There is Nothing New Under the Sun Remember that old saying? Years ago, when TVs had rabbit ears and PBS was the only way to watch without commercial interruptions, I saw Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. It was 1988 and this professorial man … Continue reading The Quest as Genre: A Plot Outline
Nobody said it would be easy to finish a novel, get it published, have people read it. This last bit is important: because if no one actually reads my words, I have been ostensibly shouting into a paper cup. The pages of exposition, dialogue, and conflict I’ve created could become just so many trees falling in a silent wood.
Writers know that writing isn’t easy. Writing is a job. (I know because Anne Patchett says so!) The only people who dismiss writing as a profession also think teachers have it easy because they have summers off, all doctors spend their Wednesdays playing golf, and flight attendants are just glorified waitresses.
Writing requires discipline, too, that may be compared to entrepreneurship, that is often described as business. After all, writers create a product that then must be marketed, sold, and consumed. Writing a good book takes time and talent, a talent that can be honed with patience and persistence.
Stories of persistence paying off are legendary. J.K. Rowling submitted her first novel to dozens of publishers before Scholastic picked it up. And unlike other professions that have overwhelming odds like being a professional athlete, singer, or actor, there are no age limitations. But becoming a best-selling novelist isn’t winning the lottery.
In Writer Unboxed, guest writer Jordan Rosenfeld gives us Seven Secrets of Highly Persistent Writers. Only one of the seven secrets refers directly to the writing itself. While the details of the piece are important, let us suffice it to say that my biggest take away is that successful writers are the ones who don’t give up.
That’s easy to follow when the writing’s going well. When I get into my novel, have the time to delve in deep and not come up for air for two to four hours of uninterrupted writing, I can get a lot accomplished. Sure, the word count goes up, the writing is smooth, the wording is nearly final draft quality, and I get that runner’s high writers and artists secretly long for.
But lately I’ve been experiencing a sort of Zeno’s Paradox with my novel. I’ve been so close to finishing for months now. The word count has slowly ticked its way up, but my solid blocks of time are less frequent, and I’m still a few chapters shy of a finished draft. As I get closer to that horizon, it just seems to be receding in front of me.
Sure, life has been a distraction, but my real problem is that I’m doing other kinds of writing. It sounds good, but I’m keenly aware that I’ve lost focus. My worst excuse is that April was Poetry Month and poetry, my first love, seduced me. Have I been squandering my writing time on poetry? Is writing poetry a form of procrastination? Or is it just another way of flexing my writing muscles?
Maybe it’s a classic case of the grass is always greener. Sonia Chung, about a year ago, explored the ability of poets to transition to novelist (and novelist poets) in her article Fiction Is a Trudge, Poetry Is a Dance: On Poet Novelists begins with her own disappointment of being told she might be a poet after making huge efforts to write prose.
But then, we all ask, why can’t we be both? My optimist self says this penchant for writing poetry could be a boon. Go for it, the muse on my other shoulder says, send out submissions to poetry magazines. I could go on and on about the relative accessibility of one genre over another, but is it really about whether time spent on blogging or poetry writing is less worthy of my energy than my novel?
The truth is, it’s easy to lose focus and get caught up in the excitement of something fresh when you’ve been working on a full-length novel for months. Can someone with a short attention span have the fidelity to see the process through?
I’ll have to get back to you on that.
You don’t want me in your book club.
For someone who loves books, I have a funny way of showing it. I consume books like a dieter goes after a chocolate cake, and I don’t stop until there’s nothing but crumbs on the plate. I get in there and dissect them. It’s gruesome. Like a dieter who doesn’t keep sweets in the house, since I don’t get enough opportunities these days to discuss books, when I do get to book club, I can’t help myself. I’m annoying.
There are at least five distinct reasons you don’t want me in your book club.
- I read the book. I mean, really read the book. I don’t generally skim (although there are some good arguments for skimming, it’s never been my thing.) I go to book club to read books I might not have chosen myself, so I don’t skimp on the reading time. I am not one to speed read. I have been introduced as, “the one who remembers everything in the book.” I don’t have a photographic memory or anything, but I’ll remember most details, even from books I read as a child, so you can imagine that I have files at the ready: plenty of events and sensory details to refer to in any discussion.
- I have read a lot. I come to the table with context. If it’s a famous book, I have probably read a review or heard an interview with the author. I have two (otherwise useless) degrees that required reading heavy quantities of fiction, drama, and poetry, as well as reading and writing literary criticism. In a recent book club, we read an adaptation of a famous work that I’d read a few times, at least twice for literature courses. I have read a wide variety of canon classics as well as popular literature; I’m not an amateur when it comes to reading.
- It is often stated that there are only seven or so plots in literature. I love a good adaptation and appreciate when writers use allusion to honor authors who have gone before us. On the other hand, I am easily annoyed by writing that is too derivative, or becomes too clichéd. I have read too many books, so I won’t be all that thrilled with a plot that reminds me of that other book, especially when that other book was so much better. I can also predict a plotline rapidly, so often the element of surprise is lost on me. I cut my baby teeth on mysteries, making me one of those people who can predict the ending of most movies or books.
- I am also a writer, something I’m working on as a (so far unpaid) profession. I have been studying and practicing writing as a craft. All those writing pitfalls readers notice but can’t put their finger on? I have been training for years to identify them to avoid them in my own writing. No writing is perfect (which is why it’s so difficult to do, to finish, to let it go.) Let’s face it, there’s always something to question when it comes to writing decisions. Whether an unknown and known author is guilty of infodumps, clichés, or forgetting the cardinal rule of show don’t tell, I may be a little too quick to point out those sins and even name them.
- I have lots of opinions stemming from experience with people I’ve known, jobs I’ve done, places I’ve lived. And my crazy memory doesn’t just apply to things I’ve read. I’ve met a variety of people from different states, countries, of various ages and demographics. I’ve sold shoes, liquor, coffee, groceries. I’ve taught kindergarteners, elementary students, middle schoolers, high schoolers, college freshmen. I’ve held leadership positions and worked menial jobs. I’ve been through a lot, but, perhaps more importantly, I’ve seen much more. For every stereotype card someone pulls out, I’m prepared with real world information to refute it. And I’m not too shy to bring it up.
Sometimes during book club I hold my hand over my mouth, trying hard not to talk too much. I love to hear what my fellow book clubbers have to say, and I learn so much from how others in the group are affected by the book or how they see the relevant real world issues involved. But my enthusiasm for books runs deep, so, despite my best efforts, I may continue to talk too much. Maybe we should work out a signal? You can gently kick my foot under the table or something.
See you at book club!
In my pursuit of advice about crafting villains, one idea comes up again and again: the villain doesn’t know he is a villain; the villain mistakenly thinks he is the hero. Now that I’ve found my villain and made him into a cruel and selfish … Continue reading A Villain’s Fatal Flaw
When I wrote my first real piece of prose, way back in 5th grade, I never completed it. The plot, a cross somewhere between Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, centered around missing pencils, a kid detective, and an unknown classroom thief. I remember many of the … Continue reading Writing Villains
The worlds we create as writers are unlimited. Some settings are close and claustrophobic, limited to the character’s head, a room, or the loneliness of a planet. The world of fiction can be our own world embellished with magic so we go out in the world imagining there are unseen layers. Dystopian fiction magnifies or projects our current ills and gives us the ultimate conflict: protagonist vs. society. Science fiction and fantasy can be a window into entirely new worlds, often painted with a very detailed brush.
- Writers can limit their worlds on purpose, in order to portray the claustrophobia of their protagonists’ real psychological, internal, and personal struggles.
- in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to an unexpected change in his condition.
- The claustrophobic and tiered setting of Hugh Howey’s Silo Series, is an entire society set in a silo. Protagonists must face their psychological limitations before overthrowing the world order..
- The school and limited experience of the protagonists in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a life with no future.
- Writers can create a magical world hiding behind or within our own, just beyond our purview. Things in our world may seem ordinary to most people, but the extraordinary is there for those in the know.
- Harry Potter’s magical reality created by K. Rowling that runs parallel with our own.
- The otherwise familiar world of Cassandra Clare’s shadow hunters allows us to see our world in extra layers with protagonists who use the Mortal Instruments to fight demons.
- The steampunk world of Charlie N. Holmberg’s Paper Magician gives us a nineteenth century world ruled by magic and magicians.
- Writers can frighten us into looking more closely at our own society, establishing a not too distant dystopian future to serve as a cautionary tale.
- George Orwell’s 1949 novel, 1984 which looks at government control of history and news as well as the manipulation of thought in general.
- The complete loss of rights as seen through the female antagonist of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
- Sabrina Vourvoulias’ depiction of a Southern town where your Ink determines your lot in life.
- Suzanne Collins’ 13 districts and Katniss’ rebellion against the Capitol in The Hunger Games.
- The Republic in Marie Lu’s future Los Angeles, as the protagonists in Legend try to survive and overthrow.
- Writers can do world building from scratch. These architect build planets and universes that seem familiar but crafted into something completely new.
- The sweeping world of Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, where power, politics, religion, and a little bit of magic trace a Machiavellian path to, well, the throne.
- Frank Herbert’s Dune, a desert planet thousands of years in the future, complete with emperors, drug guilds, contrasting religions, and the rise of a messiah.
- Dragonflight and Anne Mcaffrey’s Dragonriders, about the dragons and the people who communicate and ride them on a planet called Pern in some distant future.
- Writers can use time travel to put protagonists from our time into futuristic worlds or to visit history. Historical fiction takes on new meaning with the use of magical or technological intervention, and science fiction is easier to understand with a protagonist with our perspective.
- The Outlander series is an intersection of historical fiction, romance, magic, and time travel. Diana Gabaldon’s protagonist circles the globe in space and time.
- The Island of Eternal Love, by Daina Chaviano, a piece of epic fantastic fiction which traces the entwining history of three families over continents as well as time.
- Timebound (from The Chronos Files) by Rysa Walker traces the protagonist’s repeated journeys into an ever-changing past.
We can focus our description of a setting down to one room or open it up to distant planets of the unknown universe. We can look at the past, present, or future. What elements of the human experience each writer chooses to focus on is up to us.
Happy Writing! Happy Travels!
What inspires me to write changes from day to day. I’m sure that’s true for most of us. I’m at my best when I feel like a writer every second of every day. Which means I’m absorbing inspiration and turning the best and worst moments of … Continue reading Procrastination Isn’t Writer’s Block