Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Writers Support Circle 2009

Our group, in no particular order: Chet Ensign, Pamela Friedman, Sandra Joseph (in photo #1), Stuart Lutz, Birgit Matzerath, James McHugh, Lynn Simmons, Stephanie Staszak (in photo #2), Mary Whithed, Lois Cantwell, Betsy Topitzer, Jerry Kaplan, and Judith Lindbergh.

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The Best Gift for Writers

You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.

The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.

Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin, is apparently fond of quoting Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

How utterly true!

Time
But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.

We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.

There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.

Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
Books are some of the best teachers

Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.

But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.

Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.


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Transitions

Stories – great or small – are made up of a series of scenes. As writers, we focus on perfecting scenic elements and structure – the characters’ inner lives and conflicting objectives build tension to a climax of action, emotion or realization. Then comes the denouement which results in resolution, decision, change.

From this rise and fall comes the rhythm of our plot. Each scene moves our story along. But they are linked together by transitions. Seemingly insignificant but sometimes bogglingly tough, transitions are the necessary seams that bind our stories together.

Seamless stitching

Stitching scenes seamlessly


Too often I have used the sewing metaphor, quoting a beloved acting teacher of mine to “stay on the thread of the scene”. But actors don’t have to worry what happens when they leave the stage. As writers, we are simultaneously the actors, director, scenery, props…. Once the scene is over, do you simply close the curtain and push in another set? Or do you follow the character into the next room, up the stairs and into bed, taking every step along the way?

So how to approach transitions? Efficiently, carefully, with respect that these small stitches are the key to everything. They need to be invisible, or if they’re noticed, they have to add something significant to the whole like decorative embroidery or the pocket stitching on jeans.

Some writers boldly avoid transitions by separating their scenes with section breaks or moving chapter to chapter in short, disconnected blips. It’s certainly an option and, when successful, creates a fascinating effect that shapes an entirely different kind of narrative. But for me, a traditionalist, part of the craft lies in tying things together neatly, logically and organically.

Often we make the mistake of revving up for our scenes, using several paragraphs of internal musing or explanatory writing to prepare the reader for what comes next. Often the information we think we so desperately need is already there in the body of the scene, or can be told through a quick whip-stitch of gesture, reflection, or a well-planned tilt of the character’s head.

When you find yourself with a long chunk of exposition, take it as a hint to cut or at least trim significantly. Exposition stops the flow of the narrative. Though sometimes the reader can use a brief rest between scenes. So I’m not suggesting that exposition is taboo. The trick is knowing just how much is enough and when and how to jump back into the action.

Last night, Sandra did a masterful job by matching of the eyes of two of her characters in the rearview mirror. The shift was seamless as she moved us from a reminiscence to the present moment of her narrative. I can guarantee that transition was hard won. And Stephanie revised her scene by cutting the unnecessary technical chatter and getting us more quickly to the snappy dialogue we all love.

Unfortunately, there are no “how-to’s” for all this. It’s a painful, meandering lesson in trial and error. Just becoming aware of your own tendencies helps to cut the ambling a bit. For example, years ago I was frequently accused of making all my characters walk from place to place between scenes. Maybe it was my growing love of hiking, but it didn’t serve my narrative at all. I’ve learned to move along more quickly these days, but I still struggle with it. In fact, I’ve been stuck all week at the beginning of an argument. Why couldn’t I just let my characters start fighting? Well, all those threads needed to be tied, but they started bunching up on me. So I pulled them apart, decided what was really necessary and tried again.

I think I’ve got it now, but I’m giving it some breath and distance. So we’ll see.