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All in a Hour’s Work

 

They say teachers make over 100 decisions an hour. Writers are right up there, too.

Global vs. Local Choices

We face the big plot questions, all those arcs and growth and struggle. There are the back stories of characters that need exploration but not to the point of slowing the pace. I could keep going about the bird’s eye view stuff you always have to keep in mind: the outlines, the maps, the intricate analyses and free writes and imaginings. I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes and far more of discarded ones. These are part of the global decisions, big trends that affect many pages, once decided, like dominos tipping. Right now, as I finish the first full draft, my biggest concerns are these elements.

Then there are the local choices, the line edits. Sometimes, not always, you can attack these quickly while trying to bolster the big patterns and trends. The other day I caught myself wondering about a few. I watched how I made some small choices–yet still important ones–and then moved on. I could wait till the first draft is done, but sometimes, digging into these choices now allows me some greater understanding of who my protagonist is and what my story’s about.

How do you navigate and balance global and local choices in your writing process? Share below!

 

Decisions on the Local Level

  • For example, should my character say, “The guys watch us” or “The guys are watching us”?
  • Or how about “the journalism life” or “The Journalism Life”?

For the first example, the choice is this: present tense or present continuous? I went with the present continuous because I want to convey suspense. I want to show a girl alone at a car wash with several guys there watching her talk to another guy. The action carries immediacy and continuity. I convey the ongoing menace and suspense of the girl’s experience. Check out this Grammarly post on present continuous for more info.

For the second example, capitalization conveys importance, precision, and voice. Wendy Redbird Dancing and Minerva Mae Christopoulos, my other gifted, weird, wise girls, they love capitalization and tend toward capital abuse. This is because for Wendy, drama and deep-seated anger must be outed. There’s a lot of low-grade shouting in her head, which capitalization conveys so well (she’s not an exclamation point kinda gal). For Minerva, she often thinks as a teen journalist in headlines, and she’s also socially awkward and extremely intense, so it makes sense for her to push the rules of language.

Does Audrey, the character I’m forming now, need to work her capitals the same way? No. She’s more mainstream, and though she’s also a journalist, she’s more a hash tagger than a headliner. When referencing her mom, however, a very intense and controlling person, Audrey on occasion will label her mom’s actions in capitals. I can count these times on one hand, and hopefully the snark and sarcasm is stronger because for her its rare.

How Local Helps Global

Now I know two things about Audrey I didn’t know before:

  1. She’s facing danger, and that’s part of her gig as a teen journalist. This is not just the stuff of movies; in my interviews with journalists, they have faced some dicey situations. I need to make sure the job gets rendered right and that I add suspense for the reader.
  2. Audrey’s not dramatic like Wendy–she’s more practical and even keel–and unlike both Wendy and Minerva, much more mainstream. Audrey doesn’t fool with certain rules whereas my other characters question and mock them. Audrey’s intensity manifests with intrepid reporting and basketball fandom. And though she’ll eventually flout the rules, as she delves into the corruption of academic and athletic systems, we’ll first meet her playing much of the mainstream game. The grammar game is a nice symbol for this. There are rules there for a reason, and then there are rules (like some of the NCAA amateurism rules) that just make no damn sense.

So these moments of grammatical choice aren’t so little after all. These kinds of decisions can stop the presses if you’re not careful, distracting you, and they can tangle up the bigger process of pattern building, plot development, and character exploration. (Trust, I’m guilty of spending hours on nitpicking a manuscript rather than generating new scenes.) But the more we master language and style, the quicker we can dip in and dip out of the manuscript with these decisions and actually aid the big-picture process. A local choice can resonate up to the stratosphere of global choice.

Stop procrastinating, Lyn. Time to ascend the heights and write on the ladder of plot arc. Time to soar the upper realms of character. Eyes above, with the occasional glance down.

 

Bless You, Beta Readers

There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.

The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).

I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”

Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.

Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.

Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.

Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.

Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.

Thoughts on Seeing Dr. King’s Memorial

He was part of a Movement of hundreds of years long, yet we must always build a Monument to one Man. I wonder what Dr. King would have said about that.

He was a writer.

He was not a drum major but a peacemaker, preacher, and pavement pounder. He was an organizer and a thinker and a dreamer.

As he wrote so well: “…let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”

If you don’t think this speech is for you, read it and think about your car shopping and your response to advertising. Read it and think about your children. Read it and think about yourself. King’s words could have been written on the verge of our recent economic collapse.

I like that in this country, we can edit monuments.

Writing Prompts:

  • What do you believe needs a monument today? What person, movement, place, or thing deserves recognition? Whom or what do you admire most? What will be the inscription?
  • What has too many monuments in our society and needs less attention?
  • Read about the development of the monument–the origins of the idea, the fundraising, the design, the building–and ask yourself what you have learned about monument making in America. You can use sites such as the history as found at the Memorial website and at this Telegraph article. Do more research till you get the full picture, and ask yourself what is “American.”
  • Should the Dr. King Memorial be edited? Other monuments have been. How accurate must monuments be? How much are they about ideas rather than facts?
  • Read Dr. King’s speech, “The Drum Major Instinct,” and write a letter to yourself about where in your life you could be less “all about me.”
  • Read the inscription on the monument (as created in 2011) and discuss why its excerpting is inappropriate or appropriate, just or unjust. What difference does the original context make? Should the visual and spatial concerns of the architect and sculptor matter? Should the spirit of the man who spoke the words matter more?
  • Read Dr. King’s speech and write a letter to a leader or other public figure who could use a dose of the message. Keep Dr. King in mind as you craft your words and tone. Advise this person who influences so many as to how he or she might be a better role model. 

Ask and Ye Shall Irritate…And That’s Okay

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Image found here at Emergency Dentists USA

 

Whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, Dale Carnegie or The Secret, chances are you fall into one of two categories: either you’re a fan of positive thinking or you feel pressured by the perpetual optimism, fake or honest, of mainstream culture. American culture is rife with reinvention, new beginnings, and belief in the cult of renewable self. Try, try, and try again. And if you’re a writer, you can’t escape trying. Either you try all the time, or you will never get published: end of story.

We all get that Negative Nelly never sees the light and that Pollyanna, though she may be misguided (stupid, even), appears to have a much better time. And Pollyannas not only like what they’re gotten but believe they might even get better. It’s all good. I would imagine Pollyannas believe they have the right to ask. I’ve been called Pollyanna, so I might as well speak for her.
I’ve always been a squeaky wheel. For that, I get stuff (contest wins, an agent, blog respondents) and grief (rejection, anger, or “no”). When you ask, you will inevitably irritate some.
Writing is about demanding attention. Our words say, “All eyes on me.” I’ve never had trouble with that, being a teacher and an amateur actress. Call it ego and insane confidence, but you must believe you have a right to be seen and heard. Some writers fear irritating agents and editors so much, they never even knock. So you don’t deserve a space at the table? You don’t need a moment in the sun? There’s room for everyone. Everyone.
Writing is about asking for help. I ask my writing pals Bob and Gordon to take yet another look at my manuscripts; I ask my writing groups to hear odds and ends from various unfinished manuscripts; and let’s just say my parents should be canonized. They’ve read more drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT than any person should.
There’s only been one time I’ve asked and paid a person to give me feedback and that person has gotten irritated with me and my manuscript. Note to Self: editors who are easily pissed off probably hate the job. Or are pretending to edit. Yep, I cried post critique. But I’ve never cried once in all the hundreds of rejections I’ve seen in the last several years. Perhaps because in all those nos, no one seemed particularly irritated by the asking. I guess I’m a people pleaser at heart and always wonder, “Wow, did I do something to piss this person off?” Um, you can waste a lot of time at that particular task.
Because sometimes my desire for speed, change, success, etc. can be a bit bull-in-the-china shop, I have to pay close attention to whether closed doors, no response, etc., is a sign I should stop or a sign I should persist. When my gut tells me, “It’s the principle of the thing,” I persist.
  • Principle #1: I query because I have a story that needs to get out there. I asked about 150 times, and I did receive.
  • Principle #2: I ask because I am worth something. I am worth the investment. Therefore if I ask for a raise, a loan, a reimbursement, or help, it’s not a request I should apologize for.
  • Principle #3: I ask because I desire to grow and change. Seeds can’t be nurtured without water, soil, light, and time.
  • Principle #4: I ask because I’m angry. Something needs to evolve; something needs to change.

On the latter, I realize I’m usually mad about something. I’m asking because I find the system broken or unresponsive; I ask because no one is paying attention; I ask because no one will tell me no forever.  Maybe it’s a spirit of Italian vendetta (I’ve got Calabrian ancestry, granddaughter of an immigrant) that gets me raring to go. I don’t think this is particularly good for my blood pressure, but it does lead to interesting situations and great story ideas. Anger got me to the page several times and my best stories emerged. Another good motivator is empathy…but that’s another post.

My argument assumes we’re following the etiquette of asking. Polite in the wording, considerate of the askee’s time, appreciative of a response given. Not kicking off a request with a critique (author Laura Maylene Walter shares a funny story about that–see her #7 in this post). And even if you are the essence of politesse, you must still give your query permission to irritate. Don’t obsess on the wording too long or risk psyching yourself out; you may never get to the door in your kid gloves and proper hat. Why worry about dressing to see the Queen if you’re too afraid to seek an audience?

So if the blowback is ugly or disproportionate to the request, ask yourself if the irritated party falls into one of these archetypal categories. Even the most seemingly professional, laudable, famous, authoritative folks can fall into any of these slots:
  • The Martyr: This person’s attitude is, “What, you’re asking me for something when I work too damn hard around here?”
  • The Jealous Freak: “I can’t believe you have the nerve to ask when OBVIOUSLY you have it made and OH MY GOD THERE ISN’T ENOUGH TO GO AROUND!!!!”
  • The Sluggard: “I have no desire to fulfill your request because I would rather surf Overstock.com and waste my time tweeting.”
You’re dealing with people who either need therapy for workaholic obsession, who’re severely addicted to the scarcity model, or who got where they are with too much luck and not enough sweat.

The writer who trashed my manuscript back in the day? I think she falls into all three.

Whether you desire a grant or 30 minutes of writing time a day or whether you crave an editor or a retreat or an agent–all of it is worth the asking. Are you willing to make someone mad as you do?

And if you aren’t asking, is it because you picture the red and spittle-flecked face of someone’s anger or the frigid gaze of disdain? The condescending stare of those who say, “You think you need something? Whatever! Suck it up and do without. Everyone else does.” No, they don’t. It’s a tiny few who are scouted from their writer’s garret, yanked from an isolated office or mountain hideaway, who squirrel themselves away without asking for help. Other writers are out there knocking. So reach. Ask. Keep your hand there.

Jesus was talking about prayer in Matthew 7:7-8. I’d say that’s an apt description of writing: asking, begging, railing, wondering, pleading, invoking, imagining into being.  Novelist Milan Kundera writes, “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. “

What will you ask today?

Writing Prompts:

  • What question does your story, essay, poem, or novel ask?
  • List requests you’ve made of others lately.  On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the reasonableness of the request, the gall or arrogance of it, or the scariness of it. Talk about the number you chose.
  • Tell a story about asking or receiving, or both.
  • Which piece of writing has a right to see the light? To be heard by others? What is keeping it squirreled away?
  • How will asking help your writing grow and change? Set three goals that require you to make some requests in the next three weeks.
  • Write a story where The Jealous Freak, The Martyr, or The Sluggard stars as a foil to the hero or heroine.
  • Write a poem titled, “Ask.”
  • A man walks into a grocery store and makes the oddest request at three counters: the deli, the bakery, and the produce department. What does he ask? How do the store employees respond?
  • A woman’s last will and testament presents a bizarre request that requires her children to do the opposite of what they want. What is that?

Juicy Revision

Image found here

When my husband and I tried our new juicer this past weekend, we had some adventures. Pulp started spraying everywhere–on us, the counter, the floor. Turns out the pulp container wasn’t secured properly. It is truly a pulp catcher, therefore be advised not to leave even the smallest of gaps between it and the machine or the vegetables will turn violent. Once that got fixed, our juice emerged without further incident.

Juicing is all the rage now because it gives us quick access to micronutrients. I’m turning to it because I recently saw the documentary FAT, SICK, AND NEARLY DEAD and felt compelled to improve my diet. My excuse for eating too much processed food is that I have a busy job, almost 90 minutes of commuting per day, and a writer’s life stuffed into every nook and cranny. I’ve eaten more turkey sandwiches than I can count.
I’ve only so far tried one of the Mean Green recipes that Joe Cross recommends from his documentary, but I love it. I love the fresh sting of ginger, the sweetness of apple, and the bite of lemon. I love knowing I’m getting kale and carrot straight into my system. Last night we tried lime, lemon, celery, kale,  parsley, and green apple. Excellent.

Writers are forever cursed with seeing symbol, and pathetic fallacy or not, we get ideas from life and its objects constantly. That ol’ living-to-write curse: our dramas and struggles grip the juicer, too, and get mirrored in the fruits and veggies. So of course you know where this is headed: how juicing = writing and pulp catcher = revision in that classic metaphor equation.

The pulp is that frothy, fuzzy, even fluffy mix of rind and pith and whatever the juicer sees fit to reject (who am I to question the wisdom of the Breville). It’s no doubt healthy and even edible. But it must go. To get a consumable juice for our best drinking pleasure and dietary benefit, you need to let go of the pulp. My husband tried some last night, because it is kind of pretty, and he said, “You know what? It’s bitter.”

Obvious connection, right? Discard pulp just like you rid your draft of excess weight? But when that pulp started spraying and we feared for seconds we had a bum juicer, I was reminded how revision scares and singes like the devil. I was also reminded that we writers can step up with a clinical, mechanical eye and crush what’s needed to squeeze out the essence. And that what glitters ain’t always worth keeping in the manuscript.

Take my most recent revision of my novel. When I opened the manuscript sent back to me by my agent, Sarah Heller, with line edits, it looked like half of it was gone. Red lines through close to 80 pages told me that no matter how delicious or pretty, what I deemed sophisticated turns of phrase, incandescent imagery, and character-rich spates of dialogue did not advance the story.  “Nothing has happened by page 150,” Sarah told me. “Young adults don’t give a s*** about this scene, that bit, this part..”

I’m an abuser of the editorial comment. I must be contained, if not squeezed into silence. What was it I was preaching in 2008 about my art of editorializing?

So I opened a new Word doc titled “Excess” (I have one for every manuscript of a short story and as many of these as there are drafts of a novel) and dumped about 75 pages of pulp there.

Pulp includes those “telling” words and phrases–lines I deemed witty that only emphasized a point already made. Sarah showed me how I’d already shown things, that the reader gets it, and momentum slows when the supposed darlings stay. My eyes began to see where whole pages were fluff in the way of people getting the story.

Because this was round three for me with agent edits and draft 20-something since I began the novel in December 2009, I felt confident–more like machine than weak, defensive, and emotional writer. In this equation I have become the juicer and though I’m not as sleek or efficient as a Breville, I could juice out a draft worthy of a next read.

Some passages I couldn’t part with and my head found a way to make them advance the story (we hope). If Sarah needs to cross through them a second time, then so be it. What is nutritious is in the eye of the agent and the market. YA wants under 75,000 words; YA wants page-turner; YA wants youth focus, not adult focus. My agent pared away the rind and leaves and stalks that I think make fruit oh so pretty.  Because of teen taste. Because we want to sell this thing.

I also find it interesting that the pulp container sometimes catches whole pieces of apple. Maybe because we didn’t buy the Cadillac version out there; maybe because the juicer saw a bad part of apple. Who knows. The point is, I’m not going to be digesting that bit; the wilderness that is our yard will. And that’s okay. My stomach is only so big; my eyes might want it all, but reality says, all things in moderation.

After each juicing, the pulp container is FULL. The juice emerges bright green, bright orange. Beautiful.  I drink it, and my evening cravings have disappeared. I’m eating less, yet, eating more.

Writing Prompts

  • Are you a writing machine or hopelessly human? Do you cling to your words or do you know how to toss them? Why do you think you cling so hard?
  • Find a juicy piece of writing. (Do not go to a first draft.) Recall how you juiced it. What was your secret?
  • Research your favorite writer and find out his or her secret for juicing.
  • If you struggle desperately with revision, try one or more of these exercises with a draft already in existence. 1) Write a paragraph of 100 words and then insist on it being 50. 2) Leave a draft for three days and return to it with a new name and hat on (for example, if you are a romance writer, you are now Romance Reader Rita who has ‘tude and little time; you are Mystery Mike, or Young Adult Yancey, and you have no patience for excess. Read with an evil eye aiming to laser away excess and pitch the story at the first distraction. 3) Meet with an English teacher or a writer you respect, buy them a latte, and ask them to bring a red pen. Suck it up when they cross through more than half your draft.
  • Ask yourself these questions to see if you have the support (machine) you need to juice a revision out of your writing: Do you have a log line, a 25-word sentence to sum up your story, one that will highlight which parts of the story are excess? Do you have trustworthy readers who will draw lines through your work? Do you make time to read your work aloud? Do you have files labeled Excess or Beloved Darlings I’ll Be With You Again Someday so you can relinquish lines? Do you set word limits that are market standard? Do you try to enter works in contests with word limits? 

Long Live Olde School

To be real, one must go retro. Not some tweet-text-IM spamming everywhere, gone with the next breath, and so typical of this useless Age of Noughts.

Instead, let truth be told in this old-school journal. Note the red leather, hardbound. Note the handwriting—cursive. Note the lock and key. Let’s do this like monks, like nuns, like girls of old.

— Wendy from my novel St. Michael, Pray for Us

Shakespeare geek that I am, I salivated over this t-shirt the other day, but alas, I am afeard, ’tis not for sale.

But some of us are all about olde school in more than just our dress; we like things retro when it comes to technology.

For instance, my cell phone is a squat little 99-cent Kyocera that barely does the job–just enough to allow me that emergency call from the road. I’d still be driving that 1990 Honda Accord had someone not driven it into another car. And when it comes to writing on the computer, I must print out several drafts of a story to really see it.

Jan Swafford of Slate shares not only this philosophy but a powerful teaching tip. His students learned he required them to edit by hand in hard copy after first-drafting on a computer. He writes:

Here’s how it works, with me and with most writers I know (because I’ve asked). I’ve used computers for more than 25 years. I draft prose on-screen, work it over until I can’t find much wrong with it, then double-space it and print it out. At that point I discover what’s really there, which is ordinarily hazy, bloated, and boring. It looked pretty good on-screen, but it’s crap. My first drafts on paper, after what amount to several drafts on computer, look like a battlefield.

Like a battlefield. Amen. I love the speed with which I can draft on a computer, but when it comes time to read, print, and find that red pen. And not just once, either; I need a print-out for every new draft.

On the backs of old drafts, of course. One should be new school about the environment.

Swafford also notes that when we return to screen to edit, a new set of editor’s errors can crop up, so always, take great care.

The best way to do that? Read it aloud. Sure, it takes time. But time is given to that which really matters. And that’s an old school philosophy if there ever was one.

Filed Under: editing, revision  

This is Just to Say…

“…I have eaten the plums

that were in the icebox…

”

— William Carlos Williams, “This is Just to Say”

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 118,338. (1508 words removed. Prepping for this blog post motivates!)

Page Count for the novel: 440

I just decided that if I could just cut “just” from my writing it’d be just great.

I spent ten minutes the other day getting rid of “just” and saved myself 49 words. Imagine all the space I’ll save by obliterating tiny excesses. And I’m only on page 161.


All writers have tics. My two favorites are “just” and “that.” In my first drafts I fully explain everything, over and over, as if my audience were preschoolers and I might lose out to paste and Elmo. I also love a lot of he said, she said in my dialogue, as if the reader might not know who’s talking. I call this word removal editing.

Some days editing feels like the softer side of writing, proof I’m working when my faint heart and foggy brain can’t bear to convert summary to scene or can’t abide killing the dialogue darlings. There’s definitely a satisfaction to this easy destruction, kind of like squashing bubble wrap, when technology is your servant (the search function) and you can kill off one word, over and over, without any deep thought expended. 


Technically, editing is much, much more — the laborious process of adherence to standard English and grammar where necessary. It’s not revision, which is deep-sea diving, excavating, and lots of detonating. Revision forces you to face global concerns — that the whole enterprise is sadly wrong or wonderfully right, that five pages right in the middle need to start page one, or that the point of view needs to be a secondary character instead of the protagonist — decisions that make you reel. Revision is every other writing step recurring as many times as needed — brainstorming, drafting, rewriting, repeat as needed. Editing is supposed to come after this long process of transformation: that confident and final clean-up where you put the microscope to each sentence. But then there’s me, who stops and edits all the time.

The human brain loves to slice up life into a pizza pie of categories. Perhaps that’s why writing as a process is now gospel truth in most every English Language Arts program. We must convert the creative act into stages, procedures, and sequences. Writing as a process does ensure kids actually spend more than ten minutes on an essay, but where we go astray is teaching each stage is discrete and part of a set, linear sequence. Editing sometimes needs to happen right after brainstorming or whenever the spirit moves you.

I read somewhere Cynthia Ozick can’t move beyond the first word to the second word until the first is perfectly right. It’s as if all writing stages fuse into every moment of the process. Lately when I see my excess words cluttering a first-draft sentence, I cut right away. Earlier and earlier it’s starting to happen (though don’t judge this blog as proof; it’s only a third or fourth draft!). I like that editing has entered my first phases of composition.

But now there must be a confession. Editing can be a detour, keeping me from serious revision. I think I’ve accomplished something and then I fixate on the little cuts. I skip between the tweaks and removal of whole scenes, which I would call true revision. This back and forth is right now the only way I can wrap my head around this draft. 440 pages feel manageable when I prune them word by word. Maybe when I see what’s left on the trunk, I can better graft some of the 300-plus deleted pages back in (now are you scared?), and only those that will take. My hope is to have 350 instead of 440 when it’s time to bring the two sections together.

Those excess words are like those frozen plums William Carlos Williams coveted. They tantalize me with their sugary highs but leave cavities in my mouth, AKA little black holes in your manuscript.

But they’re just so tempting!


Writing Goal: 150,000 – 170,000 words and a complete fourth draft ready by the AWP Award Series deadline. This weekend or next I will submit my essay to Hope Clark’s Invisible Writing contest. I am also writing a new short story for the Stanford Magazine Fiction Contest, due November 5.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Elementary Prompts

• List your five favorite words. Then start a story with one of them.

• List five words you always say, at least every day. Which one is the most important? Why? Which one could you stop saying and you wouldn’t miss it?

• Finish this sentence by writing a poem or a story: “This is just to say…” or “I’m just saying…”

• Imagine that there are only 25 words left in the world to use for a story. Write a story with those 25 words. You can re-use those 25 as many times as you like and make the story as long as you like.

Secondary and Adult Prompts

• Write about writing as a process. What’s your process?
• Write about your bad habits and guilty pleasures when it comes to writing.
• Finish this is sentence by writing a poem or a story: “This is just to say…” or “I’m just saying…”
• Imagine that there are only 25 words left in the world to use for a story. Write a story with those 25 words. You can re-use those 25 as many times as you like and make the story as long as you like.

Filed Under: editing  

Surviving the Crytique


“It may be unfair to celebrate a writer for being so publicly rejected and railed against, but 40 years’ perspective should allow us to credit Styron for taking the risk of writing “The Confessions” and to appreciate the courage of the 10 writers who dissected it in searing detail. Their confrontation helped shatter the idea that there can or should be one version of “how slavery was”; now we have a hundred different versions — some omnipresent, some long silenced, some real, some fictional — telling a messier, trickier, less comforting story. This may not be the “common history” James Baldwin spoke of, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”

Jess Row, “Styron’s Choice” (thanks to my colleague Bob Mustin, writer and blogger, who shared this article with me)

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 264, 264. 3099 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 938

Critics and critiques. William Styron could speak to them. We need critics in a civil, democratic society that values dialogue and progress. Writers need to hear what works and what doesn’t when they make art. All of us need to dialogue about what’s Good, what’s Bad, what Matters. But what happens when critiques are “cry-tiques,” as my dad calls them – lists of all the wrongs the artist has committed with no celebration, recognition, or suggestions for growth? Why is it that so often the outcome of critique is tears?

We need to pause briefly for station identification: this writer is what you call a Quick Crier. I tear up at commercials. (I am impervious to Lifetime movie plotlines, if that gives me any credibility.) Knowing my high sensitivity may negate the import of my comments for some, but I’d like to argue that my susceptible antennae add weight to this dialogue. Sensitivity, as long as it works both ways, helps a critic anticipate how criticisms will be received. I’ve met critics who lack this gift and this habit of mind. Yet it can be taught. So listen up, critics, the Teach is talking. She’s talking about a certain type of critic — the editor or the professor — who needs to think more with the soul.

When your calling is to edit, a twofold mission of critique and coach, you can’t abandon the latter task. Some editors and teachers aren’t even aware their second job is coaching. They give their all to scrutinizing the work as if it’s already published and deal only in harshness. They pick up a red megaphone and begin hazing. This type of critic’s cry is so loud as to drown out the original work. So in love with the sound of his own voice, such a critic can’t imagine the purpose of the writer’s work nor the toil it took to get there. She is too busy talking at the artist, uninterested in any sort of exchange.

After my years of teaching tender egos in middle and high school classrooms, I am schooled in one thing: don’t kill the spirit of the future writer. Nurture it. Send the child back to that drawing board to try, try, try again. I don’t care how old you are or how bad you are at your artistic endeavor; if you have the desire to try again and you’re willing to listen, that’s all I need to coach you. If you believe in Edison’s mantra of 99% perspiration to 1% inspiration, full of earnest, well-meaning effort willing to surrender a work to comment, nay, pay for a critique, there is no need for you to go home crying. You should return home pumped to run the next scrimmage, to lift some weights, to spend the years it may take to get things better. No one’s promising you’ll get drafted to years in the pros with million-dollar glory. What I’m promising is that I’ll help you get better, taking you from where you are now to the next level. Coaching is teaching. So you can’t just call the play and pass the ball; you must show someone how to do those things.

When I submitted a manuscript of many pages and many years to a freelance editor, also a published author, my pages were returned with a deep sigh, “It’s sooooo long,” (as if I had done her, a paid professional, a disservice) followed by a long list of my wrongs. I asked and looked for direction but could not find any specific suggestions. For example, I would have really appreciated, “Let’s look at this passage and what I mean by ‘overwritten.’ Here you have a line of dialogue and then here you repeat yourself with five lines of interior monologue, saying the same thing. Cut, cut, cut.” There were no such specifics. I did get a few generalizations of “Revisit the plot and think about what this story’s really about.” Then the critique turned wildly personal. “I can’t stand your main character,” this editor said. Okay, I said. What can’t you stand? “I found her impulsive and rudderless.” (I’m paraphrasing here because I’m pretty sure that one of those words is not in my editor’s vocabulary, and there was my first mistake: not vetting the literary background of this editor. Though a published writer, she has neither professional editing credentials nor a college background that might have schooled her before undertaking an enterprise as serious as editing. Yet her Web site advertises her editing skills. Caveat Emptor.)

If I sound like a snob, stop right there, since I’ve never believed a college degree confers wisdom, empathy, or good sense. But like John Gardner says, college should teach you about academic discussion and Socratic dialogue. It should teach you to keep an open mind when dealing in ideas. Being told in tones of high umbrage, nay, disgust, that your protagonist is impulsive and rudderless and then, with an actual sneer, “If I had children in a public school, I’d never send them to this teacher,” is not objective critique. It’s a fair judgment — for a parent choosing his child’s school. But what does that isolated comment, sans follow-up, sans constructive criticism, have to do with the craft of writing? A flawed character and a badly-crafted character aren’t the same beast. The real questions to explore instead are, Do this characters’ flaws matter to the story? Is the story of this flawed person’s journey inherently interesting or significant, or are the flaws such – or the descriptions such – that they impede the story’s progress?

Here’s what the editor could have told me:

“I found myself repelled by your character’s impulsivity and rudderlessness. I wanted to see her think before she acted at least once. I wanted to have more faith in her. Does it matter to you that her actions of x, y, and z reduce her credibility? Is that your intent, to paint a picture of a character who’s a novice, rudderless teacher? Also, I found plot events, fueled by her choices, lacking a logical connection of cause and effect. I would suggest that you try outlining the plot in a systematic, calculated fashion: ‘A leads to B, which leads to C.’ That may remove some of this sense of the protagonist jumping from one square to another without any clear forward motion or urge, that yearning Robert Olen Butler discusses in From Where You Dream). We as readers must be propelled by that character yearning and motion so that we want to take the journey with your character, no matter how flawed. If she’s a train wreck, that’s fine; we won’t look away unless we have faith that this train wreck has some logic and meaning for its existence. While there can be consciously-constructed plot lines meant to show random motion, that doesn’t seem to be your purpose here. Am I right?

I do see Daria thinking before she makes choice x in Chapter One. That was a particularly nice passage when she pursues Selma and gets slapped back. I would follow that lead.”

Now that kind of comment I can handle.

If said editor wanted to argue she wasn’t getting paid to write such detailed commentary, she could have told me such thoughts in person. Could have pointed to a relevant, starred passage. Hey, I take great notes.

This writer can do but she can’t teach. Woe betides those students who get the master craftsman who can’t talk shop.

I have one theory about why certain editors want to make you cry. They harbor a secret, even unconscious hope that you’ll go home and abandon the manuscript. These critics believe in The Scarcity Model: that there’s just not enough art and money to go around. There is only enough room in this world for a few to succeed, so you have to scrap and edge out those who might win. Put a novice writer in her place and you narrow the odds in your favor.

Writing is a tough business. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you see someone’s success, or potential success, because you’re busy banging your head against too many walls. But when you edit you must adopt a teacher persona and forget all that work and effort toward self-promotion and submission. You must do what you are paid to do.

When I described the horror of my experience meeting with this editor (I’m leaving out all the other ugly parts not relevant here, like plain meanness and tactlessness), I had a number of friends who said, “You think this writer’s jealous of you?”

“Jealous of what?” I said with a laugh. “I’ve got miles to go before I sleep! I won’t be cutting her out of the market any time soon.”

Those friends seemed to think that jealousy can motivate a certain type of critic.

I won’t tell you what I paid this person but I will tell you what I got for free from my dear friends Chip and Nance.

Chip read every page of an early draft of the whole, convoluted beast that was my manuscript and told me when he was disappointed with a plot turn and delighted by a description. He fed my soul with his authentic reactions and his kind encouragements. He coached me to keep sending him stuff. I was even more motivated to make things good, knowing he’d be looking and vetting.

From my friend Nance, I got two single-sided pages of detailed feedback. Let me stop for some of the highlights, places where she, like Chip, was just the coach I needed:

“Ok, just finished your last chapter. First of all, CONGRATULATIONS!
Wowzers. What an impressive creative endeavor. I really got to know Daria and cared what happened to her.

I think there is a lot of talking and thinking. Totally true to life but not what I want in a novel. Sometimes it feels like events are happening in real time. But I want to be taken on a different kind of journey. I’ve pointed out some specific instances. I think there needs to be more action, less narration of Daria’s inner thoughts and her outer processing convos with various friends. She often picks up the phone to tell other characters about what is happening.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of and I wonder if you can whittle it down. I’m gonna try to list ’em out here real quick, to see what I remember….”

And so it goes. She makes several suggestions about how to resolve a plot line, about her wishes for the ending of the story, about two minor characters and a major who need to go, about an event that has no logical consequence…did I mention how helpful this feedback is?

The tone of the critique helps immensely. Nance wants to coach me, not hinder me. She wants me to make great art, not shoddy art. And she wants me to finish. After reading her detailed suggestions, I rolled up my sleeves. The other critic stopped me cold for about a month.

As Jess Row indicates in his analysis of the critiques of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, it takes courage to be a decent critic. You must not only know your craft but you must study it with discipline. You must study how to communicate that craft to others. You must keep foremost in your mind the heart and spirit of the soul before you, struggling to achieve the Good, able to rise above her own weakness and incompetence to craft Beauty. It also takes courage to be a decent writer, one who can speak truth back to those critics who would destroy.

This Confession of Lyn Hawks is a rusty voice calling for fair and educated critics who believe in Abundance.

Today’s Writing Goal: Cut at least another 1,000 words.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. © Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary:

What Starts or Stops the Crying?

Have you ever done something and the result was someone cried? Have you ever helped someone stop crying and made them feel better? Tell that story. What happened? Why do you think things happened that way? What choices did you make that you wouldn’t make again?

Then write the answer to this question: What do you know now that you didn’t know then? You might consider questions such as:

What starts someone crying?
What stops crying?

Why We Cry

Does it ever help to cry sometimes? Or does it always hurt? Tell a story about when you or someone else cried and how you feel about it now. Are you glad there was crying? Why or why not? Do you wish it hadn’t happened? Why or why not? What does your family say about crying? Do you know why your family says this?


Secondary/Adult:

Option #1: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a mini-meditation on criticism: what works and what doesn’t. Give examples of times when you received constructive or destructive criticism. Let your thoughts meander from one anecdote to another, analyzing the ways you have been told what’s good and not so good about your actions and accomplishments. End you meditation with epiphanies you have about criticism. What kind of criticism works? How important is how it’s said? When is criticism tough love and when is it tough hate? What advice do you have for critics you’ve known? For yourself when you offer criticism?

Option #2: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a letter to this person telling the person how you feel about the criticism. Give your honest reaction. Weigh the person’s words and see if there is truth from which you can learn. This may be a letter you never send, but say what needs to be said.

Or you can write a letter to a person whom you criticized and tell them how you feel now about that choice and experience.