Monday, May 26, 2014

Location, Location, Location

It's not just a real-estate motto.

I was thinking this last night as we watched As Good As It Gets (1998) and the "gift" doctor makes a joke about how he couldn't find [the Helen Hunt character]'s house because it's in Brooklyn. The subtext there is class consciousness, and the only reason that Arizonans like me can get that is because so many other movies take place in New York. In You've Got Mail (I'm showing my 1998 vibe), the Heather Burns character says she doesn't want to lose her job at the bookstore because she'll lose her apartment, "and then I'll have to move to Brooklyn."

Intentionally or not, the Americans that have never been to New York "know" things about it. Movies and TV tell you that it's the only place to be, and isn't it great, and let me know you all these things like the flower district and the book district (You've Got Mail), Washington Square Park with autumn leaves (When Harry Met Sally, Friends, August Rush), movie theaters and restaurants (Annie Hall, almost every Woody Allen film except a few in recent years, and No Reservations), where to work (Devil Wears Prada and Working Girl), publishers (The Proposal, Funny Farm, The Ghost Writer, Her Alibi) --and I could really go on. I don't doubt that it's a great place, and I don't doubt that there's plenty to see and experience, especially if you're tenacious --but what about the adventure and tenacity that you can see outside of New York?

Shouldn't there be other places to write about?

My students claim that this is my biggest teacher rant. I'm not sure that it is (I rant about adverbs, exclamation points, telling words, slow pacing... okay, a lot of things). But of this I am sure: write about where you live. You know it, unless you just moved there, and in that case, you should have the curiosity to explore it.

Here are some things to consider in regards to setting:

1. Why do you live where you live?
2. Did you choose it or was it chosen for you?
3. What about your location speaks to your personality?
4. If you could change one thing about the place you live, what would it be?
5. How does that one thing speak to your personality?

Here are some things to consider in regard to setting in fiction:

1. Just as your setting speaks to who you are, how does your character's setting speak to who he/she is?
2. If your character could change one thing about his/her setting, what would it be?
3. What does this one thing say about your character's personality?
4. How would your character change if he/she were put into a different city?
5. Think about the scene you're writing right now: how would this scene change if the weather changed? What if it was sunny at a funeral? What if a windy day disrupted something that your character wants?

Don't underestimate your setting. You're not on a studio backlot in the 1950s forcefully giving the illusion that your character is someplace he/she isn't with projected backdrops.

No, your character is in a real place reacting to real things in a real way. Make your character alive based on where you put him/her.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Read Bad Books

I’m assembling a reading list for one of my classes when I had that moment that every writer fears –okay, every writer who teaches fears: I have only read a few books in the last few months. How disappointing.

This comes on the same day that I actually stopped reading a book. I have -or had- this firm belief that a writer should always finish reading every book that he/she starts. After all, a writer empathizes with another writer. A writer can devote 300 pages to seeing where another writer came from, and a writer can have the commitment to supporting another writer by respecting what the other writer sacrificed for and struggled with.

I’ve changed my mind.

I knew it was going to be a trashy novel when I started it, and that’s exactly what I wanted to start the semester with, considering that as a colleague and I just said yesterday, we’re still “stunned” by the ending of the semester. I wanted to read trash. But apparently I have limits. 

I don’t really want to tell you what book was trash because my goal isn’t to destroy another writer. Another firm belief of mine is that you should make up your own mind regarding what you read.

But I do want to convey this to you: read bad books, especially if you’re a writer. While I’m taking this book off of my Steampunk reading list for the semester (I don’t want my students to read this and think that it’s an example of what they should be doing), I think it’s great for writers to read books with bad writing. You can catch every adverb, every moment of sensationalized overreaction, every moment of slow pacing, and so much more. You can see that what your creative writing teachers and mentor said is true.

Do it. Go and read a good bad book. And learn something.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Dear Hemmy, I'm Sorry

(Sorry, Hemmy.)

Mr. E.L. Hutton

Hometown Magazine

4962 Sky Lane Terrace

Indianapolis, Indiana 46204

 February 16, 1920

Dear Mr. Hemingway,

Thank you for thinking of us for your short story, “Up in Michigan.” We were intrigued by your

submission, and I’m happy to say that our mutual friend, Paul Dunning of the Toronto Star, was

right in referring you to us. We would be happy to publish your work if you would just make a few

minor corrections.

The editors and I all agree that you need to add a few more illuminating aphorisms. After all, Mr.

Hemingway, we live in a time of grand ideals and our readers would be interested in the advise of

an honored veteran. As you served our country in the Great War, so you are a symbol yourself.

These readers could be lost in the mire of classic literature, or they could find their bearing through

our own humble publication, educating and directing the American Ideal through literature. Our

kind and passionate readers need only the sage advise from patriots that have American

viewpoints. I’m sure you agree.

We also believe that adding a few more adjectives and adverbs will make the prose a little easier to

read. Have you ever read from The Mississippian? There was a story published in it last November

titled “Landing on Luck” from a young writer named Faulkner. Mayhaps you could take a look at

it and his use of description. We believe this is more in keeping with our publication and with what

is happening in the literary world. Your minimalistic approach is a good start, but we need you to

fill in the blanks with a bit more flowery language.

Also, may I add that you put the ending back (if there was one)? There doesn’t seem to be any

obvious conclusion, and instead it somewhat drops off. Just give us a paragraph or two that seems

to wrap everything up and I’m sure we’ll be in good shape.

Please make these recommended changes and mail them back to the publisher with my name in

“Care Of” underneath. I’m very pleased to be working with you. I think your writing is

straightforward and earnest, and we thank you for your service abroad.


Mr. E. L. Hutton

Miss Amy Kyle

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How to Keep Suspense and Tension Alive in Rising Action

Hello readers,

Have you ever gotten to the middle of the book you're writing and realize you don't know how to do it? You know how to write the beginning, and you know how to write the end, you just haven't figured out the middle.

We've got the answers.

I guest-wrote a blog for my friend Icess Fernandez Rojas, which you can read on her site here.

Happy writing :)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

5 Things to Remember When Writing Creative Non-fiction (or Autobiographical Fiction)

TIP 1: There's no such thing as 100% fiction or 100% non-fiction. (More on this in a second.)

This last week, The New York Times featured Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison as they discussed whether it was okay to mine real relationships for literary material. Francine Prose said, "Obviously it's different if one is writing fiction or a memoir" ---but doesn't prose blur those lines, even a bit?

Back to my tip, there's no such thing as 100% fiction or non-fiction. James Frey really fueled this conversation, didn't he? (If you're not aware, you can read about the controversy here.) Now bookstores have a section called "autobiographical fiction," and in this section are such titles as: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (the passages with Fitzgerald are known as revisionist history, and other parts are speculated to be as well);  A Death in the Family by James Agee (the Pulitzer Prize winner whose author was a toddler when his dad passed away, so understandably much is imagined); and the classic The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (a girl with a mental disorder is understandably allowed to fill in the blanks of what she doesn't remember).

On this same idea, how many of you have sat down to write something as simple as a journal entry and you think to yourself, "Now, did I say the thing after she said the thing or before she said the thing?" You might skip over that line and you continue along just to find another stumbling block. "Now, I know I went to the bank that day, but was that the day I ran into Jeffery and later saw The Grand Budapest Hotel?"

It's so easy to ask yourself, "Does it matter?" But as a writer, your responsibility is to tell as close to the truth as you can.

TIP 2: Tell as close to the truth as you can, but don't choose to not write if you don't exactly remember how something went. 

We all suffer from fallible memory. All of us. (Especially those of us who read long packets of student work every other week.) Because of this fallible human memory, some writers choose not to write. They're so close to the memory that they still feel the need to write it out, but they're distanced enough from it that they block themselves because they don't know who said what when.

Can I just tell you something? Write what you remember first. Do whatever you need to do to give yourself permission to leave the holes. You might need to put a row of x's to keep your place, or you may use whatever word processor at your fingertips (Word, Scrivener, etc) to highlight or mark the areas you need to come back.

TIP 3: Allow yourself to imagine. 

Some of you (I include myself here) can't leave a hole in the narrative to move on to another part. Don't let this become your stumbling block. Give yourself permission to imagine. What could have happened, not in a "what if" kind of way, but in a way that allows you to tell as close to the truth as possible.

Some legalistic, linear writers have a hard time with this one: "But I don't know that he was sipping coffee in the office when he fired me." First of all, if you're writing a memory that involves tension (as you should be, if you want a good story), you're most definitely not going to be remembering every finite detail. But if you're describing an office setting, and if it was in the morning (even the late morning), and your boss is the kind of person that has to have coffee going even until 2pm when the secretaries are tired of making it, it's a safe bet that he was drinking coffee when he fired you. Use reason and logic in all areas like this. If you're writing about the time you lost the diamond in your engagement ring in a parking lot, you can easily describe the pavement as having gum spots. Do you 100% remember the gum spots? No, but a parking lot without them is rare. See how this works? Use your writerly imagination to fill in details that will make the scene come alive. Trust me: it harms no one.

TIP 4: Don't get caught up in details, but communicate the underlying truth.

But writing isn't about coffee and gum spots, is it? It's about people (characters) talking (dialogue), sometimes in direct conflict with what they think or feel (narrative, conflict, POV, voice), and what consequences a person (character) has from choices that he or she has made (plot). That, my friends, is how you tell a story.

Don't get caught up in who said what at what time and who they were with and what year they moved there and what job they had at the time and who was their neighbor and what that neighbor said in gossip about them. Can you see how trivial that can get? No, start with the underlying tension of a scene -with conflict. You might avoid conflict in "real life" and that's okay, but a story must have conflict to be interesting. If you're writing a memory, don't start with chronology, but instead write the strongest part of the memory. For example, I remember when my mom would take my brother and I shopping as toddlers, and the clothing racks were in circles and my brother would hide in the middle of the circle. Cute, but not interesting, right? Well, it gets more interesting because once mom and I left the store with Sean still inside one of the racks. That's interesting because of the conflict. After that, I can go back and describe my memory of the dominant 80's oranges and reds, the rockstar hot pinks and faux black leather, the geometric prints that I grew up hating, some of which as an adult I now wear. See how that works? The details come in after, not before.

When Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar, she started the autobiographical novel about a girl in New York City studying fashion. Did Sylvia Plath study fashion? No, but she wrote for a fashion magazine. The essence of her memory is there -car accidents, associations with characters, parties- it's just that the details are a little different.

TIP 5: Decide if what you're writing is fiction or non-fiction.

Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under a pseudonym (Victoria Lucas), and one of the reasons for changing the details of the story was because she wanted to tell a true story without everyone knowing that it was her.

Sometimes writers want to keep good relationships with their friends and family members by claiming these goings on to be fiction, thus changing the names. And sometimes the friends and family members can already see that the characters are based on themselves and get mad anyway. So what is in a name? This could be the moment when you ask yourself if what you're writing is fiction or if what you're writing is non-fiction. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

-Is there enough plot? Sometimes you see something that has happened in "real life" and you think that it makes a good story on its own. That's non-fiction. But sometimes something has happened in "real life" and you think that it's a good start to a story, and you change some actions. That's fiction.

-Why are you writing? Sometimes something has happened in your life and the only way to deal with it is to write about it. If you are writing it as it happened scene-by-scene, that's non-fiction. If you are writing about the idea (theme) of what happened in a different character's life, that's fiction. (And, by the way, you should never write to destroy a person that you know. That's libel. You should write non-fiction to explore your own story.)

-Who are your characters? It's natural for characters to be drafted after people we know. In fact, it's really hard to draft good characters if they don't share any qualities of people we know. If your characters are carbon-copied into your draft and they associate with a main character that is really you, that's non-fiction. If your characters are mostly real with a few invented qualities and you play the "what if" game, that's fiction. (And if you write carbon-copied characters with the intention of showing their flaws, that's libel. But if you write these carbon-copied characters to show how they acted in your own story, that's memoir.)

So what now?

The writer's curse is that we have these great ideas but not enough time to record them. Start today, my friends. Don't start by deciding if you're going to write a memoir or an autobiographical fiction. Instead, follow the story. Write it down a piece at a time, and only when you're done with your first draft should you decide what it is exactly. By the way, give yourself permission to experiment, because the first draft is supposed to be bad. Give yourself permission to be courageous, and give yourself permission to write the story you need to write.