Friday, May 20, 2022

A Neglected Aspect of the Writer's Life

The last two years with the pandemic and the changes it brought about has forced me to confront one aspect of life as a writer that I've mostly ignored. Every writer I know is careful in the area of craft. We think hard about word choices, sentences, paragraphs, and the arc of the story. We read widely and carefully, learning from our peers and colleagues and sharing our expertise when asked. We support each other as beta readers, at book events, and in online groups. We swap books and share reviews. But there's one area I tend to neglect, and I know I'm not the only one. 


After two years with no place to go but the computer, my shoulders are no longer shaped the way nature intended. Instead of exercise classes or running to catch a train after visiting friends in Boston, I get my exercise holding the dog in check when he wants to lunge after a rabbit. 


I used to meditate twice a day, first thing in the morning, and last thing in the evening before I closed up the house. These days I feel like I'm in a state of suspended fuzziness. I'm not sure my brain is strong enough now to meditate. (I exaggerate, but you get the idea.) The thought of cooking a real meal makes me want to take a nap but after two years I think a lot about where I can go to eat or the best places for ordering in. I still sleep well at night but bad news about Covid or anything else (war in Ukraine) can disrupt that. The pandemic has taken its toll, and like many others I didn't notice until the damage was done. 


Self-care is a very real aspect of doing any job well. Working hard at anything takes a toll, and once the burst of energy has been used up and it's time to rest and refill the well, any one of us may want to take a nap, grab some junk food, and fall onto the sofa for a few hours. This is not self-care.


This spring has been all about getting back into a better way of managing my care as a writer. Walking the dog is an exercise now in deportment, bringing those shoulders up and back, opening up the lungs, and taking longer strides. Instead of sitting at my desk for hours straight, I make a point of getting up and doing odd bits around the house. Meditation can be only ten minutes, and it's still enough to bring the mind home. And taking time for a decent meal pays benefits in many ways.


When I dropped in on a painter friend several years ago I found her lying on her back on the floor of her studio. "My body is a tool for my art," she said. "It needs to be restored now and then."

In the beginning I thought of creative work as something that came out of my head. But that is too simple. I use my imagination, of course, but I use my body also, and not only body memory. Creativity draws on how we feel in the morning and throughout the day, the weather that shifts us one way on the street or another, the taste of food and the fragrances in the air. Ambient noise seeps into a scene, and an idea that was barely linked to an incipient philosophy shows up in a character's monologue. We need good health to be fully in the world, from which we draw our stories and develop our abilities to tell them well. Self-care allows us to feed ourselves, which in turn feeds our work. It feels good to be back on that familiar path. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Story and Plot

Every now and then I pull off the shelf one of my favorite books on writing. Recently I've been thinking about John Gardner's observation that it's better to be a little slow in making up your mind if you're going to be a novelist. Don't rush to find an answer or fill in a blank in the story line. Slower is better than speed when it comes to letting ideas develop. When I first read this, I was relieved because my mind does take a while to bring all the threads of a narrative together.


One of my bad habits is thinking a story is done before it is. The original idea excites me, so I rush to get it down on paper, but near the end I tend to falter and wonder about the ending I've come up with. Instead of setting the story aside at once, I tend to tinker a little and then write to the end. Sometimes that works, but often not. I'm liable to come up with a much better ending if I set the story aside for a couple of weeks or wait until a better idea comes along. That can take months. This is a lesson I have to remind myself of every time I think I've finished something.


Katherine Anne Porter said she didn't begin a story with intent for its meaning or significance, but discovered it at the end. She's talking about finding the organic wholeness of a story rather than imposing one on it. Some call this theme or "meaning" of a story, but whatever the term, it is the vision we see when we step back and see the whole. I too hang out in the camp of the discoverers, waiting to hoist my binoculars for the grand view after I've reached the top of the mountain.


My copy of Stephen King's book On Writing is dog-eared (and don't complain to me about marring a book by turning down corners; a book is to be read and used and loved). I especially like his discussion on the difference between plot and story. "Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest." He goes on to describe an exercise that is designed to force the writer to be as honest as she or he can be, knowing that without honesty no story is worth the time.


When I'm working on the final draft of a novel I have to ask myself how honest have my characters been? Have they admitted, if not to others, then to themselves what their deeper motivations are, their goals and what they're willing to do to get there? Have they admitted to something unattractive, even offensive in themselves? Have I shown them in every aspect, letting the reader decide how to feel about them? We are heavily socialized in this society, and sometimes getting to the truth is harder than we imagine. We're not used to it in daily life. But we have to find it in fiction if our stories are not going to fall flat.


These are my thoughts as I contemplate 312 pages of my current WIP. I know the whole "plot" is there, and that all the threads come together. What I'm wondering about is something deeper, more organic. Have I captured a vision of an authentic life, and will readers recognize it? This morning I'm standing on the top of the mountain, binoculars raised, scanning the landscape.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Staying Focused

I envy my dog his powers of concentration. I walk our chocolate lab, Rob, three times a day, and sometimes I let him run through our unfenced and ungroomed back yard. But the walk is the more interesting exercise for me.  

Dogs have focus, and Rob is no exception. When he gets a scent in the middle of the street I assume he'll track it to the nearest tree, since this attention usually means a squirrel or, less likely, a rabbit. But he has to follow each meandering, circling path, and that often means I'm going around in circles trying to keep up with him and not get tied up in the leash. 


Day after day I follow this short, sturdy five-year-old down the street. It takes something major to break his concentration and let go of whatever he has found. He breaks off only when he's ready. Or sees another dog.


As a writer I envy that total commitment to the moment and the task at hand, to the ability to block out everything else to learn everything he can from that spot on the neighbor's lawn. I'm easily distracted by email, especially if I'm having trouble with a scene. Worse, all I have to do is look up from my computer and let my eye wander to the bookshelves and I can think of a hundred reorganizing jobs waiting for my attention. And then there's the window looking out on the sidewalk and street. The parade of life is always more fascinating than my faltering plot. These moments add up so that at the end of the day I wonder why it has taken me so long to write fifteen hundred words.


I'm a big believer in daydreaming, letting the mind wander until a solution shows up. That's one excuse for not forcing myself to focus. But it isn't always good enough. I've learned to shut down the Internet while I'm writing, turn off the phone, and tell friends my writing time is not a good time to call. This works a lot of the time but not all of the time.


I've accepted that I'll never have the total focus my pup has. But then he has no interest in creating anything more important than a soft bed at the end of his walk. Even this I occasionally envy. Time to get back to work.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Trimming the Text

One of my flaws as a writer is writing too much. I confess to overwriting, adding in long descriptions because I'm not sure the reader will understand if I'm terse. Sometimes I add a short paragraph to flesh out a setting or a character, how they behaved in an earlier moment to give the reader a sense of this person's identity, quirks, or ways of dealing with others. Unfortunately, I really like some of these paragraphs and they tend to survive repeated revisions. When I reach the trimming stage, I go after them. It isn't always easy, but I know I have to cut them.


Most of us have learned to skip, omit, erase adverbs. They slow down the reader, entangle her in an unnecessary stop along the way, and add nothing that isn't better expressed by recasting the sentence and revealing character or behavior through action. Adjectives can be useful, but, again, if they show up too often I rewrite the sentence and remind myself there are better ways of getting the point across.


Now that I'm an editor for a new anthology I'm more conscious than ever of overwriting, one of my bad habits and apparently one that a lot of other writers suffer from. This is too bad because some of the stories I read would be good choices for the anthology if the writer had trimmed the text, removing unnecessary words and overlengthy paragraphs.


George Saunders recognizes this weakness in himself as well as the rest of us, and addresses it in his book on short fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Saunders includes an exercise in an appendix that asks the writer to cut a six-hundred-word passage down to three hundred words. It sounds easy but it isn't. Of course, anyone can slash three hundred words but the goal isn't just to reduce the number of words but to remove the clutter and let the essence of the piece emerge, stronger and clearer. I think about this whenever I think I've finished a story and have arrived at the final stages of editing. I think I'm looking for typos and missing words, but really I'm looking at all those unnecessary lines, the extras that I couldn't let go of. I reread and trim, I read aloud and trim, I read again looking for more words to trim. 


Trimming forces me to find the essence of each line, the core idea and expression. When I do the story moves swiftly and clearly, and the point of each line is made, sharp and quick. The reader doesn't know what has been taken out. She or he only knows how well the story moves, how precise and exact the telling. At least, that's what I hope happens.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Writers and Predators

Over the last several months I've listened to a writer friend talk about the challenges of working with a small press. He's an excellent writer and tells gritty stories based on his experience as a lawyer. I wasn't surprised that he was able to sell his novel, as hard as it is today to get published, but the press that picked him up has turned a high moment in his life into a nightmare.

This post isn't about how bad a predatory press can be when the purpose of the offer is to reel in a new writer who will be pushed and prodded and almost forced into hiring their editors to "fix" and "finish" and "polish" his novel. Before signing with them, the writer did everything he knew he should do, talking with others published by this press, reading the contract carefully, and considering other possibilities. He knew I was skeptical, and I understood how much this meant to him. After signing, he approached the entire process professionally, met all the deadlines despite the editor's tightening the screws on him. Near the end he had to face down a patently illegal rights grab, and did so. But in the end, the experience was worse than anything he could have imagined. (Well, maybe not. He's got a pretty good imagination.)


The reason I'm talking about the experience here is because on my FB page another new writer announced with great joy that she had just signed with the same press for her first novel. She's over the moon. She's not someone I know personally—I only see her comments occasionally on my page—but all I could think about was what was in store for her. Since many writers are beaten down by a bullying "editor" in one of these predatory outfits, I wondered if she'd stand up to them, meet the absurd deadlines for rewrites, etc., or cave in and pay for their "editors" to do the work. The goal of many of these small "presses" is to get income from writers, not to publish and promote work so that the writer earns royalties.


This country is full of people preying on writers. Every week I get a few "offers" from PR outfits who have found my second or third or tenth novel on the web and want me to know that this book is just ripe for a break-out—with their help, of course. I also hear from "editors" who are expanding their line and my books seem just "perfect" for their house. I'm sure they have cousins in Nigeria or wherever those generous people live who want to give me a few million dollars just for helping them out with my banking information.


I did not contact the second writer in question and tell her what I knew about the press. I've thought about this, and I don't know if I am right or wrong. She has signed the contract, so she's committed. But my heart goes out to her knowing what she's about to experience.


So, two rules if you are a writer looking for a publishing house.


First, the publisher gives you money and pays you royalties. The publisher pays for the editor, proofreader, designer, and publicist. You do not pay them and you do not do their work for them.


Second, if you are thinking of signing (or have signed) with a small press, visit Writer Beware (link below), type in the name, and read everything that comes up. If what you find concerns you, be prepared. Get out of your contract if you can. Otherwise, be ready to write fast, sometimes needlessly, to meet absurd deadlines. And don't expect any warm and fuzzy lunches with your "editor."


And if you're a traditionally published writer or successfully published indie writer, I have a question for you. Would you have contacted the woman who had just signed and told her what you know?  Let me know what you think.


In the future, after they finish their new site, also check out Preditors and Editors. Follow their progress on FB.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Picking up on Hints

One of my steps in revising the already partly revised first draft is to catch all the hints and suggestions for ideas to develop that linger in the text. These usually are ideas that could have been developed and taken the story in a different direction, or hints for clues to be planted or red herrings to be dragged through the next twenty scenes that were never used. They have all been rejected if not consciously then de facto. I catch them as I read through, and usually don't think about them again. In any story the options are many before we begin writing, but with each scene they are narrowed. 

In my current WIP, however, I've taken them more seriously as astute suggestions from my unconscious, and not to be ignored. As a result of thinking about them harder, I've solved some problems that I was lazily going to just read past (until the final draft, of course, one of my bad habits). Ginny Means, a social worker whose caseload focuses on teenage girls in foster homes, has already appeared in two short stories in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, with a third in the pipeline. The one hint I grappled with the hardest is the idea of giving Ginny a rescue dog.

In Below the Tree Line, Felicity O'Brien is given a rescue dog after she finds signs of someone getting too close to her barn and house late at night. Virtually every farm has a dog, and here was my main character, owner of a farm, without one. Writing one in was easy, and I enjoyed getting to know Shadow, a little black-haired mutt.


In my current WIP I thought the idea of a dog seemed too cliched, since the main character was a single woman who worked, so when I scribbled the line in the first few chapters that Ginny fostered dogs occasionally, I thought I'd just leave it like that. There wasn't really any reason to develop this, so I let it just sit there while I focused on the plot and other characters. 


As I kept going I had the usual plot holes to fill, motivations to figure out, and details about her life to clarify. In one instance the presence of a dog could be a crucial clue, and I thought about giving her one of her own. But that posed other issues. She needed to be someone who could roam late into the night without worrying about a dog in the back seat barking loudly at shadows or others in a passing car or walking along on a leash on the sidewalk. But Ginny also had to be seen as compassion outside of her work as well. The idea of the fostered dog reappeared, and once I began to look at this more seriously, I could see all sorts of possibilities for her character as well as another pivotal figure. 


I was slightly worried that I was creating another character who had to be seen in part as a villain who had some good qualities. He felt like a cliche and I wasn't sure how to deal with this. I didn't want it to be easy for the reader to dislike him, so somehow he had to be shown to be a decent guy. He got a dog, and Ginny was sympathetic. The foster dog was in.


When I talk about writing as a process of discovery I'm usually thinking about the personalities and quirks of specific figures in the story, their appearance and family relationships. I'm not thinking about dogs determining clues and character, but that's what happened in this WIP. Giving Ginny a foster dog to care for occasionally doesn't change other aspects of her life given in previously published short stories, and remains a feature I can use or not depending on the plot. Those hints and suggestions I usually eliminate have turned out to be important sign posts in this WIP and I'm reading them more carefully now. 



Friday, February 11, 2022


Over the years I've subscribed to probably hundreds of websites, but only a few have survived my decluttering process. One of these is, and its A.Word.A.Day. I enjoy the etymology of rarely used words, and especially of those that are arcane. But today's word caught my attention more than most. Graphomania isn't rare, but the description was a little different from what I expected. 

Image by Nile from Pixabay

The definition, "an obsessive inclination to write," seems obvious from the term's construction (graph + mania), but the description after that seemed less so. After describing Leonardo da Vinci's passion for filling thousands of pages in his notebooks, the editor added this:


Do you carry a notebook and pen with you at all times? Do you wake up in the middle of the night to write? 


And my first thought was, Doesn't everyone? I know the answer to that is no. I know not everyone carries a notebook or wakes up in the middle of the night to jot down a good idea for a story or a perfect line for a certain character. My desk is littered with scraps of paper for story ideas, scenes to add to my WIP, a pad of paper filled with notes that will remain with the printed ms after I'm truly finished, and stacks of notecards that I add to as I go along in the story. But does this mean I'm really a graphomaniac?


Once in a while I stop to wonder how it was that I knew as a teenager that writing was my life. I don't wonder too hard because I'm honest about this—beyond the question is the recognition that I felt early on the compulsion to write. I was never someone who "wanted" to write. I was someone who wrote, made up stories, reworked them, and wrote more. I sent them out and, sadly, they came back, but that didn't matter too much. I just wrote more and sent out more. I also learned early on to be careful about uninvited commentary from anyone, since most people think young ones should have a practical career in mind. I ignored them because I knew, beneath it all, writing was a compulsion and the wise response was to give in and work at it.


In India I often spent time with a British couple. The husband was an artist whose work, small sculptures, funded their annual trips to India and other countries. His wife asked me one day why I wrote. I was about to launch into some explanation about liking mysteries, or whatever, when I stopped and said, "It's a compulsion. I just have to." Her husband nodded and said, "Yes, exactly."


The reader who occasionally asks the writer why she does what she does probably wants to hear something grander than "It's a compulsion," but that is the truth. I would be miserable if I didn't write, and so would most of the other writers I know. So which is better? Graphomaniac or compulsive? I don't really like either one, so I'll just jot that question down in my notebook as something to think about. How about you? Do you have a preference?