I’m back, readers, from a writing conference that took place in Tennessee, a state I’d never been to and a world unto its own. I had a wonderful time meeting other writers and sharing my own creative exploits, as well as hearing many a reading from some very distinguished southern writers.
What can a writer expect to get out of a writing conference? There are some writers who go hungry for the next big leap of their careers. They’re there to network, to shake hands, exchange cards, find the right person, the right reader for their books. On the other end of the spectrum are fledgling writers unsure of who they are or what they want, seeking permission to be writers for the first time in their lives. And there are all those in between, looking for advice, for validation, for a community.
For those of you seeking these things in your writing lives, I couldn’t recommend a good writing conference enough. It’s a wonderful balm to one’s spirit to be among people who already understand what you’re trying to do and why, who welcome the story of your journey and your work, your trials, triumphs, and frustrations. At the conference I attended, I found likeminded souls eager to share their work; I met poets who loved prose and fiction writers who devoured poetry; I gained a little insight into playwriting, a form I had barely understood. More than anything I felt that it was OK to be a writer; in fact, it was a good thing, an important thing, a quest to enrich my life and the lives of readers.
I also heard some heartening words about failure and patience. It was refreshing to hear award-winning writers like Alice McDermott and others explain how there comes a time in every novel’s life when it feels like the thing is a sinking ship. In that moment, McDermott explained, there’s a choice a writer must make; whether to abandon ship or try to steer the thing to shore, perhaps in a different form than what you thought it would take when you set out. We need to press on, to work through the disappointment, and discover the new surprises on the other side. We need to accept that feeling of a loss of control.
Now I’m back in my office, looking out on a street in Cambridge, still a little stunned that I won’t be plied with wine and cookies each evening anymore. It will take some adjusting to return to the real world; but I’ll carry the advice, the friendships, and the generous spirit of creative community with me.
It’s the ultimate test that your writing must pass: can you make your reader feel? That means not just feeling a little interest or pleasure or sadness — can you make your reader cry ugly tears and get the page all soggy? Some writers can, and they’re the ones succeeding these days; just look at John Green and his The Fault in Our Stars. The good news is that making your reader feel is a skill that you can learn. You’ll be making your friends sob uncontrollably in no time.
Choose a A Sympathetic Character.
While villainous or even annoying characters have their place in literature, they’re not typically the ones that make us weep. To make a reader feel, we need to feel connected emotionally to a character, as though the character is someone we could befriend or at least admire in real life. Choose an accessible character with a personality that intrigues you. The characters we connect to most strongly are often characters with desires we share or can identify with. So give your character a passion or a dream. Whether it’s a desire to find her long-lost brother or a passion for boat-building, we like folks who dream big and who want things.
Choose an Accessible, but Painful, Obstacle
Here comes the most crucial part; that character must be put in harm’s way. We need to feel that character is in eminent danger, whether that danger is emotional or physical. Oddly enough, it’s the more intangible problems that make us feel the most. We feel excited if a character is surrounded by rabid bears, but we feel emotional (and downright weepy) if the character is surrounded by cold people who don’t understand her. Give your character a problem that is clear and identifiable, but that carries real emotional risks. Look no further than John Green for that classic example of a very real problem (cancer) that carries heavy emotional baggage with it. And remind us that your characters are normal human beings, who are struggling to deal with this in normal human ways. We don’t cry when super heroes can use their laser vision to get out of a mess; we cry when ordinary humans can’t.
Give your character an impossible choice.
You’ve set us up beautifully for tears now, but you’ve got to bring it home by presenting your character (and us) with a terrible choice. There can’t be one good and one bad choice here — there have to be downsides to either decision. After all, that is what feels most real to us; in real life we often have to choose the least bad choice out of a series of bad choices. Don’t let the problem be solved too easily. If you give a character a life-threatening illness, for example, it feels like a cop-out to suddenly discover a cure. If your character finds a long-lost brother, perhaps the brother is not the person she thought he would be. There must be complications, because life is messy, and that’s why life makes us cry sometimes.
Follow these steps, and your readers will be bawling in no time!
Let’s face it: the world of writing, and writing careers, have changed drastically in the past decade. The internet and social media have changed what it means to be a writer, who can call themselves writers, and how we can succeed in this difficult world. If you’re a writer, you have to be a shark, constantly moving forward with the tide of how the culture reads. Here are three skills every budding writer should work on (on top of all that writing, of course).
1. Creating an online platform and persona.
Do you know how John Green won the hearts of millions? It all started with a Youtube channel he created with his brother, talking about his thoughts, telling jokes, and crafting funny videos. From there he created a platform of fans ready to read and enjoy his books. Today, many writers are expected to have a firm online presence. That might mean posting on Twitter or Facebook, or gaining fans and followers on sites like Teen Ink. If you want your writing career to take off, start creating relationships with followers online. Tell them your thoughts and solicit theirs.
2. Networking with other writers.
Never has it been more clear that connecting with other writers is a crucial skill. It’s a myth that writers must work in isolation; while the actual work needs peace and quiet, the other part of writing has always been about community. You can go back to Hemingway in Paris and note that he spent most of his time chatting with fellow writers in cafes, sharing his talent and helping with others’ writing. Being part of that community is still important today; after all, if you spread the word about a friend’s book, he’ll spread the word about yours! Think about making friends of other writers. Start a creative writing club at your school or a workshop circle. Share each others’ words, and you’ll be glad for those friendships in the years to come.
3. Be your own editor.
In the past, famous writers could dump a patchwork, sloppily-written manuscript at the desk of their editors and expect it to be polished to perfection. Now that competition is fiercer, what you put on the editor’s desk has to be near-perfect already. Whenever you send out stories to magazines, remember to POLISH it first! Make sure you’re happy with it in every way before it flies out of your hands; editors, agents, and publishers are hardly likely to be impressed with a story you’ve dashed off without a second thought.
What skills do you think you need to become a writer? And what’s your plan for working on them?
Just because we’re out of school doesn’t mean we can’t use the summer as a time to catch up on our reading. In fact, most of the writerly and readerly folk I know are hungry for those warm months when we can finally devote our energy and attention to a big ol’ book. In the past I’ve used summers to get through David Copperfield, Middlemarch, and War and Peace (not all in the same summer!). Your summer reading list doesn’t have to be hefty old tomes, though; it could be way to get your finger on the pulse of contemporary literature. Here’s the list of recently completed and upcoming books on my list, and why they’re already making my summer awesome.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Is it a coincidence that I picked up this book right around the 70th anniversary of D-Day? Either way, I’m glad I did. The reminders of the absolutely titanic struggles in the time of world war II are on my mind these days, and they’re brought to brilliant life in this intricate, epic, tender, crushing World War II-era novel. I haven’t actually read that many books from the perspective of the occupied French, but half of this book is closely with Marie-Laure, a young blind Parisian in love with her Braille edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and deeply attached to her father. On the eve of a calamitous firebombing by Americans, she will find herself in a northern seaside town scheduled for total destruction. And that’s only in the first chapter. Every other chapter will be following Werner, a penniless orphaned German boy determined to escape the life in the mines that has been slated for him. The book is dramatic, mythic, sometimes whimsical, but always moving.
The Sandman, Neil Gaiman
I’m working my way through Neil Gaiman’s funny, thought-provoking, and certainly dreamy comic book series about Morpheus, god of dreams. He is a very cool character, sometimes intimidating, sometimes gentle, sometimes merciful, sometimes horrifying. He reminds me a lot of a character from the Matrix, and I’m not just saying that because of the name.
Sleep Donation, Karen Russell
One of my favorite current authors has a short novella out this season, and as with her previous work, it’s funny, quirky, mythical, strange, and blurring the lines between fantasy and science fiction. In this one, a contagious insomnia is sweeping across the nation. The only cure is the donation of sleep from unaffected donors; and the protagonist must perform the story of her sister’s death from the disease again and again to win donors.
What books do you have on your list for this summer? I hope it’s not silly mindless beach reads that I’ll see poking out of your bag; just because the weather’s warm doesn’t mean we have to read soggy warmed-over writing! On my list to come are Re-Deployment, The Goldfinch, The Savage Detectives, A Possible Life, White Out…and too many more to count!
This past weekend was my college reunion, which gave me a chance to re-visit the hallowed halls and tree-lined campus avenues of my youth (I was there only a few years ago, though!). It was amazing to see how little had changed; I felt I could have stepped through a time warp and become the person I was just a few years ago. Just the simple act of running up a flight of stairs the way I used to run to make a class made me feel like I had stepped back in time and in body.
Have you ever had a moment of time travel like that? Have you visited the old house where you grew up, or tried to step into a piece of clothing that you wore constantly a few years ago? Did it make you feel like a different person? Did it help you feel like the person you were?
The old saying is that you can’t go home again, of course; no matter how much I felt like I had traveled back in time, the reality was that I am a different me today, and there’s no going back to the old me. We are all in a constant process of transformation, and rarely do we get a chance to look back at our older selves. Will you come back to your high school reunions? Will you feel nostalgia, regret, or be glad that you stepped away? Even if you hate high school today, you may be surprised how affectionately you feel towards it, given a little distance. Or if you love it dearly now, you might be surprised how glad you are to be away from it in a little while.
Today I’m thinking about how reunions can affect the stories we tell. There’s no more fertile a concept in a story than of having character re-unite as changed people. Just look at the classic reunion story, Casablanca. In that story, the relationship we see is an uneasy reunion between two former lovers who are trying to revive the memory of their love. But ultimately the circumstances of the world interfere, and it’s impossible to become who they once were.
Other classic reunion stories are joyful ones of long-lost connections. Consider The Color Purple, in which the narrator must wait and struggle for a lifetime before she can be reunited with her stolen children.
You can write about reunions in all their complexity as well. Is the reunion between your characters a joyful or an uneasy one? Are your characters changed people? Do they still mean the same thing to each other? Or has the other’s significance changed? Try writing about yet another way that human relationships can be so delightfully surprising, strange, subtle, and complex this week.
Happy Memorial Day, readers! This is one of those holidays that can mean vastly different things depending on who is celebrating it. For those involved with the military or those who have lost loved ones, it’s no doubt a somber day, one of observance and of ritual, of sadness but perhaps also of pride. For all those Americans who don’t have a direct connection to the military, without any disrespect, I think the day has a more festive feeling. It’s a day that usually marks the start of summer, a day of celebration, of cookouts, parades, of facepainting and balloons tied to children’s wrists, of sparklers in the summer twilight. For either group, though, I think the day is still very much tied up with memory.
For the military families out there, the day is of course about remembering what has been lost, the prices paid, the people who aren’t there today. But for the other group, the day is about memory as well; it’s a day in which we remember when we were kids, and the summer traditions we had that the kids of today are upholding; it’s a day of doing what Americans have been doing for generations. Any major holiday has that element of memory to it, but whereas a religious holiday is only for some, Memorial Day is pretty much open to anyone who wants to tap into American traditions and share in them.
Memory, to me, is always a fundamental aspect of the stories I write, and both the unreliability and constancy of memory features prominently as a theme in those stories. I often write stories from the perspective of people looking back at important times in their lives, or marveling at how naive, how fresh, how unsullied they once were before other major life events came crowding in. I think memory is one of those things that simply can’t be avoided in fiction. To assume that memory is fixed and perfect, for example, ends up seeming naive, and denying the fluctuating nature of the worlds we store in our heads. To deny its powerful influence on us at all, on the other hand, is equally naive.
Today is an occasion to mark time, and to think about memorial days past. I remember having hot dogs on the grill with my family, and running barefoot in the cool grass of the shady backyard; I remember the elation that the school year was almost at its end; I remember the little shorts and t-shirts that I wore every day of the summer until they fell apart; I remember summer as a kid. I remember the radio playing through the open door of the kitchen and running to get the cushions off the chairs in the backyard when rain inevitably came. I remember the sound of that rain pinging on the metal air conditioner bolted into the window frame as I lay in bed at night.
What do you remember as part of your summer? What about childhood, or memory, or the person you were, does this day evoke?
Today, I’m thinking about memory as I walk through my city. Twice a week my commuting path takes me through Copley Square, the historic center of Boston, and I walk/jog briskly through traffic past some of the oldest buildings in the area, such as the grand Boston Public Library and the old church that face each other across the plaza. I remember visiting the rare books room of the library and seeing documents from the sixteen hundreds or even earlier, chronicling the journeys of the earliest European settlers here. At the same time, I’m crossing Boylston street, which now has a plethora of other, starker memories demanding their room in my brain, demanding citywide remembrance.
That’s the funny thing about living in a city with any kind of history; there are always so many layers of time and memory super-imposed on each other, constantly layering on top of one another, blurring the lines of past and present. There is the circle memorializing the Boston massacre; and over there, a line of hip new clothing stores that seem to have sprung up just last week. The city keeps changing, but there are always signs of the old wherever you look. There’s the line of hungry cannoli-eating customers in the North End, waiting at Mike’s pastry shop; but the Italian immigrants that made up this neighborhood are largely gone. Where did they go?
I sometimes hear old Bostonians lamenting this change, the way all city-dwellers hate change. A guy I worked with who had grown up in Somerville remembered all those Irish Catholic kids he grew up with, the friendly cops who looked the other way when they were drinking out of paper bags, the saints’ parades down the streets. Now, he complained, there’s a Caribbean cultural parade every year instead, and the neighborhood is “all foreigners.” It’s always unpleasant to hear this kind of talk; after all, go back a generation or two and it was the Irish who were the foreigners. That, of course, is part of the way memory evolves in a city; the people who arrive as outsiders are quick to reject the next generation of newcomers. That’s natural, I suppose. Things even out in the end.
It’s amazing to me how fast cities change, and how the old does endure side-by-side with the new. Buildings get torn down, but the beloved ones become shrines to memory, treasures of common repository. And we say, “That used to be —” and are stunned to see the city growing up around us, and it reminds us that time passes. If anything, the city marks time for us, and reminds us that we grow older. But the memories of what was there before endure. Even on my small street in Cambridge, I see that one shop that seems to change its identity every six months, and already it has gone through three iterations. First it was an abandoned store front; then a trendy cafe with two chairs and only three items on the menu; now it’s a pie shop. I like the pie shop and hope it stays, but I know the odds are small.
I’ve been terrible, readers. This spring’s schedule of teaching and keeping up with multiple writing jobs has overwhelmed me and I haven’t been able to keep up with regular posts. But I haven’t abandoned Writerly Life! This blog will still be a vital source of tips and techniques and larger thoughts about what it means to be a writer; but I’ll have to hold myself accountable and devise a posting schedule that is truly manageable. So for the future, let tell you to expect a weekly post, but one with greater length and substance than your average posts. I’ll be working hard on those posts to make sure they’re up to a high standard, and that they get you thinking about writing, memory, life, creativity, and much more. Don’t give up on me yet!
At the same time, of course, I’ll be wearing my other hat of acting as co-editor of my new literary magazine, Two Cities Review. You’ll see me over there, writing about the intersection of writing and city life, and you can expect any relevant post about writing to wander over here as well.
IT’S MARATHON MONDAY IN BOSTON.
Every other third Monday in April that I can remember, I’ve woken up with a school day or work day off, filled with the pleasurable expanse of the day before me. I’ve turned on the TV in time to see the leading runners leave Hopkinton, and then kept it on to see them laboring through the miles, their honest, miraculous, movement through the towns of Massachusetts. Every year before 2013, I was at my childhood home in Newton, and I’d mosey out to Commonwealth Ave in time to cheer on the runners going by. I’d get a special rush of excitement to see the leaders pass, but there was even more pleasure in seeing the steady wave of runners that followed, the swelling phalanx of people surging with good will, with cheer. The joy of their effort was infectious. I think there’s no better sport to be a spectator at than to be alongside the long miles of a marathon. Some of us participate with our cups of water, and are thrilled when the proffered cup we hold is snatched; and others are sure to cheer the loudest when soldiers in heavy packs go tramping by; whoever is our favorite competitor, we get to see him or her, right there, achieving this startling feat of human endurance. There is no wall between us and them; we almost share in their triumphs. That’s yet another reason why the events of a year ago hurt so many of us on so many levels.
The last week has been a fraught one for the city of Boston; inhabitants have been doing their best to honor the survivors, the victims, and to keep our faces turned forward. I’ve noticed how little mention has been made of the alleged bombers themselves. They do not belong to the future of the city, and so we do not even honor their names in this week. In the coming months the trial will no doubt seize hold of our attention, but right now, it’s the marathon we are intent on restoring. The memorials have been respectful, determined, almost upbeat. We’re not looking back. We’ve got our eyes on the finish line.
Last year was the first year I was living in the city proper and so went to the finish line. I saw the winners round that final corner onto Boylston Street, and felt the waves of good will coming from every direction. I went home hours before the disaster struck. This time, I want to be there again; I want to see that first weary face turn the final corner, and the leading runner suddenly begin to sprint, to float on the deafening crowd. After that astonishing trek, the leaders always seem to have something left for a final battle to the finish line. And for all the weary amateur runners who follow him, there is still enough left to cross the line, to raise their arms in triumph. Where does that strength come from?
Will you be at the marathon this year? The crowds are promising to be legendary. Security will be tight, of course; it’s one of those prices we pay these days to feel safe in a modern city. But I don’t think the spirit will be too diminished. From what I’ve seen, this city is ready to make this event an occasion for joy and uplift once again.
Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.
This week’s tip:
Storyboard a Scene
It’s been a while since I sent out a tip for writing at your best, so it’s about time I gave my readers one. Today I’m thinking about techniques used in cinema, and how those techniques can really improve our fiction writing. One thing that cinema has on fiction is its tight, efficient use of plot. Movies usually move more swiftly than novels and just feel “plottier” than the average book. It’s only the most tightly-plotted books, for example, that end up getting translated into movies, and even then they have to be compressed and streamlined, with whole characters and plotlines eliminated, to work on screen.
There’s no reason that we can’t learn from movies and help make our stories tighter and “plottier.” Try using a technique that filmmakers use when planning their scenes. They work in the medium of images, so draw a few boxes on a few sheets of paper — typically two or three to a page, totalling six to eight boxes. Those are the keystone images or moments that will make up just one scene. Start filling in the boxes — what needs to happen in this scene? What are the essential character moments, choices, or confrontations that must happen? If you’re no artist, then stick figures will do fine. Try to picture the scene in your mind’s eye, and picture what the most important transformations will be.
The advantage of this strategy is that it will draw the crucial elements of the scene sharply into the focus, instead of letting you wander all over the world you’ve made before figuring out what you want. The other lesson a good movie teaches us is that every scene is essential: every scene features a furthering of the plot, or a crucial decision being made. It’s immediately obvious when watching a movie when a scene feels like fluff, or is irrelevant. We need that same laser focus in our fiction writing too.
Try storyboarding the scene that you’re struggling with, and report back here to tell us how it goes!