THOUGHTS ON WRITING
Write About What You Know- February 2010
A long time ago, when I was young and starry-eyed, I dreamed of becoming a writer like Jo in Little Women. I would turn our great literature, memorable work that would change mankind. I began with short stories.
One of my stories was about an unhappy soldier in battle. Another was about a struggling baseball player. Another was about a young mother with a sick child. I was only 16; I had never been a soldier, never known a soldier, never known war except in books and movies. Much as I loved baseball, I had never played the game, never been on the pitcher’s mound or at bat with the crowd yelling around me. And I certainly had not been a mother.
My mother, who believed I had some talent but wanted to help me develop it wisely, showed the stories to a friend of hers whose mother was a well known and very successful novelist. The novelist kindly took time to read my stories, and she sent them back to me with five words written on the front of one of them: “Write about what you know.”
Wise words! My stories about war, and baseball, and motherhood, rang false because I knew nothing about them. No matter what kind of piece a writer might be doing – historical fiction, mystery, sci fi, fantasy, romance or something else – the only good writing, the only true writing, comes from our experiences, our lives, our knowledge. We may be able to recreate medieval times, or a time in the far distant future, well enough to get the reader to suspend disbelief, but we can only do it if we begin within ourselves. No matter what times we are writing about, or what situations, we must write from the well of who we are, what we’ve done and what we know.
Writers obviously are not able to transport themselves to a different time; mystery writers in all probability have not known murder in their own lives – but what do they know? They know human nature, they know how people relate to each other; they know the environment around them. Anyone who has experienced parenthood, for example, can write meaningfully about that experience, even displaced in time or setting. An experienced rider understands horses. Thus, Rita Mae Brown writes about the Virginia countryside she knows and about horses; this gives her writing meaning and believability. Sara Paretsky sets her stories in her hometown, Chicago. Louisa May Alcott wrote about Concord and her beloved family. Examples abound; you can find thousands.
Of course, we cannot know all that we write about, and we can research technical aspects of our work. The longer a writer works at her craft, the more comfortable she is moving out of what she knows into learning new fields of knowledge and new places. But as a beginning writer, the best advice I ever got came from the well known novelist: write about what you know. I could see it improve my own writing; you will see it improve yours.
Getting readers to care about your characters - December 2009
When I start to read a book, I keep going if I like and identify with at least one of the main characters. If I don’t, that book goes back to the library unread.
So how do writers create characters readers will like? One of the most important aspects is feelings.
We as readers need to know not just what a character is thinking or how he is reacting to a situation but what he is feeling. From an action-packed book like The DaVinci Code to a leisurely stroll through events like an Edith Wharton novel, we want to know what emotions characters we care about are experiencing.
Not every minute, of course. Fiction writing is a complex combination of action, dialogue, exposition, description and introspection. But in moments of high drama, when conflict is driving the plot, or when the character is dealing with a relationship or confronting an unsettling occurrence, we want to know what that character is feeling.
The writer does not have to tell us, “June felt sad as her daughter drove away, believing she would never see her again.” Instead, the writer can show us, as in the example that follows:
She knelt beside the small, still body, carefully avoiding the pool of blood. Bile rose in her throat, but she tamped it down. Then came the anger, rushing through her body, almost overwhelming her with its intensity. She allowed it for a moment then shook it off, being careful not to let it show in her eyes. She had no time for anger. She had a job to do.
What do we know about this person from these few sentences? She is probably a detective, examining the murdered body of a child. She may be new at her job, or perhaps the sight of a mutilated corpse, especially a child’s, still makes her sick even after years on the job. Murder makes her angry; she burns to catch the killer. She can’t let the anger show, though, we infer because she is a woman doing a job traditionally done by men. She has to appear competent and calm, in control of her emotions.
A reader might like her from those few sentences, just from seeing those emotions in play. If that were the first few sentences of a book you picked up, would you keep reading?
Writers can show the reader powerful emotions through actions, words, thoughts and reactions. Whatever the device to reveal feelings, they need to be there if readers are going to care.
Critique Groups - June 2009
Even though writing is a lonely business (think of Alex Haley, pounding out Roots on his typewriter night after night), the best writing comes from time spent sharing your work with fellow writers you respect in a critique group, or with a writing partner. I have had both, and I can say without reservation that they are invaluable to me as I begin polishing my writing.
Critique groups work in different ways. Some listen to writing brought to the session, work they have not previously seen, and comment on what they’ve heard. Some get a printed copy of the piece at the session and provide their on-the-spot reactions. Some, like ones I’ve been in, receive the copy several days in advance, read it over and comment, and then provide feedback during the sessions. The best part happens at these times, when ideas, questions, possibilities and concepts fly around the room. It is a heady time for the writer.
A few points to keep in mind: responses to writing need to be absolutely honest—respectful, not negative, but also questioning what is unclear and pointing out what is incongruous. Nitpicking isn’t useful; a critiquer’s job is not to correct grammar or sentence structure or to offer what she considers better phrasing. Heavy-handed criticism isn’t helpful, either; nobody wants to hear only the bad stuff. Neither should it be all praise. What the writer wants is a balanced assessment of the work: what worked? What didn’t? Why? Why not? Is it believable? Is it clear? The critiquer’s job is not to like or dislike a work, either, just to appraise it fairly.
My real writing work begins after the session is over, when I sit down with the comments and go through them. Some I address; most questions, I answer. If my instincts tell me otherwise, I may not change a phrase, a paragraph, a scene, despite the comments. After all, it’s my writing. But I know to the depths of my writer’s soul that my critiquers’ involvement with my work has brought forth in me the best writing I am capable of, and I am grateful.
Each writer has to do what works best for him or her, of course. But I hope that aspiring writers choose to get responses to their writing from knowledgeable, fair fellow writers. Form a critique group if you don’t have one, or find a writing partner. I predict you’ll be glad you did
My Muse - May 2009
Is there any writer it hasn’t happened to – that ghastly struggle to get words out of your head, or to find them somewhere in your head. You know it well. You stare at the screen, place your fingers above the keyboard hopefully, and – nothing. Your thoughts are scattered; you feel empty. You want to write, but you are stuck. You conveniently discover that all your pencils need sharpening, your paper supply is getting low, you need to study the markets more first. . .
And the things we do to get past it! Go to seminars and conferences, read articles written by famous writers, and talk, talk, talk to other writers. Sometimes they work. Sometimes, they don’t.
For me, it began when my Muse went on an extended vacation. I don’t know why she decided to leave, or where she went, but go she did. I pictured her sitting on a rock on some sun-drenched Mediterranean island, enjoying her leisure. She didn’t warn me that she was leaving; she just took off one day.
I can sympathize with her. It must be hard work getting me going and keeping me on track. Providing the inspiration that makes the words flow smoothly, the ideas coalesce, is surely exhausting. She helped me so often and so unstintingly over the years that I guess she got completely worn out.
But because I belonged to a critique group which expected me to provide pieces to read, I kept trying to write without her. Even though it seemed fruitless, I kept struggling to get the right words out. Nothing I did suited me.
Then, unexpectedly, after a long dry spell, she returned to me, rested and refreshed. At first I did not recognize her, because she arrived disguised as a small doll, fashioned by an artist friend out of a child’s cloth doll, with unruly gray hair, glasses, and an absent-minded expression. She had a quill pen in her hand and a scroll of paper on her lap. Amused by my friend’s creation, I set her atop my computer and proceeded to ignore her – except that she would not let me. She kept gazing at me with those big brown eyes; she seemed to have an expectant air. “Come on, you can do it,” she seemed to say. “I’m back, so get with it.” And voila! The writer’s block was gone.
You’re probably scoffing by now. You’re saying that muses are the stuff of mythology, made up ages ago to explain the mysteries of creativity. You are thinking that none of the nine muses of Greek mythology applies to what people are creating nowadays anyway. Writing, you might be saying, comes from inside the writer – her experiences, her ideas, her feelings, her observations, her knowledge.
I would not dispute your claim. When I write, I do indeed draw on all of those aspects of myself. I write from who I am, what I am, what I have been, what I see, what I know, what I feel. Nonetheless, when I write well, something more than that is happening, something beyond myself. I choose to call that something my Muse. And I know that she can help me now, in the 21st century so far removed from ancient Greece, because despite her roots in classicism she is a thoroughly modern creature. Muses surely adapt to the times.
How can I not believe in her? She is inspiring me again. The top of my computer is not quite Mount Olympus, but she does not seem to mind. Since she arrived, I have begun once more to write words that come together and feel right to me. The ideas have started to percolate. I am grateful.
So may you find your own muse if she is lost, or taking a sabbatical. May she stay on the job if you have her with you now. May she cure your writer’s block, ease your words. When she comes to sit on your shoulder – or atop your computer – you will know she is there, and you will be glad.
Getting Started - April 2009
Writing is a solitary occupation, ideally done when distractions are minimal. When a writer gets into “the zone,” it can be hard to extract him or her, so it’s best if a large block of time is available. Every writer knows how annoying it is to be interrupted when the fingers are flying, the thoughts are flowing and the words are going together just right.
Sometimes, though, it’s just not possible to achieve that nirvana. Sometimes, you have to fit writing into a day already crammed full of things to do, places to go, people to see—when all you want to do is sit down and write. Your head is full of ideas. What to do? I have always found it helpful to carry a notebook with me and write down my random thoughts so I won’t lose them, hoping that I will soon find a couple of hours to organize them into something coherent. Of course, these days people carry I-pods or Blackberries—whatever works is fine. For myself, I prefer the hand-paper connection, but I know not everybody does. At these times I don’t try to write, just capture my thoughts.
However you choose to do it, making writing integral to your daily activities can help generate more ideas and clarify fuzzy ones. Give it a try.