Write Hard

I’ve been reading about writing, editing, and creativity lately, and a theme that keeps popping up is the amount of time and hard work it takes to acquire natural born writing talent.

We’ve all read stories of “overnight success”–talented actors, writers, musicians, who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere. What we don’t hear about are the years of hard work these overnight successes put into honing their craft, not to mention the innumerable instances of rejection. When it comes to overnight success, what it boils down to is this: when their moment to shine arrived, they were well-prepared. They were ready.

In her book The Creative Habit, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp discusses the phenomenon of the overnight success: “It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work. … I come down on the side of hard work.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, widely accepted as a genius whose talent and skill came fully-formed and naturally to him at birth. That’s what this excerpt from Mozart’s Wikipedia page would have us believe anyway: “Mozart showed prodigious ability from his earliest childhood. Already competent on keyboard and violin, he composed from the age of five … .”

The thing is, we are all born with a talent, and often more than one talent. Part of the difference between someone born with musical talent who succeeds, and someone born with the same talent who does not succeed, is the luck of the draw. What the legends about Mozart often fail to mention is the family Mozart was born into. There was a clavier in the house, among other instruments. Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, was a talented musician in his own right–he was a violin virtuoso and even has his own Wikipedia page. He was a composer, played several instruments, and made his living as (get this) a music teacher. He noticed his son Wolfgang had musical talent when the child was a toddler, and he had the skills and the time to nurture that talent.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791 at age six

I mean, yes, Mozart wrote his first music compositions when he was four or five years old, but so what? I wrote and performed my first poems at the age of six and wrote a complete book series at the age of nine. The question for both of us is this: yes, but how good were they? Tharp notes that, “Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five.” Okay, now I don’t feel so bad that my book series about two frog brothers never found a publisher.

The other difference besides luck, I firmly believe, is hard work. Talent and luck without hard work are candles in the wind, in my opinion–weak, fragile, likely to burn out. This was true even of Mozart, who had everything going for him. “Nobody worked harder than Mozart,” Tharp writes. “By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.”

Mozart acknowledged this himself. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

I thought of these things recently, when I watched the movie King Richard, about the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams. As the story tells it, Richard Williams and Oracene Price had two daughters with the intention of raising them from birth to be tennis greats. Both Williams and Price became tennis coaches in order to coach their daughters. They instilled a tremendous work ethic in their daughters, and the Williams family worked hard together and made many sacrifices, each and every day, to achieve their dreams.

Tennis stars Venus Williams and Serena Williams

I can extend this example to Will Smith, too, the actor who played Richard Williams in the film. I once heard actor Penn Badgley (You; Gossip Girl) respond to an aspiring actor who asked him how to break into acting. I wish I could find the exact quote or the clip–if I’m able to, I’ll add it here and share it on Twitter. It was so good. But basically, his response was to keep acting, to keep working at it. To practice. He pointed out that attorneys go to seven years of college before they can practice law, and doctors go to eight years of college and then several years of residency before they are fully licensed to practice medicine. Acting is a career choice, he said, and actors have to put in those same years of study and practice.

Anyway, my point is, Will Smith had been acting for 12 years before he received his first Academy Award nomination for Ali in 2002. That’s 12 years from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to greatness, and he was actually acting even before that, in music videos for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime” in 1989 and 1991. Smith was nominated for an Academy Award again in 2007 for The Pursuit of Happyness, and he was nominated this year for King Richard. Perhaps this is the year he will win. If so, it won’t have come out of nowhere. It will have come after nearly 25 years of hard work, commitment, and tenacity.

Actor Will Smith. Photography credit: Lorenzo Agius

 

If hard work = genius, then practice = excellence.

When I was a student in UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, I had the incredible good fortune to work on my short stories with Mary Yukari Waters for a year. Waters is an award-winning writer, the author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites, and an exceptional human being. She’s won an O’Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize for her writing, and her own stories have been in Best American Short Stories … three times. When I struggled to get my words onto the page in the same brilliant way they came to me in my head, Waters explained not only the importance of practice, but its significance.

Consider this: Babies spend their first three years learning to talk. They begin making sounds at around six months. By the age of nine months they can understand a few words and begin to experiment with making many sounds. From around their first birthday to the age of 18 months, they learn to say a few words. By the age of two, they can string short phrases of two to three words together. By the age of three, they have a rapidly expanding vocabulary and begin to string short sentences together.

Although babies can only speak a few words at the age of 12-18 months, they can understand many more words–around 25 according to experts. Although they can’t speak sentences until around the age of three, they can understand them and respond to them. Last night, my granddaughter Louise, who is ten months old today, was trilling her tongue and saying, “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” and “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” and “da-da-da-da-da” on repeat. She was practicing. She can’t say the words, but she uses sign language to signal when she wants to “eat,” when she wants “more,” and when she’s “all done.” No, she can’t say the words, but she understands the words and their meanings. It’s all in her head, although she can’t articulate it in speech yet.

It’s the same with writing, Waters explained. When it comes to writing, we are like babies, with ideas in our heads, but without the ability to articulate them. The words are in our heads much sooner than we’re able to express them fully on the page. We are baby writers, and with practice, the words we write will more and more closely resemble the ideas we picture in our minds. It takes practice to get them from our brains and into our writing.

Mary Yukari Waters, author of The Laws of Evening and The Favorites

For a writer, perhaps nowhere does the hard work of writing show up more than in a writer’s devotion to rewriting. Revision. Self-editing. Hard work. In her book The Artful Edit, Susan Bell recalls: “There is a saying: Genius is perseverance.” Discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby, she writes with admiration about the intense work Fitzgerald put into the novel. She calls the novel “a tour de force of revision,” and she means that as a compliment of the highest order. Commenting on the words critics use to describe the novel, she concludes: “Careful, sound, carefully written; hard effort; wrote and rewrote, artfully contrived not improvised; structure, discipline: all these terms refer, however obliquely, not to the initial act of inspiration, but to willful editing.”

The bottom line is, excellence in writing (or in anything) is more a matter of hard work than innate talent. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome after reading your contemporary literary heroes’ latest work, like I am, think about what it took for them to get there. You have those same tools at your disposal–hard work, dedication, persistence, perhaps a stubborn streak and a thick skin. Excellence and genius and mastery reside in you, too. Add hard work and practice, shake well, and pour it onto the page.

WRITER TIP: Perhaps no one acknowledges the need for practice more than golfers. Ben Hogan and Gary Player are generally considered to be among the greatest golfers of all time. “Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good,” Hogan said. Player put it this way: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Keep in mind that what we call genius is made up mostly of hard work, daily practice, and stick-to-it-iveness. Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

 

Characterization: More Than a Pretty Face

Last week, I discussed character descriptions that are almost entirely physical–they are focused on the character’s appearance. While they are good descriptions, they can be a missed opportunity. I’m a big fan of using character descriptions strategically, not only to describe the way a character looks, but to give us some insight into the character. So, I thought I’d go a bit broader this week and share a half dozen examples of character descriptions that go beyond the superficial appearance of a character.

Notice the different techniques the authors use to effectively reveal their characters’ personalities, struggles, flaws, and pasts. Also notice how much these descriptions accomplish, often in very few words. These descriptions take the writers’ characters from good to great.

JAZZ BY TONI MORRISON: VIOLET

“I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.'”

Photograph by Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company. From Marin Theatre Company’s 2019 production of Jazz. L-R: Dezi Solèy as Dorcas; C. Kelly Wright as Violet.

Thoughts: Here, Morrison introduces us to a character, Violet, and she does so without telling us what Violet looks like at all. She tells us a story about Violet’s past, and she does so in an interesting way. It’s not exposition; it’s a story from perhaps the most significant and traumatic day in Violet’s life. This makes it a small but fiercely engaging story in its own right, folded into and crucial to the bigger story. This powerful little story tells us more about Violet than a physical description ever could. Morrison deftly accomplishes characterization through the use of compelling backstory.

THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD:
JAY GATSBY AND DAISY BUCHANAN

If you’ve read The Artful Edit (and I suggest you do), you’ll know that F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a lot of time rewriting and revising The Great Gatsby until he got every detail just right. This kind of excellence isn’t a stroke of luck or innate talent–it’s achieved with a lot of hard work and perseverance.

Here is one of protagonist Nick’s descriptions of Gatsby’s smile from The Great Gatsby:

“He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Now, consider this oh-so-brief description of Daisy from the same novel:

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.”

Thoughts: Neither of these character descriptions tell us what the characters look like. Not really. We aren’t told how Gatsby’s smile looks, whether he has a crooked mouth, laugh lines, thin lips, or shiny teeth. Instead, we learn how Gatsby’s smile makes people feel. As a reader, I feel the generosity of Gatsby’s smile–he’s one of those people who can make every person in a room feel like the only person in the room. He makes people feel seen. I get it. I can relate it to my own experiences.

And rather than learning what color Daisy’s eyes are or what color her lips are painted or what color her hair is, we learn that her face is “sad” and “lovely” and full of “bright things”–again, we come away with a feeling about Daisy and who she is.

Still, despite the lack of colorful adjectives, I find these descriptions quite visual–they invoke an image and a feeling. Here, Fitzgerald accomplishes characterization with the use of emotion.

JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTË: BLANCHE INGRAM

“Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox; I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine; she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments, but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original; she used to repeat sounding phrases from books; she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. She advocated a high tone of sentiment, but she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her.”

Thoughts: This first-person description may, on its surface, seem more tell than show, but every line is thought-provoking and delves deeply into who this character is in a way that is not only interesting, but surprising and even shocking. Brontë’s use of metaphor is brilliant. This is the first-person protagonist/ narrator’s perspective–Jane Eyre is recounting her observations about Miss Ingram. So, as with all first-person narration, this passage not only tells us something about Miss Ingram, but it tells us something about the protagonist, Jane Eyre, too, and the thought it takes to consider that is engaging for readers. Also, how reliable is this description considering the inevitable bias of a first-person narrator? These added elements make the passage deeply layered.

“GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE” BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR:
MRS. FREEMAN

“Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.”

Thoughts: Wow, right? Who needs a physical description of Mrs. Freeman. This description of her facial expressions tells us all we need to know about this woman’s character and about who this determined or stubborn woman is. Again, this is a brilliant use of metaphor–we picture Mrs. Freeman as a strong and immovable semi-truck.

“THE ROYAL CALIFORNIAN” BY TOD GOLDBERG: SHANE

“‘I need a place near a karaoke bar, if possible.’ He had a hustle he liked to do where he’d bet people that he could make them cry and then he’d bust out ‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five and every girl who ever had an abortion would be in a puddle. It didn’t make him proud, but he had bills to pay.”

Thoughts: This passage is from the first short story in Goldberg’s 2021 collection, The Low Desert, which was just released in paperback. Here, the protagonist, Shane, is a karaoke DJ making a telephone reservation at a hotel, and he asks for “a place near a karaoke bar.” Then we hear why this is important to him, and we learn a great deal about Shane in just a few lines: he’s a hustler, he manipulates people with music, he’s not necessarily proud of it.

In addition to what we can learn about characterization from this story, it’s a masterclass in point of view too. “The Royal Californian” is written in such a close third-person point of view that it almost feels like first person. We are deeply inside Shane’s head as we read–this is exactly where you want your readers to be. Remember that, with first person, everything the narrator says or thinks or feels can help characterize them. Even if they are talking about someone else, we are getting some level of insight into who the narrator is. Here, Goldberg accomplishes the same thing with a skillful close third, which is remarkable.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE BY VIRGINIA WOOLF:
CHARLES TANSLEY

“He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. He couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best–to be for ever walking up and down, up and down, with Mr. Ramsay, saying who had won this, who had won that, who was a ‘first rate man’ at Latin verses, who was ‘brilliant but I think fundamentally unsound,’ who was undoubtedly the ‘ablest fellow in Balliol’ ….”

Thoughts: What I love about this particular description of Mr. Ramsey’s friend Charles Tansley is that the third person narrator (here, Mrs. Ramsey) curates it–she gathers it like intel and compiles it like a dossier–all from information given to her by those around her rather than her own observations. Instead of telling readers about his appearance, Mrs. Ramsey relates a physically-adjacent description from the point of view of her children (“miserable,” “couldn’t play cricket,” “he poked” and “shuffled). The first two lines invoke an excellent visual image–we can see his bent, sickly body in our minds. Mrs. Ramsey’s oldest son, Andrew, contributes that Tansley is “a sarcastic brute.” Now we see him as broken-bodied, unhealthy, and ill-tempered. The characterization is then fully fleshed out through Tansley’s actions, specifically, the things he talks about on his walks with Mr. Ramsey. Although we haven’t really been told what Tansley looks like, readers now have a full picture of this character, inside and out.

WRITER TIP: Last week, I suggested you study the ways characters are described in your favorite novels. Also pay special attention to the ways your favorite authors describe characters beyond physical appearance. Skilled writers use backstory, action, dialogue, emotion, thoughts, metaphor, and many other literary devices to create vivid and engaging characters. Consider too how your story’s point of view plays into characterizing your protagonist, your narrator, and the other characters in your story.

Characterization: Lessons from Twilight

I recently binged all the Twilight movies–I’d never watched them before, but I was intrigued/tricked into watching them by my friend Ashley Corinne–she recently wrote a Twilight re-read series for GXRL magazine. Ashley compared her experience reading the books now, as an adult, to reading them then, as a teenager. It felt like a crash I both wanted to avoid and didn’t want to miss.

After watching the movies, which were more entertaining than I’d expected, I was interested to see how the descriptions of the characters in the books stacked up to the actors who’d been cast in the film roles. But I also wanted to see how effectively the descriptions were written. As a book coach who works with YA authors, Stephenie Meyer’s books felt like a missing part of my education. What drew people in to the Twilight saga, arguably the most popular YA series ever?

For the most part, the books are written in first person, which is common in YA, so these are 17-year-old Bella’s observations about herself and the people she encounters. All of these descriptions are taken from the first book in the series, Twilight (2005).

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF HERSELF

“Physically, I’d never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond—a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps—all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun. Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete. … My skin could be pretty—it was very clear, almost translucent-looking—but it all depended on color. I had no color here.”

MY TAKE: What I noticed about this description is that it’s all physical. We don’t get much insight into Bella as a person here. The phrase “I’d never fit in anywhere” is too common a trope to be especially effective in my opinion–many YA protagonists struggle with feeling different and not fitting in. I’d have liked to have seen more show versus tell–why doesn’t Bella fit in anywhere? For me, the fact that she’s an unathletic, ivory-skinned girl from Phoenix, Arizona, isn’t enough.

What we do get though is some tension, which is great, and we get it through physical description, which is unique. This girl who didn’t fit in “in the valley of the sun” has ivory skin, “despite the constant sunshine” in Phoenix. Her skin is “almost translucent” and she has “no color.” Her physical description is almost that of a vampire. Readers are drawn in here because, in this new place, Forks, Washington, she is about to meet a group of pale-skinned vampires. Will Bella finally fit in? Is this where she was always meant to be?

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF JACOB BLACK

“He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face. … He flashed a brilliant smile.”

MY TAKE: A purely physical description with zero characterization. We learn what Jacob looks like, but nothing more. Jacob is a member of the Quileute tribe and lives on a reservation outside of Forks. Jacob is described in a stereotypical way. The descriptions of Jacob’s hair as “long,” “glossy,” “black,” and “pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck,” his eyes as deep-set, his cheekbones as high, and his skin as russet (reddish brown) invoke a fixed, partial, and inadequate image of an American Indian character. The fact that his description is only physical in this passage and provides absolutely no characterization of Jacob as a person, coupled with the stereotypical physical description, make this passage problematic in my opinion.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF EDWARD CULLEN

“[Edward Cullen] was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others. … [H]is face was absurdly handsome. … His hair was dripping wet, disheveled—even so, he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel. His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips. But his eyes were careful.”

MY TAKE: I like this description. We get a little more insight into Edward’s personality. We perhaps know more about him than we know about Bella at this point, through Bella’s description of him as “boyish,” her description of his face as “friendly” and “open,” and her description of his eyes as “careful.” I try to keep a lid on too many adverbs and adjectives, but I think the use of “absurdly” works here–it invokes an image. And I love the description of Edward’s hair. It’s visual, and I can picture him as a dark, brooding, James Dean-type character.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF CHARLIE SWAN

“He smiled back, his brown eyes crinkling around the edges. When Charlie smiled, it was easier to see why he and my mother had jumped too quickly into an early marriage. Most of the young romantic he’d been in those days had faded before I’d known him, as the curly brown hair—the same color, if not the same texture, as mine—had dwindled, slowly revealing more and more of the shiny skin of his forehead. But when he smiled I could see a little of the man who had run away with Renée when she was just two years older than I was now.”

MY TAKE: This description of Bella’s father is my favorite character description in Twilight. We learn not only what Charlie looks like, but who he is. And bonus, we get some backstory too, cleverly folded into this description rather than in pure exposition. In one short paragraph, we find out that Bella’s dad is a romantic who smiles a lot (thus the crinkles around the edges of his eyes). And we learn that he and Bella’s mom “jumped too quickly into an early marriage,” and that he and Bella’s mom had run away together when he was not much older than Bella. Note that anytime we get a character description from Bella’s point of view, we get some inadvertent characterization of Bella too. Here, we get a hint as to why Bella might not be so into the idea of marriage.

Overall, I found the initial descriptions of each character to be straightforward, physical descriptions. I’m sure the characters are developed in other ways throughout the novels, but for purposes of this discussion, these descriptions provide good examples of what to do and what not to do in your own writing. Readers want to engage with your characters deeply and to get inside your point-of-view characters’ heads, so keep in mind that physical descriptions of your characters are opportunities to tell us more than what your character looks like.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVING CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS

  • Readers want to get inside your characters’ heads and live vicariously through their experiences. Mix physical descriptions with information that gives readers insight not only into what your characters look like, but who they are.
  • Show us who your characters are versus simply telling us. In fact, physical descriptions aren’t always needed. Readers often like to imagine the way characters look. If you include physical descriptions, make sure they count.
  • Get creative with physical descriptions so readers can visualize the characters, e.g., Bella’s description of Edward’s hair–“he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel”–gives us an immediate image.
  • Don’t confine your descriptions to a single, introductory paragraph as each character is introduced. Sprinkle your descriptions throughout your book, in places where the characteristics you are describing are most relevant to the story.
  • Your narrative isn’t the only place to include character descriptions or information–try getting important character information across in dialogue too. Just make sure it makes sense, flows naturally in the context of the dialogue, and moves the narrative forward.
  • When writing characters outside your own experience, do your homework. Write a fully-fleshed-out and individual character, not a stereotype.
WRITER TIP: Every good writer is a good reader too. Pay close attention to the ways character descriptions are written and incorporated into the narrative in your favorite books. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit includes a great discussion on this topic. She uses examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to teach characterization done right.

Ways of Writing

In my teens, I thought writing was agony. I read The Bell Jar and emptied my broken heart into reams of bad, hand-scrawled poetry about the boys who didn’t love me back.

In my twenties, I thought writing was detached, hard-rock glamour. It meant jeans and a band T-shirt, dark shades to block out my bright future, a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other. I etched my brilliant words into the page letter by letter, with forceful taps on my typewriter’s keys.

In my thirties, I learned better. Writing was a lot of hard work. It meant sitting at the keyboard of my newfangled home computer, forcing the words until they came, then rearranging them until they didn’t make me sick. I wrote this way for twenty-five or so years.

If writing was hard work, then it couldn’t be fun or play, right? A very wise woman, my first fiction mentor at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA, taught me that, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

I studied with Mary Yukari Waters for a year; it was a life-changing year. Mary and all the professors I worked with taught me so much about writing. But Mary also taught me so many things about living a creative life.

Mary taught me that writing a piece of fiction is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires persistence and patience. It requires pacing yourself and giving yourself time and space to breathe. Yes, writing involves work, but it shouldn’t be work. Not completely anyway. The physical act of trying to get the ideas from your brain to the page can be frustrating and difficult and stressful, but creativity shouldn’t be any of those things. Mary taught me that creativity withers and dies in a stressful environment. It runs away when pressed too hard.

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” –Agatha Christie

I’m a list person. I once sent Mary a first draft of a story I wasn’t yet proud of. I loved the idea, but in execution, I knew it needed a lot more work, and I wanted her to know that I knew that. With the draft, I included a list of all the things I saw wrong with the story and all the things I planned to do to improve it. I still have the handwritten note she gave me–it went something like this: “How can you write like this? This list gives me anxiety–I can only imagine what it is doing to you.”

What I learned from Mary is that writing takes many forms. It isn’t only the time we spend writing. It’s the time we spend thinking about writing, maybe while we’re doing the dishes or taking a walk. It’s the time we don’t spend thinking about writing too, when we’re doing something else entirely, and seemingly out of nowhere, the answer comes. Because while we are washing dishes or taking walks or watching movies or putting puzzles together, or even while we are sleeping, our subconscious brains continue to work on our stories.

What a relief it was to learn that. I came into my MFA program with revision anxiety. I tend to be driven, anxious, stressed out. I’ve been called a workaholic. A therapist once told me that, somewhere, somehow, I’d come away with the idea that being an adult is not supposed to be fun. I work a lot. I don’t say that as a humble brag because I think my need to work so hard grows out of a lack of confidence rather than the reverse. I work hard in part because I feel like I need to in order to be considered a person of worth and value. I need permission to take breaks, and when left to my own devices, I don’t give myself that permission. Now I was being told by Mary that, not only was it okay to go easier on myself and to take breaks, it was necessary.

Life-changing advice, right? Breathe it in, enjoy a cup of coffee, and go for a long walk.

“[I]f you sit with a problem long enough, the decision makes itself. The rational brain is overrated. It seems to me that the truest decisions, in life and in art, happen on a visceral, almost subconscious level. It’s like the needle of a compass: at first it swings wildly over the surface, but eventually a deeper magnetism asserts itself and the needle finds its place.” –Mary Yukari Waters, “After the Happy Ending.”

Here’s Mary’s full essay in The Rumpus about writing … and not writing:

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: After the Happy Ending

And here’s a video on creativity and the subconscious brain recommended by Mary:

WRITER TIP: Build downtime into your schedule every single day. Take breaks away from your keyboard. Get plenty of fresh air, sunshine, and sleep. Engage in activities that feed your creative soul: painting, gardening, playing the guitar. Go for a walk, a hike, a run. Go into the backyard and play fetch with your dog. Take the kids to the park. Do a chore that doesn’t require brainpower: wash the dishes, wash the car, take the garden hose to your patio furniture. Being overly busy crushes creativity–your subconscious brain can’t help you write if it’s constantly occupied thinking about your mile-long to-do list or your taxes or brainstorming your grocery list.

 

Buy a Dictionary

My dad would be the first to admit he wasn’t great at spelling. You’d never know it to read anything he ever wrote. At home, we had a Webster’s dictionary and a full set of the Encyclopædia Britannica. But that wasn’t good enough—my dad carried a pocket dictionary with him wherever he went. If he had any doubt about a word’s spelling or meaning, he looked it up. He sat at his desk or at our dining room table, writing in long hand with an open dictionary beside him. It was tedious, and it meant everything was more difficult and took longer for him than it did for someone else. The fact that it mattered so much to him made an impression on me. He took pride in his work, and it made me proud of him.

Growing up, if my siblings and I didn’t know how to spell a word or didn’t know a word’s meaning, my dad insisted we look it up in the dictionary. It’s a tradition I carried on with my own children and now my grandchildren. When you have to make an effort to do the learning, it sticks.

Today, we have the luxury of spellchecking programs and all sorts of other writing tools. I suggest you familiarize yourself with them and make use of the ones that work for you. But I also suggest you don’t rely on them to the exclusion of your own judgment. It’s easy to become complacent these days and to think it doesn’t matter–we have computers to check our spelling and grammar and punctuation for us. But computers aren’t always accurate, and nothing beats the empowered feeling of finding the answers yourself. So buy a dictionary or subscribe to Merriam-Webster online. Become a student of words, and make sure the words in your manuscript are spelled and used correctly. If spelling or vocabulary don’t come easily, you can make a game or a project of it. Buy a word-a-day calendar or subscribe to Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. Pick up a cheap, old dictionary from a thrift shop and learn a new word every day. Consider brushing up on grammar and punctuation too. Dreyer’s English is a great place to start, also available in a day-to-day calendar and a game called Stet!

Why should I worry about it? you may ask. I’m a writer, an artist, a creative person. My editor will fix all that.

Yes, you are a creative person, and you shouldn’t worry about such things while you’re writing and rewriting and revising your first drafts. Your focus at that point should be on telling your story. Don’t let worries about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, or worries about any little details, distract you.

And yes, your editor will fix all that if need be. Any serious writer is going to work with one or more editors through the process of developmental edits, line edits, and copyedits. This especially holds true if you are a self-publishing author or don’t have an agent or publisher to vet your work. Your editorial team will help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible for your desired goal, whether that’s publication or querying agents, and that includes catching and correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

So take comfort in the fact your editor will have your back in the end. But take control of your own destiny too. After you’ve finished with your manuscript, and before you send it off, run spellcheck and make an editorial pass of your own. Read your manuscript out loud, word by word, to catch errors. Or have MS Word’s “Read Aloud” feature read it to you. Presenting your editor with a manuscript that’s in the best possible shape will often save you money on editing costs. Plus, the more work you put into your manuscript, the better each subsequent revision will be. How can this help but result in a better book in the end, whether you’re self-publishing your book or sending the manuscript to an agent or a traditional or hybrid publisher? You don’t want your readers distracted by mistakes—you want them caught up in your story, and errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation are a surefire way to pull them out of it.

WRITER TIP: No matter where you’re sending your work, whether it’s to an agent, a publisher, a direct publishing company, or an editor, send them your best work. Once your manuscript is ready to send out, get it even more ready. Sweat the small stuff: put a little time and effort into making sure words are spelled and used correctly, and make sure punctuation and grammar are up to snuff. It makes a big difference, and it will put you ahead of the game.
Woman sitting cozy on her bed in a sweater and socks, with her tablet, a mug of milk, and cookies.

Writing from Prompts

A half dozen Christmases ago, my daughter Melissa gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. At the time, I had never used writing prompts, except once during a dark November when I was seriously stuck and in danger of falling far short of my NaNoWriMo word count. The prompt I used then was one from @NaNoWordSprints. 26,000+ Twitter followers and I were prompted to write a scene in which we got our main characters out of a sticky situation. I went with it, but I expected the scene I wrote from the prompt to help me reach a word count and nothing more. I didn’t expect the words to actually make it into my finished novel. That didn’t feel good, but I was desperate.

I was never a fan of using writing prompts. I’m not sure why. I guess using them seemed fake to me. Canned. Like a science term paper—writing a bunch of words I wasn’t really feeling, about a topic which had been pre-selected for me, because I had to. And it seemed wasteful of my writing time. Like I was carelessly tossing away words I would never use—words that had no personal meaning behind them and that would never amount to anything.

To my surprise, though, the @NaNoWordSprints writing prompt did help. I wrote for the allotted 10-15 minutes, and I ended up with a fun and pivotal scene that set my novel in a new direction. Voila! By writing about getting my main character out of a sticky situation, my main character and I and my plot—we were all unstuck. Because the pressure was off, I just wrote, and I had fun with it. Because I was having fun with it, my creativity was unleashed. It’s crazy to think that as many as 26,000 other people had also written scenes from that prompt, each of them unique.

With that one positive experience in mind, I read through the prompts in the book my daughter gave me. I began to see the value in using writing prompts, not only to spark my imagination, but to unearth stories which were already buried inside me, waiting to be told.

The first time I opened the book, this prompt jumped out at me, on the very first page: “A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.” I was surprised to realize I had a story for this prompt. The prompt sparked two memories: a memory about the dozens of houseplants my father entrusted to me (a serial plant murderess) after my green-thumbed mother died, and a memory about the one plant my father kept—a stubborn zebra plant with which he had a love/hate relationship.

I’d never thought of either of these two experiences as anything to write about. But thanks to my daughter’s thoughtful gift, I wrote about them from that prompt. As I wrote, I realized there were stories in these experiences, stories which I might never have written, stories about motherhood and grief and the difficulty of letting go. Over several years and many revisions, that prompt eventually became an essay which will be published in Persimmon Tree magazine in 2022.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to take inspiration wherever you find it, or wherever you can get it, or sometimes, wherever you might least imagine it to be.

WRITER TIP: Writing prompts don’t have to be textual, they can be visual as well, or both, like the 10 years worth of writing prompts Luke Neff, an Oregon high school teacher, posted on his Tumblr blog: WritingPrompts.tumblr.com. You can get your own copy of 642 Things to Write About (as well as many other great craft and prompt books) at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

The Reading Writer

Here in no particular order are five of my favorite books on the writing craft and the writing life:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

I love the structure of this book, as well as its wisdom. The book is organized into four sections which are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. The Shape of Fiction. This section is a guide to the various forms a story can take.
  2. A Cautionary Interlude. This section consists of two subsections: Write What You Know and Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.
  3. From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction. This section is an encyclopedia of literary terms and devices, such as point of view, voice, and narrator. It’s more detailed than a glossary, providing subterms and examples.
  4. Readables: Where to Learn More. This is a great resource listing some of the better craft books.

“Reading about writing isn’t writing…. [N]o book on fishing will bring home a trout, and no book on fiction will write your story.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book offers a little bit of everything for writers. Stephen King provides suggestions that will improve your writing, but he also inspires and motivates. He shares the story of his writing career, the beginnings of which may not be too unlike your own. He also shares what writing means to him.

The book is structured in the following sections:

  1. C.V. In this section, King details his life and journey as a writer. I don’t know about you, but I always find it inspiring to read about someone who succeeded at the things I want to succeed at and to learn they had beginnings as humble and faced challenges as difficult as my own.
  2. Toolbox. In this section, King discusses the tools all writers need to have available to them.
  3. On Writing. Here, King discusses the craft of writing and offers tips based on his own experiences.
  4. On Living: A Postscript. In this section, King writes about the accident that nearly took his life a little over 20 years ago and the happiness he found when he returned to writing during his recovery.
  5. And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open. This section offers a glimpse into King’s revision/rewriting process.
  6. And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist. A list of about 100 of King’s favorite books as of On Writing‘s publication in 2000.
  7. And Furthermore, Part III. An updated list of about 80 more books that became King’s favorites in the ensuing 10 years, before the 2010 edition was published.

“[Y]ou can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNalley

This relatively thin 147-page book may be my favorite book on the craft of writing. It’s basic in the best way–it’s written simply, it’s engaging, and it covers the topics many of us have questions about when we start writing, things like, What makes a good story? What makes a good beginning? How do we create tension? What should our title be?

Each section of the book has exercises at the end, and the book concludes with a list of recommended reading organized by category: books cited in Vivid and Continuous, books on the writing craft, books on the writing life, and some of the author’s favorites. This book could easily be read in one or two sittings, and readers will come away having learned concrete ways to improve their writing, like this:

“Whenever possible, crunch time. If you have an idea for a short story that takes place over many years, ask yourself if it will work over the course of a month or a week. If it takes place over a week, can it happen in a day? If it takes place over twenty-four hours, would it work having it take place over an hour? Crunching time is one of the most effective ways to make a piece of prose more immediate.
–John McNally, Vivid and Continuous

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book should be on your bookshelf.

I’m currently taking a year-long copyediting course. Last weekend, I read 80 pages on punctuation and hyphens. The night before last, I read 25 pages on numbers. I share this to let you know that English grammar can be a slog.

This is why you will appreciate Dreyer’s English–this beautiful little book is a much more enjoyable option for those who want to brush up on the basics and polish their writing until it shines. The author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the copy chief at Random House, one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. He writes with charm and wit and offers often humorous examples throughout the book. He delves into the rules, to be sure, but he also addresses “nonrules”–traditional rules that are unhelpful to creative writers. Some of my favorites of his observations have to do with writing habits that may be grammatically correct, but are annoying and make writing dull.

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.” –Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

This last one is for fun, but it’s for motivation, too. This is an anthology–authors writing about the day jobs they once had and quit. The short pieces have titles like “Tote Monkey” (Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I; Never Have I Ever); “My Shit Job” (Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions); “Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week” (Connie May Fowler, Before Women Had Wings; A Million Fragile Bones); and “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (Silas House, Southernmost).

As an emerging writer, it gives me great comfort to know that John Grisham once sold underwear at Sears and that Winston Groom sold encyclopedias and didn’t publish Forrest Gump until he was 43.

I’ll share my favorite: Joshilyn Jackson writes about an office job which she thought would be right up her alley: “The first thing I thought of was Jennifer on WKRP in Cincinnati, laughingly refusing to do everything her boss asks.” Jackson puts her talent for storytelling to work–she makes up a fake boyfriend named Dan to cover for the fact she spends her weekends at home alone, writing and drinking beer. It backfires when the lack of details in her story lead her coworkers to conclude that Dan is married and that Jackson can do better.

“I liked how they all rallied around me and took my side. I began to slant the Dan stories. He cancelled on me a lot at the last minute. He bought me a gym membership for my birthday because he said I was ‘pushing maximum density’–a line I stole directly from The Breakfast Club. He promised to join me at the office Christmas party, but he never showed. I paged him several times, to no avail, then crept theatrically away to pretend to cry in the bathroom.”–Joshilyn Jackson, “Tote Monkey,” Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One last observation: There are some good craft books out there, but if you want to become a better writer, the best two things you can do are (1) write consistently; and (2) become a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Read well–choose excellent, well-written books, contemporary novels and classics, best-sellers and indie gems, critically acclaimed books and books that are recommended by trusted friends. And read widely. Yes, read in the genre in which you are writing, but read outside your genre as well. You will learn a lot.

WRITER TIP: Get a library card.

On Opening Paragraphs

My friend Jackie recently reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the first time since she was in junior high. This is a middle-grade novel written by Elizabeth George Speare. It was originally published in 1958, and I haven’t read it since I was a kid. According to Jackie, it still holds up, so I decided to read it again too.

When I reread the opening paragraph, I was blown away. It made me think about a lecture my MFA advisor Tod Goldberg1 once gave about the opening paragraph of Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter. Between the two, I was inspired to write this post.

Here is the first paragraph of The Witch of Blackbird Pond:

On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor. Kit Tyler had been on the forecastle deck since daybreak, standing close to the rail, staring hungrily at the first sight of land for five weeks.”

This paragraph consists of only two sentences. Two sentences. Reading it carefully, how many pieces of information does it give us? Here are some of the things I came up with:

    1. The story we are about to read begins “in mid-April”–it is springtime.
    2. The story begins in the morning.
    3. The story begins in 1687–it is the late seventeenth century.
    4. The story begins on a ship.
    5. The particular ship is a “brigantine,” a two-masted sailing vessel that navigated the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century.2
    6. The name of the ship is the “Dolphin.”
    7. “Dolphin” is an English word, so we know this is an English ship.
    8. The ship is fast–it sails “briskly.”
    9. The ship is no longer on “the open sea,” but is now sailing along the Connecticut River.
    10. The ship is entering a harbor, so we know it is about to dock.
    11. Based on the name of the river and the time period, we know where the ship is about to dock: in the New England Colonies.
    12. The ship has been sailing for five weeks, so we know the ship’s passengers have undergone a long journey from far away.
    13. This first paragraph introduces the protagonist, Kit Tyler.
    14. We can guess that “Kit” is a nickname, and therefore, even without reading the back cover, we can guess the protagonist is probably young.
    15. This first paragraph gives us the first glimpse inside the protagonist’s point of view–she is so anxious to see land that she has been hugging the ship’s rail since daybreak.
    16. Kit is on the forecastle deck–the uppermost deck and the most forward part of the ship, “standing close to the rail.” She is physically pressed forward, like Kate and Leo in Titanic; she is as close to the action and to land as she can possibly get.
    17. Kit is staring at the shoreline “hungrily”–she is not only anxious to see land, she is hungry for it; she is anxious to be off the ship and wants to be ashore.
    18. Kit is alone in this opening paragraph. Because our protagonist is a young woman traveling alone on a ship in the seventeenth century, we can assume some things about her personality and her character, e.g., that she is brave, independent, and adventurous.
    19. This first paragraph already raises some questions: why has Kit traveled to the Americas and why is she traveling alone?
    20. The first paragraph already arouses tension, too: what will happen to Kit in the New England colonies in the late seventeenth century? The book has the word “witch” in its title, and Kit is arriving in Connecticut about seventeen years after the Connecticut Witch Trials (which lasted twenty-five years) and only five years before the Salem Witch Trials began. I am already anxious!

Anything else?

This seems like such a simple paragraph. Two straightforward lines of prose written with uncomplicated language. It appears effortless, but based on my experience, I am guessing Ms. Speare worked over this opening paragraph many, many times. She used her words economically, made each word earn its keep, and crafted tight prose that gives the reader a great deal of information without resorting to flashbacks or information dumps.

Two sentences. Before the third sentence, Speare has grounded her reader completely in the story. She then takes her reader right into a scene. And not only is she in a scene, she opens that scene with dialogue–a conversation between Kit and the ship’s first mate, Nathaniel Eaton. The opening dialogue immediately propels the narrative of the story forward:

“‘There’s Connecticut Colony,’ a voice spoke in her ear. ‘You’ve come a long way to see it.'”

Again, so understated, but so packed with meaning.

Take a look at a few first paragraphs of classic novels:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. –Jane Austen, first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice

One sentence and we are already drawn in by Austen’s sarcastic sense of humor and have a good idea where the story is headed.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, first paragraph of Anna Karenina

Again, this opening paragraph consists of just one line, but it immediately provokes thought, ignites tension, and again, gives us a clue as to the kind of story we are about to read.

And perhaps my favorite opening paragraph of all time:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodologically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” –Herman Melville, first paragraph of Moby Dick

By the time we’ve read this opening paragraph, we know more about Ishmael than we know about many of our own close friends. He’s broke, he’s depressed, he’s bored. He is over it. People annoy the hell out of him. He sees strangers walking down the street and wants to knock the hats off their heads! He’s alienated from society. He needs to get out of town before he loses his temper. He heads to sea because he finds the ocean calming and healing–the sea centers him. He tells us in the first line that the story he’s about to share happened many years in the past, so we know that, whatever happens on this journey, he will survive to tell the tale. Ishmael has invited us to call him by his first name–we are his friends and his confidantes. And we can relate. One hundred and seventy years after this novel was originally published, we can still relate to what Ishmael is feeling. Eight lines into this story, we are right there with him as he embarks on this epic journey. (Notice, too, the rhythm of Melville’s sentences, the way he alternates short and long sentences, like the ebb and flow of the sea.)

Reading good, well-written books is one of the best things writers can do to improve their own writing. I especially love to study the opening paragraphs of novels. A great writer squeezes a lot of information into a relatively short space in order to ground the reader in time and place, introduce one or more main characters, establish the plot, and create opening tension.

WRITER TIP: Reread the opening paragraphs and opening lines of some of your favorite books. Does the author give you the information you need to dive into the story without using an info dump? How does the author engage you and create tension? Does the author begin to characterize the protagonist within that first paragraph? How does the author make good use of each and every word? Think about ways you can do the same in the opening paragraph(s) of your own novel.