bush—a story as ancient as it is rich. A fire that burns without consuming. The removal of shoes on holy ground. The plea, “Who am I that I should go…?” The promise, “I will be with you.” The name, “I am who I am.”

A wonderful text. But so many possibilities! My notes are all over the place. My process in writing this sermon reminds me of my struggle to write a critical thesis when I was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor that semester, Uma Krishnaswami, author of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, read the first draft of my thesis and said, in so many words: Anne, which point do you want to make here? Do you want to explore X (she articulated one of my concepts), or are you arguing for Y (and she floated another), or do you want to focus on Z (a third thread that I’d inserted). Anne—this is a master’s thesis, not a PhD dissertation. Rein it in!

And I did. My thesis even won an award. But I didn’t learn a better way to approach my writing. What I’ve learned (thank you, Uma) is that my process includes scattered thinking. Brainstorming. Nonlinear processing. For better or worse, it is what it is. I can despair, or I can accept it.

Whether I’m writing an essay, a sermon or a novel, in the early stages, my writing is all over the place. In fiction, new characters pop up, as do unnecessary scenes and random threads. Somewhere in the mess is a theme, a desire line, a plot begging for structure—and in the first draft, I’d be hard pressed to identify any of them. Only in the revision stage does my writing find its form.

I used to think that I couldn’t be a writer because it wasn’t easy for me to sit down and write a coherent piece. Now I know that I need the incoherent stage—that it’s part of my process. Later, I revise. What’s your writing process like?