Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Pen To Paper

About twice a year, my office joins up with the Liberal Arts branch of the University to host a dinner party of sorts. Basically, people pay good money to sit around a dinner table with one of our faculty members and discuss issues and themes prevalent in our world. The topics range from Global Warming, to the Supernatural, to Folk Art, to Criminal Psychology… served with a lovely dinner and lots of wine. Usually, my part in this whole shindig is purely logistical, but I’m always invited to sit at one of the tables and participate if I wish. The last time I did so, I got stuck at an awful topic with a lousy table leader, and I spent most of the evening chewing like a bored cow and screaming insults in my head. I won’t say what the topic was, but let’s say it just wasn’t up my alley.

Last week, though, I sat at a table that I more than enjoyed. I had such a good time, in fact, that I came away inspired. My topic was, “From paper to print: How to get published.” The blurb on the program summarized that we would discuss the trials and pitfalls associated with the competitive, and often exclusive, publishing market, as well as some tangents into techniques used by gifted writers to break into the system.

Since this wasn’t a lecture, the conversation meandered and side-tracked many times, but I came away with some great ideas, and some ever better tricks of the trade.

Our table leader is on the English faculty here at the University, and it turns out, he’s been published eleven times… no easy feat. In the field of higher education, getting published is the most important thing to accomplish. The truth is a published work is like currency to these professors. Besides inflating their salaries, a book increases their chances of obtaining tenure. But this guy has published works of fiction, which, according to him, is a lot harder to sell than scholarly works. Having thus established his credibility, our conversation began.

As we went around the table introducing ourselves, our host asked us to throw in some tidbits about ourselves: Who is our favorite writer? What is our favorite genre to read? What are we writing right now? I was glad to discover after going all the way around that everyone at the table was about equal when it came to their accomplishments. All of us were hobbyists, hoping to learn how to take it to the next level. I mentioned that I blogged, which our host found exciting. Also at the table, a teacher interested in writing children’s books, a librarian obsessed with genealogy who wanted to turn her research into a family memoir, a stay-at-home mom dabbling in the romance area (she was so delightfully unembarrassed by this, so you have to give her credit), an advertising executive struggling to find her inspiration, and a psychiatrist eager to write some non-fiction about his experiences in the field. After sizing everyone up, our host invited us to share our experiences with writing, and even though we were all coming from different directions, our experiences were universal.

Writer’s block is something that every writer has to deal with, but together, we came up with quite a few “blockbreakers.”

1. Write everyday. Whether it’s an email to a friend or a novella, the physical act of writing helps to stimulate your muses. I mentioned that I like to write short paragraphs reacting to my latest bits of entertainment, like a new CD, or a chapter in a book, or a movie. Others jotted down the events of the day, while others simply wrote a quick verse of free-verse poetry.
2. Keep a scrap journal. Our host showed us his journal: a large, black sketch pad with all manner of media taped, glued, and/or inked inside. He collected interesting snippets from newspapers, pictures from magazines, photos, and his own short thoughts in a very unstructured way. The point of it, he said, was to gather small moments of inspiration to fall back on later, and if you’re lucky, you may begin to see patterns in your clippings, patterns that may form complete ideas later.
3. Keep a portfolio. On the other side of the coin, all writers should practice structured pieces. Unlike the scrap journal, your portfolio should be comprised of shorter, but finished works. They need not be connected or even related to one another, but they should be complete – edited, polished, and typed. Over time, the collected works can be used to solidify your “voice.” In every creative writing class anyone has ever taken, one of the assignments is keeping a journal of short articles and themes, usually provoked by a question or a topic. “What I did on my summer vacation” is a classic. That’s the kind of stuff you keep in your portfolio. There are countless websites out there full of neat, thought-provoking questions that only require about 500 words to answer.
4. Become a photographer. Many writers, apparently, find inspiration by snapping photos of stuff they see. Whether or not you snap with a strategy, a photo can be the jumping off point for a thousand different novels. Obviously, some of these photos should find their way into your scrap journal.
5. Establish writing rituals and stick to them. Of course, every writer has a different method, and the word “ritual” is relative. Some writers have to be in the same room at the same time with the same clothes using the same pen. Others, like me, just need a can of Diet Coke and a keyboard. The point, though, is a writer should be able to qualify his or her most conducive atmosphere for writing, and then be able to recreate it. Of course, a writer must also know when to break the rituals to shock themselves out of a rut, which is a much harder thing.
6. Read voraciously. Great writers should be great readers. A good book can be your greatest ally when it comes to finding inspiration. He also mentioned reading books that you wouldn’t normally read. For me, that would be non-fiction. Apparently, reading something out of your comfort zone helps to clear your hard-drive of all the rubbish clogging it up.

After that, we moved on to more specific challenges in writing, as well as different techniques good writers use to overcome them.

1. Read your work out loud. Obviously, you’ll catch any awkwardness this way. But you will also catch patterns in your writing that might go unnoticed just by scanning, such as using certain idioms or words too often. Also, good writing is musical… there’s a rhythm to it. Our host used Shakespeare as an example. People quote him often, not because he’s the most studied author in the English language, but because his stuff is easy to remember. It helps that most of it is poetry, or at least iambic pentameter. A good quote has rhythm, balance, and sense… just like a catchy melody. Reading out loud will help you “hear” your writing.
2. When writing dialogue, use your acting chops. Our host volunteered that when he writes dialogue, he writes one character at a time. He often speaks the words out loud, intentionally acting out the character’s part like he’s in a movie. If the character is well-drawn, the things they say should feel natural and inevitable.
3. Exercise with your favorites. Another tip our host offered was, strangely enough, fan-fiction. He likes to re-write his favorite moments in someone else’s novel using a different character’s point of view. It’s a common exercise, but a very illuminating one at that.
4. Write fast, edit slow. I’ve heard this one a lot. A lot of writers think it’s best to write the first draft of a work as quickly as possible, not focusing on continuity, tone, or pacing. Once the body of the piece is completed, then you go back through and rework… adding description, fixing errors, adjusting color. Our host elaborated by saying that he tries to follow a pre-determined framework or outline (the hardest part of the whole process, in his opinion) during the first phase of composition, using the idea of covering a skeleton with skin. Once the skin is on, only then does he continue with features, clothes, and accessories. The real writing is in the editing, when all the creative choices are made, and the piece begins to take on a life of its own. I can’t say I’ve experienced anything like that, but I sort of can’t wait to have it happen for myself.
5. Establish time and distance. After completing something, a writer should put it aside for a significant amount of time, depending on how long it takes for the details to leave their minds. Artists of all types have a tendency to “over-produce” and, in the heat of the creative process, the unimportant can become important, and the trivial can become supreme. Only by establishing time and distance can an author return to a piece and edit objectively. Our host told a story about a piece he wrote that was over 60,000 words when complete. After letting it ferment for six months, he came back to it and cut it down to a short story. It went on to be published and win several awards.
6. Never and always listen to critics. We laughed about this one a lot. It takes a lot of maturity as an artist of any kind to accept criticism with grace. Our host explained that criticism, both good and bad, should be taken with a grain of salt, and in his experience, good criticism can be as dangerous to your artistic health as bad. The gist of it all seemed to be: don’t ignore criticism, but don’t let pleasing others take over, either. It’s a balance… and some writers never find it. That said, we should feel free to ignore any mean-spirited criticism, because dwelling on nasty people is counterproductive in any context.

Finally, we moved on to getting published. Not surprisingly, it isn’t easy. I read quite a bit and I go to Barnes & Noble a lot, and it seems like any old junk is publishable these days, but that’s not the case. The market is so competitive that writers have to market themselves convincingly enough to land an agent, who then liaises with the publishing companies, who will alter your work any which way they want to in order to make it profitable. It seems there aren’t many Cinderella stories to speak of in the publishing world anymore. It is no wonder, then, that many writers resort to self-publication. They market and sell their work on a website, and some manage to do pretty well, as long as their work is indeed good, and there’s a demand for it. While we were talking about it, I sensed that most of us were overwhelmed with the machinations of publishing… we had no idea how complex it all was. But it doesn’t seem unattainable, either. Like all endeavors, it takes persistence, talent, and a tiny bit of luck to make it as a writer.

After wrapping up, I was almost excited, because for the first time, the idea of having something published didn’t seem so impossible. And we didn’t even talk about writing for magazines or digests, which is probably where a writer like myself would be better suited. Whoa. Did you see that? I just called myself a “writer.” Baby steps, Reeva… baby steps.


Mary said...

If there was anyone I thought who should be calling himself a writer, Reeva, it was you. Congrats on recognizing your talent and being willing to claim it. Calling yourself a writer is a baby step toward committing to your writing on a grander level (like publishing).

I was so excited to read your post and see that you had fun at the event, but the icing on the cake was your acknowledging your ability. Woot! Woot! Yes!!!!

And how cool was it that the English prof was interested in the fact that you blogged?

Now, if you want to take another baby step (only when you're ready, of course), we could start a little online writers group. I have a few trusted people I share my writing with, but I could always use a few more. If this piques your interest, email me and we could figure out how this would work.

Erin G said...

Of COURSE you're a writer, you doof!

For someone living in the Bible Belt, ok with God but not so much with church, looking to read more non-fiction... you should pick up The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs. Too funny. And I maintain that understanding much of classic literature comes more easily with understanding of scripture (whether you choose to believe it or not is NOT an agenda of mine... just trying to make you more well-read, per your request!)... some of those stories are old as time and you see them over and over again in comtemporary works.

I still think you should apply for a job at Bet Week Ever. Start commenting, at least!

Anyway this sounds like an awesome event (please do post last year's topic!)... if Furman did this, I would totally give them more money.