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What’s My Motivation?

When I was a young writer — and I do mean young, as in elementary school and junior high — I had a difficult time understanding the advice from teachers and other writers that my stories needed more conflict in order to be interesting, and that my characters needed logical reasons for doing and saying what they did. They had to be real, not just dolls I arranged as I wished.

The difficult advice did soak in — finally. It took my reading a particular novel filled with serviceable but not artful writing, with an interesting premise that soon became flat, and peopled by characters the author pushed and prodded into roles that were awkward and not in keeping with who they were. There was a romance thread, for instance, that was painful to read, it was so forced and emotionally void.

I remember expressing my annoyance to my mother, who had read the book, too. We debated whether or not to read any more in the series, in hopes that the writer improved her craft between one book and the next, but decided we had better things to do and better books to read.

Decades later, I’m still learning how to write real emotion and believable characters. In addition to reading excellent work and striving to write it, I’ve learned much from editing the work of others. Sometimes, more than hearing or reading advice, we need to see it.

The aforementioned novel was in the forefront of my thoughts recently when I completed the second round of edits on a manuscript under contract for publication. The author can put together sentences and paragraphs, but her work suffers from the same ailments as that long-ago novel: illogical actions, skin-deep emotions, and redundant dialogue. I sent it back again with more notes, more challenges, hoping to pull excellence from a writer who has yet to break free of preconceived notions and let her characters act naturally, rather than pressing them into a tired, shallow mold.

A few years ago, I might have been kinder, gentler, in the editing. I didn’t feel I had the right or the knowledge to critique someone else’s art, especially that of an elder. Then one of those elders reminded me that we writers tend to elevate what we do to some level of squishy mysticism when it is, in reality, a craft. It must be practiced, honed, improved.

Not only did that statement help me to see my own work in a more pragmatic light, it helped me toughen mentally, and learn how to be straight-up with clients. My motivation changed from protecting myself to challenging fellow writers, from being merely a cheerleader to becoming a coach.

So, what’s my motivation?

As an editor, it’s helping fellow writers.

As a reader, it’s education or entertainment (and it’s great when they come in the same volume).

As a writer, it’s to — I hope — create stories that I can share with others. (It helps if I like to read my stories, too!)

If I motivate my characters, and allow them to act in keeping with their personalities, jobs, challenges, dreams, goals, abilities, obsessions, friendships, enmities, et cetera, my stories will come alive, and will be less likely to disappoint my readers.

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Grammar Links and Other Writing Resources

Below are ten links to sites geared toward helping writers write well, and one site dedicated to helping writers publish, promote, and sell their work.

1) Grammar Girl: part of the Quick and Dirty Tips website that covers a host of topics.

2) The Grammar Curmudgeon: still-active website of the late Grumpy Grammarian; contains a wealth of information.

3) Merriam-Webster Online: free dictionary and thesaurus; an expanded subscription service is also available.

4) WhiteSmoke blog: WhiteSmoke is a software for folks who are learning English and need to write in that language, but there are some basic reminders for us native speakers.

5) Professor Malcolm Gibson’s Wonderful World of Editing: cartoons and humor and good advice.

6) Grammar-Quizzes.com: just what its name suggests; for teachers or independent learners.

7) The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: search the site or order the book. Excellent resource.

8) Every Writer’s Resource: links to articles, interviews, contests, magazines, etc.

9) Writer’s Resources: e-books, articles, software, and more.

10) BookBaby: one-stop shop for writers interested in self-publishing; includes free instructional e-books for download.

I’m always on the lookout for excellent resources, and am happy to share with others the ones I find. If you have any tips or materials that have helped you improve your writing craft, pass ’em on!

Facing the Sky book review, part 1

Last night, I met with an author and her husband (who also happens to be a writer, as well as an artist) to discuss her self-published book, Facing the Sky. She had wondered about trying to find a traditional publisher to reprint the book and gain a wider audience, but after reading her unconventionally-formatted but powerful true story, I realized she needs to retain control.

The book is her life story, centering on a specific time in her teens but drawing in her childhood and adulthood in a sometimes linear, sometimes flashback/flash-forward style that works well for the material. She is a Christian, so her faith is very much part of the story, but traditional Christian publishing houses would probably gut the book, redacting the harshest elements, weakening its power.

In fact, a local bookstore refuses to stock the book because of a particularly raw scene describing the author’s rape by her boyfriend in her early teens.

This disturbs me. Rape isn’t pretty. It happens, even to children. It damages the psyche and the spirit. But Rainee Grason’s story shows that redemption is possible — not only possible, but triumphant. Remove that ugly scene, and the power of the truth is lost.

I’ll be posting more about this book in the next few days, and will include ordering and contact information, for those who want to buy the book or request the author as a special speaker for an event.

Turning Down a Job

The contents of this post derive from a recent e-mail exchange with (at the time) a potential editing client. The premise of her novel is at direct odds with my beliefs. This is not the first time I’ve been approached to edit work opposed to my faith, politics, etc., and such a position is not a problem for editors who may have not strong stance on a particular topic. After all, a job’s a job, a check’s a check.

I’ve edited her comments to avoid giving away plot points, and I’ll provide no further commentary, but will let our messages do the talking.

Author:

My book is the redemption story of the first angel… . I’ve woven together many spiritual concepts from religions around the world and throughout history…In many cases, it seems the bad deity [Satan] is suffering from “first child syndrome”, thinking himself the most impressive and without equal. When the good deity [God] begins to care for or create humanity, the bad deity seems to throw a temper tantrum over not being quite so special anymore. It seems sad to me, as I believe if the deity would only look at himself a little differently, he would see that it is ok to share the parental attention.
…I do not know if this belongs in the premise, but the villain of the story is the archangel Gabriel.
…It really is a triumphant story. It’s about heartbreak, jealousy, and self-love, as well as forgiveness. I feel like this character–this sort of character–deserves a chance at forgiveness. Just about every single culture hates him!

Me:

When I was very young, preschool or kindergarten or thereabouts, I had a notion similar to yours: Satan’s bad, yes, but can’t he ever be redeemed? Took me a while to sort it out.

From your description of the book, you are not yourself an adherent of any particular religion, and so perhaps may not understand how or why people of faith will not welcome such a lenient perspective of Satan, or such a lowering perspective of God.

As a person of faith myself, my first thought on reading your description was a verse from the Bible: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter,” (Isaiah 5:20, NIV).

Therefore, I cannot in good conscience help — in any way — produce a book that is the antithesis of that for which I stand.

I hope you understand, and I wish you well in other writing endeavors.

 

8 Examples of Writing Kryptonite

Just as Kryptonite renders Superman powerless, certain words, phrases, or techniques can weaken our writing. The examples below are culled from the last few manuscripts I’ve edited:

1) “His gaze followed me as I walked away.”

Does the narrator have eyes in the back of her head? This is a POV (point of view) error, in which the character through whose eyes we’re viewing the story tells us something she can’t possibly know.

2) I’ve been guilty of allowing this kind of Kryptonite into my work: “She found herself staring at the lake.”

How does one properly greet oneself? Is there an exchange of names, or does the conversation go straight to the weather?

I’m a fan of writing that doesn’t get in the way of story. Be straightforward and simple: “She stared at the lake.”

3) “She removed her eyes from the road… .”

With what? A spatula?

“His face fell,” but we don’t know where it landed.

Beware “wandering body parts” syndrome. Be aware of what you are actually writing.

His gaze can capture hers, but if his eyes do, then that’s just nasty.

4) “She suddenly realized (fill in the blank).”

Really? That fast?

Most sentences are stronger without “suddenly” — just let the action happen, let it be abrupt, and readers will know that it was sudden. As for realizations, they can be plainly communicated on the page, and don’t need to be announced.

5) “He heard” or “she saw”, or any variation thereof, can add distance between the story and the reader.

Make the action seem close, immediate, engaging by simply describing whatever it is that the character saw, heard, etc.

“He watched his neighbor dig up her roses” becomes “He glanced over the hedge. Mrs. Mason dug a trowel into the soil, still dark after the rain.”

6) “Judging from her expression/his tone/their actions, (fill in the blank).”

Who is making that judgment? Why do they come to that conclusion?

Show the expression, describe the tone, reveal the actions. Rather than doing all the thinking for them, allow readers to infer the intent or the thoughts behind expressions, actions, or vocal inflections.

7) “He began to plow the field,” or “They started pushing the car.”

Are characters always beginning but rarely finishing?

If readers are being guided through a process, then “started” is necessary i.e. “At daybreak, he began plowing the field, but was interrupted when the blade broke against a rock.”

However, most action needs simple treatment: “They pushed the car up the hill.”

Akin to began and started are before, after, while, during, etc. These words are necessary for certain situations, but should be used sparingly. Describe the action in sequence, be straightforward, and readers will “see” the story.

8) “He pulled the key from the ignition, unlocked his safety belt, pulled the door latch… .”

Zzzzzzzzzzz.

It’s good to help readers visualize the action, but avoid tedious play-by-play descriptions. Skip to the relevant material.

“Joe parked on the street then jogged to the backyard. Football teams were already forming.”

Readers will assume he must have also parked the car, stepped out of it, locked it, etc.

 

In the future, I’ll post more examples of writing Kryptonite. Meantime, it’s not in the abundance of words that a story is told, but in the right words.

Fiction Calisthenics

Today’s entry is borrowed from Keanan Brand’s blog, Adventures in Fiction, and contains an idea for a short, fun exercise in creativity.
Enjoy!

Fiction Calisthenics

If you’re ever stuck, or you just need to warm up your writing muscles and flex those fingers before confronting your current project, be it poetry or a manuscript or a short story, then here’s an easy, fun exercise:

1) Choose a notebook or a loose-leaf binder that you will use only for these writing calisthenics. The reason? Just like hauling out the right exercise mat or choosing your favorite punching bag, you always know where to go when you need a workout. Also, every time you do this exercise, you will end up with something interesting you can use later; if you use the same notebook every time, you always know where to find the material.

2) Each time you start a fresh exercise, put the day’s date at the top of the page, then make a list — 1,2,3 — on the first three lines.

3) Pick a book, any book. Pick a magazine, if you want. Any printed material will do; I prefer thick books.

4) Flip through the book at random and, without looking, point to the page. Write down the word closest to (or underneath) your finger; feel free to try again if the word is “the” or “and” or something else bland. Multisyllabic words are best, but any word will do. Repeat this part of the exercise until you have at least three words listed beside the numbers at the top of your page.

5) Look at the clock — or set a timer — and, without stopping to think about what you’re going to compose, write for no less than 5 and no more than 15 minutes straight, incorporating those three words in your list. When the timer goes off or the second hand ticks past the 5-minute or the 15-minute point, stop writing, even if it’s in the middle of a sentence.

In my experience, the results are often a lot of fun and help provide some interesting openers for what can become longer stories. I’m surprised at the variety of topics, settings, and eras that I’ve written about whenever I’ve just let my mind wander free.

Below is one example from my apple-green spiral-bound notebook which bears the same title as this post — “Fiction Calisthenics” — and the three words in the list are in bold in the text:

7-16-07

1) school
2) arms
3) gloves

No.

No way.

Impossible.

He stared at the gleaming silver benches, the neatly bordered aisles with their shiny aluminum handrails. At least twenty rows of bleachers–and he was supposed to run up and down how many times?

First day of school in this backwater town, and he was already in trouble.

He glanced over his shoulder. Coach Winters stood with his arms crossed, whistle lanyard dangling from one meaty paw, stopwatch lanyard dangling from the other.

Jerk. Can’t take a joke.

Coach Winters spat on the track, and little puffs of dirt flew up around the wad of phlegm. “Two minutes added to your time. C’mon, boy. Twelve minutes and counting.”

He swung his arms, limbering up. A couple twists, a couple hamstring stretches, a few seconds of jogging in place as a warm-up–

“Thirteen minutes.”

What he wouldn’t give for three minutes, a boxing ring, and his favorite pair of gloves; flabby Coach Winters wouldn’t last one round. Guaranteed.

His tennis shoes banged on the first bleacher, the sound echoing in the stadium. Blowing out his breath, taking it in again, he started up.

And there ya go — you’ve warmed up your writing muscles, and you have material to use later, and (hopefully) you’ve had a little fun doing it.

used with permission — originally published February 14, 2008 — c. KB

Inspiration and Ego

I haven’t read “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin (I need to, though), but I have seen the film based on the short story: The Emperor’s Club. Excellent film. Anyone who works with young people over a period of years, especially in a teaching or mentoring fashion, will very much identify with the main character, Mr. Hundert, perfectly portrayed by Kevin Kline. However, it isn’t the story but the past that is my focus here.

There is a shadow character in the story, a long-dead king named Shutruk-Nahhunte whose braggadocious quote — all that is left of his empire — is inscribed on a plaque and hung over Mr. Hundert’s classroom door: I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte – 1158 B.C.

Shutruk-Nahhunte was a real king, but like many a past conqueror was himself conquered — by Nebuchadnezzar I.

As a writer, I’ve been inspired by crazy things that, at the time, may have appeared to have no connection with one another; and, on occasion, I’ve wondered where Canin may have received his inspiration to write a story involving disparate characters: a prep-school history teacher, a politician’s son, and an ancient king.

Perhaps (and I’m just guessing here), among other experiences that may have led to the story’s creation, he read this 1817 poem poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

OZYMANDIAS

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As for the two kings — Shutruk-Nahhunte and Ozymandias (a/k/a Ramesses the Great) — there is a similarity to their pronouncements about themselves: “Look at me! Ain’t I great?”

Millennia later, no matter what they did, built, or said, there is no one left to remember them. What remains are fragments for archeologists to find, to speculate about what might have been.