Friday, November 25, 2016

Gratitude Game--Celebrate What's Working in Your Writing Life

These past few weeks, I've experienced an unusual stall-out in my writing.  I couldn't locate any still point inside, or that "necessary boredom" that writer Dorothy Allison says is a prerequisite to writing well.  It was as if my creative heart was too sore to create. 

I knew that writing could actually be the way to come back to myself, get away from the incessant barrage of crises.  But I was hard pressed to find the way in.

Then I remembered a friend's game, something she likes to play when she's down and out.  She calls it the gratitude game.  It's pretty simple:  make a list of what you're grateful for.  Or find a partner and go back and forth, saying one gratitude item each, then another.

I thought, why not try it?  I wanted to get back to my writing!

So I began listing what was working, what was still alive and well in my writing life.  Here's the short list:

1.  I have three fabulous writing partners who exchange work with me.
2.  I've mastered Scrivener enough to not struggle with it--and it makes my writing easier.
3.  My second novel is done--although new feedback will cause some reworking, that's minor.
4.  I have a great space to write in.  Lots of sunshine coming in the windows, now that the sun travels lower in the sky.
5.  Winter is traditionally a great time for me to get a lot of writing done.
6.  I'm reading three great books at the moment, full of juicy images, and plenty of inspiration.
7.  My family supports my writing whole-heartedly. 
8.  I posted a notice on FB that my second novel was almost finished and I got tons of likes and responses, including a few people who pre-reserved it on my amazon page (wow!).
9.  I made a cool collage for one of my elusive characters.
10.  I have two really great ideas for my next books and have begun to pitch them.
11.  I pretty much adore writing.  Even when it sucks.
12.  I think I'm getting steadily better as a writer, which is heartening.

Your weekly writing exercise, in honor of the American holiday of Thanksgiving this week and the good spirit that resides in all of us, is to play the gratitude game with your writing--or your life. 

I hope it'll give you new courage, as it did me. 

Here's a quote by writer Ben Okri, to help you along:  "Stories can conquer fear, you know.  They can make the heart bigger."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tips for Making Your Characters Vivid Individuals on the Page

A MG (middle-grade fiction) writer in one of my online classes posted a great question this week:  How do I make my characters more distinctly individual?  Different from each other, enough to be vivid individuals on the page?

Developed characters, fictional or real, should be distinct from others in the story.  If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader.  Developed characters have backstory, a history that informs their story decisions.  They have certain quirks, a way of moving, a way of standing or using their hands. 


In early drafts, characters can read eerily similar to us.  We give them our values, our music, our favorite foods or clothing.  Or we make them our ideals, what we'd be if we weren't so flawed. 

That's totally normal.  We look in the mirror as we begin to write.  It's how we get started.

Gradually, we begin to see our characters apart from ourselves.  We're curious about who they might be if they aren't like us.  That's when the characters begin to come alive on the page.  In my online class coming in January, we'll use questionnaires, writing exercises, discussion, and modeling to explore how different they can be, how we can push them further away from what we know and into who they are, uniquely as themselves.

That's when the fun begins!

Once you've begun to see them move, live, and breathe apart from what you can imagine, there's a next stage--and this is what my student was asking about.  How do you make your characters different from each other, not just different from you?

This week's writing exercise offers four steps to find out:

1.  Choose a published book you love.  Make sure it has at least three characters.  Find a scene where at least two of these characters are present, early in the book, preferably, when we are first meeting them. 

2.  Make notes on how the writer describes what each character looks like, how they walk across a room, what they do with their hands, what their voice sounds like.  What has this writer chosen to offer you, the reader, so the character comes across fast and effectively?  Skilled writers can capture a character's uniqueness in one or two lines.   

3.  Now go back to your own book.  Make a chart with three columns.  Write one character's name at the top of each column, so you have a separate column for each of them.  On the left side of the chart write these categories:  Hair, Skin, Clothing, Gestures, Movement, Objects, Voice.     

4.  Fill in the answers for each character for each category.  For instance, your character Joe might have black hair, olive skin, wear jean jackets and boots, talk with his hands, walk slow, carry a penknife, and have a raspy cigarette-smoker's voice.  Compare what you get for each of the characters.  Ask yourself:  are they different enough?  How can you make them more so? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back--Getting Your Work Out in the World

It's been an up and down week.  I got news on Monday of a student whose short story was accepted by a very prestigious journal and who'd been nominated for an equally prestigious award.  I also heard from three clients whose books were accepted for publication this month.  Very sweet. 

I also got an email from a student, raw from having pages of his manuscript critiqued by two colleagues at the university where he works.  He was soldiering on but underneath his good questions--how seriously do I take these comments?--I could hear the discouragement.  "It's like that old Bruce Springsteen song," he said.  "One step forward, two steps back."

Another colleague who just sold her manuscript to a very good publisher said she'd gotten feedback from her agent over the summer that depressed her so much, it took weeks to get over it.  Basically, a major rewrite, and she'd already spent years on this novel.  Was it really necessary?  She ate a lot of ice cream and eventually got back to her desk, made a revision list, and dove in.  "Lucky I did," she said, "because I didn't see the problems staring me in the face.  Now that it's going to be published, in this new version, I'm embarrassed I thought it was finished before."

We don't just get to learn the craft of writing a good book, which takes a long time (trust me!).  We also have to learn how to get it out into the world.  And the world isn't automatically a friendly place for many artists. 

This week, I joined a private Facebook group for rejection support.  No kidding.  These exist, and they're actually quite wonderful.  They are made up of mostly published writers who are needing help getting their new writing out into the world.  We post our rejection letters, one after the other.  I'm new to the group so still learning the ropes, but it has a feeling of hope, enthusiasm, and encouragement, despite the downer of a topic.

If you're planning to submit your work, there are skills to gain.  One is to become friendly with rejection. 

I don't think it requires a thick skin, though.  My best writing comes from a place of vulnerability and honesty about what I see and want to write about.  If I cover that over too much, I don't write as well.  So the goal, for me at least, is to view the process as a kind of game instead of a desperate search for acceptance and acknowledgment.  Because publishing can be that, for many writers. And the danger is, when publishing or not is tied to your self-worth as a creative person, you begin to die a little every time someone says no.

Why do that to yourself?

Easy for you to say, you might think.  Yes, I've published a lot.  But each time I send something out, I still have the butterflies.  I still feel the desperation.  The need for someone out there to love it, unconditionally.  I think a lot of published writers do.

I recently came across a method that I'm trying out, along with the Facebook rejection support group:  set a goal for a number of rejections, not a number of acceptances.  If you're shopping for agents, make a long list (maybe 100 to start) of ones you've researched and like, and be willing to (1) not hear back from at least 25 of them, (2) get no from another 50, (3) get comments and some small encouragements from 10, and (4) possibly have 15 who like your query enough to ask for more.  That's about the going average, right now. 

The theory is simple:  it's a numbers game, and the more you submit, the higher your chances on getting that "please send more" response.

You may not be close to sending out query letters, but if you are, here's a great article from the Kenyon Review on this method of accumulating rejections.  It's your weekly writing exercise this week. 

One step forward. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nonfiction Book Success--The Challenge of Telling Someone Else's True Story

One of my favorite kinds of emails come from past students in my book-structuring classes whose books are being published.  Three such emails came to my inbox this week, and I wanted to share the story behind one of them in this week's blog.


When I first met journalist Ed Orzechowski in one of my classes, his book project fascinated me.  It wasn't an easy task to write a true story about a patient at the infamous Belchertown institution.  But Ed persevered.  You'll Like It Here, the true story of Donald Vitkus, patient #3394, is being released this month from Levellers Press.  I asked Ed to share some of the process of building a book on someone else's true--and horrific--story. 


Abandoned by his unwed mother during World War II, Donald Vitkus became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was 27 days old.  Six years later as "Patient #3394," he was committed to Belchertown State School, where he was labeled a "moron" with an I.Q. of 41. Like hundreds of other institutions across the country, Belchertown was a de-humanizing environment of barred windows, locked doors, and brutal regimentation.
 
Resistant to authority, Donald refuses mind-numbing medication, smokes contraband cigarettes, joins an escape committee, and learns of the outside world on a black-and-white TV. He later serves in Vietnam, searches for his family, marries, and earns a college degree-all in a lifelong battle to convince others, and himself, that Donald Vitkus is not a moron.  You'll Like It Here is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit.

Interview with author Ed Orzechowski     

What's your background as a writer?
I'm a retired high school English teacher, and moonlighted for several years as a radio news reporter. As a freelancer, I've written many newspaper and magazine pieces, including columns, op-eds, and features.
How did you get interested in this story?
My wife and I are board members of an organization that advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities. My sister-in-law is severely autistic. In 2005 I arranged a book signing at a local community college for the founder of our organization. He had self-published a book about a federal class-action lawsuit he initiated over horrifying conditions at Belchertown State School in western Massachusetts and other institutions. At that signing, a 62-year-old student named Donald Vitkus told me he himself had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to write his story. That conversation evolved into this book.
How did you begin writing it?  What research did you take on?
Even though this wasn't the story of my own life, I took a couple of memoir writing courses. Our first assignment was to write just one scene, and that's what I did.
Most of the research occurred at my dining room table, interviewing Donald. I recorded our talks (nearly 24 hours in total), transcribed them, and worked from those notes. A major plus was that Donald had acquired detailed records from his years in the institution, many of which are reproduced in the book. I talked to his family, other former residents of the state school, a historian with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, visited libraries and museums, read related books, and, of course, searched the web.
Describe your working relationship with Donald.  How often did you correspond?  What did you talk about?  How much artistic license did you take in creating a readable story?
We met intermittently over a few years. In our initial talks, Donald related incidents that occurred while he was living at Belchertown, many of them painful and disturbing memories, some of them humorous. He told me about his Vietnam service, his work, his education, and his family. He shared everything. It was difficult to establish a time line because his memories were scattered. I pursued whatever piqued my interest, and sometimes he cried. Over the course of these conversations, we became close friends.
The challenge was to reconstruct scenes and dialogue without compromising fact. This is a true story, told in first person from Donald's point of view. For lack of a better term, I call it narrative nonfiction. I made every effort to use Donald's voice, to remain accurate and faithful to his account. In the interest of privacy, I changed a few names. But there are no fabricated incidents because we both wanted to convey what actually happened in this community within a community, and how those eleven years locked away from society affected his entire life.
How long did it take? 
I laugh because the title of those initial courses was "Writing the Nine-Month Memoir." It took me eight years.
What were the steps to complete the book?
The interviewing was fascinating, and the transcribing tedious. At the same time, I needed to learn how to write a book. I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words, and knew nothing about structure, flow, dialogue, story arc, etc. I joined writers' groups, attended dozens of workshops and conferences, and took all three parts of your online class, Your Book Starts Here, through The Loft Literary Center. Your guidance and the feedback from other students were invaluable.
Anything else you'd like to share with readers here?
Two things. First of all, what a privilege it has been to be allowed intimate access inside the life of another human being. Second-now that our book is about to launch-the discovery that there's a lot more work involved in marketing a book after you finally hold a finished copy in your hand.

You're invited to meet Ed and Donald at the book launch on Sunday, November 13, at 4:00 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, Florence MA 01062.  You can purchase the book here.