The Writing Process Blog Tour Stops Here

Welcome to the Writing Process Blog Tour! My Wordsmith Studio writer-friend J. Lynn Sheridan invited me to participate. J.Lynn is a poet (one with a sense of humor, I might add).

Blog Tour
Blog Tour

The blog tour moves forward, but if you haven’t already, you should check out J. Lynn’s Blog Tour Stop and another recent post, “Who Needs Poetry? Maybe Not You,” at her Writing on the Sun blog.

Now, on to the topic for this blog tour: Writing Process. The challenge is to answer three questions about my work:

What am I working on?

Several things at once.

I just returned from a week in Denver at The Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a terrific community of writers that sponsors a summer Lit Fest—two weeks jam-packed with craft seminars, workshops, and readings. (Look for a separate post about my Lighthouse experience soon.) This week, I’ve been revising the story I submitted to Antonya Nelson’s fiction workshop. Besides that revision, the novel start I’ve struggled with for the last year  keeps rearing its unruly head and demanding my attention. I think I may be on to something there, at last, in part because of some insights I had in Denver.

There are a couple of new story ideas floating around, too. I’m keeping a notebook beside the bed these nights in case some inspiration strikes (as it did, briefly, last night). I’m also looking for dreams that might be significant.

So see? The writing and the learning are like dominoes: one idea begets another.

Why do I write what I do?

Ah, that’s an interesting question.

I started out writing poems. Mostly bad poems, I’m afraid. The turn to fiction came in a writing teachers’ workshop at Bard College some years ago where I was required to write a short story. That little story came so easily (I wish they all did!), and I fell in love with the form. So mostly, I’m a short story writer. My husband is responsible for the turn to novels. He kept telling me I could write a novel, and I kept protesting that I couldn’t. Finally, I think the challenge got to me, and I took it on. “A novel is just a long story,” he kept reminding me. That’s true, but there’s a lot more to novel writing than that. I find novel-writing challenging and hair-pulling hard, but I’m hooked, and I’ll keep at it.

As for subject matter: stories can come from anywhere. Many of mine stem from autobiographical material, but they also arise out of observation: a person in a restaurant or on the street, another person’s trauma or desire or fear can provide the spark.

How does my writing process work?

Process / G. Wilson
Process / G. Wilson

I wish I could tell you that I have this immaculate way of doing things, that I rise at five every morning and write for two hours before I have my oatmeal. Or I write eight hours a day. I’m retired, after all; I should be able to do that, right?

I’m afraid that’s not the case. I’m as likely to sit with my laptop in front of the TV (with the TV on; yes, I know that’s terrible, but I do it sometimes) as I am to go off by myself. I like to write with music in the background, especially if I find music that fits the tone of what I’m working on. I write notes by hand when I’m just playing around, toying with ideas, and then I tend to write long, messy first drafts and revise, revise, revise.

I’m indebted to a few good and faithful readers who keep me honest (and often humble).

I read–mostly fiction but also poetry, memoir, and other nonfiction.

I research. A lot. It seems most stories require some special knowledge or background to flesh out their worlds with specific details. I like that about the process; I’m always, always learning.

I do wish I were more disciplined. That’s a worthwhile goal.

The tour moves on!

I’ve asked the following writers to come aboard the tour. Do hop over and see what they’re working on and what wisdom they have to share:

Marsha Blevins
Marsha Blevins

Marsha Blevins lives in WV with her boyfriend and four fur-children. After long hours of reports and complaints at her “day job,” she unwinds in front of the keyboard writing short stories, novels, or just random rants. After being published in her college literary magazine in the late 1990′s, she took a nearly 15 year break from the pressures that type of fame brought into her life. Better able to cope with being in the spotlight now, she is back . . . and better than ever! Marsha’s blog: Marble’s Words.

Jane Ann McLachlan
Jane Ann McLachlan

Jane Ann McLachlan taught writing and professional ethics at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario, before she took an early leave to write full-time. She has published two college textbooks on professional ethics through Pearson Education, a short story collection titled Connections, and a science fiction novel titled Walls of Wind. She has written two
other books which are on offer with her agent, Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency in New York, is currently editing her science fiction YA novel, The Malemese Diamond, and researching for her next historical fiction novel. Visit her at http://www.jamclachlan.net or at http://www.janeannmclachlan.com.

 

June Bourgo
June Bourgo

Born and raised in Montreal, June Bourgo lives in the beautiful BC interior surrounded by ranch lands. Her debut novel Winter’s Captive has been picked up by Fountain Blue Publishing for re-release with a new cover, to be followed by Chasing Georgia, Book 2 of The Georgia Series. Information about publishing dates and book availability is forthcoming. June is currently working on A Missing Thread, Book 3 of The Georgia Series. To learn more about June and her work, visit her blog, Losing Cinderella.

 

Story Surgery

A week or so ago, I re-read one of my short stories I hadn’t looked at in a while. I have to confess I’d felt a little smug about this one. (I almost never feel confident about what I write.) It’s unlike anything else I’ve written—a little edgy, playing around with POV and dialogue. Tight. Or so I thought. But I’d submitted it a few times with no luck–a sign the story isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not as good as it could be.

I had never been truly satisfied with the ending, so I started there. I agonized. I lost sleep. I worked on the last two paragraphs for days (yes, sometimes that’s how long it takes), and finally, the ending seemed to gel. No small victory, that.

Then I read the entire story again—one last time, I told myself. I looked at white space, checked for typos. I had already read it for clichés, sentence variety, scene/narrative summary balance, tension, character arc/change, “flow” . . . If you’re a fiction writer, you know the drill. As I read, though, I realized the story was still heavy with gratuitous details and phrases, even whole sentences that didn’t contribute much.

Cutting Room Floor

"Possible Cut" by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
“Possible Cut” by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

So I started cutting. By the time I was done, the story was almost 500 words lighter. Tighter. Stronger. Why had it taken me so long to see what it needed?

Sometimes, time and distance give me perspective. I agree with the advice to “put it away for a while,” then reread with a sharp, critical eye. I often puzzle over a story for a long time before I figure out what it really needs. (Occasionally, I never figure it out, but that’s another post.)

Someone—surely more than one writer of advice on story craft—has said that nothing should go in the story that doesn’t advance it in some way. Nothing.

That, I believe, is the crux of revision whether you’re writing short or long fiction.

Ask yourself: Does this scene/ paragraph/dialogue/sentence/image/particular word (yes, word choice) move the story forward and/or grow the character? What does it add? Strike it out and read the passage aloud without it. See if you miss it, not because it was a brilliant turn of phrase but because without it, something absolutely essential has gone missing from the story. If not, cut. Cut. Cut. Painful, but necessary.

Be wary of language that calls attention to itself. In this story, I threw away a metaphor I loved. It was a beautiful image, but it didn’t do anything for the story. Sometimes we do indeed have to “kill our darlings.”

Granted, it’s possible to chop the life right out of a story. I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes, if we cut a story to its bones, we find a better way to tell it.

Before and After

I want to share a couple of examples. This story, “Miracle of Doors,” is about a woman recovering from breast cancer. Out of context, these passages won’t mean much, but they illustrate the kind of cutting and refining I’m talking about. (Her cat, Miso, plays an important role in the story.)

Here they are, side by side:

Old_new_best.pdf
Before, after

This gives you an idea of my “tightening” process when I’m down to the last passes through a story. Sometimes it’s not the number of words but the words themselves that matter most. Maybe you’re able to write concisely or revise as you go. I tend to discover as I go; I write long drafts and whittle them down.

A story draft is the easy part. Revision is key to a polished piece of writing you can be proud of. Before you send the story out into the world: Refine. Make every word count!

Do you have favorite revision strategies? Share one with me!

Close Encounter in the P.O.: Two Soldiers

Hello! It’s been a while. Let’s just say that the blog has had a lazy summer, but I have not. Now it’s September, and my school-teacher brain-clock tells me it’s time to get back to work.

So I want to tell you a true story.

At the P. O.

This morning, I stood in line for a long time in our little neighborhood post office. As usual, there was only one person working–a woman who, in spite of the line, seemed determined to keep her wits about her by not hurrying. So I did some people-watching. That’s what writers do, right?

A young African American man wearing camouflage stood just in front of me. He was clearly a soldier—muscular build, clean-cut, his head shaved—and when he turned, I saw his clear, beautiful dark eyes. In front of him, a couple of suspicious looking white guys waited. One wore a baseball cap over his dirty hair (he was sending a money order, it turned out, for $57 and some cents); and the other, with his unkempt beard and beady eyes, looking like a character out of Deliverance, struggled with a box so big he had to rest it now and then on the Priority Boxes kiosk next to us.

The line grew behind me, too. I couldn’t help noticing a scruffy, bearded, older white guy when he came in. He wore a prosthetic leg and a sour expression. In pain? I wondered. Deliverance guy turned and stared pointedly at the prosthetic leg (the older man was wearing shorts).

Finally, the line moved, and the soldier in front of me was next. He had been working on a package at the kiosk, and apparently, he’d stuffed something too large into the envelope. It bulged and gapped open at the ends. The postal clerk told him he’d have to tape it up. “I don’t have any tape,” she said, nodding toward the tape for sale.

“What about that tape right over there?” the soldier asked. He was right; there was tape, in clear view on the counter.

“I can only let you have tape if you’re sending it Priority,” the clerk said. The soldier nodded, and she handed him the roll. He taped up his package, paid, and turned to go.

Encounter

Soldier Cloth by lobster 20 Image courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
Soldier Cloth by lobster 20
Image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

As he walked out, the scruffy older man behind me said, “Soldier!” His tone sharp, commanding. I turned. Oh Lord, I thought, not a confrontation.

The young soldier turned, too, and looked at the man.

“Vietnam vet,” the older guy said, as though that was all the explanation needed. “You been in it over there?”

“Yes sir,” the soldier answered, his tone like a salute. “Twice now.”

The Vietnam vet reached across the space between them and offered the younger soldier his hand. “I want to thank you for what you do for all of us,” the old vet said. They shook hands, black man and white, two soldiers standing on common ground in our little post office. The moment was entirely theirs. Choked up, I looked away.

The young soldier went on his way, and by that time, I was at the window, tending to my mundane errand but knowing I had just witnessed something remarkable.

Some Donald Maass Wisdom

Earlier this morning, I had read Donald Maass’s column, “Seasons of the Self,” at Writer Unboxed. First, Maass reflects on his personal past, his present, his future. Then he turns the reflection to the art of writing fictional characters. Every protagonist, he says, must possess personal awareness–a clear sense of where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going. Here’s Maass:

How does your protagonist understand his or her own evolution? Powerful characters are real people. To become fully real we need to create their personal history.

He goes on to list ways to give protagonists the sense of self that renders them human. This is good stuff; I’d say go read it right now.

Witness

So what does the Maass article have to do with what I witnessed this morning? Just this: I was struck by the fact that each of the soldiers in the post office has his own story: a past self, a present, a future. Their stories crossed in that moment, unforgettable, I would think, for either of them, or for me. I just happened to be there; ten minutes earlier or later, a shorter wait, and I would have missed it. I could invent a story now about either of them, based on what I observed. I have all I need. Whether I will or not, I don’t know. For now, it’s enough to have been there.

A challenge for you!

First, read the Maass article. Then think about the protagonist in your current work-in-progress. How does his/her story interact with the stories of others? How does such a moment of encounter impact his/her self-knowledge? Write a “fresh” encounter your character has that reveals something about his or her sense of personal history.

Or, think about your personal story in this light: How has a moment of encounter changed you? Write about it!