WFMAD Day 17 – The Bones of Writing – Part 2

 

People sometimes ask me to quantify how much time I spend in the different stages of the writing process. That’s a tough question.

If you held my favorite teddy bear hostage and forced me to answer, I’d say roughly 5% goes to Pondering and Mucking Around, 15% is spent Scribbling, 70% is Boiling Down The Bones, and 10% is figure out how to Craft Chords and Singing.

 

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Let me explain that last 80%. It’s rather important. Other people call it Revision. I'm using more interesting language to prevent that awful allergic reaction some of you have when faced with the concept. This is how it works for me.

 

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Boiling Down The Bones – After scribbling that hideous, but somehow lovable first draft, I usually have 300-400 pages of chaos. Sometimes it’s obvious what’s not working. I often have two minor characters who serve the same purpose in the story and thus can be melded into one, or I have set every scene in one of three locations and that is completely boring.

Sometimes I'm still uncovering my main character and the true, deep story of her life on the fourth or fifth draft. I know I'm getting close when I've thrown out a couple of hundred pages. That seems to be the amount of dreck that I must clear away before I can really get to work.

There is a simple trick for maintaining your focus through the months (or years) that books demand. Just ask "How can I make this better?" If the answer is that you cannot, that the book is perfection itself, put it aside for a few weeks and ask again, "How can I make it better?"

Starting that question with "How" is what forces you to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your story and be honest with yourself. 

 

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Crafting Chords – If you think of the scenes and conflicts in a book as musical notes, then you can imagine arranging and rearranging the notes into patterns and riffs until they make a song. That’s the most basic level of storytelling.

Your goal in revision is to find the layers within your story, the image systems that will unite subtext with text and give your story depth and richness

(HT to Robert McKee for the phrase “image systems” which I have borrowed from his book Story and the workshop of his that I attended with some writer buddies about 15 years ago.)

Singing – You’ve got chords now so you can sing! With your imagery in place, with your plot and character development in place, now you can really plunge into the vast ocean of language and come up with precisely the right words to elevate your prose to a new level.

Storytelling – Look at you! You wrote a book, or a short story or a poem! Put it away again, maybe for a month. No, even better, put it away for a full cycle of the moon and start working on your next project.

 

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When the moon again reaches the fullness that it has that night, take out your manuscript again. Record yourself reading it out loud – every single word. A few days after that, carve out a day of uninterrupted time and listen to the recording while you follow along with the text version either printed out or on your computer screen. Take your time and listen to the book. Your ears will hear clunky passages and dialog that your eyes didn't pick up. Every time you hear something that doesn’t sound right, make a note on the manuscript. The next day, go through and fix all those tiny problem areas you found.

 

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Tomorrow and Thursday I'll post more tried-and-true revision techniques.

 

Non-fiction prompt – Describe the absolute best thing that you want to have happen after you publish your book. 

Fiction prompt – Your main character picks up a boy who is walking down the road during a snowstorm, not wearing a coat. When he gets in the car, your MC realizes that he's older than a boy, and there is something unsettling about his eyes…

 

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

 

WFMAD Day 16 – The Bones of the Writing Process – Part 1

We suck at teaching writing.

We use beige, dust-covered words and arrange them in well-balanced, useless diagrams like this….

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… and then we roll our eyes when students say they hate writing. We are idiots.

It’s time to rename the stages of writing. We’re writers, right? (Try saying that fast three times!) It’s our job to bring words to life.

These are the stages of my writing process:

  • Pondering
  • Mucking Around
  • Scribbling
  • Abandonment
  • Boiling Down The Bones
  • Chords
  • Singing
  • Storytelling

A little more interesting, don’t you think?

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Pondering – You know how you can smell smoke before you realize that it’s smoke? There’s that moment when your nose twitches, before you are fully aware what's going on, then you lift your head, face into the wind and there it is – something is burning.

That’s what it feels like when I’m pondering an idea for a new book. I begin to notice things – articles, new songs, a hairstyle or a pair of decorated sneakers – and I find myself jotting them down. I might have a book idea or I might not. If I jump in too early and try to force a description of the characters or the major plot points, everything vanishes. I ponder until my ponderer is sore.

Mucking Around – When the idea takes solid shape – I know a bit about the character and I think I know a couple of the book’s important moments of conflict – I start jotting things down. I play a lot of “What if” games and start exploring the relationships my main character has with the other characters who have popped onto the page and are refusing to leave.

Scribbling – Other people would call this a “first draft.” It always starts out being so much fun, but after seventy pages or so it often bogs down because I don’t know enough about the characters yet. Some people take a sideways step at this point and make outlines. I’ve tried that. I always throw them out. I have to put my head down and plow my way to the end of the book. The only way out of the Deep Dark First Draft Forest is to write myself a path.

Abandonment – Yep, you read that write right. I abandon the book. I put it away for a couple of weeks and work on other projects. My subconscious needs time to process all the scribbling and sort through it. By the time I get to the end of that first draft I'm finally beginning to understand the world of the story. And that’s when the real fun begins… REVISION!!!

Which I’ll discuss tomorrow.

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Non-fiction prompt – What are your favorite and most-hated parts of the writing process? Be specific and honest about what it feels like to be in your most-hated part.

Fiction prompt – Look at the grinning dog above. Why is she smiling like that? Who is she with? What is the setting? How old is she, what's her backstory? What happens next?

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 15 – Should You Censor Yourself?

 

Banned Books Week kicks off today which makes this a great time to discuss writing about sensitive topics. Should you think about the possibility that your book will be censored? What are your responsibilities to your readers?

 

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When I was writing SPEAK, I never thought that it might be censored. The possibility that the book would be labeled "pornography" never entered my mind, which was good, because if I had known, I might not have had the courage to write it. I used to shy away from confrontation; just the thought of having to stand up to people saying nasty things about me was enough to make my stomach hurt.

 

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Even though I've had many challenges to my books, when I'm writing I don't think about censorship. I do think about my readers…. but not until I am revising. Early drafts are supposed to be written in a white heat, leaving open the windows, doors and gates so that you can catch all the streams of imagination that trickle by you. But you revise with detachment and coolness. You have to fall out of love with your story so you can see the flaws clearly. You try to see the story the way a reader would. If you are writing for kids or teens, that means you take their sensibilities into account.

In early drafts, the rape scene in SPEAK was graphic. I needed to write it that way to really understand what had happened to Melinda and why she was so depressed and isolated. I put it away for a month or so, then I pulled it out and read it with a degree of detachment. I knew what had to change and why.

 

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You see, 44% of rape victims are under age 18 and 15% are younger than 12. I wanted the book to be something that could be read by 8th graders, even 7th graders. It makes us uncomfortable to think about it, but middle schoolers are exposed to a bewildering world of sexual behavior (looking at you, Miley Cyrus) and are often very confused about what's going on, what the boundaries are, and what they should do when confronted with sexual violence.

SPEAK is told from the point of view of Melinda, who was raped at a party. The toned-down description of the assault works because it is filtered through her shock and inebriation. It also allows the focus of the reader to be on the emotional consequences of the sexual assault and Melinda's struggle to find the courage to speak up after it, which was the whole point of writing the story.

When I'm confronted by people who call me bad names or accuse me of seeking to ruin children's lives, I ask them if their school library contains newspapers. The answer is always "yes." That means that the students are exposed to pretty much everything that happens in our society, the good stuff and the horrific stuff. Books like mine seek to tell honest stories about realistic situations facing kids today.

 

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NOTE: If you don't write realistic fiction for kids or teens, you still stand the chance of having your books challenged or banned. No matter what you write, someone will criticize you.

The top image refers to the banning of Lord of the Rings, which was accused of being "satanic." I have a friend who wrote a Halloween book that came under fire from a group of parents who were so upset they showed up in the principal's office the day she was due to present at the school. The parents weren't worried that her book was evil or satanic. They were all Wiccan and felt that my friend's book perpetuated negative stereotypes (witches with long chins and warts and pointy hats) of their faith community.

I work hard to protect our freedom to read year-round. I you want to lend your energy, there are many things you can do. But try to lock the door in your head when it comes time to work on early drafts. When revising, consider your audience, and craft the story so that you will reach them in the most effective way. If the day ever comes when your book is challenged, bake yourself a cake because you just joined a club with many distinguised authors.

 

Non-fiction prompt –  Write a response to the people who tried to ban one of these books

Fiction prompt – Write a scene in which a group of people with firm convictions go to a school board meeting to get a book they object to pulled from the shelves of the library. The media is out in full force, cameras are rolling, the room is split 50/50 about the challenge and the air conditioning is broken.

 

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Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 14 – The Magic Word That Destroys Writer’s Block

 

Sorry for the delay in this post, you guys. Some random, flatulant demon farted near an underground cable yesterday and temporarily removed my website from the Internet. A crew of dedicated technicians expelled the demon and worked feverishly through the night and so here we are.

Thanks for your patience.

(If you ever see a demon in the grocery store, DO NOT let him buy beans. Thank you.)

Where were we?

 

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Oh yeah. Writer's Block.

So – you have this dream about writing, or you're living the writing dream and you've actually sold your first book and now you have an advance and a contract and a deadline, and ….. the words won't come. Or you find that you are suddenly seized by the urge to alphabitize your spice rack by Country of Origin, or seek the perfect three-bristle, squirrel-hair brush that is the only way to clean the thing that you screw a lightbulb into.

You are in the throes of an evil spell.

 

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Ouch.

In my experience, Writer's Block comes from:

1. Fear

2. Empty-Well Syndrome

3. More Fear.

 

Fear can be broken down a little further into these flavors:

1. The fear that the words you are about to write are less than Pulitzer-Prize or best-selling quality. In fact, they are so stupid, your computer might blow itself up out of shame if you type even one more word.

2. The fear that you don't have the talent to do any of this and that you are $200,000 in debt for your undergrad and MFA degrees and you are only qualified to load commercial dishwashers.

3. The fear that your ideas are so boring people will sue you because after they read two pages of your manuscript they'll fall into stupor, fall down, and get a concussion.

There is only one solution.

 

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Seriously, you guys. Get a grip.

Yes, it's scary. Yes, you might not get this story published. Of course you're to going to be rejected and criticized and people are going to say mean things about you on the Internet. You have very little control over that.

You have TOTAL control over how you deal with your fears.

1. Focus on the process, not the outcome. This is boring and hard, which is why people prefer to fret about their Internet platform and Amazon ranking. Snap. Out. Of. It. Writers write

2. Think about the next step, not the entire race. When you start to hyperventilate because you don't know how to get an agent, grab yourself by the ear and shift your focus to the next chapter that is begging you to write it. Or the next paragraph. Just one more sentance, if necessary. Baby steps.

3. Be grateful you're not a neurosurgeon. This is the best thing about writing!!! We get to fix the sucky parts!!!! (Neurosurgeons have to get it right the first time, poor sods.) So write that crappy draft, that bloated dialog. You'll fix it later, no worries!

4. Recognize that working on an oil rig is much harder than writing. If you have the time and space in your life to even think about writing a book, then you have an abundance of blessings. Count them. Write them down.

Pouring roof tar in Lousiana in July is hard. Teaching ninth grade is hard. Writing is awesome – you get to play with your imagination and create entire new worlds.

 

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What was that Filling The Well thing I mentioned above?

It is very easy to burn out as a writer, especially if you succeed in being published and then face relentless deadline pressure. Filling your creative well is the only solution to burn-out. You need to read (for fun, not research) – read outside your genre, read books from other cultures and countries, read poetry. Listen to music. Indulge your senses. Make something with your hands. Draw, paint, weave. Buy yourself a coloring book and pretty pens and stay inside the lines, if that makes you happy. 

That's it in one word: happy.

When you are trapped in fear or anxiety or self-loathing, you cannot create. Embrace the only guarantee granted to all writers: making stuff up is fun. The more you can stay centered in that joy, the more you will write. The more you write, the better you'll feel; the better you feel, the more open you become to new ideas, and all of sudden writing becomes something that you look forward to again, instead of somethng you dread.

 

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Non-fiction prompt – Write down how you are going to fill your creative well this week. Include one field trip; trip to a museum, concert, movie, pumpkin patch, etc. After your "well time," freewrite about the experience.

Fiction prompt – Write a scene in which a frustrated writer takes a four-year-old to the zoo. Focus on the stream of consciousness that naturally flows from the child.

 

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 13 – The Roots of Writer’s Block

 

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Writer's block is so feared, that I wonder if all writers should avoid even saying or writing the words, the way that Macbeth is known in the theater as "The Scottish Play." Maybe we could call WB "The Dread Condition" or "The Foul Muse."

A few writer's don't believe in The Dread Condition, like Joyce Carol Oates, author of roughly 20,000 novels.

 

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She has a point – trying to write about something before you are ready is like trying to get a car to run on orange juice. But in my experience, there are other flavors of The Dread Condition. 

Fear of Being Less Than Perfect – Your Amazing Idea is amazing as long as it stays in your head. When you sit down to a keyboard, however, your fingers can't move. Any string of words you dream up comes so freaking far from your amazing idea that you give up and google "French Foreign Legion." Maybe they'd hire a failed writer.

Fear of Having No Talent – Every word you type is accompanied by screeching from the rabid bats fluttering around in your brain. They call up images of people from your past who doubted and judged you and made you feel like a rather small, rather dim-witted, naked mole rat. They scream that you are worthless and you're wasting your time and you are going to die, homeless, under a bridge, surrounded by shopping bags filled with empty pages. Your little paws shake so much that you can not type.

Fear of the Countless Mind-Numbing Fears That Chase Around and Around In Your Brain So Fast It Feels Like A Blender Set To Pulverize – Yeah, you're a mess. 

 

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You are a normal writer.

Everyone deals with fears like these, along with a few thousand others. Getting published does not make them go away. In fact, it can make things worse, because it sets the bar even higher.

Children make art, sing, invent stories, and dance as easily as they breathe. Somewhere along the way, many people lose the easy grace that is the natural partner of creativity. This has a lot to do with the judgement and criticism that happens in school. Our work is held up and compared to others. We're trained to strive for a high grade, one that can be evaluated and measured according to metrics and rubrics. There are fewer and fewer chances to strengthen our creative muscles and they wither.

But the desire to create does not.

Your writer's block is a painful response to old training. That training can be undone. You can get back to the ability to create with the ease of childhood. How? I'll tell you tomorrow.

 

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Non-fiction prompt – Indulge in your worst writing nightmare, the biggest fears that interfere with your work. Write it all down, all of the bad things that you fear could happen to you if you write your story. Then set the piece of paper on fire, dump the ashes into the toilet and flush.

Fiction prompt – Take a character from one of your favorite books, someone who had to overcome a fear and take a chance. Write a fanfiction piece about that character and how her life would have turned out if she had not confronted her fear and done the hard things. 

 

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Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…