Jan Bowman

 
 
 

Reflections



Effective Friday, May 27, 2011,  I’ve begun writing a brief weekly Friday reflections piece that discusses impressions about my writing work, readings, and the writing life.      So here goes:


Click here to contact Jan - email:  janbowmanwriter@gmail.com



Friday, December 30, 2011 - Entry #32 - “How to Make the Cut”


This week I’ll continue to describe ways to increase the odds that your work will be selected by journal editors. Last week I offered a few ideas and in this post, I’d like to limit my comments to (mostly) technical rules for submissions of short stories or essays. The subject of book proposals and larger works is a totally different topic for  another day.


First it helps to remember that there are no substitutes for talent, hard work and attention to the details of craft. Poorly written work will not be selected in this day/age of stiff competition and advanced technology. So not only must you carefully research and select appropriate journals for your particular work, you must also attend to basics of craft structure and manuscript preparation.  Most of these suggestions are for snail-mail submissions, but some are appropriate for online submissions, too.


Basic Tips for (snail-mail) manuscripts:    ALWAYS

  1. 1.-send by first class mail to an appropriate editor

  2. 2.-include a self-addressed, stamped (forever stamp) envelope for the reply

- use white (8.5 x 11) good quality paper

- type manuscripts - 12 font - standard fonts (don’t use weird fonts)

- proof carefully; never send work with crossed out words or typos

- double space the text;  leave a one-inch margin on top/bottom/sides

  1. 1.-on first page: top left corner - your name, address, phone, email address  

   & in top right corner - identify if it’s a story or essay - and word count

  1. 1.- start title in center of first page - about a third way down on page, skip four lines down & begin the story or essay

  2. 2.-do not skip an extra line between paragraphs; indent each paragraph

  3. 3.-at the top (left side) of each subsequent page - type title, your last name, page number - for example: Writing Tips/Bowman/2


NEVER

- write The End - on the last page

  1. 1.-say this work is copyrighted or the property of...

  2. 2.-say how much money you want for your story or essay

  3. 3.-tell them how great it is or summarize the work - ever

  4. 4.-send by certified or any other weird mail - just ordinary first class mail

  will work nicely


It is safe to say that most editors are looking for interesting, original work with good openings, sustained plot and characters who not only are believable, but who connect to readers. They want to read work that they themselves can’t stop reading.  That’s what they look for and hope for every time they rip open an envelope.  That’s what you have to send them if you want to make the cut.


Quote:  “In every real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas is a curious anticlimax.”    Alfred Kazin  (It applies to herself, as well)



Friday, December 23, 2011 - Entry #31 -  “Plan to be Published.”     


It helps me to remember that Muriel Rukeyser is reported to have said something like, “A writer should never submit to anyone! So I don’t submit. I offer.”


As a writer I have collected more than a few rejection slips for work submitted to a wide range of literary journals. And not necessarily because the work wasn’t good. Happily, I’ve also gotten some lovely “We loved it” letters, but for every acceptance, I’ve gotten at least 30 non-acceptances.  If you’re a writer new to this business, it might be useful to know that while you will wish to be published and hope some editor likes your work, the hard, cold reality is that your artistic offerings will receive and survive rejection. Even famous writers get “No Thanks” but probably not as often as the rest of us. As a writer you must develop a tough skin to help you deal with the “Not for us” or “No Thanks” that cuts your ego a bit.  These  often arrive in your own self-addressed envelope on a thin, ragged, coffee-stained 1/4 page of cheap paper, a mass-produced rejection letter.  Take heart. You must plan to be published - eventually - because someone out there will get what you’re trying to do. And they’ll finally have budget and space for your work. In this economy even that can have an impact on your publication dreams.


So when you’re sending out work that you think is ready for publication, it helps to remember that you need a plan, just as you do with most things. Read a range of literary journals. Think about whether any of your work would fit with genre, style, setting, narrative style, length, or theme.

Send your work to publications you enjoy reading. Many good publication samples can be found at your local library, book store or online. Subscribe to 2-4 of your favorites and develop a target list of 5-10 markets that you’ll send your work. Send your work out to those markets first to see if you are a good fit. Your goal is to have your work published in one or more of them within a set time period of - say -  2-to-5 years. (Yes. I did say years!)


In addition, various Writers’ Market Books provide lists of magazines,  you’ve never even imagined existed, with lists of deadlines, requirements, and guidelines. Editors will tell you that they’re looking for a reason to say no, because they get hundreds and even thousands of manuscripts each month. So be sure to follow their posted guidelines. If they set a 5-page limit and you send them 10 pages - they won’t even read it. If you use font sizes of less than 12 - they won’t ever read it.  So really pay close attention to posted guidelines, as well as the “needs” and “advice” sections in these listings.  Most editors are looking for interesting, new and different work. Send your work to the appropriate editor and make sure they’re still employed there.  Colleges and universities have regular staff turnover.  


Keep your submission simple. Send a short two-paragraph (max) cover letter.  Don’t tell them anything other than the title, word count, type of work (fiction or non-fiction or poetry), and your name and how to contact you. Avoid telling them about your story. They’ll figure it out. It’s what they do! They  read and consider if your work is ready and suitable for their particular journal - and whether they have any more space for it.


Next week I plan to write about “How to Make the Cut.”


But first,  I must recover from a terrible head cold that I caught on the train coming home from NYC on Monday. It seems to be an early holiday gift from a scruffy college student who sat across the aisle wearing a Princeton shirt under his jacket. He coughed, and sneezed his way home while wrapped in a grungy blanket.  And while I wish he had not shared his illness so readily with his fellow passengers, I’m sure his family was happy to see him.  And he was probably happy to crawl into his little nest at home and recover.  That’s a good thing - to be able to go home when you’re sick.


Friday, December 16, 2011 - Entry #30 - “What to Give A Writer?


If you are a writer or have one in your life, perhaps you’re thinking about what might be useful to jump-start 2012.  May I offer some suggestions?


Pens, writing calendars, and journals are happy things for most writers, even those who use laptops and e  -readers on a daily basis, usually like to get them as gifts.  Workshops or writing classes are pricey, but nice. But to keep it simple, how about a subscription to an interesting journal!


It is useful to know that good writers read as much as they write, and a subscription to an excellent magazine or journal would be a welcomed gift for most.  The small press in this country are alive and well, but for many it is a labor of love.  Some struggle to survive and putting money into a subscription is another way to keep people working in 2012.  If you dislike advertising in your magazine and want to read evocative fiction, essays, poems and opinion pieces, and if you need to “hold” an actual  magazine in your hands, consider, “The Sun.” It’s not for everyone, but I find I sit down and read it cover-to-cover when it arrives each month, even when I meant to put it down and work.


Of course, you can select a general magazine like Harpers or The New Yorker, but why not try a less traveled road. Conduct a search in the Poets & Writers online - list of literary journals for ideas.  Hundreds of literary journals are produced at colleges and universities around the country. Among the many wonderful journals consider:  Folio, Gettysburg Review, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, Big Muddy, Sycamore Review, Iowa Review, New Letters or numerous others.  Or you might consider the appropriately named - “Glimmer Train.” Any of these will provide “a good read” all year long.  This year one of my favorites is One Story. It’s exactly what it sounds like. You get one really interesting story about every 3 weeks - of a single pocket-sized, portable story that is a sparkling gem.  You can slip it in a pocket to read and reread while you’re waiting.  And it’s lighter than a Kindle. It’s also a good way to meet new writers.


If writing tips are what you seek - consider the old standards like: Poets & Writers, The Writer, or Writer’s Digest.  Most writers will appreciate these gifts that give ideas and encouragement all year long.  Also more and more magazines are available online and through e-books these days and some require a subscription so you could consider that too.   If you’re a Kindle or Nook reader - some of these are available there.


Although I love my Kindle, I still read real paper as often as I can. There is something satisfying about holding a book and flipping back to check on something I missed earlier.  I just don’t get the same experience when I flip around on my touch screen. I guess that even though I tend to be an “early adopter” - I also remain “old school” and that’s okay for now.


Friday, December 9, 2011 - Entry #29 - “Personal Relationship Fiction”


Recently I’ve been thinking about a novel I read that I disliked more than anything I’ve read in a while.  I almost bailed out a number of times but I kept slogging along hoping for the best, ever ready to give a fellow writer the benefit of appreciating the effort involved in giving birth to a free-standing novel. The author is a talented, hard-working and well-respected new author whose work has gotten excellent reviews from the New York Times and The New Yorker.  Her work has been described as “engrossing work” that “has a naturalist’s vigilance for detail - so that her characters seem observed rather than invented.”  Okay.  I’ll give her that.  But for me, this novel was like watching paint dry on the wall of a “reality show” on TV.  It fails to achieve sufficient depth, in spite of the rich possibilities of characters, conflict, rich imagery and an important topic of suicide. And yet, who am I to judge, I’m just one of many readers and I’m sure the author has fans, book club followers, a dedicated publisher and an appreciative agent.


So what’s wrong here?   While I’m willing to acknowledge that every book written is not written for everyone who reads, I have been thinking about why I feel disappointed in this novel.  Perhaps it’s because this novel is an example of what can go wrong in what some describe as “personal relationship fiction” that  -- at its worst -- tends to focus on the personal level, on the tedium, small details that shed little or no light on the larger themes of life. I did not need to know who ate what for every snack or meal.  I didn’t need to know all the times the main character thought about going to her yoga class and changed her mind.  My goodness!  Often less is better.  Let the reader feel smart enough to “get it” after one or two exposures.  Good grief!  Which is to say that I think the potential was here in this novel, but in my opinion, it was not fully actualized by theme or plot development. Sometimes it’s as important to know what to leave out.


I read a craft essay in the 2010 (29th edition) of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market by Jack Smith, who was co-editor of The Green Hills Literary Lantern, about personal relationship fiction.  He interviewed a number of fellow journal editors and publishers. Smith sees the fiction world as somewhat divided right now about what fiction should do.


For example, on one side of the discussion he found Crazy Horse editor, Anthony Varallo who takes the position that fiction  should “deemphasize the larger themes of reference beyond the personal” and “stresses that the air of reality or believability is sufficient” to produce good literature.  In other words, I suppose this is what helps drive reality TV.


On the other side of the discussion, Smith quotes Robert L. Giron, EIC for Gival Press, who says “that he isn’t receiving enough fiction that moves beyond characters, their problems, and interpersonal relationships to establish a larger picture.”  He says that while many well- written manuscripts cover the social, personal aspects of life, they fail to develop the philosophical issues and tension sufficiently to lead to meaningful discussions. Giron ought to know!  After all his publishing house features many books used by book groups for discussion.   Giron says, “What makes serious fiction is what lives on after the technique of writing.”  Or as I’m inclined to ask myself - does this work of fiction tend to resonate in my reader’s mind?


While we can all probably agree that good fiction is mostly about people, and what they do, not just about ideas, the finest fiction does seem to require, at its core, “a larger reason to be” that bravely digs into why we’re here and how we respond to complexity.  Gentle readers want to know:  Will we find a way to survive long enough to learn from it - this business of being?


I can appreciate discussions about what good fiction should be, and yet I am not content to simply watch the paint dry, on even a large and colorful canvas.  It is not enough to satisfy me.


Friday, December 2, 2011 - Entry #28 - “Productivity & Creativity”


This week my craft reading led me to consider the concept of abundance for the writer, by which I think about how words roll from the pen or keystrokes from some writers, while others struggle to get words on the page.  I have both kinds of writing days - but not on the same day.  It seems important to remember that quantity is not to be confused with quality.  Sometimes writers produce a lot and it might even be great. But some of it’s good, or some times it’s not so good.  Other times writers may write very little, but what they produce may be exquisite.  I’ve read that George Sand wrote seven plays, a four-volume autobiography, and more than 50 books using...wait for it...drum roll please... A Quill! A QUILL!!  Hard to imagine isn’t it.


Some writers write frantically, even feverishly until they’ve no more words left in them.  For example, I’ve read that Jack London wrote 16 to 18 hours a day, then went out drinking - only to stagger home and write some more. He is said to have written about 50 books in 15 years.  Then he killed himself at age forty.  And of course trouble like this is not uncommon for writers who seem to be too hard on themselves. Their inner demons struggle with their expectations.  One thinks of Virginia Woolf or Hemingway who are the “poster children” for writers who have issues.  So it seems important for a writer to get a good grip upon what’s possible and what makes for a successful productive day in the creative world.  And I believe it varies - from day-to-day, week-to-week, and writer-to-writer.


I’ve read that poet Donald Hall, poetry editor of the Paris Review said in a newspaper interview that it took him three-to-five years to get from his idea for a poem to the finished, published work.  Flaubert was said to spend sometimes as much as a week writing a perfect single paragraph.


So it is helpful to remember these words from Annie Dillard:


“When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of the words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject?  You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”


Wow!!! That does help put this writing business in proper perspective.


Friday, November 25, 2011 - Entry #27 - “The Gift of Writing.”


Today, I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day and I’ve thought about what I treasure.  And there is so much that delights me - not the least of which is my dear family and wonderful friends.  There is so much goodness around me that fills my heart with gratitude, and among that which I especially value in moments of awareness, is the gift of “time” for reflection and writing.  Time to nurture writing talents and to grow in understanding more about the process every day.


I’m reminded of Sophy Burnham’s wise reflections on gratitude in the writer’s life - in her book, For Writers Only.  She writes that “In the privacy of their most secret hearts, most writers, artists, actors, and musicians believe that their talent is a gift that comes from beyond the self, crashing over them unexpectedly--with joy.  It is received, therefore, with awe and humility.” Burnham goes on to say that “Occasionally one will speak out unembarrassed by the thought of grace, except she knows that the blessing, this talent, must be treasured and nurtured, worked at, sought out...if only she knows how.  And therefore it is not to be taken lightly, not cast before pig’s feet or held aloft to the derision of people who don’t understand.  That is why many artists speak of it only amongst themselves, secretly, one on one, in quiet voices, fearful of losing it, grateful and awed.”


Czeslaw Milosz said, “I felt very strongly that nothing depended on my will, that everything I might accomplish in life would not be won by my own efforts, but given as a gift.”          


And today - I give thanks! And wish all good things can come to pass.

 

Friday, November 18, 2011 – Entry #26 - “Why is a story like a house?”


In Alice Munro’s Introduction to her Selected Stories, she says, “a story is not like a road to follow; it’s more like a house.”  She says “you go inside stories and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like, discovering how the rooms, windows, and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.” She goes on to say that readers and writers can return to the house or story and always find more than they saw last time. 


Munro says in this introduction and numerous essays that she doesn’t necessary start writing or reading a story from beginning to end. She says that she often starts anywhere and might read or write a story either backward or forward in an effort to see the full experience from different perspectives.   And while this might sound odd to some readers and writers, I understand this search for perspective.  I had an “Aha” moment when I first read this because I do that too.  I’ve thought about it often and while talking with a friend recently, I mentioned that I don’t necessarily start a story and work chronologically, whether I’m reading it or writing it.  For me story gets better - like an interesting house - every time you visit it.  I firmly believe a story deserves, even requires, multiple reading to obtain its richness.  Some readers and writers - like me - tend to be interested not only in what happened but also -  how it happened.


Munro says a house (like a story) has a “sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you. To deliver a story like that, one that is durable and freestanding, is what I’m always hoping for.”     That seems to me to be a worthy goal whether you are a reader or writer or one who must of necessity do both in order to live well.


Friday, November 11, 2011 – Entry #25 – “Writing More Than You Know”


This week in my craft readings I’ve returned to an old favorite, Nancy Willard’s The Left-Handed Story: Writing and the Writer’s Life.  I first became acquainted with Willard’s work when I read her lovely novels – Things Invisible to See (1984) and Sister Water (1993).  She offers wise advice to writers.


She says that there are two kinds of journeys that we all make.  “The first is the journey that you can map. Your destination is clear, the map will show you the shortest way to get from here to there.  The second kind of journey is the kind of journey where you go from instinct.  Not even a compass (or Garmin or MapQuest) will help you.”   And she goes on to say that  “…The journey that writers make - are like both kinds.  Sometimes you need the map.  When you’re revising your work, it’s helpful to know where you’re going and how you plan to get there.  But when you’re writing a first draft…ah, that’s a different story.”


Willard’s observations are particularly helpful to me because writers do have a calling to live “on the interface of two worlds,” the one that gives us dreams and stories and the one that gives us jobs, bank accounts, taxes, as well as book contracts and money, along with family, friends and community responsibilities.  Writers struggle to find a balance and not everyone we know understands what a person is really saying about their life when they say, “I’m a writer.” Most people don’t know how much reflection time is required.


She goes on to say that writers are like referees trying to keep two players on track so that the game can move forward, even though each player is playing with different rules.  The game is called Making Time.  And writers struggle to balance it all.  Writing requires us to write not only from what we know, but also to write more that we know.  To do that well, we must notice that we need dream time to go deeper into what we know. 


She says that we need to “write as much of the story as we know, then let go of it for a time, knowing that letting go is not giving up.  It is listening for the still small voice of story, laying aside your own plans for it, and watching it choose its own direction, very much like a dream that seems to make no sense, but in retrospect make uncommonly good sense.” Writers must realize that the real world wants us to carry maps and calendars, to schedule appointments and parse out the details of our journey.  But it seems to me that the truest writing comes from that other place beyond our immediate experiences and the writer needs to set aside time for that dream world to work. 


Friday, November 4, 2011 – Entry #24 – “Art Imitates Life.”


This week I’ve reread craft essays from an excellent book, A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft,  edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi. 


I am especially focused upon an essay by Megan Staffel, “In the Garden: Revealing a Character at a Moment of Change” as I distill the most useful ideas for me, I’m working on a particular character’s evolution in a story I’m writing. Staffel reminds us of these four core generalizations from Aristotle’s Poetics – paraphrased/quoted below – but essential for writers to consider as they work: 

1.  Life Imitates Art.

2.  Plot Imitates Action.

3.  The First Principle of Tragedy is Plot.

4.  There are Two Kinds of Plots: 

      Simple Plots in which the action is continuous, and

      Complex plots in which a reversal or recognition, or both, interrupts

      the continuity, and brings about change in fortune (1-19).


But what makes Staffel’s essay particularly interesting is this passage:  “It’s important to remember that Aristotle was basing his remarks on tragedy. For the writer of literary fiction in the twenty-first century our purposes are very different and our generalizations might look more like this: 1. Art Imitates Life.  2. Character determines plot, whether its simple or complex.”


Steffel goes on to say that “these are the basic principles a literary writer works with. And if our purpose is to examine character, then the most important ideas Aristotle offers us are the notions of recognition and reversal.”  Staffel paraphrases and quotes from scholar Gerald Else’s important work, Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument (1963).


   “A recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge. It’s a re-

     cognizing, a remembering of something you already knew.  A reversal

     is an unexpected shift, a reversal of expectations.  It’s a moment when

     everything suddenly means something different from what we thought

     it meant.  Reversals and recognitions (then) are invisible events; they

     take place in the mind of the character and/or the reader (Else, 358).”


Steffel says that “These moments of objectivity are instructive, but they’re also rare and unsettling, which is good reason to try to bring them to our stories.”  And she goes on to say that “I believe that if we show the movement from inside to outside, subjective to objective, we can portray this moment (of change/knowledge) in a fluid, believable, and entirely contextual manner that introduces insight without contrivance.”


As a writer – I discover these moments – sometimes after-the-fact – after I’ve written and written for weeks – until I’ve written my way into the kind of person who would fail to realize or come to realize something new – something startling – something true.


Friday, October 28, 2011 – Entry #23 – “Processing Feedback”


Over the past week I’ve read a delightful book by Joni B. Cole, Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive. I wish I’d discovered this essential book when it was first published (2006).  It’s a gold mine of useful insights.  One of the topics she addresses is what to do with the feedback you get from others.


Often after I get home from a workshop or I’m looking through peer review comments on a draft, I feel overwhelmed.  How shall I begin my revision process?  Sometimes I spin around for weeks or even months trying to decide where to begin and what to do.


In her section on “Tips for Processing Feedback” she offers these useful ideas:

  1. 1.1.Be Open. 

In a workshop setting – listen – don’t talk – listen thoughtfully and curb your desire to defend your work.  You may - in your heart disagree and that’s okay, because the ultimate decisions about your work rest with you.

2. Resist the Urge to Explain.

Remember that readers can only work with what’s on a page – so you    need to know where it’s not working.

3. Little by Little. 

“It is easy to get overwhelmed when processing feedback, especially if you try to take it all in at once.”  Cole suggests that writers sift through all the comments once then put them away and select one of those things to focus on for the next revision.  “For example: it your plot is slow and main character shallow – on your next draft move your plot forward and tackle the character issue on a next draft.”

4. Ignore Feedback -- until you’re ready for it. 

“The value of feedback, and then putting it in your mental lockbox as you push forward, is that this allows your unconscious to quietly process the outside information in a way that informs your writing in sync with your instincts –without slowing you down.”

5. Try Out the Feedback. 

For example:  “If your main character isn’t likable, write a scene inside or outside the story that shows him doing something endearing.  Whether you use the scene or not, this is a great exercise in character development.  No writing is a waste of effort.

6. Give Yourself Time. 

“If you can’t tell if you’re making things better or worse,” Cole says, ---”STOP!”  Take a break.  Take a walk.  Start something new.  Let your subconscious work on it again.  You should be able to see when feedback is useful to improve your vision for the work.  If it’s not helping, wait a while and come back to it.


Cole makes a strong case that after finishing a draft and subsequent revisions writers need to find a suitable reader for the work. And a suitable reader is rarely someone who loves you unconditionally.  Rather, the suitable reader is someone who “gets” what you’re doing, and who is willing to give thoughtful, insightful impressions; someone who reads carefully and who understands the struggles writers face, but who has sufficient tact to be honest and perceptive; someone who is not inclined to be unkind.


In short – “Processing feedback effectively means being receptive to hearing a variety of opinions, but filtering it all through your own writerly lens.”


Friday, October 21, 2011 – Entry #22 – “What Does a Writer See?”


I’ve spent time doing “serious people watching” this week while I’m on vacation. And it’s interesting what you see when you look and listen with a small notebook in hand. I find I’m mostly invisible. Few people really look at others. And yet, every one of the people on this ship has a story and is a character in his or her own and someone else’s story, and provides potential cast members for my imaginary worlds.  So I take note.  I write phrases and scraps of dialect and dialogue.  I take note of small kindnesses and small conflicts in my notebook. I hang out and watch. I’m reminded that Henry James said that “a good writer is one…on whom nothing is lost.” And since later, if I’ve not written myself a note about that clever turn of phrase, odd perspective, peculiar character in white overalls in the buffet line at breakfast, or the warm and funny banter between that old married couple, I will forget, just as surely as I will forget about that wonderful scallop and butter/citrus sauce dish that I had for dinner last night.  If I don’t take note of it, so much of what I experience will slip away and while – thankfully – much of it will settle into the compost heap of my subconscious, some richness will be lost.


Something about a new setting always causes me to “see” and hear the variations and commonalities of our shared humanity. I once read an interview by Tom Wolfe and he said something like (I’m dredging and paraphrasing here) ‘If you spend a month anywhere in this country and take notes, you will find stuff and people you never even knew existed before.’  My notes lead me to thoughts about what the young man with tattoos running like sleeves on both arms will do when he is 65 years old and the muscles in his arms are stingy and shriveled. Or perhaps if he gains an excess of weight, those tattoos will sag and sway.  Either way those pictures of faces and flowers likely will become sinister.


I’m particularly reminded this week that writers need to get away from their desks and go out into the world with a small notebook (and pen) in hand and turn a sharp eye and critical ear to the world.  A writer’s work requires him or her to tune into that which is newly tangible, and transfer that into rich descriptive words that capture the richness of people and place in this diverse, but portable world.


Note:  I’m back at my desk and updating my website – by October 21, 2011.

           The cruise was lovely and restful. My notebook has lots of good stuff.  


Friday, October 14, 2011 – Entry #21 – “Intentional Writing Meditations”


This week I’ve worked on a plan to set aside writing meditation time. Often I awaken between 5-6 am; it’s too early to get up and I tend to go back to sleep again from 6-7 am. Rather than waste the hour, I decided to organize it into a meditation effort and focus it.


Before sleeping the night before, I read a story that I’m working on or revising and I decide to think about one specific area that requires work - if I awaken in the night. Before I go to sleep or if I awaken in the night, I think about the story and perhaps, imagine a scene from it (from what I’ve already written or one that I might add) – that gives me more insight into the characters, theme, conflict, patterns, or place in this particular story.


Between 5-6 am (when I often awaken anyway) I think about this story or writing problem. I imagine how this scene looks – if observed from a camera lens or how it feels to be a particular character dealing with the problems or conflicts within the story. Every morning when I get up – I write for about 10 minutes a few brief notes of what I now know or understand about the story.


Every afternoon I set a time and work on the story for one hour or three pages – whichever comes first. Usually it’s an hour or slightly more.


My intention is to write a complete draft story with a beginning, middle and end each month. It doesn’t have to be finished or perfect, but it does need the structure of three basic parts. In particular, I think about the beginning, and ending in the subsequent meditations and seek a way to organically end with an image or gesture that somehow touches upon the internal and external conflicts. The next week I use the same process for the first round of revision, then I leave it for a while and let it cook slowly at low heat until it is ready for another round of revision or perhaps a peer review/feedback session with another trusted writer friend.  While that story is in the slow cooker, I work on another one.


My posting is delayed this week because I am away on vacation – a Caribbean cruise on the Emerald Princess. I am sitting on the balcony as I write this entry. While I continue to read and write, the “G-card for WI-FI” on my MacBook is failing, so I was unable to post this to my website until I could connect via Ethernet.  I suppose a new computer will soon be needed.  Alas!!! $$$$ 


Friday, October 07, 2011 – Entry #20 – “Evoking Emotion”


This week I’ve thought about how fiction writers get inside characters to reveal an emotional life that is rich and believable.  The reality for fiction is that something must occur in a story and people who live inside the story must have real and recognizable emotional responses. A story quite literally “turns” on the “moment-to-moment” and requires deep yearning.  When humans long for something, whether they get it or not, the subsequent plot and characters evolve out of attempts to address “desire.”  In From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Robert Olen Butler describes the power of imagining – by creatively dreaming – the way it feels to be a particular character.  Butler reminds writers of  “three fundamentals of all great fiction:  It’s about human beings. It’s about human emotion. It’s about the remarkable phenomenon of desire.”


He says the writer must never name the emotions (triggered by desire).  “Rather than explaining or analyzing emotion, the skilled writer records emotion in five valid ways.  Emotion evolves from: 1. Signals inside the body; 2. Signals outside the body; 3. Flashes of the past; 4. Flashes of the future; and 5. Careful attention to sensual selectivity.  What a character remembers, notices, and responds to - reveals his/her emotional state.” 


It is not enough to say that “Fred is angry or Fred cried.”  Rather we, as readers and as writers, must feel and know how Fred feels - because we return to an event, object or signal that evokes the believable emotion and that entry point is through the basic senses of imagined sight, sound, touch, scent, and taste.


Some writers describe this process somewhat like the story of blindfolded men touching a different part of an elephant and concluding that a part is the whole. But if the reader actually smells the elephant or hears the call of the elephant, he or she will know that it is – indeed – an elephant, assuming some prior knowledge of elephants.  The ongoing task of the writer requires a deep imagining of the people created by whatever process he or she uses. And interestingly, this process of imagining turns the creative writing process into a much more emotional rather than intellectual process.     Ironically, I find I’m still thinking about this.


Friday, September 30, 2011 – Entry #19 – “So What’s At Stake in a Story?”


This week I’ve given some thought to what is “at stake” in a good story.  In the most emotionally satisfying stories, someone or something is at risk. The writer feels compelled to tell a story because something could have been or will be lost. Something happened or almost happened. Even a “near miss” resonates with readers who want to believe that this story and its outcome mattered. If the reader puts down the story and says, “So What?”  or “Who cares?” then the writer needs to raise the stakes, increase the risk of loss in a way that organically respects the structure of the story. 


Tension comes from a Latin verb and suggests something is stretched taut until it must snap. It is force under pressure and it can do a lot to raise the stakes when it’s connected to whatever motivates a character in a particular situation.


David Madden’s, Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers, describes the importance of tension to raise the stakes.  Madden says, “When two or more elements pull the reader simultaneously in different directions, the reader feels tension that sustains emotional involvement.  The author may set up tension between literal and metaphorical meaning: between characters; between techniques themselves.”  And he notes that “What May Sarton says of poetry may be suggestive for fiction writers,” as well.  “… Sarton describes tension between:  past and present; idea and image; music and meaning; particular and universal; creator and critic; silence and words.  Parallel with these are the tensions within daily life:  the living and the dead; public and private life; life and art.” 


Madden says that defusing the impact of a story’s climax can cause the reader to feel that a story has been a waste of time. “If the reader has anticipated with high expectation the impact of that moment of climax,” but the external or internal moment of conflict is weak for some reason, its impact is defused and unsatisfying because of some failure in the writing.  At that point – what’s a writer to do?  Some writers set the story aside for a while or find a peer reader who is honest and insightful.  Someone who urges them to “Raise the Stakes”.  And Revise and Revise - some more.


A writer strives to find the beating heart of a story and tell it slant with enough tension to address the yearnings of the central character and satisfy the hungry reader.  That’s what we do – when we can!  And when it works well – it is AMAZING STUFF – this fiction.


Friday, September 23, 2011 – Entry #18 – “What Good is a Peer Review?”


This week I’ve thought about the most useful peer review information I’ve received on my own stories. I tend to think of my stories as works in progress, even those that are published. I always see more I could have done to sharpen the vision. So what kind of advice helps a writer to improve work and fully realize a story’s potential? Some of my most helpful advice has come from peer reviewers in the Tinker Mountain workshops (at Hollins University) that I’ve taken with Daniel Mueller (of the University of New Mexico). Dan’s stated philosophy is “I believe that every piece of fiction has contained within it the seed, or blueprint, of what it ultimately wants to be.”


Daniel speaks eloquently about the peer review process and says that responding thoughtfully to another writer’s work is an important responsibility and an essential part of growing as a writer.  I really love what Dan says about the process.  He says “responding well to another writer’s fiction is… as arduous an act of the imagination as writing fiction, for it requires us not only to imagine the fictional worlds summoned by the words the author has chosen, but also to imagine ourselves in the author’s position to her text.” 


If one has suitable peers to read and offer useful suggestions – then much good can come of having skilled peers give insightful suggestions to improve a story. So what are some traits of a good peer reviewer?  It seems to me that good reviewers: 


1.Read the work thoughtfully and carefully.  (Dan asks his workshop peer reviewers to read without a pen in hand for the first reading and then give it a little time before you read a second time with your pen. This allows you to reflect and give better advice.)

2.Analyze the work on three levels:  Structure, Character(s) and /or Idea (theme), and language.

3.Discuss the work in terms of how it works - with specifics. This is not a time to tell the writer how to “fix” the work.  That is the writer’s job and any changes a writer makes must accommodate the vision of that writer.


Based on my own experiences in a range of workshop peer reviews, I find that the best reviewers are kind, thoughtful and helpful.  A good reviewer does not attempt to make the author’s work his story. A good reviewer respects the hope the writer has for his or her story.  BUT what if a reader is unskilled – what’s a writer to do?  Join another group.  Find another reader who takes the responsibility of reading seriously and whose honesty you trust. Sometimes one of a writer’s most challenging tasks is to KNOW what to use and what to ignore from a writer’s workshop “peer review” for not all writers are our peers.  Some are at the early stages of their development and might not have acquired the keen insights of those who have spent much time and energy getting in touch with the process. Others read seldom or narrowly and this limits their scope of knowledge.


I believe that writers are an optimistic lot. How else could we weather the slings and arrows of rejection that come from the submission process? But most of us have hope that something good can come of advice.  And,  usually it does.


Friday, September 16, 2011 -- Entry #17 “To Dream, Perhaps to Know”


This week I’ve thought about how writers develop story ideas and I must say that it is often a matter of night-time work (in our dream world) that stories become their best selves. Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, is an invaluable book about craft.  I had the good fortune to have a class with him at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival the summer after the spring in which he had won a Pulitzer Prize for his fiction collection, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, and I was blown away by the collection and by his almost mystical way of getting into the lives and heads of his characters, certainly men, but particularly women.  Butler’s writing process book, edited with an introduction by Janet Burroway, is a must read for any aspiring fiction writer. If you want to write, then you need to read this book.  But I will try to pull out some plums to get you going.  Butler’s “self declared obsessions have to do with the descent into the dream space of the unconscious in order to discover the yearning that is at the center of every person and therefore every character, and with the moment-to-moment sensual experiencing of that character’s story,”  according to Burroway’s Introduction.  “He (Butler) proposes fiction as the exploration of the human condition and yearning as its compass.  ...He conducts exercises to achieve the DREAMSPACE.” He offers insights into the nature of voice.  He is eloquent on fiction as “cinema of the mind,” to be experienced by the reader as a sensed series of takes and scenes. And he has devised a system whereby revision is undertaken at the level of structure rather than sentence.”


Butler says, “Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story.  Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.” (Burroway’s Introduction.)


So go and dream your stories and write them down in the “white-hot center” of your vision of the deepest yearning of flawed people.


Friday, September 9, 2011 - Entry 16 - “No Horns, No Ending”


This week I’ve thought about Endings and how awkward it is when writers try to “force” one on a story.  Why is that? To build an organic ending the writer must step back and allow change to occur in someone,

as a direct result of conflict. Rust Hills, a long-ago and highly respected Fiction Editor at Esquire, said in the Introduction to his classic book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, that “A short story tells about something that happened to somebody.” While this statement doesn’t seem profound at first glance, it is the basis for resolution of some kind. That is to say, does the story and its ending evolve out of some change that causes “someone to be different at the end of the story” and if that doesn’t happen, “if the horns of a dilemma bring no change, if nothing happens to anyone, then you really don’t have a story.”  You have an anecdote or if it’s longer, a vignette.


Jesse Lee Kercheval’s, Building Fiction: How to develop plot and structure, has an excellent chapter on “Endings” in which she reminds writers that “endings must bring about the resolution of both the external and internal conflicts, and beyond that, it must combine the inevitable with the surprising.”  She says “It must be inevitable because readers have lived with the characters’ conflicts through all their ups and downs and want them resolved; it must be surprising because the conflicts should be solved in a way readers cannot entirely have foreseen.” She says “The perfect ending resolves the already established interior and exterior conflicts:


o  the interior, by having the narrator or central point-of-view character either come to realize or fail to realize the truth of his situation,


o  the exterior, by using a small gesture, symbolic object, or a larger rite of passage (think birth, death, marriage) as a crisis action.”


Writers strive to leave most readers feeling like they’ve gotten their money’s worth for the exchange of their time for your story.  Kercheval says of endings... “It is the last thing an editor or your readers see, and last impressions, like first ones, count heavily in fiction.”


Friday, September 2, 2011 - Entry 15 - “Titles Are Promises to Readers”


As promised last week, I’ve thought about the importance of good titles in fiction.  A great title gets you “reading time” with agents, editors and readers and if it doesn’t deliver the goods, your target audience will move on to something else.  Think of how you browse the shelves in book stores. Would you be more likely to read a novel titled, The Mute or the novel, The Heart is aLonely Hunter?  The first was the original title for Carson McCullers wonderful novel that was published under the second title.  Stephen King originally considered Second Coming for the book we know as Salem’s Lot. And F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby almost had one of these three terrible titles: Trimalchio in West Egg (too obscure and no one could pronounce it), Gold-Hatted Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s personal favorite, Under the Red, White and Blue.


So I’ve looked for advice and here is what I’ve learned.  Most of the time a publisher, agent, editor or someone “out there” is likely to change your title no matter what - once you’ve signed a contract or unless you are an established writer who has a following and/or series (Sue Grafton’s alphabetic crime books - for example).  But here are a few tips gleaned (online) from David White, Sr. Editor for American Book Publishers (2005).  He says that in a few words a title has to do a lot.  It has to grab a reader’s attention, hold that reader’s attention and tell what it’s about.  Most titles are lucky to get 2 of these 3 things in the first round. He also suggests writers avoid cliches, as well as avoid words that offend in a title.  White reminds authors to use familiar words (no one will stop to look up a word in a title - yes, we mean you - F. Scott Fitzgerald).  Try to capture the essence of the work, using whenever possible, words that provide powerful image-ready words.  I think of these as almost “camera ready” images.


Titles make a promise to readers that if they read your book, story, article, they will discover something.  The best phrase is the worse if it’s a title that can’t live up to the hype.  If you promise, then deliver.

     ===  I guess I need to go back and work on my titles.  ===


Friday, August 26, 2011 - Entry 14 - ”Hurricanes & Names”


This week I’ve thought about the importance of names and titles in fiction. And I decided to focus on naming people and things for today’s reflection and write about titles next week.  Names are essential.  Even Hurricanes are named and afterwards the name is retired. There will never be another Hurricane Katrina. In fact, a name that has too much emotional power gets in the way of a story because the images and emotions take on meaning that serves to overpower the story.  You’re not likely to see a story with a fictional character named Marilyn Monroe, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Elvis or some other well known name, unless the writer is making an important connection or perhaps, naming a cat, gerbil, or a large hamster.


Oddly enough, I’ve been in workshops where some writers don’t name their characters. Not at all or not until they’ve finished a first or second draft. I talked with a writer last week who didn’t seem to think that naming people mattered, but I strongly disagree. Names connect us. Naming seems vital to the process of knowing the people who live in our stories.  Maybe in a rare instance, an actual name is not useful, but even the “Misfit” in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has a “name” that helps us know so much about him.  And O’Connor’s stories are populated with aptly named characters, as are Charles Dickens’s people. The best names for characters form organically from a piece of work, but writers can also draw from names that are appropriate for a particular time or place. A bit of research into the social security name data banks, or old newspaper files, obituaries, or land deed records will show you lists of names of shifting popularity over the last 75 or so years here in the USA.  Baby naming books can also provide ideas. But it’s not a good idea to name a fictional character after a person you know.  Your Aunt Julia might object in the strongest legal terms to an unflattering name sake who is evil and cruel, and if she doesn’t, your publisher likely will.


On the other hand the naming of familiar things in a story (or movie) can serve to connect readers with an apt emotional response.  Think of E.T. with his Reese’s Pieces in the Spielberg movie.  The audience sat eating the same candy and connected with an alien (longing for home) through this shared experience.  Writers can use the naming of common objects to sharpen the image in the reader’s mind and save themselves from extensive description of common and ordinary places and things,  if they use specific names (Diet Pepsi, Rexall Drugs, Walmart) and yes, regionally familiar things that help a reader recognize place through a product found specifically in a place like Ohio or Florida or Texas. Such names tap into the readers’ reality, increase credibility (if not overdone) and reduce the potential for confusion, as well as revealing much about atmosphere or place or character.  Brand name realism can be useful, if not overdone.  A middle aged man who eats Cheerios is likely to be quite different from someone eating Captain Crunch or Kashi.  That is to say: a rose is a rose is a rose - unless it’s an Iris.


Alas! I continue to deal with an internet problem that I described last week, as well as the distractions posed by the frantic weather reports about the pending storm.  I hope to get this posted before Hurricane Irene arrives.

  

Friday, August 19, 2011 - Entry 13 - “Interference and BAD Luck


This week I’ve been thinking about all the things in a writer’s life that get in the way of writing. Not only do we face our own internal chaos, but we also deal with technical interference and sometimes, even just bad luck.  Ironically, this afternoon as I was working on this piece, we had ... (wait for it - drum roll please) ... a 5.9 earth quake here in Maryland.


Writers deal with interruptions, disruptions and chaos of life like everybody else out in the big world. But this past week has been particularly filled with both internal and external disruption. My most persistent recent external disruption is some sort of internet interference that has limited and disrupted my internet access. It is new, intermittent and unpredictable. It makes me cranky. After multiple meetings at the Apple store and with assorted technical experts, we’ve eliminated the possibility that the problem arises from: my sweet Apple’s hardware, software, internet provider, router; my cordless phones, cell phones, alarm system, or brain waves, and since the problem began recently, we’ve narrowed it down to three real probabilities:  A Smart BG&E meter recently installed on a neighbor’s adjacent wall (townhouse community), a neighbor’s rogue Blue Tooth, or a wireless baby monitor for another neighbor (owners of a spiffy new baby). I have sent for a Geek to fix it.


Whatever it is - IT kills my Wi-Fi signal DEAD - and usually at an important moment in my writing life. Try sending out a story online or emailing or researching under these conditions. Sadly last week after a last ditch effort (save, clean & install), I was unable to access my website to post updates. I could only stare at my website (from a friend’s computer) from afar and weep - unable to alter it - and I feared we were to be separated forever.   Which is to say - this reflection is posted today via a makeshift, temporary fix until another level of technical experts descend upon the house to figure it out. 


So between technical glitches and earthquakes, I press on, trying to get the writing done, in spite of interference and bad luck. And I’m left reflecting upon how an Emily Dickinson or Jack London would have dealt with this.


AND I WONDER:  What have we come to that we are so much at the “not-so-tender mercies” of the purveyors of internet access and “jillions” of WI-FI wireless connections? (Yes - a Jillion is way lots more than a Trillion.  Why? Because it just is and I say it is.) And now my computer is worried that I’m going to use this word it doesn’t know and can’t spell. It doesn’t know that one of the cool things about writing fiction is that you can invent words and stuff.)  Sorry this posting late.  Better Later Than Never!


Posted Tuesday, August 23, 2011.  Readers might notice that this posting is a bit late and I admit it’s not the one I planned for Entry 13. This is my explanation-which is not the same as an excuse. I’ll write about  “names” next week if all goes well or maybe sometime soon I’ll write about endings.


Friday, August 12, 2011 - Entry 12 - “Once Upon a Time”


This week I’ve been thinking and reading about beginnings.  Opening lines, whether in a novel or story, carry the heavy task of holding the reader’s interest and providing sufficient information to orient the reader to the core setting and characters. Perhaps early narrative did start with the famous fairy tale lines of “once upon a time” but most readers want more if they’re to be seduced into buying a book or reading a story in a journal.


Homer set the standard in The Odyssey.   The Greek concept of “in media res” which means to begin in the middle of things, is the standard for most openings, even now. In her book, Building Fiction: How to develop plot and structure, Jesse Lee Kercheval writes “Structurally, openings tend to fall into three basic types, which I’ll call - Into the Pot, Already Boiling; Calm Before the Story; and Opening Statements to the Jury.”  So while these types of openings are not the only ones, but they seem to be among the most successful.


Beginnings often plague writers. P.G. Wodehouse acknowledged the problem in his classic Jeeves novels. “Its a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk.  I mean if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.” Michael Seidman’s useful book, Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published, writes “There are two decisions you have to make as you begin: Where and How; where does your story begin and how should you present it to the reader?”  Opening words must enthrall in much the same way a bag of popcorn seduces the movie-goer to munch it down without pause.



Friday, August 5, 2011 - Entry 11 - “Serving the Sentence”


I like to save up the Essay sections from the New York Times Book Review to enjoy at some point at the end of the month.  The Sunday, July 24, 2011  essay, “Serving the Sentence” by Tony Perrottet did not disappoint.


Perrottet writes about how some of history’s most prolific writers were those who ended up in prison and with nothing much to distract them, cranked out lots and lots of sentences.  The word “sentence” in this context also speaks to how hard it is for writers to put “butt into the chair” and get work done.  He’s written a book on the topic, The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, and after reading his essay, I just might put that book on my “maybe” reading list.  Sitting down and writing without yielding to distractions is an ongoing problem for most every writer I’ve ever known, including me.  That’s why some writers “escape” to a writer’s colony or spend a week, month, weekend away from others at retreats that support and nurture the sacred writing time.  But most of us who find joy in the opportunity to spend our days writing, also live in the grip of the disquieting terror that the next thing we write will not quite measure up to the “dream” we carry in our heads.  I’m not speaking here of writer’s block.  I’m acknowledging the reality that most of us - as writers - spend a bit of energy circling our keyboards, somewhat like uneasy birds who glance skyward to see if a hawk is near.  In the end - writing does happen.  But it helps to remember that the first and often ragged attempts are essential if we hope to get to the later drafts that will have the best of what we know. Perrottet writes that “Prison was the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade.  Other writers should be so lucky.”  Perrottet notes that “after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays.”


You have to admire and yes, even envy his productivity, especially when you think - wow - he wrote it all with pen and ink.  Bravo de Sade!  Bravo!


Friday, July 29, 2011 - Entry 10 - “Why Add to the Oceans of Words?”


This week I was looking through my book shelves for a particular text reference on writing when I ran across an old copy of Brenda Ueland’s book, If You Want To Write, (first published in 1938; second edition published in 1987 by Graywolf Press). Brenda, who died in 1985 at the age of 93, was a writing teacher from the days of yore.  No.  I didn’t know her!  I am not from the “age or days of yore” but I sat down and reread sections of her tidy, (and yes) funny little book and while some of her advice to women writers is touchingly dated, it is quite revealing to young women who might not realize how hard it was for women writers, even in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s in this country.  But her words are empowering and I remembered how some of her advice helped me when I first read this book in the 90’s.  Her last chapter quotes Blake, “He Whose Face Gives No Light Shall Never Become a Star” as she says, “Why urge everybody to write when the world is so full of writers, and there are oceans of printed matter?”    She says much of what is written “doesn’t amount to much so why bother?”  Then she goes on to say that ”if everybody writes and respects and loves writing, then we would (perhaps, over time) have a nation of intelligent, eager, impassioned readers; and generous, grateful ones, not mere critical, logy, sedentary passengers, observers of writing, whose attitude is:  All Right: Entertain me now!”


So why add to the oceans of words? Surely dear old Brenda Ueland never imagined the changes in the future’s landscape of blogging, emailing, twittering, facebooking walls, and other “coming attractions” from the media world. But she did say we all do have this creative urge and power.  And we need to add our drops to the ocean of words “Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.” And, “Because the best way to know Truth and Beauty is to try to express it” - in words - if you are a writer. 


Friday, July 22, 2011 - Entry 9 - “A Perfect Singularity - The Short Story.”


This week I’ve thought a lot about structure in the short story.  Short stories are found in a range of structural forms:  short shorts, flash and sudden fiction, novella, and even the six-word story are variations found in current literary practice, but my focus for this brief reflection is the classic short story structure that Poe describes in his famous 1842 essay that is so often quoted in regard to short story structure. “The short story is not only not a chapter of a novel, or an incident or an episode extracted from a longer tale, but at its best it impresses the reader with the belief that it would be spoiled if it were made larger or if it were incorporated into a larger work.”


Jesse Lee Kercheval describes this “Perfect Singularity” in her wise and witty book, Building Fiction: How to develop plot and structure. Readers sometimes expect a short story to “behave” as if it were a novel or novella, but clearly a STORY is a specialized creature and writers must be ever mindful of the needs of a story.  Kercheval urges the writer to assess whether the ideas fit the form by considering the following ingredients of a classical short story.  That is to say that a story:


1. covers a limited amount of time  (a day, a week, a month, a year),

2. involves a limited number of characters (2- to- 5),

3. occurs in just one or two places ( has a limited setting),

4. has a single narrator or point-of-view character,

5. has an external conflict that easily and effectively can be closed with a symbolic

    object or small gesture,

6. leaves the characters “on the brink” of finally realizing or failing to realize the

    solutions to their internal conflicts. It doesn’t have to be resolved, but the reader

    can imagine the possible outcomes.


So IF you want your classic story to “sing” in the older, traditional sense, you will expect that the story “behave” as a story.  It will need to provide some satisfaction of these six major areas for the reader, if the reader is to achieve some degree of satisfaction with the time and effort to read it.  In a future reflection I hope to say more about some of the other structural possibilities I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.


But it seems important also to notice that a story doesn’t have to follow these rules at all.  A story can break the rules for story and that’s okay, as long as the writer has clarity of the needs of a particular story structure.


Friday, July 15, 2011 - Entry 8 - “Why Do Readers Read?”


This week I’ve been thinking about what readers want when they read. AND I’ve thought about what I want when I read and I’ve talked about this to a couple of friends who tell me: they read to learn new things, to get information, to escape, to enter new and interesting realities, to get a sense of history, to help themselves imagine what another life might have been for them in another time and place.  They also tell me they read because it relieves stress, helps them sleep and helps them connect with a world that is different from their daily life. All of this is good. Most successful writers are avid readers.


Jesse Lee Kercheval’s book on writing, Building Fiction: How to develop plot and structure, offers four hints to the writer for “holding your reader.”  Kercheval says (1) “Readers like to learn when they read, even when they are reading fiction.”  Authentic and interesting details require the writer draw from his/her experience or do enough research to build sufficient background materials. (2) Kercheval also describes the power and importance of setting (time and place) which drives fiction and helps the reader find a place to stand, that is to connect, relate to and believe in the truth of a story. (3) Kercheval says, “Readers appreciate familiar things, sharply observed.”  Writers take the ordinary and describe it “lovingly, wittily, with great care” and this makes the experience or moment or person unforgettable . (4) a story or a novel benefits from having something in it that readers have never quite seen before, and that a reader or editor finds he/she can’t quite forget.  That is to say that readers love it when a story or novel has some detail, image, or event that is both unusual and memorable  For example, I recently read and reread stories in Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love (1986) and in particular, “Miles City, Montana” and “Fits” AND both are literally case book examples of two stories that have all the elements that capture a reader from first sentence to last.


If you want to write, it helps if you are a reader and you know what you like to read.  You won’t be able to write for everyone, but you will write for some, if you remember what it is that all readers seek.


P.S. This entry is a bit late tonight because it was a “perfect” day here in Maryland this morning and I went sailing in Annapolis.  It is important to seize the day.


Friday, July 8, 2011 - Entry 7 - “The Rhythm of Revision: Assess & Repair”


This week for my craft reading, I am rereading sections about revisions from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s wonderful book on writing, Building Fiction: How to develop plot and structure.  Revision is the best part of the writing process for me because I have built the first framework of the story I’ve imagined and then after setting the story aside for a while, I return to it to refine the detail work, and with a critical eye I assess the problems that prevent the story from being its best self. Sometimes I’ve not evolved sufficient skills yet to make repairs and I have to wait a year or two before I know how to make those constructive repairs, whether the process involves structure, plot, characters, or point of view.  Some writers truly dread the process, particularly a novelist friend who describes the terrible agony involved in cutting pages of prose that took days, weeks, months to write. I understand those emotions.  I have them too.  But Kercheval’s words offer encouragement and compare the “rhythm of revision to marching: left brain, right brain, left brain.”  Alternating your critical sense with your creative sense. She says that people who never revise were called diarists in the 17th century and rarely thought about having readers.  I suppose people in our blogging/facebook/my space world can look forward to having a larger audience, regardless of the quality of the unrevised work.  Kercheval reminds me that “all fiction deserving of the time and effort it took to write it in the first place also deserves careful, serious, and thorough revision.”  I find Kercheval’s  Major Revision : Macro Revision Checklist and her Minor Revision: Micro Revision Checklist among the most useful advice to any writers striving to tighten and improve their work.  Life is - after all -

mostly revision.  We live and re-see ourselves and our decisions and actions with shifting clarity and insights. Sometimes we revise, deny, lie to ourselves, or on a good day we gain understanding that we missed earlier.  To some degree writers do that with the “fictional reality” they’ve created.  We all do this at some level every day.  And so do writers.         


Finally if you’d like to see a couple of examples of ways writers grow and change as they live and see the world, take a look at Raymond Carver’s short story “The Bath” from his early collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and compare it to the revised story, “A Small Good Thing” from his last collection, Cathedral.    Or if you are a fan of Flannery O’Connor compare her first published story, “The Geranium” to her last published story, “Judgement Day”which is the same story totally revised. Interesting!


In short, if a story is worth telling in the first place it deserves a thoughtful revision process!


Friday, July 1, 2011 - Entry 6 - “The 10,000-Hour Rule Applied to Writing


This week for my craft reading, I reread sections of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. And I’m particularly interested in the idea of the 10,000-hour rule that essentially describes the amount of “pure practice” and investment in time required to move beyond mastery to actual expertise. Is there such a thing as an innate talent for writing or does writing require practice?  Gladwell discusses this idea across disciplines and cites numerous studies.  He says that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”


In fact, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise.  Researcher have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise:  ten thousand hours.” So the reality is that “It takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” Even if you are smart - if you don’t work at getting in the “practice time”  you’re not likely to “play at Carnegie Hall” or anywhere else - other than your living room.


Fiction writers, like concert violinists, don’t get their expertise from thin air.  All (not most) work at it.  Even in the face of all the distractions of their worlds, if they don’t spend time time on their rose, their rose won’t bloom or be appreciated. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once and then you’re good.  It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” The 10,000-hour rule translates into more than ten years of consistent practice where the daily process accumulates, increasing proficiency and expertise.  Gladwell says that you need some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives you a chance to put in those hours of practicing your craft, whether it’s playing the violin, or hockey, or writing novels.  You might need to quit your day job. 


“It is the time that you’ve wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

                 from  The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery


    

Friday, June 24, 2011 - Entry 5 - “Characters Are Like Us; They Do What They Are


This week I took a detour in my writing  craft reading and thinking.  I dipped into the wonderful book by Colleen Mariah Rae, Movies In The Mind, and I strongly recommend it to any aspiring fiction writer. Not only is the book blessed with hands-on kinds of process exercises, but the practical suggestions about putting in the time in spite our terrible fears that our work won’t be good enough, rings true to every serious, aspiring wrier. Putting your butt into a chair and getting the work done is a reality “rub” that serves as a reminder that time well spent will yield results.


Rae talks about immersing yourself into the birthing process and dreaming inside characters rather than describing them from the outside.  She talks about what makes a story good versus what makes a story great and in short, the one word answer:  IMAGES - while simple - is far from simplistic.  Images that come from imagining the world - “dreaming the world” as Robert Olen Butler describes it - “through the eyes, mind, heart of each character present in a story”,  is an essential part of the process.  As we watch and feel and notice through our senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, sound, we find the truth of an emotional response that we turn into words that describe the “movie” in our minds. These images lead us to feelings and words that sing of the rich inner world of the people who “live” in our fictional worlds and this evocative connection is part of what makes a story resonate, so that long after we’ve read it we continue to “sense” the truth of its images in our imaginations.  Such a story is great because we remember it long after we read it.

What story still sticks with you?  Is there one that you return to as you read and think about story?


In short - this is the doorway to connect to the characters who are a lot like us - whether they’re good or bad.   Characters (just like us) do what they do in response to:

FIVE Basic questions:

1. What does each person want? 

2. Who or What is standing in the way? 

3 .What is each character’s greatest strength? 

4. What gets these people into the most trouble? 

5. How or What will they do (and what do you do - as the writer) to get out of their dilemma?

 

Characters are like us.  What we do reveals who we are; what more could be said about characters in stories?


Friday, June 17, 2011 - Entry 4 - “Are You Here to Play or Will You JUST Stand & Watch?”


This week I’ve thought a lot about the Narrator as a Participant versus the Narrator as a Non-participant in the events of a story.  I suppose I’m thinking here of the narrator in a wider sense than a character who tells a story (usually in first person) because I’m thinking about a narrator to mean a recording consciousness that an author creates, who may or may not be a participant in the events of a story.  So what does this idea look like at the most basic level?  The participant narrator seems likely to be a major character or at least a minor character who filters events through his/her own LENS of self interest and such a narrator has an agenda - hidden (tacit or implied) or open (confronting self - often to deal with guilt or discomfort - assuming he/she has a conscious awareness of his/her role in the events) or perhaps, denied - in such a way that you (as reader) see what he/she refuses to see. 


But what about the Nonparticipant narrator?  How can he/she know of events if he/she is not a participant?  And that type of narrator is likely to be presented as a third person narrator who may be:  all-knowing- (omniscient) (seeing into any one of the characters), or limited  (seeing into one major or minor character), or objective (not seeing into any characters) instead perhaps “hovering on the edges of a present or past reality” that has been observed or even described by someone else.   SO - which narrator “packs the most punch” and which provides the most effective camera lens to capture the power of a given story?  It depends on the story - doesn’t it?  It depends on the game. And it depends on who has the best vantage point given the organic requirements of a game or a story. 


Which is to say - Each player tells a very different story about a game -  as do the observers and all the stories have different possibilities whether it’s the one told by the coach, or the one told by the announcer, or the reporter in the stands, and (of course) the one told by the father of the kid who thinks his kid could of /would of won it for them if they’d let him play.


Friday, June 10, 2011 - Entry 3   You Talking to Me?”


This past week I’ve been thinking about the narrative process and fact that the author implies a listener or reader (audience) when choosing a point of view.  I suppose that’s one good reason to avoid using second person (YOU) as a point of view.  Some writers refer to the second person point of view narrative form as the “accusatory speaker” because the narrator seems to take the poor reader/listener on a forced march into the mind and morality of the narrator. “YOU” can find yourself becoming an actor or character in the drama.  It’s unusual and complex.  Some of us don’t want to go and for good reason. Some narrators are scary people. As Janet Burroway says in her wonderful book,  Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,  “The clear implication is that the narrator can see further into the likes of us readers than we can see into the likes of him (or her).”

By using “YOU”  the narrator assumes you will go along with whatever he/she does and most of us view our free will as a sacred thing, and at some point we want to dig in our heels and object. In fact this seems to me to be how it would feel if you went shopping with a friend and he/she suddenly decided to rob a bank.  YIKES! 


Much of the effective irony of such a story rests on the fact that the more we identify with the narrator, whether we’re applauding or cringing,  the more we must accept his condemning characterization of pulling the story into an ‘us’ event. We can become one with the narrator - whether for good or evil - by default.  Here’s a more benign example taken from Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, taken from Burroway’s examples:  “Your thumbs separate you from other humans. You begin to sense a presence about your thumbs. You wonder if there is not magic there.”  Although this is spoken by Sissy Hankshaw, you the reader feel compelled to glance down at your thumbs.


Jay McInerney’s 1985 novel, Bright Lights, Big City, comes to mind with its attention-grabbing opening:   “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain in entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”


So all of this is to say, it matters  a great deal to whom you speak when you decide who tells the story.  This is to say, “YOU Talking to Me?”


Friday, June 3, 2011 - Entry 2   “Really Good Reasons for First Person Narration”


Again, Tom Foster’s How To Read Novels Like A Professor has been pressed into service in my craft thinking this week.  I’m summarizing some of his reasons for employing first person narration.  I’m going to think of others over the next week or so while I’m reading.


1. Stories about characters who JUST don’t get it...the clueless are good for first person. [DUH!!!}

2. Stories about people who are hiding something BIG - not just little secrets.{WHAT?? ME??}

3. Stories about people w/competing versions of the same accounts of events.(WHAT WE SAW!)

4. Stories about people who are picking up the pieces of their lives. {HOW CAN WE GO ON?}

5. Stories about a Multiplicity of REALITY or where reality’s up for grabs. {YOU SAW BUT I SAW}

6. Stories about  BAD people and the ODD monster who inhabits some fiction. {EEK! RUN!}


NOW that we’ve looked at these basic reasons for a first person narrative, you and I must decide why we need someone to tell this particular story on this particular day this way.  I don’t know what you do about your work, but you do need to think about this carefully. I do think that writers have lots of options open to them and when you write a story, in the first draft you can and should think about whether the best person to tell this particular story is the one who is telling it.  I have rewritten several stories in different point of view/narrative styles trying to get in touch with the reality of “whose story is this?” and sometimes it (the story) is better told from someone viewing it from the side rather than someone who has quite a lot at stake at the onset and center of the story.  So good luck and send me an email if you wish to talk about your process.  Go to my contact page for my writer’s email address or click here:  janbowmanwriter@gmail.com



Friday, May 27, 2011 - Entry 1          “How is a Narrator Like A Cat?”


Lately I’ve been rereading passages from Tom Foster’s How To Read Novels Like A Professor

Here are some favorite passages about various aspects of writing:


Tom says that “Narrators are like cats.  They may talk about other people, but the world is mostly about them.  Even the omniscient sort tend to be smugly self-involved, for all their appearance as dispassionate observers.”  He goes on to say that “Point of view is about which cat is telling the story and whether he’s looking at the world from the top of the rock or under it.”  I used to say a similar thing to my writing students, but I described the process of sitting under a desk and looking up to describe what is seen versus sitting on top of it and looking in various directions. I also think it is really important to know what that cat wants more than anything else in his little cat world.  Foster continues his cat analogy by describing the idea of voice in fiction this way. “Voice is about what sort of cat he is...it’s about word choice, word order, about dropped endings and distance from Her Majesty’s English.” He writes about the idea that “VOICE IS MEANING” and that what a narrator says and how he says it changes the story being told. And yes, that idea works for me. But voice is also used by some writers to describe point of view and the quality and tone of the narrator’s language, and also the set of style traits and/or “personality” that markedly includes the way one particular story is told that makes it different from any other, but also similar to others told by the same author.  Now if your head is spinning - welcome to my world.  It’s a concept I “get” but find difficult to describe adequately even now.


I often  talk with people who assume that the truest voice comes from a first person narrator. And yet - I maintain that the first person narrator not only has the greatest potential to be unreliable, unknowable and untrustworthy, but such a narrative structure really limits the possibilities of a story, for the eyes and mind of one can’t really be all seeing or knowing and is rarely totally honest.  Such a story is often filtered again and again through the prism  of the self-involved cat. Have you ever noticed how light shines in different colors through the ears of a cat seated on a sunny summer window sill? And yet - even as I write this - I am hard at work on two very unruly first person fiction narratives that are making my writing life challenging.



Special Note:     

I’m not inclined to BLOG or Facebook or spend too much writing time on mundane things, so this is my compromise to keep fresh posts on my web site.  I hope readers and writers will find these reflections useful.   And, although I’ve written much of my web site using third person, (Yes. Sugi, Adam, Dora, Nate, Martha, the Michaels, and others - I know that if you see this, you’re out there laughing), I intend to use first person on key pages that have reading lists, favorite authors, as well as reflections.