Perhaps I’m Possessed

Once upon a time, Delancey Stewart sat down to write a YA novel. Encouraged by the successes in this market that she’d seen recently achieved by other young (ahem) female writers who were new to the publishing game, she figured she could do it too. And quickly — like in a month — she wrote a first draft. Then she rewrote it entirely, and called it a second draft. Then she exposed it to the glaring light of day and realized that it still needed work. And she was tired.

So she began working on a couple other things. One of them had been plaguing her for years, and needed to find a home on paper. So she started that. And it was enjoyable. But then, out of nowhere, one early morning she found herself, half asleep at the keyboard, and she began writing something else.

The idea began as a story for her kids. Something they’d enjoy. They’re small, so she thought she’d start small. Maybe a short story. After all, they are short. But then it began to grow. And suddenly, Delancey finds herself hard at work on a middle grade chapter book. And it is the best thing she’s written. And she’s excited to work on it.

The question: WTF??? Has this happened to you? I’ve heard of characters commandeering a story and taking it in unexpected directions, but I have not heard before of an entire story forcing its way out like this. It’s kind of fun, don’t get me wrong — especially because it’s kind of a cool story (since I feel like I’m channeling it from somewhere else, I can say that, right?). But it’s just weird. And I keep thinking that I should get back to my malingering YA novel or get back to work on that other book I’ve had in my head for years. Or the new idea I had recently which I’m also really excited about. (I really wish I could just write all day. Damned job and life responsibilities.)

Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I’ve been hijacked. Nothing I post until further notice can be verified to have been written by me. At least not the me that I thought I was.

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Unapologetically Considering the Use of Adverbs

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve found a happy home in two different critique communities. In both, I’ve found people with great advice, and those with different perspectives than my own — exactly what I went out searching for. But now that I’m subjecting my writing to the critical eyes of many other writers, I’ve been bombarded with the “rules” that I haven’t thought about in a long time.

Don’t get me wrong — I haven’t been writing in the wild west, flagrantly ignoring common rules of grammar and style. But I haven’t been self-editing too heavily while writing the first draft of any of my WIPs.

One of the rules that has been brought up more than once now, and which is a topic of great debate in the forums, is this: don’t use adverbs. This must be a good rule since everyone repeats it. After all, we all know that Stephen King dislikes adverbs above all other parts of speech, saying that the road to hell is paved with them. Or something like that.

And while I agree that using them continually, repeatedly and carelessly (see how I did that there?) can signal a writer unwilling to consider how to make their verbs strong enough to stand alone, I also feel that it’s unfair to cast aside one part of speech altogether. Adverbs, surely, serve a purpose.

Since being reminded of this “rule,” I’ve started reading with an eye toward evaluating how much use these pariahs get in the books that I enjoy. They’re not absent. In fact, they appear frequently in some of the books I like very much. Maybe my tastes are very un-literary. This has led me to believe that we, as writers, should be very careful with these types of “rules,” especially when critiquing the work of others. It is easy to stand with a crowd of self-professed literary types and spout dogma as if it was your own original thought. It is harder, perhaps, to step away from the crowd and see where a writer might be justified in breaking a rule to the benefit of their work.

Adverbs may not be the end all be all of the literary world, but I do believe they have a place there. If you are acting as a critic, be a thoughtful critic. Don’t page through someone’s work on the lookout for broken rules. Take a piece as a whole and try to see what the writer is doing. Give your fellow writers some credit for knowing the same rules you do, and see if they’re using their adverbs thoughtfully. (see how I did that again? I’m lazy. Willfully, stubbornly, admittedly lazy.)

Check out these other writers who defend the lowly adverb. (ha!)

Jan Fields, ICL Web Editor

Lilly Rothman at the Atlantic

Penny, of the Quirky Ladies

Creating the Perfect Writing Space

I’ve actually done a lot of writing this week. Which, sadly, has not been the norm. But I’m getting back into a flow, have found a critique group that I’m excited about, and joined Scribophile. Thanks to those who offered ideas based on my last post, Finding a Sounding Board. This interweb crap is cool that way!

Part of what has enabled me to get moving again has been to lose the belief (or walk slightly further away from the belief) that the planets must be aligned perfectly for me to write. Previously, and for most of my life, I’d believed that all circumstances must be ideal for me to be able to get into my “zone” and create something. I needed an empty house. I needed silence. I needed the right chair, my slippers. I needed my coffee and it had to be morning, I thought. I just couldn’t be productive in the afternoon or evening. I could not be interrupted, and definitely could not have children around. I had to be at MY desk in MY office and that was that. And then, only then, might the writing gods deign to visit me with some sort of creative inspiration.

When I attended the Writers Digest Conference in NYC this January, I found that I had a lot of company in my belief that good writing came from a place of perfectly arranged physical circumstances. There were those who wrote late at night, with a glass of scotch. There were those who could not write without specific music. And there were those who could only write with a certain pen, in long hand (who, honestly, left me completely flabbergasted.)

What I have come to realize about all these needs, all the arrangements that we writers argue that we must have, is that they are all (mostly) crap. They are a set of excuses that allow us NOT to write. They are part of the fear of actually having to DO the thing we talk about doing. In my complete lack of time these days, which has become totally overshadowed by realizations of my own mortality and driving obsession with finally DOING something, I have come to find that I can actually write just about anywhere. Under almost any circumstances. In fact, I’ve come to like dropping down into the “zone” for a few brief minutes when I can find them, wherever they may happen. True, I do need a computer, since I cannot actually read my own handwriting. But aside from that, the rest of my requirements are ridiculous.

Writers, I think, like to believe that there is some magic in what we do. There is some mysticism that lets us accomplish what others, evidently, cannot. And writing, of course, cannot be as simple as sitting down and writing. There must be far more to it in order to discourage the dilettante masses from making an attempt to encroach on our sacred territory. So we create boundaries and restrictions upon ourselves and others, limiting the conditions under which greatness might be achieved.

I may not be the most accomplished writer. But I’ve come to believe that it’s all crap. Cut it out, guys. If you’re going to write, it isn’t going take the next solar eclipse to make it happen. It has nothing to do with moon phases or the perfect cup of coffee. It’s in you. Just sit down and do it.

— UPDATE —

Was just reading this over, and cannot call this post complete without linking to one of my VERY favorite songs, which I have herein reminded myself of by saying something like “Conditions must be perfect,” which is a line from this song (almost). If you are not familiar with Flight of the Conchords, you must get familiar. They are frickin’ hilarious. Here, as an introduction, I present their amazing song — perhaps hitting a bit too close to home: “Business Time.” Watch this only when conditions are perfect… perhaps on a Wednesday…

Finding A Sounding Board

Last night I went to bed really excited about an idea I’d had for my current work in progress. (Not to be confused with my other work in progress, or that other one, that I should be revising and was supposed to submit to the agents who indicated interest prior to my birthday next week. ugh.) But in my current state of dilly-dallying, I have been smitten with THIS particular idea. And it was a slow day at the office, so I had a bit of time to work through some plot points, and I ended up feeling really optimistic about THIS project. Optimistic enough to want to talk about it, which I don’t do much of.

I threw the idea out to my husband. It’s a middle grade fantasy that would probably be best suited for boys, which began as a bedtime story for my own boys. And it’s morphing and taking on a life of its own to some degree, and I just love that. So I gave the hubs the download on what I’d figured out about the plot — the whys and hows of what would happen.  ** It should be noted here that the hubs is not a writer. He has read quite a lot of science fiction and a bit of fantasy, so is definitely in tune with the rules that go along with creating other worlds (which this book has to do). He’s also a realist, a scientist and a bit of a pessimist at times. ** And though he thought the idea was good, he began asking all kinds of questions about things I hadn’t though of yet. And things that I’m not sure need answering. He’s not a huge fan of the suspense of disbelief… and I guess an adult fantasy does have to ask less of readers in that regard. He also tends to try to cast everything in terms of something that already exists (and really, the stories have been written, haven’t they? we’re all just finding new ways to tell them…), so I spend time defending something I haven’t even written yet, explaining how it ISN’T Harry Potter, or Twilight, or the Hobbit… And it becomes a bit demoralizing. I went to sleep much less excited about getting up at 4:30 to work on this than I’d been when I first got in bed.

And all of that made me think some more about WHEN the right time is to show things to people. I made a grave error with the first draft of my first novel. I was so excited to have it “complete” that I let two of my best friends read it. And now I’m pretty sure they both think I’m a crappy writer who is completely delusional about my potential for ever publishing fiction. And that is totally my fault. The current version of that novel is worlds away from what they read, and it still sucks. I’m hoping the next version will be worlds away from that and will suck far less. Maybe even be good. I am taking solace in the words of a fellow blogger — T.M. Souders and her post Would You Fight for Every Word? There may be hope yet…

But I’m curious. When DO you show things or discuss ideas with people, and with whom? I know that my friends and family are likely to tell me I’m wonderful for fear of hurting me, discouraging me, or hurting our relationship. So they, as interested as they may be, do not count. I have let my husband read a couple short stories. And he is more critical than some of my other friends would be certainly, but it is so hard to hear criticism from him. (Though his honesty with me is part of what makes us work at all.)

I want to stumble upon a group of people in exactly the same boat I’m in. (I guess if we were all really in one small boat, it’d be dangerous to get up and stumble around, but you know what I mean. Stop being so goddam literal.) I want to come upon some friendly folks, writers — maybe not too accomplished, or accomplished but in a mentoring mindset — who need some honest feedback and input just as I do. Where have you found your people? (assuming you have people.) And at what point in your work do you share?

Book Club Reading

My book club (one of the two) met last night. I went sheepishly, having read only half of one of the two books we elected to read. We actually chose three, one of which we’ve already discussed at our “halfsies” book club meeting, which falls between our regular meetings (these chicks read a lot). This is in drastic contrast to my other book club, which chose one book almost three months ago and still has not met to discuss.

Anyway, I read half of The Paris Wife, loving the first few chapters and then finding myself not terribly excited to continue. I was interested in the characters — who isn’t interested in the life of a celebrated writer? But I have to be dying to pick up a book these days to get it read, with so much else going on. (Soccer, swimming, the constant expectation of food, clean clothes, a clean house… oh, yeah, and I’m supposed to be writing.) At least I wasn’t alone in my indifference to the book — though it did spark a decent discussion of fact versus fiction, why an author would choose to write a barely fictionalized account instead of a biography, and talk about the recently re-edited A Moveable Feast.

The second book, The House I Loved, I didn’t even manage to begin. I have to report that the other members of my club weren’t too excited about this one, either, especially after reading the incredible Sarah’s Key. We even all shared a sense of indifference to the books we’ve tried to read since trudging through the pages of these two less-than-enthralling reads. And this is not to say that either of these books is bad — just that neither was a really continually compelling story.

For our next meeting, we selected three more books — one for our halfsies club, and two short novellas for our regular meeting. None of the three were anything I would have probably chosen on my own, and they are all short (so I view them as a small commitment!) We’ve chosen:

No Cheating, No Dying by Elizabeth Weil — kind of an unusual pick for us, but we’re all moms of young kids, so this is an area of interest for sure (it’s one woman’s story about how she tried to make her own marriage better).

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
AND We the Animals by Justin Torres

Of course in my own time, I’m reading a few other things…

A Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
From the Storm by Adrian Walker
The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

What are you reading lately?

Writing WHO You Know

How do you create characters? This has always been an interesting question for me. When I was little, maybe out of some kind of loneliness — but more likely just because I was a weird little kid — I used to write character sketches. I liked to create whole people, noting down everything I could think of about them. I liked to pretend that I knew these people, and thought it was exciting to play God with them, to get to decide every little detail about them (right down to the part where they thought I was the coolest deity ever!) I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was basically practicing for building out characters for my later stories, and I still use a lot of what I discovered was useful back then.

That said, I still struggle sometimes with realizing my characters — keeping them rounded and fully dimensional. We’re users, as writers. We create characters often because we need them to do something, to move the story forward, to be a certain thing and serve a greater purpose. And when I’ve built someone and used them in this selfish way, sometimes I drop them like yesterday’s fish dinner, forgetting that they must go on to some degree to be believable.

So here’s the question — or the thought at least. And be warned, it isn’t exceptionally original except that I’ve only just thought of it myself in the context of my own work:  Do you write people who you know in real life?

Here’s why I’m really asking. I’m in a creative tornado right now, where I am filled with ideas and keep starting lots of things, some of which I’ll continue to work on, and some of which are useful only in their own moment. One of these things is a middle-grade story that would be interesting to my own kids. Starring? Two boys who mysteriously share quite a few character and personality traits with two other little boys who I know quite well. Coincidentally the two boys in the story are brothers. Okay, it isn’t a coincidence at all. It’s an experiment to see if the characters I base unabashedly on real people are more lifelike and multifaceted than those who I create from thin air. These boys are older than my own, because my two year old still doesn’t express himself too clearly and having a lot of dialogue where the younger brother says things like, “A hafta shaff go nuff POO!” would probably not keep readers engaged.

Have you tried this before? How did it work for you?

Does Every Sentence Sing?

I was doing some actual writing yesterday (hurrah!) and some revision (hmph.) And as I was doing each, I was thinking about something that I often find myself thinking about lately. It kind of goes along with my initial hesitation in writing anything at all — the thing that kept me from even really officially trying for about 30 years. Does every word, every sentence, need to be lyrical and impressive? Does every sentence need to sing? Or is it okay to just tell a good story?

I think I get a bit of both. Now and then I come across a sentence I’ve written and think, “wow, who wrote that? That’s great!” (Perhaps these are the darlings I’m supposed to kill?) But more often, I am reading for the story more than for the words. The language sort of disappears behind the storytelling, except in places where things are awkwardly phrased or there is an obvious error, and in those places I rewrite.

I’ve been thinking back over some books that I’ve really enjoyed reading, and trying to remember if I enjoyed them because I spent the duration of the book thinking, “oh what lovely phrasing, ah what nice alliteration!” And I don’t think I do much of that. Instead, I am happiest when I can lose myself in a story — shouldn’t the author’s voice be secondary to the tale they are trying to tell? (With obvious exceptions, maybe, in poetry and some narrative?) The books I’ve liked most, I think, are those where the story just seems to tell itself. And that’s a gift, isn’t it? To be able to push and pull language to act on its own, to use our tools to deliver something interesting and rich to the reader without making it obvious that we’re doing so? Sometimes I stumble over sentences where a writer has clearly worked a bit too hard, tried to force something that just didn’t work.

I guess my question is this: where does the art really lie in writing? Is it in the ability to tell a story clearly, compellingly, with the words flowing well and unobtrusively so that the reader doesn’t have to stop and re-read? Or is the writer’s job to play with language, to make it cry and sing and whine, to demonstrate their mastery over it?

Maybe a little of both, I suspect. But I think most writers do more one than the other. And though I began with poetry, I think I’m pretty squarely in the category of the former at this point. I just want to tell the stories, and entertain the reader. Where do you fall?