Friday, September 24, 2021

The Delight and Danger of Using Dreams, Journal Entries, Texts, Letters, and Other Passive Devices in Your Book

Ever been with a friend who wants to tell you a dream? It starts with a circus, then they're fishing off the coast of Mexico, then someone is in a diner listening to bad C&W music. On and on the telling goes, one weird scene after another. If you're like me, you begin to feel like you're watching bad home movies.

Dreams are super important in my personal life: I've recorded my dreams since I was in college and still do it faithfully. I know my dreams are often quite meaningful to me. But I don't impose them on anyone else. Hard to make sense of if you weren't there.

Have you also noticed that dreams aren't used a lot in published writing? Maybe because they are part of the backstory of a character's life, but a wobbly, illogical part of that backstory, which readers rarely can make sense of.

Using dreams is, as one of my writing mentors once said, a cheater's approach to revealing meaning. I'm not sure I buy that; sometimes dreams work really well in story, in my opinion. But the point my mentor was trying to pass on: if you can't show that meaning in scene, don't resort to the magical revelation of a dream to deliver it. Makes sense.

I find dreams are a good placeholder of meaning, in early drafts especially when you don't yet know the depth of a character's inner life. I often plug them in as markers that remind me to bring in more meaning just there. But as I revise, I trim them way back. I've learned not to lean on them to reveal meaning in final drafts because they read like a shortcut.

Devices are shortcuts to meaning. Something a writer employs with certain purpose, to get a certain effect. Other devices might be using present tense throughout a book. Or short chapters. Or choppy sentences (called fragments).

Used skillfully, devices can be amazing tools and make the writing feel almost magical. But if the reader discerns the magician behind the magic, it ceases to be magical and interesting.

Letters, emails, texts, and journal entries are also devices, or shortcuts to revealing the narrator's inner thoughts or feelings. Therapy appointments in a story are similar. These are considered passive devices because the action goes only one way. The narrator is talking to herself, even in a therapy setting. We don't see the therapist as a real person, most of the time.

So I'm also very cautious about using excerpts from journals or texts, etc.

Some writers make a show of these. I loved the novel by Maria Semple, Where'd You Go , Bernadette? It's partly about the Microsoft community and the device of texts, emails, memos, etc., echoes the distance of the online life, at least to me.

So, back to dreams. If you love dreams (like I do) and want to use them in your fiction or memoir, here are some things to watch out for:

1. Since dreams read as shortcuts to meaning, they can feel to the reader as if the author is standing on the sidelines, telling us "This is what her angst is all about" or "Here's why he has to be a hero right now." Ask yourself, Why do I need this shortcut? Why not show the meaning through developed scene? Granted, more work involved, but the payoff in tension and reader engagement is worth it.

2. If you use dreams as placeholders, a kind of mental note that you intend to show meaning but can't think of how at the moment, be sure to add a clear note to your revision checklist to scan for all dreams. Most writers don't realize how often they use them! Plan to rework the majority into scene.

3. In some genres of fiction, and in some memoir, dreams can denote a bizarre parallel to reality--alternated states. Or prophetic dreams can be useful for foreshadowing. But again, watch out for overuse. These stand out, and too many make your reader stand back and disengage.

Your weekly writing exercise is to check out this great article from about the top ten uses of dreams in literature. Note the kind of book cited. If yours is similar, and you're eager to use a dream here and there, study how the author did it. What transitions are used between the dream and the present-time story? How long is the dream excerpt?

Friday, September 17, 2021

Don't Really Like Your Characters? Tips on Working with Unsavory--or Outright Bad--People in Your Stories

A reader once sent me an excellent question. You know those characters in your story--memoir or fiction, especially--who turn out to be less than appealing? People we'd normally avoid in real life (and perhaps have), but who somehow made it onto the pages.

"I have many stories in which the characters are not easily appreciated," this writer told me. "I am sure many of my stories will be filled with hints of resentment, bitterness and disdain. Many players acted badly, and hurt the lives of many people. I guess forgiveness is due, but the facts are the facts. How do I deal with that?"

Maybe you're not writing another Hannibel Lecter, not even close. But these people are still bad. And as writers, we still spend time with them, but will readers want to? That same week, I spoke with a fellow thriller reader who ended up very disappointed when the bad guys triumphed in the final pages of a book she was reading. Why'd the author do that? she wondered. Such a let down, after a great story.

You may not be of this ilk. Some writers love bad, or let's say, edgy characters. Maybe not well liked but admirable because they speak their minds. Or don't care what others think. Or maybe they aren't edgy, just boringly bitter and passive, a regular whiner. Not someone you'd want to hang around.

The dilemma still stands, no matter where on the bad spectrum your character lives. How do you, the writer, make these folks live on the page with enough engagement and prevent your readers from setting the story aside out of disgust?

A negative character isn't like a downward turn of plot. Plot changes. People often do, but they don't always, especially if their nastiness is part of who they are. You may end up with the same badness at the end. And you still have to keep the reader reading.

As always, I like to learn from the masters.

Tobias Wolff wrote a fabulous short story called "Bullet in the Brain." I taught this story for many years in writing workshops for its complexity and because it gives writers so much information on working with unsavory characters.

Wolff presents a character, Anders, who is pretty despicable. So much so that he gets himself killed halfway through the story. But the way Wolff continues the story, revealing Anders beneath the anger, boredom, and frustration that makes him a really bad guy, is brilliant.

We end the story actually feeling the depths of humanness, even in this miserable person. How is this possible? How does the process work, for the writer, while he or she is putting the story together?

I had such a character in my first novel, Qualities of Light (which, by the way, I'm excited to announce was just rereleased in a gorgeous, updated second edition in paperback and on Kindle. Check it out here). Mel was the first character that "came" to me when I began writing this story. He was also the subject for a short story published many years before the novel.

Melvin was a pest; he didn't let me stop writing about him, even though I grew to really dislike him. I didn't like his name either (apologies to anyone named the same!) but that was what I got and I couldn't change it. He was a Melvin.

I found him to be everything you don't want in a friend or relative: self-absorbed, terrifically talented but mean-spirited about it, short with loved ones, and a betrayer at his worst. A painter, who hasn't actually had affairs, Melvin falls in love with his models and does everything but sleep with them. Somehow he believes this is OK, justified by his need to "absorb beauty."

Bleech. My writing groups, three of them over the years Melvin haunted me, hated him too. The first one actually told me they really didn't want to hear more Melvin scenes until he got nicer.

So what's a writer to do?

One summer I took a writing class online with Josip Novakovich. Josip liked Melvin. He wanted me to push this character even further towards self-absorption and crankiness and betrayal. I baulked for a while then ended up trying it. When I had Mel actually commit the worst of his possible deeds, he ended up revealing a surprising depth--and personal wounds that went back to childhood.

Before Josip, I wanted to dump Melvin like a bad lunch date. But pushing him past my own boundaries of acceptable behavior let me ge1t to know the true person inside the bad one. I saw how, just in real life, human beings in fiction have many sides, not just bad or good. Like Anders, who finishes Wolff's story recognizing astonishing beauty, so Mel presented me with surprising shades of gray when I let him go.

After Qualities of Light was published, a reader told me, "I loved your book, and by the end I even got to like Melvin." My greatest complement.

Here's an idea: This week, find someone bad in your story. A real person or a fictional one. Interview them on paper. Pretend you are a very skilled interviewer who knows how to get to the truth about someone. First ask them what bad stuff they've done. Get them to be specific--who have they cheated, lied to, stolen from, or worse? Then begin asking them about good stuff they've done--even small.

Finally ask your character about their missed chances, their longings, what they wanted from life but never got. Push them towards whatever direction they're inclined. You might find yourself traveling beneath their bitterness into the innocence they once had.

If you can, get ahold of "Bullet in the Brain" (search for it online, or better, read Wolff's entire short-story collection, Back in the World, which includes Anders' adventure. Read as a writer, asking yourself how Tobias Wolff allows us to see a bad character in a good light.

The ending lines of "Bullet in the Brain" are particularly important, so pay attention, but don't read ahead. It's a great surprise.

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Surprising Benefits of Writing Every Day--Why Practice Gets Us Closer to Perfect

A writing colleague once said: "If I'm away from my book more than three days, it's like starting over again."

Have you experienced this? I have. It's no fun.

The desire in many creative artists--and why we're so frustrated when our regular lives interfere--is for a practice. Something that we can show up to every single day and feel connected with, some ritual that feeds us at the soul level. A practice we have permission for, with our other obligations, including family, friends, and work. That doesn't feel like we're stealing time from other, more important things.

I personally believe this is why Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writers Month, is so popular. We make a commitment to write every single day, about 2000 words. We join virtually with thousands of other writers in a strange and creative global community. We give ourselves permission to do this for one month (or, if you join nanowrimo camp in summer, more often). We don't care how rough the writing is--we just show up and do it.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Writing from the End: How Endings Create Satisfying Beginnings in a Book

Many years ago, I read a debut novel by M.L.Stedman, called The Light between Oceans. It taught me something important about endings and reader satisfaction.

The gorgeous title and very interesting premise called to me--a lighthouse keeper and his wife who live on a remote island off the coast of Australia find a baby in a boat that washes up on shore. The wife, desperately childless after three miscarriages, argues to keep the baby. The husband wants to contact the mainland and let them know, thinking that some mother there will be equally desperate. But the wife wins, they keep the child, and their world cracks in unexpected ways.

Although I love reading just for reading's sake, I have been reading as a writer for a very long time now. I have a writer's high expectations. I found the prose lovely, with generous use of images and tense character interaction. The setting of the rocky island and its isolation, the keen details about the lighthouse, were amazingly crafted.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Rest Breaks for Book Writers--Feeding the Inner Artist--and When to Get Back to Work

We packed up our camper van and headed to the beach for four days. The puppies are very happy in the camper; it's a contained space, so monitoring their housetraining is easier.

The first two days, I had planned to write. I was enjoying--so much--editing the final chapters of my new novel from my agent's suggestions. But, to my dismay, I could barely open my ipad or laptop. Instead, I found myself sitting in the sunshine, watching the dogs play.

I lay in our travel hammock and stared at pine trees, wondering where I was.

More important, who I was. Clearly not the writer I'd planned to be during this trip--far from it.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Approaching Summer Reading--Like a Writer

Back in the day, I came across a book on writing by the renowned teacher and author Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer changed how I approached my reading. I still read for the pleasure of being immersed in a story, of learning, of becoming inspired. But now I took something else away from my reading time: techniques I could use in my own books as a writer.

Prose's book is one you've no doubt read yourself--if you haven't, be sure to!--and I learned much from her step-by-step unraveling of story.

It was a similar change in awareness that happened when I discovered storyboards and the five turning points of well-structured stories. I remember watching a film not long after my first storyboard immersion. My family grew very tired of my muttering "a perfect point #2" or "there's the all is lost moment." But my admiration for good structure and my new understanding of how writers achieved it did change my take-away from good movies.

Friday, July 30, 2021

When to Research, When to Write: How to Balance the Different Kinds of Book-Writing Tasks

Starting a new book is always a great adventure. The idea comes--so many different ways that can happen, from a dream, some intriguing research or a news article, a question ruminating, the image of characters, even a conversation playing in your head. Some writers begin with a storyboard, some with an outline, some launch right into scenes and chapters.

Most books require research, no matter the genre. Take my current novel, located on an island I once visited and never forgot. I spent a half day online verifying facts about the geography and climate, so I could pepper the narrative with realistic details (not quite as delightful as another visit but necessary). A writing colleague is working on Civil-War historical fiction--tons of research about place, era, clothing, even speech is essential to create a believable setting. Memoir might need rereading journals or diaries, interviewing family and friends. Nonfiction is often the most research-intense, with hours or weeks of fact-searching and checking to make everything accurate.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Memoir's Primary Argument: Making Sure Your Memoir Is Universal, Not Just Personal

I've always loved this quote by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: "The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It's tapping in to your universality."

That's confused a lot of my students, though. What's universal have to do with anything? This is a story about me, my journey, my pain and discoveries.

Yes, in the early drafts, it is. Your conversation is a bit like the character from Stranger Than Fiction who talks to himself in the mirror. I mean this in the best possible way: we have to talk to ourselves to get the true story on the page. If we bring in invisible readers too soon, to member will lack authenticity.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Imagine Actually Finishing Your Book--A Three-Part Visualization Exercise (That Works!)

Summer can be a distracting or deepening time for writers--depends how much you are pulled away by the plethora of activity and energy in warm weather. I've got gardening and travel and now puppies on my plate, so it's easy to forget my book entirely. I've learned to keep it in my attention with a great three-part exercise, using visualization.

Visualizing your goals used to be a woo-woo exercise. Now sports teams and creative types use it a lot. A painter standing in front of a blank canvas might imagine the sketched-in composition. That's visualizing. A tennis pro imagines lobbing the ball to the perfect place in his opponent's court. Nothing weird about this, nothing at all.

Many pro writers use this "thinking from the end" idea--novelist Roxanna Robinson mentioned how she writes to an image when she begins a book. Sue Monk Kidd used an image board to create The Secret Life of Bees. All forms of visualization. I use it in the hot months as a creative exercise. Right now, am thinking about the end of my current book. I'm imagining the corrections done and it actually being finished!

This three-part creative visualization exercise can keep you brainstorming your book's completion, no matter where you are in the journey.

Step 1:
Grab some paper and a pen or your laptop. Set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes.

Write, without editing or censoring anything, about how you might feel when your book is finished. When it is published. Write your thoughts about how your life or sense of yourself as a writer might change. Write your fears and even terrors about others reading your work. Write any memories you have of other times when you've failed or succeeded in realizing a big goal.

Let the writing go wherever it goes--even if it brings up dark thoughts and feelings, which it might, as well as excitement. It's great to get it all out on paper where it can be seen for what is it.

Step 2:
Find a piece of 8-1/2 inch x 11 inch white paper that you can fold in half lengthwise to resemble a blank book cover. You're going to make a prototype of your cover. I love this exercise's power to really bring home the image of the published book.

You can do this with online images or pictures torn from magazines. If you decide to search online, a great free site is You may know of others. If you decide to do it more tactilely, you'll need 4-5 magazines and a pair of scissors, some glue or tape, and a big sheet of paper.

Set the kitchen timer for 30 minutes and scan the magazines or online site for the perfect image for the front of your book when it is published.

Print the image or cut it out and paste it to the front of your book cover. If you're savvy with Photoshop or another software, change and tweak as much as you want.

Feel free to grab a copy of a published book you love and study its cover for ideas.

Next, create your blurbs. Blurbs are the short testimonials on the back and front cover. In your wildest dreams, who do you want to write a blurb for your book? Which reviewers from The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly might read your book and rave about it? Draft some stellar reviews for your book and paste them to the back cover or below your cover image.

Want to do one more fun step? Some of my students go all out with this exercise, adding a bar code and back cover copy and even a spine. Get into it--it'll actually help you feel like you might someday finish!.

Put the completed cover on the wall of your writing space or take a photo and use it as wallpaper on your computer or device.

Step 3:
Design your publication party.

When books are published, someone (friends, relatives, book clubs, even the publisher sometimes) will throw you a publication party. When my first novel, Qualities of Light, was published, I had two parties! Lots of people came and I signed many copies of the book and read aloud from my favorite chapter. It was a blast.

Imagine your pub party. What would you just love to have as part of it? Music, food, literary stars, speeches, thousands of books sold? Set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes and list all your wishes.

Put these up where you can see them, too, in your writing room or on your desktop or phone. They are big boosts for days when you can't seem to find time or make any headway on your book this summer.

And pay attention to how they charge up your writing in the next week. Maybe they'll work for you like they did for me.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Pros and Cons of Workshopping Your Writing--How to Survive It, How to Gain the Most from It

Years ago, I attended a summer writing conference at one of the most renowned colleges in the US. A friend lived in the town, invited me to stay the week, and spend five days workshopping my short stories in a small group of writers from all over the country. I said yes. It sounded perfect for where I was in the process: I liked my stories and so did my writer's group, but I hadn't really opened the door to wider feedback.

It was a terrible experience.