Getting from Here to There
Transitions. From the time we began writing in elementary school, we’ve been taught to make sure we had an introduction, a conclusion, and transitions. Blah, blah, blah.
It’s such an institutional-sounding word. But to be fair, transitions are important. They help the reader follow what in the world we were thinking of when we wrote whatever it is we wrote.
In non-fiction, transitions can give our text, well, context. For instance, after expounding the merits of women leaders in a preceding paragraph, we can’t just jump into “Quality of time spent with a child is, in the end, more significant than the number of hours.” Huh!? One little sentence or two like “One of the fears we have about women in leadership positions is their (in)ability to provide a stable and loving environment for their children. However, in fact . . .” can help readers cross the bridge of text with us.
Not that all women have children. Or that dads can’t help. Save your comments. But do remember to make connections for your readers.
Fiction can be a little trickier. While it’s nice to jump from the couple on the couch drinking wine to the scary guy tapping on the window outside, letting the readers vicariously experience the shock and fear of the moment, it doesn’t hurt to give them just a little forewarning. Because irl, our first reaction when we do hear a noise is confusion. What did we hear? We look at each other, maybe over the poised wine glasses, then realize it’s outside the window and it’s SOMEBODY.
Just remember to fill in those little connections between the train cars.
Telling the truth, particularly in writing, is not just about the facts. It is much more about meaning, about why something really matters.
Writing in the language of honesty entails what Donald Maas, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, calls a willingness “to draw upon our deepest selves without flinching.” So that when we write about poverty, it’s not enough to just say, “There was little money for food. We were always hungry.” This alone conveys a generic state that is open for interpretation by the reader—who may or may not have ever been really poor. Rather, telling the reader that “only on the first days of the month, after Pop got paid, could we feel safe from the ever-present specter of starvation, of disappearing . . .” lets them feel for a moment the impact of abject poverty.
Dip your whole writing self into the pool of honesty. And happy writing!
Love It Enough to Let It Go
One of the most common, and one of the hardest, pieces of advice that I’ve learned from many authors is to let go of what doesn’t work, or fit, anymore in your manuscript. And often these are the scenes, or the descriptions, that we love the most.
Maybe you got the whole idea of your novel when you were standing in the rain waiting for a ride, and noticed a couple fighting. Tayari Jones relates a similar impetus to her book An American Marriage. So you start your book with a rainy day. Maybe the woman is crying in the rain (all right, corny, but you get the idea). It’s a moving scene. You love it.
But then 75 pages into your book, you find that it is really about the observer, how each of us writes our life’s narrative based on what we observe. And it’s great. But the crying woman doesn’t fit anymore. You, and the reader, have lost track of the woman and her lover.
As great as the original opening scene is (let’s imagine her glancing at the clouds before the rain comes, then glancing at her lover’s impassive face…so much could be done here) Let. It. Go. Move on with your book about the observer. That crying woman will wait her turn for another novel.
Have you ever found yourself reading a book and thinking you don’t give a damn whether or not the trees were in bloom? And why the author is going on and on about the forsythias? Truthfully, sometimes it doesn’t matter. But often it does.
Scenery – the weather, the seasons, the details in the surroundings – can serve a range of purposes. For one thing, showing the change of seasons can provide a timeline for, say, a love affair. Instead of titling chapters April, June, etc., you can have the protagonist/lover viewing the yearly cycles of barren and blossom in a tree outside the window. Scenery can also help weave a theme into a book. Let’s say the book is about loneliness. The protagonist (probably not a lover this one) walks through crowds of people on the way to work, everyone conversing while s/he speaks to no one.
Remember writing a book is writing a world – one that your readers can inhabit for awhile. Let’s face it, it’s why most of us read.
Between Fiction and Non-Fiction
Whether we are writing a “true” account, or a story that could happen, each requires us – if we are to do justice in the telling – to insist on holding out for the right word, the best phrasing, to fully birth our vision. It is the difference between someone being “devastated” by an event, and “knowing she will never breathe deeply again.” It is about carefully wrapping the gift for our readers.
Inviting the Muse
I just finished reading the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, which talks about the creative process. One of her tenets, sprinkled throughout the book, is something we hear all the time, which is to write anyway, even if we can’t think of anything to write, or if the work is coming out sounding stupid (my adjective, not hers. I have written many a stupid sentence that either got rewritten, or got replaced when I figured out exactly how I wanted to say it).
You may have struggled, as I have, with this idea of writing anyway. I tend to wait around until I feel so inspired that I have to write. So the idea of writing when I’m not inspired seems at best a waste of time, and maybe even oxymoronic. I want to say if you don’t have anything to write, stop writing.
But Gilbert’s, and many other authors’, advice is to write anyway. I particularly like the way she explained it, which was to “show up” for the Muse. In other words, be present for your writing. This means not only physically sitting down to write, but also (and sometimes in lieu of) allowing yourself the quiet time to let the rough clay of writing come through—the clay that will be sculpted later into the finished product.
Let me remind you, as Gilbert does, that most writers and artists in general have a life. Like work and kids and dog poop. But they show up. They write, or draw, anyway. They set aside time for the Muse. To at least make notes, to take a look at what they’ve written so far, and be thinking about what comes next. And then other times to write something.
You will be surprised, when you revisit your work, what has landed on the page. And that will inspire you to keep writing!
The Oxford online dictionary equates it to renewal, revival, or reawakening.
As I welcome myself back to blogging with you all, I am reminded of what resurgence means for our creative lives.
So often we think of our creative, writing life as separate from our make-a-living, feed the kids life. But in fact it is one life. Because writing creatively stems organically from thinking and living creatively.
And in complement, our creative writing lives can feed our everyday lives. This, I think, is central to dovetailing our writing aspirations with our quotidian rhythms and responsibilities.
Whether we are writing fiction or a political essay, our focus becomes directed toward both our inner and outer life, as we engage in the magical process of transmuting inspiration into communication.
But sometimes that magical process seems far removed from what we have to do to keep the lights on and the kids fed. Let me remind you that, like the tide, the time and inspiration required to write will ebb and flow. There will be a resurgence after each retreat, sometimes stronger after having been fed by the gristmill of daily living.
Knowing this, enjoy the precious days with your loved ones and building your lives brick by brick.
Body Language as Modifier
He was mad. She was afraid. She didn’t believe him. How else can you say it? Instead of phrases like “angrily,” remember you can add body language to both dialogue and action. Show that his jaw clenched, that she was twisting the end of her scarf. Let his eyes wander to the window for just a moment before he answers her. Be the director of your characters.
Adding Signposts to Your Story
Playwright Anton Chekhov tells us if your story has a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act, the gun better go off by the third act. So what does that mean for the rest of us who are not writing plays about shooting? It means, for the most part, every piece of your narrative needs to lead somewhere, and connect to other pieces of the narrative. And how does that impact your writing process? I will tell you, it impacts the process a lot. It is one of the key tenets of writing. It allows your many-sided story to become a cohesive whole that readers can feel connected to, like following the signposts on a journey. Here’s how it works: details like character description–for instance, a man who is always looking at his watch–can connect to an overarching theme of time running out in our battle against global warming. Or something less depressing. The cool thing is as you add details to your character and scenery you will begin to see patterns that can be woven together to carry the story–and your readers–along, keep it engaging. And you get to choose the way this happens. You’re the writer, after all!
Checking Academic References
Over the years, I have learned and developed different strategies for academic editing such as master’s theses and doctoral dissertations and wanted to pass on one of them. As we all know, not only is formatting the list of references tedious in its own right, but then matching the references against the text is an added time-consuming burden that is nonetheless necessary to assure the credibility of your document.
I recommend copying and pasting the references into a separate document, then have it open side by side with your document (available under the View menu – be sure to unclick synchronous scrolling). Then in your main document, search for each parenthesis (Edit/Find/( – just one half of the parentheses). This will show you your in-text citations which you can compare with the matching reference. You can relatively quickly identify if a reference is missing, and/or if the publication year and author spelling are correct. Highlight any discrepancies so that you can check your sources after you have gone through the document. Also, for APA formatting, to make sure that all your references are cited in text, I suggest you bold the references as you find them, so that any unbolded references may not be in the document (make a final check before you delete from your references).
I like to call this one of my Tricks of the Tedium Trade. Try it!