Friday, June 25, 2010

Feedback and Critique--Finding Safety as Well as Good Growth

Writers need other writers.  I'm seeing this in action today, as my weekly book-writing class pairs off to exchange feedback on their storyboards.  The group is engrossed, the noise level in our classroom is high, and I'm listening carefully for enthusiasm and ah-ha moments.

When I eavesdrop on some of the conversations, I am impressed.  The feedback is s accurate, helpful, and kind. This class has been together for months and they respect each other.  A very necessary aspect of helpful feedback that opens doors for writers, rather than shutting them down.

In this corner of the room, I hear

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Following a Different Path: Is an MFA Right for You and Your Book?

Scan any writers' magazine, browse any writers' website, and you read about Master of Fine Arts programs.  Are MFA programs all they're cracked up to be?  Is it worth the time, the money, the sheer effort?  I changed my life to get my MFA.  But I could also say my MFA changed my life.  I'm forever grateful I decided to get it, despite the cost, the profound shifts it demanded of my routine.

Yet some writers go down this path and find it's not the be-all, end-all it's advertised.  How can you evaluate such a huge step, especially if you are aiming to get a book published in this lifetime?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Emotional Arc of Your Story--How Act 1 and Act 2 Create Rhythm a Reader Will Follow

I've been reading Amy Bloom's new book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, a collection of interrelated short stories that form a sort of novel.  Although a few stories were published in earlier collections, this grouping takes the characters another step.

I like practically everything I've read of Bloom's work.  I appreciate the intricate weavings she manages, and I often recommend her to students struggling with character and pacing.

There's a trend in publishing right now of such collections, sometimes called story cycles.  Olive Kitteridge won much attention last year; it's a group of stories about a small town in Maine and a fierce retired schoolteacher.  It's tricky to create a story cycle that keeps the reader engaged as well as a novel, leaving us wanting to dive into the next chapter without hesitation once we finish one story.  Short stories by their nature are complete in themselves.  But a story cycle must release some of that finished feel and create a whole-book rhythm.

In Olive Kitteridge, author Elizabeth Strout stays with the traditional rules--a group of characters, a single place--which gives sense to the collection.  Olive builds a strong emotional arc and can be looked at as a three-act structure without much difficulty.  Act 1 sets the stage for

Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Bad Things Happen to Us or to Others--Dealing with Deep Emotion in Your Writing

I was in my forties when I experienced my first up-close-and-personal death.  Elderly relatives passed away when I was younger, but I was young, and although I missed them, often terribly, the deaths didn't have the same impact as when a close contemporary died.

Jan was not a close friend, but she was a person I admired.  She was intensely creative, a quilter and artist, and I liked how her creativity seeped onto everything she touched.  I felt privileged to know her.

She and I had lunch about six months before she died, quite suddenly, of cancer.  She survived treatments for breast cancer, was dealing with bone cancer, and carried a cane.  We met for lunch in a restaurant called the Good Earth, and each of us ordered a big salad.  I remember how Jan's cane hung across the back of her chair; I remember how its silver tip caught the overhead lights.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Writing Outside Your Story: Using Short Self-Assignments When You Don't Have Anything to Write About

I first learned about short self-assignments from Natalie Goldberg's well-known Writing Down the Bones.  Goldberg introduced the concept of "freewriting" to us with that book, and many writers discovered new energy to sail past writing stall-outs by giving themselves freedom to write small, short, and random.

Working on a book project often brings me a sense of being so overwhelmed, I can't think of anything to write about.  I make brainstorming lists of topics, and this helps.  But sometimes I have to write outside my story, just to get the momentum going again.

Short self-assignments help tremendously.

In her book, Thunder and Lightning, Goldberg told the story of a time when she and a friend were stuck, unhappy, and unable to think of how to move forward creatively.  They tried talking.  They tried taking a hike.  But nothing worked until they both sat down and did a timed writing session.  As I remember the anecdote, they picked a topic outside their current writing projects, something that had less importance or weight, and this freed up the stuckness.