Digging for Words

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


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The Waiting Game

What a time it has been! I’ve gone from tentatively sticking my toe back into publishing waters to swimming in the whirlpool of anxious possibility…

Ah, but you have no idea. Let me explain.

erica-study3I finished my latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, at 10:30 PM on June 26 while my family watched a noisy shoot-em-up in the next room. Even as I hit “save” in at least three locations – my computer, external hard-drive, Dropbox and a couple others just in case – I opened an email that swept me away into the riptide of The Writers Circle’s Summer Intensives. I didn’t have a moment to think about my own work again until the end of the summer when I mentioned at the last class of my beloved Wednesday morning Adult Writers Circle that I was finally looking for a new agent.

Not wanting to draw attention to myself, which is my usual pose in the teacher’s chair (this blog post notwithstanding), I didn’t mention who or what I was planning beyond what would be useful to my students when they were ready. But one of our circle, Maude, finally said, “Let me see your list.” She was quite insistent, so I finally did.

“I know this person, and this one.”

I stared at her, astonished. In fact, a couple of people in the class knew others who might help me. I graciously and somewhat breathlessly accepted their offers of introduction, realizing that this is exactly what The Writers Circle was meant to do. I just hadn’t expected to be one of the recipients of our communal largesse! I always thought it would work the other way around.

A few days later, a message came through inviting me to send a query. Which I did – from my family vacation in Maine. Of course, we had to choose a place off the grid! But after several trips to a wireless hub, I managed to send an appropriate query letter not to one agent, but two. Within 24 hours, requests came from both for the manuscript. OMG!

Not long after, I was meeting my brand new agent in NYC, feeling the first tentative tendrils of hope growing into sturdy roots as I discovered that what I’d been struggling with and nurturing for so long had a champion.

WaitingAll this was about a month ago. Right now, my former editor at Viking – who, by contract, has first option on this book – has my manuscript in hand. Or someone does in her office. Hopefully it’s made it past her assistant. Maybe it’s making its rounds through the marketing department by now? Maybe finding its way to the final arbiters of a reasonable (dare I hope!) deal? Or is it simply languishing, waiting for a response that will send me searching for the courage and endurance that I’ve preached about so often in these blog posts?

I’m told that, if Viking turns it down, there are lots of other options. In fact, there are more options than ever before. I’ve said it myself, I’ve said it to you, and I know – I really do know – that it’s true. But the brass ring for any author is still to find a traditional publisher who will stand behind their book, or at least get it into the stores across the nation and some attention here and there where it counts. Before and after that, trust me, there’s lots to do. But for now, I can wait.

I’ve waited this long. I can manage a little longer.


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Going Places

Michelle CameronTips on starting with a bang, from TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron:

Picture this scene:

A man lands at an airport. The plane taxis on the ground for nearly fifteen minutes, while all around him, people are talking on their cell phones, hoping to be picked up or explaining when they’ll arrive, or just letting the family at home know they’ve arrived safely.

The plane finally taxis to the gate. People take down their luggage and wait, impatiently, in the corridor of the aircraft. Finally, the line begins to inch forward. It picks up speed. Everyone moves out of the aircraft while the flight crew bids them farewell.

The man moves quickly through the terminal, exiting at the security gate. He goes downstairs to the luggage area, a cold, sterile place. He waits for his luggage to appear…

Are you bored yet? I am, and I haven’t even had my character retrieve his luggage, find a taxi, drive though the city, check in at the hotel…

Now, consider this:

A man lands at an airport. Two hours later, in his hotel room, he lies down on the king-sized bed and calls his mistress.

Bam. In two short sentences, we’ve moved the story forward – and haven’t bored the reader (or writer) to death.

It can be difficult for writers to know how many transitional details to add to a story or novel. Sometimes a writer feels obliged to include some of the day-to-day details that, frankly, have meaning in real life but not necessarily in a piece of fiction.

Generally, it’s good to recognize when you yourself are losing interest in just such a transition. That’s usually a great clue to examine why you’re writing such a scene. There are some times when you might want to include the transitional details. For instance, if they give some insight into the character or set a scene that is going to be important for your readers, then it’s worth it. But if they don’t serve the story in any way except to get your character from place to place, consider cutting them and getting right into the action.

How? A simple transitional phrase such as “two hours later” will usually be enough for the reader to fill in the gaps. We’ve all been to airports, we know the mindless details that have to occur as you go from place to place. We’re often happy not to have to revisit them in our fiction.

The best rule of thumb is always – does your transition serve the story? If not, as they say in the movies, “cut to the chase” and get moving.


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Writing in 3D

We’ve all heard it before. “Your character’s flat. You need to make him three-dimensional.”

Sure, great. But what exactly does that mean?

We all know we live in a three dimensional world. We learn it in grade school: a line, a plane, a cube… But how do you make a character three dimensional? Do you make him really fat? Do you give him a limp so he wobbles when he walks, thereby taking up more space?

Believe it or not, I’ve tried both, and no, that’s not what it means. Three-dimensional means you have to dig deeper.


Take that character with the limp, for example. It’s fine to describe him walking, every struggle to get his footing, every attempt to hide his frailty and vulnerability. Ah! There’s the hint that I need… his vulnerability. There’s where I begin to ask: why is he vulnerable? How does he feel about his limp? And, even more pressing, how did he get the limp in the first place?

It was only when I start asking these questions that the concept of three-dimensionality begins to come clear.

For me, it often starts with the physical. I was a dancer, once upon a time, and an actress after that. I’m pretty sensitive to subtle inflections of voice and shifts of movement – how they can reveal what a character is feeling. I often get up and act out what my characters are doing in a particular scene. Still, the physical is just the start. It’s getting beyond the external to the why’s, the how’s; for my poor man with the limp, it’s the who-does-he-think-of-every-time-he-takes-a-step, the source of dread that haunts his soul every time he trips or stumbles. Answering those questions gives me a character, not with a flaw, but with a life.

But not everyone feels comfortable getting up and acting out their scenes. How can you develop a 3D character without feeling like an utter fool in the privacy of your writing room?

The answer came to me about a month ago when Michelle Cameron and I were teaching a workshop on Creating Character. I had come armed with a few simple physical exercises for the writers at hand, but sensed in their awkward giggles that I wouldn’t get much beyond giving them some key details and letting them walk around in a circle for a couple of minutes “in someone else’s skin”. It worked well enough. But I realized I had to break it down.

I was jotting notes while Michelle asked the group, “What makes a character three-dimensional?”

“They’re quirky…. Idiosyncratic…. They have a heart…. A sense of humor…. A purpose for being…. They’re relatable…. Unpredictable…. They have room to grow.”

All the while, I’d been thinking about time – how time forms us and forces us to take actions, sometimes ones we never would have planned, that change the course of everything. And about how time slowly nips away at us until the “I” who once was is unrecognizable to the “I” that is now.

“To make a character three-dimensional,” I popped up, “is simple. All they need is a past, present and future.”

I’d drawn a little diagram, nothing special, but it illustrated the point.


“We are formed by our past. Everything we are comes from those first experiences, those memories: the hug we never got, or the helicopter mom, the fire we escaped, or the first love that cannot be matched or compared. And we all have a future – our wants, our needs, our expectations, our plans. Everything we do today – we as people and as characters – is propelled toward our future but shaped by our past, so that the choices we make are rooted in a complete and authentic reality and the desires we attempt to achieve are bolstered or thwarted by everything we drag behind. It’s simple!”

OK, it’s not simple. And I doubt I said it as articulately at the time, but I saw it in my head. It was an epiphany formed instantaneously there in that class. And suddenly I knew that all those years I’d spent in acting classes, sitting in the back of the theater jotting down pages of character notes – their background, parents, old relationships, losses and loves – I was doing what we all need to be doing every day as we get to know our characters.

And, just like in those acting days, we should do it “off-page”. Not in the context of the beautiful words you are drafting for your elegantly crafted scenes, but messy, in a notebook or a bullet-pointed list, so you don’t have to worry if it sounds right or makes any sense at all to anyone but you.


You only have to explore, imagine, and decide, “Yes, he fell out of a tree when he was five. He broke his leg in three places. But he was in the woods. Too far to be heard. Crying… Crying and no one heard him. Finally in the dark, they came with flashlights and shadowed scowls. But the skin was cut. Infection had set in. The bones never set quite right, and since then, all the running, climbing, exploring. No more. And then in school…”

And suddenly the character has gained the inherent mass of a loss, fear, struggle and sadness. Limping forward, all he wants in all the world is to climb and run again.


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He Said, She Said

Great dialogue tips from Writers Circle Associate Director, Michelle Cameron:

Writing dialogue is a critical aspect of fiction and memoir, and many writers struggle with it. So in a recent class, we considered what factors could comprise a successful section of dialogue. As we do in many of these more technical discussions, we deconstructed a few passages of published work. We’ll use some of them in this post to help us extract some guidelines for writing dialogue:
He said She said
Dialogue should never happen in a vacuum.

        “Oh, I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do with that child!” She took a deep breath: “I’m absolutely at the end of my rope.” She gave the shower curtain an x-ray like look.
                – Franny and Zooey,
                  J. D. Salinger

Note how the speaker gives that shower curtain a piercing glance. Placing your characters in a setting – and reminding us of that setting with simple cues, like sipping from a coffee cup or turning to look out a window, will keep us grounded in the story.

Your character’s personality should infuse the way he or she speaks.

        “Your new friends must be damned smart – they’ve managed to saddle you with their responsibilities in less than two months.” He shook his head – pitying me for being so gullible.
        I just stared at him.
        “She’s a cute kid, but she’s got no claim on you, Juliet, and you’re going to have to be firm about it. Get her a nice dolly or something and say good-bye, before she starts thinking you’re going to take care of her for the rest of her life.”
        Now I was so angry I couldn’t talk. I stood there, gripping Kit’s porridge bowl with white knuckles. I didn’t throw it at him, but I was close to it. Finally, when I could speak again, I whispered, “Get out.”

                                – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
                                  Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The man speaking above is an American in a British novel – he’s sharp, cynical, and caustic. We always know when Mark comes on the stage.

Consider also that silence sometimes speaks louder than words. In natural life, we often don’t reply when we’re talking to someone – and our silence can suggest so many things: anger, resentment, confusion, pain… Juliet’s hand curves around that porridge bowl and we know what she’s feeling, without the author having to provide her feelings via dialogue.

        I finish chewing and ask, “Do you know who the secretary of state is?”
        “Huh?”
        “Do you?”
        “No.”
        “And see? You’re still allowed to vote.”
        “What does that have to do with anything?”
        Jen drains her beer and laughs.
        “I think I get it.”
        “Go to hell, Jen,” Rhonda says icily. “One beer and you’ll roll over for anyone.”
                                – Fragile Beasts, Tawni O’Dell

Use tags – he said, she said – sparingly.

You don’t need to identify who is saying what if it is clear to the reader. Note the exchange above – the swift back and forth over the secretary of state. By eliminating tags and just focusing in on the dialogue, we center our attention on the brief argument – akin to keeping your eye on a tennis ball during a swift volley.

Use tags, however, when it is necessary to identify who is speaking. When a third party is introduced into a dialogue, for instance, or when there is any doubt who is saying what, you need to make sure we know who is talking. Note, however, how skillfully Ms. O’Dell introduces Jen above: because she has just drained her beer and laughed, we know the unidentified “I think I get it” is her statement.

Watch the use of adjectives and adverbs.

Too many of them can dilute what you’re trying to express. But use them when they will convey emotion better than anything else. Strong verbs can and should carry much of the burden of the story, but this doesn’t mean a good adjective or adverb can’t help out once in awhile. When Rhonda says “Go to hell” icily to Jen, we’re left in no doubt as to how she’s feeling. But it’s because that’s the one and only adverb in the entire conversation that it works so well.

Let your characters think before they speak.

        “I don’t believe I feel like it just now, Amanda.”
        “Did I ask you if you felt like it?”
        He spread his fingers and looked at the bitten nails, not answering. Speak sharply to Jeremy and you will bowl him over; he can’t stand up to things. You’ll get further being gentle with him, but I always remember that too late. He puts me in a fury. I can’t see how he could let himself go the way he has. No, letting yourself go means you had to be something to start with, and Jeremy was never anything. He was born like this.
                                – Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler

Give your characters a chance to reflect on what is being said, to consider what it might mean to them, and even to change their minds about it mid-thought.

Also remember that what our characters say can sometimes hide the truth of what they really feel. “Language was given us to conceal our thoughts,” as Talleyrand said at the Congress of Vienna. In this passage and throughout the book that follows, Jeremy’s silence covers a myriad of emotions and thoughts. Sometimes a little misdirection can add suspense and engage the reader in trying to discover the truth.

And one final note – dialogue should sound natural but not be studded with the pauses and stuttering that we hear in everyday speech. Use your craft to hone in on any mannerisms that might be important to convey character – but make sure it’s not slowing down the passage unnecessarily. As with the passage above from Fragile Beasts, a single “huh” can go a long way.


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Thoughts on a Creative Education

What does it mean to be creative? Some people might imagine a “bohemian”, someone with no boundaries, who floats on a whim to seek the muse. Someone who dons wild clothing and wilder hair, who is as likely to fall in love as to commit suicide or murder.

To be creative, you don’t have to be erratic, uncontrolled, addicted or unpredictable. In fact, these qualities are far more likely to kill your creativity as to nurture it.

The word “creativity” shares the same root as the word “create”. In other words, you have to actually make something to be creative. Making things requires discipline, technique, excellent organization and problem solving skills. It’s nice if you have a little talent, too. But even if you don’t, creativity is a process and it can be learned.

In simplest terms, creativity experts summarize the lesson thus: first, you have to embrace the broadest thinking possible; then, you have to make an assemblage of critical decisions.

In an article in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis, the creative process and its measurable degradation in America since the 1990s were detailed and scrutinized. What makes a creative thinker and how can creativity be nurtured? And where is American education going wrong?

I came face-to-face with the creativity crisis myself when my son was writing a report for elementary school. To guide him in his assignment, he had received a shockingly detailed (to me anyway) outline. Every paragraph not only had to be structured with a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a concluding sentence. He also had to give specific information in each sentence. This outline didn’t require any input from my son, only compliance. In fact, if he didn’t follow the outline precisely, he would be marked down.

This orderly approach was certainly easy to follow, and would be even easier for his teacher to grade. But it gave him no space to consider or explore his topic. It did not challenge him to make his own associations, organize his own research or thoughts. He just had to fill in the blanks. Simple call-and-response. No writer I’ve ever heard of works that way. Even those of us who depend heavily on outlining leave a little room for the possibility that an unexpected thought might fit in someplace we hadn’t thought of before.

In fact, the Newsweek article precisely stated the nature of my alarm. In it, an expert was discussing America’s educational focus with Chinese educators who have historically and notoriously emphasized cooperation over creativity. The Chinese response to our standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing was to laugh out loud: “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”

How do we teach our children creativity and preserve it in our culture? Talk to any creative person and they’ll tell you. Divergent thought must come first. Given a problem to be solved or a project to be executed, one must first assess – or even better, “play” with the infinite possibilities before settling on solutions.

As writers, this is as natural as breathing. Faced with a blank slate and the entire world for contemplation, we select a kernel of inspiration, a topic we are curious about, a thought we had briefly while walking down the street, and from it we create entire worlds.

In an exercise I use frequently in my creative writing workshops, I give students a pile of photographs of people’s faces. Some could be just “anyone”, but have curious, emotionally charged or meaningful expressions. Others are faces that are distinctly different, often defined so by unusual clothing, make-up, hairdo, setting and more. I ask my students to choose a face that speaks to them. This is the first decision of a creative thinker. It’s often an emotional choice. Why pick one and not another? Does one image remind you of somebody you love or hate, someone you’d like to meet or are afraid of? Does the expression reflect something that’s going on deep inside yourself?

Once the choices have been made, we don’t analyze. An analytical approach would poison the subliminal brew that’s essential to the creative objective. Instead, at this point, I simply ask students to write free-form for ten to fifteen minutes.

“Don’t think. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Let your pen flow. Let your thoughts fall onto the page like rain.”

Here, you may think, comes the crazy “bohemian” and her shapeless approach to creativity. But in fact, as each writer works, they are making more decisions. They are looking at the face and choosing perhaps to describe it. Or maybe they start by giving the face a name. Or maybe they decide to write as if they are the person in the photograph. Or as if they’re holding the photograph. Or as if someone else found it in the glove compartment of an abandoned car…

As each choice is made, a new dimension solidifies in each writer’s creative process. Each choice informs the writer about their character and circumstance. Each choice transforms the fleeting sparks of inspiration into concrete words on the page.

With each choice, the options for that particular piece of writing narrow. The more detailed the decisions, the more specific the story becomes until all the divergent thoughts have drifted away and the story, characters, language, pacing and more are completely clear in the writer’s, and eventually the reader’s, minds.

The one thing that is missing in this process is absolute certainty. There are no quantifiable results. Writing is subjective. Each reader is the unique judge of failure or success. And this, I think, more than anything, is what’s scary to educators and administrators trying to shape the educational process. You can’t box creativity. You must let it breathe. It must be left to its own devices, but nudged and nurtured along the way.

It takes a little more energy, patience, intuition and a lot more courage to teach this way. But for our next generation to regenerate the American hallmark of creativity and innovative thinking before it is completely lost, we must let their minds out of the box and let them play.


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Muses to the Muse

Here in New Jersey the summer is upon us. We’re slogging through water-thick air, trying to stay alert in the humidity and heat. Typing at my keyboard is best done in air conditioning or outside in the slight breeze where the shivering cicadas songs wash over and around me like waves.

Cicadas
I do have a suggestion to make the hot summer months more inviting to the muse. In summer, I take my work to a museum. There’s nothing cooler than sitting in a gallery with an open notebook and pen, allowing the paintings, sculpture and hushed, inquiring atmosphere to seep into your consciousness and fill your mind with words. In every painting or sculpture there is a story to be told, waiting only for the avid observer to reveal.

Often I take my children with me. We’re all museum lovers, and live close enough to New York City to make it an easy trip. We travel dark subway tunnels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then trek the few blocks to the Whitney and down on the bus to MoMA before heading home, exhausted and fulfilled. Or sometimes stayed in one gallery for hours.

One of our favorite haunts is in the Met’s Rockefeller Wing. Here amidst the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, we tiptoe from display to display, staring back at wild masks, mimicking the awkward poses of dancing statues, or sitting with our notebooks to write or draw what we think, imagine and see.

You might even catch us (if the guards don’t first), lying our our backs beneath the bark-painted ceiling of the “Ceremonial House” from Papua New Guinea. Looking up at these masterpieces, we try to imagine what it would be like if this was our home and each of those paintings was made by someone we knew. And what if we understood their meanings? All those little symbols – mostly sinuous, symmetrical shapes, but some look like animals – snakes, lizards, birds, monkeys, smiley-faces or monsters with fangs and claws.
Bark Painting from the "Ceremonial House"
When we get kicked out (as we inevitably do), we’re likely to head to the Greek and Roman wing next door. On one visit, we spent over an hour discussing and imagining the lives of ancient Etruscans.

It doesn’t hurt that my family loves myths and ancient cultures. It also doesn’t hurt that Rick Riordan has made Greek and Roman mythology as commonplace as baseball and bicycles in a kid’s world. But I see our visits as a critical extension of a creative education.

In another time in life, some of you know, I was a professional dancer. As part of my early passion, I read everything I could about the early 20th century greats: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Sergei Diaghilev. I recall learning in one biography that Diaghilev, director of the famous Ballets Russes, would encourage his dancers to explore other art forms. They were a traveling company and each city they visited was an opportunity to discover new art, music, architecture, folk dance and culture. Each exposure made them better dancers because they had seen, for example, the passion of an authentic Spanish dance or heard the mournful strains of the Gypsies.
Belvedere Castle
So when I take my kids to the City, or my notebook on my own, I seek out every opportunity to see and experience what we never have before.

And though museums are a fairly safe choice, we are as likely to venture into Central Park. The narrow, twisting stone stairways of Belvedere Castle might as well be a medieval tower. And the glacial striations in the Manhattan schist could have perhaps been made by giant claws.

All of us wind up experiencing sights and points of view we might never have discovered. Inevitably, each of us comes home with a story to write or tell, or at least a tiny detail to add to a 400-page manuscript that makes the writing that much more vibrant and the adventure more real.


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The Times They Are a-Changin’

The Times They Are a-Changin’. I see it again and again. I’m no longer worried so much as bemused (or amused) at the wriggling that the entire book industry is doing right now, trying to find a comfortable fit in so many new and unfamiliar positions. I am wriggling, too, growing The Writers Circle even as I finish the fifth (YES, FIFTH!) draft of my latest novel. Clearly I’m not the type of author who can churn out a book every year. Teaching and supporting writers has become a vital, beloved, and invaluable part of my journey.

How we read (pronounce "reed")


In the meantime, here are just a few of the curious and inevitable adjustments being made in every corner of the bookish world.

First, if you don’t already know it, self-publishing is no longer the taboo “vanity” publishing it used to be. It’s first mega-star, Amanda Hocking, is making every struggling writer start to think, “Hey, I can do it myself, too!” Whether or not that’s true, be sure to read Storyseller, for a look inside the industry-changing success of this author who got there the wrong-way-round.

Next, there’s the squirming of independent booksellers. Whether they’re trying to make a profit or just trying to stay alive, they’re starting to charge admission for readings. This extremely controversial act of desperation is explored in Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet from today’s New York Times.

On the pre-publication front, digital is now the way to go for galleys. A galley, for those who don’t know, is an uncorrected proof – a copy of a book that’s just about, but not quite, final. These used to go out to booksellers, reviewers and librarians in unexciting single color covers that you’d sometimes find on the used book rack or down in the basement at The Strand. When I published my book, they’d already gotten pretty fancy. My galley looks like a paperback copy of my hardcover, cover art and all. Well, now you can get galleys on your iPad or Kindle. It makes sense. Why pay for printing and shipping when the book’s “not quite ready for primetime” but you’re hoping to drum up interest? Check out NetGalley where “professional readers” can request titles before they are published for review purposes. (And if you think, “Hey, aren’t we all ‘professional readers’?” check out their publisher requirements to see if you qualify.)

How We Read (pronounce "red")


All of that said, I’m forever a traditionalist. And my focus more and more is on the how and why of writing, and less and less on the how and why of publishing. First, it all makes me anxious. Life’s anxiety producing enough. (I have two young sons… Need I say more?) Second, most of this is completely and utterly outside my control. But I can gain much wisdom and solace from good reading, good writing and good writing advice. So I turn to an old master – believe it or not Stephen King, whose books I cannot read (remember, life’s anxiety producing enough, per above?), but whose writing on writing is as direct and accurate as one can get.

I was as tickled perhaps as he to find his short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” in May’s issue of The Atlantic. And I know that he was pleased because he said so at the end of the accompanying Atlantic interview, Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More.

For him, as for any of us, seeing our work in a high-end lit-mag like The Atlantic or The New Yorker is a bit of a dream come true. Even he got rejected: “I can remember sending stories to The Atlantic when I was a teenager, and then in my 20s and getting the rejection slips.” Of course, he wasn’t “Stephen King” back then…

Or somewhere in between?


In any case, read the story first, because the interview gives a few minor spoilers. In both cases, I appreciated in his work, his candor, his characterization of writers, especially those who are past their prime and yet still working to express what cannot be expressed, and most especially his characters’ recognition that sometimes even the power of words is not enough.