Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Five: Many Genres, One Craft (edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller)

This summer marks the four-year anniversary of the release of Many Genres, One Craft, and I’m still thrilled to call myself a contributor. My essay on writing for older kids, “Keeping It Real: Mixing Truth and Fiction in YA,” is included, but it’s only one of 82 pieces–82!–that explore the craft of writing by addressing it from multiple angles. I can’t find another writing book out there anything like this one, and it’s fun and exciting to be a part of a volume so innovative. Beautifully designed and published by Headline Books, MGOC offers up both the practical and the inspirational in each packed section: Craft, Genre, and The Writer’s Life. Articles on the writing process and story elements fill the Craft section; popular genres like sci-fi, romance, suspense, and others (in addition to YA and children’s) are each addressed in turn in the Genre section; and the pieces in The Writer’s Life section, probably my favorites, clue you in to methods that working, earning writers use to overcome challenges and achieve the overall goal of more and better writing.

The book is crazy big and weighs as much as a newborn. It’s done awfully well this past year; it won the 2012 International Book Award in the “Business: Writing and Publishing” category, and the “Education/Academic” category of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It won the General Non-Fiction Award in the 2011 London Books Festival Awards. It placed 5th in The Writer magazine’s “This Year’s Ten Most Terrific Writing Books,” earned a spot as a finalist in an impressive list of other awards and honors, and–as of yesterday–won Silver in ForeWord Reviews’ 2012 Book of the Year Awards in the category of Adult Nonfiction–Writing.

MGOC‘s contributors are all connected with the MA/MFA writing program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University as graduates, faculty, or guest presenters at writers’ residencies. We all draw from what we learned or what we teach at Seton Hill in these essays, so the book also provides a pure glimpse into what this degree program has to offer. As Dr. Mike Arnzen, one of the editors, says in his intro, “this book is the writer’s residency in a bottle.”

Try  MGOC’s blog  for excerpts and more info.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Four: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Back in college and grad school days, I knew several chemistry majors who, when they got a few weeks inside Organic Chem, suddenly felt like they were hopelessly sinking. You could read their worried expressions like pages in a story: I’m in the wrong major. I picked the worst career ever. I can’t do it, because I don’t get it. Same thing with the Pre-meds when Anatomy and Physiology hit them like a bus, and same thing again when Library Science wanna-bees opened their textbooks on MARC records. The content itself in these classes threatened to kick even the most determined and intelligent students the heck out of the discipline where they thought they’d always belonged. Many students were “weeded out” during these classes and other particularly challenging ones; the ones who made it through shivered with relief. And every now and then a student came out the other side the clear victor, making once-threatening ideas now serve their needs instead.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers has a similar effect on some storytellers. I watched it happen in grad school and I felt some of the panic myself: What? Huh? Who? Slow down. Maybe this writing thing isn’t for me after all. It’s not that the text is hard to read; it’s not at all, it’s easy reading. It’s clearly explained. It’s a friendly tone. The examples are all stories we know and love well. So what’s the problem?

Maybe it has something to do with the basic premise: that all stories–every book you’ve ever read–are all really the same story. (At least, the good ones.) And that not only are all stories basically the same, but that your life and my life and pretty much every life ever lived or being lived or going to be lived is the same story too.

Vogler’s book, pictured here, is a guide for writers. It’s a spin on the work of Joseph Campbell, myth theorist extraordinaire. Joseph Campbell’s ideas “run parallel” (Vogler’s phrase) to those of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who discussed the role of archetypes in our real lives. Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he analyzed both the archetypes themselves and the archetype-besprinkled path we all follow through life. (Stay with me.) And Vogler used Campbell’s ideas in his days as a writer and consultant for the movie-making industry, ultimately writing about this Hero’s Journey mythic structure in a seven-page how-to-use-it-well memo. He calls The Writer’s Journey a “descendant” of that memo, and describes how writers of stories can use Campbell’s ideas not only in their pages of fiction or their screenplays but also in their real lives as writers.

So what are these archetypes? And what Journey does every Hero supposedly go on? Here goes (and if you’ve never heard of this before, don’t worry. Vogler’s message is that even if you’ve never read Jung or Campbell, you already know this stuff. Because you are already living it.):

A Hero (main character/protagonist/person living a life) starts out in the Ordinary World. He hears the Call to Adventure but initially might hesitate (Refusal of the Call). He Meets with the Mentor (an archetype) and decides to heed the call. Next comes the Crossing of the First Threshold; what follows are Tests, Allies, and Enemies; eventually he Approaches the Inmost Cave in which there is a final Ordeal. The Hero gets some Reward, takes The Road Back, experiences Resurrection, and Returns with the Elixir. Other archetypes the Hero encounters along his path include Shapeshifters, Threshold Guardians, Tricksters, and Shadows. (All the capitalized phrases here are Vogler’s or Campbell’s labels.)

Some students love literary analysis so much in high school that they become high school English teachers. As a teacher, when I read Vogler’s book, my reaction was “Well, yeah. Plot Triangle Diagram 101.” But as a would-be writer, this book blew me away, and lots of other writers in my fiction program too, and caused us to question the choice to devote a good portion of the rest of our lives to being writers. It’s overwhelming to think that every story–including the ones you haven’t even dreamed up yet!–are going to fall into this iconic, mythic structure that also parallels each and every life ever lived. Whew.

Then, there were those who debated and I’m sure still debate the merits of Vogler’s ideas, saying it’s just a lengthy description of a formula, and why should anyone settle for thinking about plotline via formulaic means. I’m anti-formula too–unless it’s more of a map to the whole meaning and purpose of the quest that is life, which Vogler suggests the Hero’s Journey is.

Chapters are devoted to each archetype and to each stage of the Journey, complete with many  examples from great movies and books. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll never again watch so much as an episode of Blue’s Clues in the same way. And you might find yourself analyzing the journey you are on, thinking, “Oh, yeah, that ex-boyfriend. Definitely a shapeshifter.” Et cetera.

It’s a great read. It’ll get your wheels turning down paths you may never have considered. But if you’re a fiction writer, it’s a little…daunting. Fascinating, but daunting. A writer may have to figure out how to best tame these ideas for his or her own use.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Three: A Profile of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King

Every time I pick up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, it’s like drinking a hot tea with honey when you have a scratchy throat. Soothing and helpful. There’s no snarkiness here, just wisdom and common sense advice told in a clear and friendly tone. There are even little cartoons by George Booth to keep you smiling as you slash and burn pieces of your manuscript.

My copy is literally yellow with age and use. Assigned reading in the early semesters of my fiction writing program ten years ago, this one stays within reach on my desk, with  dogeared and paper-clipped sections for quick reference. Loaded with examples, the authors never talk down to the writer or say anything discouraging, and they keep quiet on the slim chances we all have of fiction publication. Consequently, the soothing part is just being allowed to go in to your work and revise the heck out of it, based on their recommendations. There’s a tighter focus on what to do and how to do it because they leave reality checks and opinions to the Noah Lukemans of writing guides and inspiring words and tones to the Anne Lamotts. Just last night, flipping through the guide for some tidbits to mention in this post, I reviewed the chapter “Easy Beats” and realized I better edit (again) the dialogue in the second half of my novel to get rid of the extraneous beats. I’m forever having characters sigh or nod their heads or take off or put on their glasses, because I don’t want them just standing there awkwardly; but Self-Editing says no, let the dialogue “crackle” with its own tension, keep the beats to a minimum, don’t slow the pace too much. And I trust this book, so it’s back I go with the delete key at the ready.

Oh, and if you don’t know the term “beat,” don’t even worry. Not only do the authors explain every term at the beginnings of chapters, they do it in such a painless way that you never feel amateurish or inexperienced. Beats are the physical activities character pursue as they talk and move in a scene, you read. Ohhh, yeah, your writer head thinks. I have those. And if you have too many, like me, you read the rest of the chapter for pointers on making beats more worth their while, and then you go revise.

Other chapters detail breaking up dialogue and interior monologue for better pacing, editing out repetition, resisting the urge to explain every little thing, and one of my favorites, making your writing more sophisticated. This has to do with eliminating the overuse of exclamation marks, italics for emphasis, and -ly adverbs, as well as keeping a tight leash on metaphors when the action or reveals need to take center stage (ooh, I need to be reminded of that last one a lot). The authors are flat out solving the mystery here on how to have a writing style, because once you rise to a higher level of sophistication in your writing, your voice can start to show. Voice is  an elusive enough thing for writers. Thank goodness Self-Editing can help you clear away the obstructions in your voice’s path, and allow you a chance of honing it.

One more note on the soothing effect of this guide: it’s one of the few I’ve seen that offers actual suggested answers to the end-of-chapter writing exercises. What a great way to douse any Inexperienced Writer Panic. Sip this book, and get back to work.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Two: A Profile of Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages

So here’s a writer’s guide that is not for the faint of heart (though of course writing itself and certainly attempting to get published are not for the faint of heart either): The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Unlike Anne Lamont, whose tone is funny if a little ironic and, at times, heartwrenching, this guy is like the astronomy professor in your 8 a.m. class for the science credit you and a bunch of other liberal arts majors had to get. He’s no fun. No matter how much you wanted to romanticize astronomy or referred to your lifelong fascination with it or tried to label it a fun subject, that professor would start in with his rate of declination equations and his calculable ascension angles and you’d just swim in how much not fun it was. This guy is like that guy. No matter how enthusiastically you tear into these pages or how nobly you remind yourself that you will forever hold tightly to your dream–nay, your quest for publication, Mr. Lukeman will take all the fun out of your pursuit. He’s the Debbie Downer of writer’s guides.

Here’s the thing, though: I’d rather be left downtrodden and slightly mopish about my chances in the slush pile if it means I’ve gleaned some truth about the process, and I think the book gives valid and honest advice. You won’t get anywhere reading about the glory of writing for writing’s sake or how good it feels to tweak a tale just perfectly to your liking and damn all the rejectionists out there because you have a story in which you invested your heart and soul. There are those types of writer’s guides out there, but I won’t be profiling them here. No, I’ll stick with Mr. Lukeman and his oh-so-subtle arrogance, because he says what those inspirational “guides” won’t — that you shouldn’t write commonplace conversation in dialogue because it marks you as an amateur. That one too many adverbs or adjectives in the first couple paragraphs will get you form rejected. That the sole objective of an agent or editor upon beginning to read your query or pages is to find some grounds upon which to say, “Nope, not this one.” But here’s the thing; if you follow the advice in The First Five Pages, you stand a far better chance than the typical querier.

Written in 2000, the book is a bit dated in its first two chapters on presentation–the discussion here refers mostly to the way your writing appears on paper, and he never gets into e-querying because that tsunami hadn’t quite yet hit the writing community. But the rest of the chapters present hard-core how-to advice and patiently reiterate the major flaws you as your work’s primary editor must hunt down and kill. If you don’t get the gist of each chapter in the text, he follows his topics with end-of-chapters examples and exercises that make what not to do blindingly clear–indeed, his examples are practically caricatures of  bad writing. From the way he belabors show-don’t-tell, good dialogue tags, and avoiding info-dumping, I think Mr. Lukeman makes well known the auto-reject standards he upholds. From his tone, he has taught writers these same pointers over and over since he was a wee babe of an agent and editor. Reading it, you can almost hear his long-suffering sigh.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter One: A Profile of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is probably my favorite book on writing, and I’ve read a pile of them.  Lamott has a take-no-prisoners, hyper-realistic attitude on writing, so this book is not for  the faint of heart; it oozes with proof that A) writing hurts and B) we, as writers, have to  suffer a bit to arrive at anything artful on the page. This isn’t a new theme in discourse on the craft, but Lamott’s insights are fresh, practical, and graphic. Writing, she’ll have you know, is “about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” Pitching your book idea at a conference can feel like “you put your head in the lion’s mouth.”  She describes the long, long hours you might sit at the computer without ever typing one good sentence, and the long, long pages you might compose to mine just one idea that has potential for revision. She suggests having a go-to pal who will read your draft and really critique it to pieces, comparing this reader to a man she used to know who would take friends’ animals to be put down when they just couldn’t do it themselves.

But along with the pain and suffering of writers, another theme rises up in Bird by Bird: that writers are not helpless or hapless, and that we can tame writing into a corner… by beating it back with a stick, if we have to. The title is an immediate example; Lamott recalls her father’s advice to her brother when he once began writing a lengthy research paper on birds: “Just take it bird by bird.”  Her advice has given me the edge over proverbial writer’s block many times: start with just one tiny thing, just whatever of your scene or character that you can see through a one-inch viewfinder. Start with that, and describe it. And know that the first draft can be bad. Really bad. No one will ever see it but you; let it be bad, who cares? The real writing happens bit by bit, draft by draft. Bird by bird.

Is this stark voice with zero tolerance for sugar-coating disconcerting or uncomfortable? Not in the least. I’m appreciative, more so each time I revisit her words, to have someone tell it to me straight, as if I’m having coffee with a friend whose advice I trust inherently, even when it hurts. I am grateful for the consistent lack of fluff. The ultimate consequence is that when Lamott hits you with pure inspiration, she hits you hard; on noticing details, for example, she says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” And you know what? There really is.

Posted in How-to Guides, Parenting, Writing

A Few Words to Start

I am a lousy blogger.

I know this to be true, because in the last two years I’ve tried a couple blogs and I’ve given up on them almost immediately.  I never could keep a diary, either, and I have yet to scrapbook my second son’s baby pictures. (He’s four next month.) I think it has something to do with stamping a date on something–a post, a photo, an entry–because then it becomes a marker of time. How much time, how little time, how much time gets away from you between updates. Too much pressure, the passage of all that time. I’d probably do much better with a dateless blog, just a stress-free blank wall of space to make notes or put up quotes or jot a thought or two.

I am, however, a writer. And I’d like to reconcile my anti-blogging side with my writer side and see if they can’t get along.

I’ve been published in lit mags and anthologies, and this past year I contributed how-to articles to two excellent writing guides. I’ll talk about those in upcoming posts, as well as other great guides to this craft. Middle grade fiction and agent searching are subjects near and dear to me right now, since I’m writing a MG and starting to look for someone to rep me. Another common thread you’ll see through future posts: some thoughts on trying to break into a writing career while parenting two small boys, freelancing a part-time job, and keeping home and family. (Thought: it’s like running a marathon on a balancing beam. Thought: it’s harder than teaching high school. Thought: I love a challenge.)