Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Be Bad - Five challenges for writing freedom

I was reading "Creativity vs. Quants," and I came across this quote from Oscar Wilde:

A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave. 

Not bad. It called to mind an exercise in "Make Me Worry You're not Okay" -- Write about an embarrassing moment. I'm not sure this is something that needs to be done for disclosure in a class, but it can be a good way to loosen things up. Many people who have wonderful perspectives, excellent instincts, and lyrical writing close up when it comes to sensitive areas. They worry if their parents or kids will read what they have to say and will be offended. They have unpopular opinions they suppress. They want to be considered "nice."

I sympathize. Who wants to be the bad guy? Who wants to become a target for critics and defenders of the status quo? And yet, much of what we want to keep hidden is the interesting, revealing stuff. So, here's my challenge - write one of these before your next session on your Work In Progress (WIP), and see if it loosens you up:

  1. Write about your most embarrassing moment.
  2. Write about a politically incorrect opinion you hold and wouldn't share with your peers (or take the opposite of an opinion you hold and write compellingly from that perspective).
  3. Write a sex scene (not a love scene). If this doesn't make you uncomfortable twist it in a way the makes you squirm.
  4. Write a scene where the hero in your WIP acts out his or her most antisocial wish.
  5. Write about a spiritual insight you have that would make your friends want to run screaming from the room.
Note: You do not have to share this writing with anyone, and one page is fine. Feel free to erase it as soon as you're finished.

You may find yourself free to write something less shocking in your manuscript. I hope you do. Or you may just feel a sense of relief in going back to your own story where you don't have to be disturbing. Or you may like what you wrote (on some level) and hold onto it for another day when you can create a toned down version or, perhaps, dare to share.

So here's your writing challenge for the day: Be bad.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Circle of Writing 2 - Craft, qualities of work, ambition, and values

Over the past few years, through writers' groups, teaching, and contests, I've read wildly diverse works in terms of style, genre, voice, and intended audience. It has forced me to stretch, often uncomfortably. Mostly, that has been good for me as a writer and as a person. But, from the point of view of those getting my comments, I know there were errors of omission.

My knowledge of the subtleties of culture and custom in Britain's regency period has left me unaware of rewarding aspects of some historical novels. My low tolerance for potty humor has challenged my reading of contemporary comedies, and my squeamishness has interfered with my appreciation of BDSM. I do my best to provide help on character, plot, language, and other common elements, but the writers really need to go elsewhere for the best feedback. So, as much as I appreciate what diversity in work has done for me, I recognize it leads to asymmetrical relationships.

It's easy to see these when I am on the receiving end. Many romance writers, who would be disappointed if I started a story. "Don't worry. Despite his fear of commitment, he'll find his way to love" have no tolerance for slow revelations of the secrets of an unknown world in fantasy or SF. Any new term, odd behavior, or unfamiliar concept that isn't immediately instantly explained in detail can lead to a page of exasperated feedback.

So, having people in your Circle of Writing who don't share enough of your values, interests, and perspectives can be frustrating and even harmful. Ideally, the people in your Circle need to:

Understand craft well enough to make constructive suggestions. Certainly, spelling and grammar matter, but so do conflict, point of view, and character development. And Circle writers need to be careful enough readers to pick up on your use of an unreliable narrator (especially in first person).

Appreciate genre differences. From careful planting of clues in a mystery to use of metaphors to the happily ever after in a romance, they should be looking for all that matters to your audience. It's easy to fail to include expected turns and plot points (or to just not express them clearly or with sufficient emphasis). You need not just another pair of eyes, but the right pair of eyes. Oh, and it is just as valuable to celebrate a well-done genre element as it is to find a problem.

Accept what you are going for. Whether your aim is to create great literature or a salable work, your intent as a writer is valid. An occasional nudge toward "higher" aspirations is fine, but no one needs to be judged against Melville when they just want to be successful in the marketplace. And vice versa.

Connect with the values.  Inspirational writers don't need to be challenged on their faith and erotica writers don't need to be saved. As a critic, you don't need to feel bad about making a work with a perspective you abhor more successful, and as a writer, you don't want to be badgered into watering down your message or whatever truth you are revealing.

Your Circle of Writing can include a lot of diversity, and you'd have a hard time gathering clones of yourself in any case. But, if there are people in your Circle who consistently "don't get it," maybe you or they (with no fault implied) need to move on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Circle of Writing 1 -Trust and criticism

Few writers master their craft in isolation. Yes, reading well-written works and learning from books helps, but working with mentors, peers, and mentees will elevate your work.

The problem is who do you listen to?

The fundamental answer is people you trust. The two key ingredients to trust in life are competence and goodwill. You can only trust people to help you who have capabilities and skills and who have your best interest in mind.

In writing, a key demonstration of competence is the work itself. The writing of your critic, teacher, reviewer, or student must show qualities you respect and include some elements that point toward possibilities in your own work. So read what those who are part of your Circle of Writing have written.

Mentors need to have an additional capability -- they need to be able to clearly explain concerns about your work and approaches you might take. They need to put things into a greater context and to provide examples that are relevant and revelatory.

Peers need to lead by example in their own work, introducing you to aha moments you can adapt to your own efforts. And they need to grasp the intent (including genre considerations) of your work and provide responses on three things -- where they were confused, where they were bored, and whether the ending was satisfying.

Mentees and students need to provoke questions and force you to articulate and define your own views and approaches to writing.

And what about the other element of trust, goodwill? How do you determine that the people in your Circle of Writing are working on your behalf? To me, the best piece of evidence for mentors and peers is that they listen. Ultimately, they need to know, appreciate, and respect what your intentions are with regard to specific works and your career. If they dictate or they fail to ask any questions, be careful.

And what about mentees? They provide an invaluable mirror, showing you how well you are listening to them. Whenever they resist, it's a learning opportunity. Generally, you'll find you need to probe more on their intentions, deepen your understanding of where they are in their writer's journey, or find a way to clarify your advice. The focus needs to lean more toward the relationship than toward short-term results (and that requires a lot of patience). What this gives you as a writer is a better perspective on your relationships with peers and mentors. It provides an opportunity to tune those relationships so your mutual trust can deepen.

The Circle of Writing is most effective when craft, qualities of work, ambition, and values are in synch. These will be the subject of my next post.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Missing Scene - Monster in the manuscript

I hate to cut scenes, and the more times I've been through a manuscript shaping, polishing, and tweaking, the more painful it is to remove pages I've come to love. But I do it all the time for the sake of the manuscript.

As horrific as those amputations are, creating scenes to fill holes, provide key details, and, occasionally, replace a cut scene is harder. There are several reasons for this:
  • The new scene has to fit perfectly in between existing scenes (or at least do so little damage a complete rewrite of the manuscript won't be necessary).
  • The new scene has to accomplish specific things, and the characters may be grumpy about cooperating.
  • The new scene forces me to recapture the original mojo, and getting the mood, voice, and tension right is impossible. (All this, when I have been living in the judgmental editor space for days, weeks, or months.)
  • Once written, the new scene reads like a first draft -- because it is.
  • The new scene may be completely wrong -- and need to be cut.
So, almost everything is stacked against a writer trying to write a missing scene and fit it into place. Failure seems inevitable. Fear is palpable. Other than facing a blank sheet of paper, writing the missing scene may be the most courageous thing a writer does. To me, it is the monster, waiting in my pages to turn my manuscript into a 300-page corpse.

Nothing turns this into a wonderful experience, but here are some hard-earned tips.
  • Summarize the scene before and the scene after, so the context is clear without repeated rereadings.
  • Make a specific list of what the scene must do to succeed. (Reveal information. Create an emotion. Set up a problem. Engage a character. Etc.)
  • Commit to writing 3-5 versions of the missing scene. That way, there's no pressure to make it all work in one try.
  • Write a version your character wants written so he/she will leave you alone.
  • Put the missing scene, in its their versions, aside for a week before attempting revisions.
  • Align the scene with the lead-in, follow-up summaries, not the actual manuscript scenes, which are polished and may be intimidating.
  • Revise until you are happy. Choose the version that seems to be best, write down any likely rework elsewhere in the manuscript.
  • Read the chosen, revised scene in contest with actual lead-in, follow-up scenes (or the whole manuscript. If it works, polish and congratulate yourself. If it doesn't, try out a different revised new scene.
Can you take shortcuts? Maybe. Sometimes your muse is generous. But, if you need to grind it out, these tips will probably help you get the job done.