Monthly Archives: July 2013

Joining a Writer’s Group

Finding other writers is easy for some, difficult for others. I live in a remote part of Texas and the closest writer’s group is thirty miles away. It’s an off and on again group that had four people present the last time I met. I also belong to a writer’s group that is about two hours away. Last year I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). All these allowed me to meet other writers  and share stories about writing.

Meeting other writers is essential. One of the first things you discover is that the ‘problems’ you have experienced are not unique to you. There are other writers out there who have the same issues. Another is that other writers have developed solutions to common problems in writing. At conferences and workshops they are often willing to share their wisdom.

My experience has been that the longer I write, the more valuable other’s ideas are. Seems odd, doesn’t it? Here’s why that’s true. When I first started writing, everything was an uphill learning experience. As I continued, the learning curve started to level out, then I began to understand some of the other writer’s suggestions and ideas. I think I was just too overwhelmed to fully understand what they were saying.

Another benefit from meeting other writers is sometimes you find someone who is an old salt with many publications who is willing to read your work and critique your writing. I’m very careful about doing this. I want someone who will be honest and helpful and not damaging. The last thing is hard to know before you know. So, I do that based on ‘feel.’ If something doesn’t feel right between me and the other person, I will decline an offer to read my work. I had an old family therapy instructor who used to say, “If you feel like something is going on, it usually is.” That’s why I decline (though I have seldom done so). I’m trusting my feelings. Almost all my readers have been extremely helpful.

Finally, sometimes you find someone who has overcome many obstacles you haven’t met yet. If you are lucky, that someone will be caring and sharing and will be willing to guide you through the minefield.

 

Perfect Writing Every Time

When I was in school, I had a professor call me in to talk to me about my writing. She was not happy with it.

As she pointed out my errors, I said in exasperation, “I’m not a perfect writer like you.” She asked me what I meant by that. I told her I couldn’t write something once and have it come out perfectly. She asked me what made me think she could. Well, I told her I knew she had numerous publications in academic journals and books. I just assumed she could write something that was publishable in the first sitting. She couldn’t.

She showed me seven bins of colored paper on a shelf. She asked me if I’d ever wondered why she had seven colors of paper. I said, rather weakly, I just thought you liked colors.

“No,” she said, ” I write and rewrite seven times before I send my work to a publisher.”

I had only rewritten papers a few times. I rewrote only when I lost a paper on the computer or physically lost it. It had never occurred to me that anyone, and I mean anyone, would rewrite a paper seven times – not even two. Somehow I’d missed out on the necessity of editing one’s own work.

So, I began learning to edit my own writing. Many encourage writers to write without editing the first time through. I have no problem with that. I can get so caught up in my own stories I can’t even spell my name correctly.

I believe that my right brain takes over when I’m being creative. Then I have to go back, make corrections, and change random writing into a linear story, one that makes sense. (There’s much written on this on the Internet. See, for example: WOW! Women on Writing

Many advise author to read their writing aloud. The theory is that you will hear your errors. When we read to ourselves silently, we often read what we think we wrote, not what is actually on the paper. So, the solution many propose is to read aloud.

I’ve found a problem with that. No, it’s not that it’s embarrassing if someone else is around. It is that I read a few paragraphs, then fall into reading silently again. I can seldom get beyond a few paragraphs and never through a whole page, before my concentration is broken and I begin to read silently. (Which means, of course, that I begin to hear what I thought I wrote, not what I actually wrote.) So, reading aloud doesn’t work very well for me.

Here’s something that does. I use Excel’s Speak Cells feature to read to me in Word 10. I highlight half a page, then click on the speak emblem on the toolbar, then read the paragraphs as I listen. The effect for me is that even if my mind starts to drift a little, I hear errors better, and if I ‘see’ words that aren’t there, the Speak Cells feature doesn’t. So, I realize when I’m adding words that aren’t there.

An added benefit is that wordiness, clumsy phrases, redundancy, etc. becomes easier to find.

Try it. (To see how to use Speak Cells go to Herb Tyson Technical Blog.

More on Show don’t Tell

A problem I have with this aphorism is this: Show doesn’t have the strength it should to connote what its supposed to here. So what’s it supposed to mean? Show means that you present your story in such a way that the reader not only can see, but is also drawn in, and experiences your story as if he or she was there. Your story becomes a visceral experience, one in which the reader has real feelings.

For example, I had one of the characters die in my book, Anthem I. I introduced him in the first chapter and had him die in the second. I needed the character to set the tone of the story and to help explain how the main character came to know so much. But, after that, he would hinder the story, not help it.

So, I had him die of a mysterious illness.

One of my readers that I know personally saw me at her place of business. She was riding a golf cart some 100 yards away. When she saw me, she turned the cart and came straight for me. I stopped and waited knowing that she was reading my books. I hoped she would share a comment.

When she was close enough to be heard, she said, “I’m mad at you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you killed James McCartney. I liked him. Why did you have to kill him?” she asked as she hit me on my shoulder. I think her action indicated how much she was involved in the story.

That is what it means to ‘show.’ Maybe the aphorism should be, “See don’t say.” or maybe, “See, say, and do.”

Storytelling and Writing: the Difference

Storytelling is a folk art. Mark Twain (SC) thinks it’s an American folk art. The way he tells it, storytelling has to do with timing, pace, arrangement of content, and surprise. That’s a tall order, though I don’t disagree with Mr. Twain.

I noticed when I was a teen that arranging the content was a critical skill of storytelling. You can blurt out the punch line way too early, or give away critical elements that ruins the surprise. You can miss the timing and lose your audience or mess up the pace and stumble in your own story. All these things can go wrong, but a well told story is a delight in itself. That’s when I began to apprentice storytelling. I watched and listened to storytellers like I was studying a craft passed on by masters.

Storytellers learn their art from listening to well-told stories. So, it’s critical to be born in the right region, to the right people with the right skills. Apparently, some people give those things little thought. The worst problem of the lot is being born to the wrong people. That’s just carelessness.

Fortunately, I was born into a family of storytellers from the south. Automatically, I had things right. Family gatherings abounded with well told stories. When we weren’t with family, friends were great storytellers too. It was of greater fortune I was born in Texas home of the greatest storytellers on God’s little green earth (well, not so much since global warming, but that’s another story.).

There are rules for storytelling, but not the same rules as for writing. In writing you can stumble on spelling, grammar, word splitting, articles, conjunctions, pronouns, and so on. The list is endless. It is so exact and endless it is a surprise anything gets written. In storytelling, none of those things matter. What matters most is the effect of the story. The most prized effects are surprise, laughter, head shaking, and exclamations like, “Ain’t that the God’s truth?” in that order. The worst thing that can happen with story telling is your listeners give you  a blank look as in, they just didn’t get the story. That’s real bad. It could get you exiled from Texas to… dare I say… Oklahoma! Such a cruel fate.

 

Take a Stand vs. Keep Moving

I recently went to an ocean beach. There I watched a young man standing at the tide’s edge, trying to be still. Every few moments, it appeared he was off balance, he would adjust his stance, only to have to take another stance in less than a minute.

The problem was, the tide was taking sand away from under his feet. His momentarily stable position was undermined as soon as he took it. He would have had a more stable position if he kept moving.

That has something to say to writers about the critics around them. The critics are like the tide. They undermine you every time you take a stand. The only way to beat them is to take them with a grain of salt (water) and keep going.

I’m reminded of something one of my mentors said to me years ago. It wasn’t entirely new, but it pertains. When was talking about winners and losers, he said winners reach the goals they set for themselves. Other writers, James and Jongleward defined winners like this:

“Winners are independent and act autonomously. They know their limits. For winners, it is not the most important to achieve something, but to be authentic. They see the others and reality, as they are and have no illusions. They admit their needs and feelings, even when these might sometimes be contradictory. They can allow themselves to make mistakes sometimes and to admit these: they admits (sic) their guilt. They can even lose their self-confidence temporarily without losing belief in themselves.

Winners are independent in their judgment and accept responsibility for their lives. They live in the now, without denying their past or being blind to the future. They accept what the present offers, joy or pain, society or loneliness, physical or spiritual pleasure.”

Keep moving.

Hunter’s Gaze (follow up to Salt Water Fishing)

When I was a kid, I used to go hunting with my dad. He grew up in the 20s and 30s in Texas where hunting was part of daily living. His family’s meals were supplemented by hunting. He would sit with me in the forest watching for game. Periodically, he would nod or point at something I couldn’t see. I would shake my head no, then he would point again, sometime to a nearby place. After hunting, he would say, “You’re looking at the trees, you must look between the trees.”

That didn’t help. He remained the expert and I, the novice. One day he added a little extra instruction, “Use a soft gaze. Don’t look at any one thing. See everything without looking at one thing. Look between the trees.”

I wondered how to do that, but began trying. After a time, I could see everything between the trees while focusing on nothing. Then a bird flitted to one side. Another bird to the other. I could see them both, where before, I could see nothing. Later, a deer appeared moving in my soft gaze. I could easily see it moving with my soft focus. Only a few minutes before it would have been invisible to me.

The story about Salt Water Fishing and this story illustrate for me that the writer must have a different way of seeing. In both my stories, there was the ‘normal’ way of seeing and a skilled way. The skilled way allowed me, or anyone else, to see the world in an entirely new way.

That, I think, is what writing is about: seeing the world in a new or different way.

Once I was traveling with a friend, Jack, and we shared some experiences. When we returned to our school (a catholic university), we sat with a nun and I began to talk about our experiences together. The nun turned to Jack and said, “Is that what really happened?”

Jack thought for a moment, then said, “Everything Roger said is absolutely true. I just never would have thought to tell it that way.”