Writing Prompt # 50

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Soon we’ll all be going centennial! No, I’m kidding – the prompts are only half-way there. But I like movies like Bicentennial Man and Up. I mean there are so much aging products out there to make you think that something needs to be fixed or you need to take better care of yourself. But it shouldn’t only be about youth.

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Life is a journey that must be lived in the present, at whatever stage of it you are in. I remember sitting down with my grandparents when I was younger and being told stories, and hearing hymns.

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They were down to earth people who didn’t seem to let anything bother them. Not a baby crying in a crib, a disobedient child or the world outside their door. They smiled, made friends with everyone and enjoyed eating together, even as they made it into their seventies. Watching them I would often think here is the good life, here is home.

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W.P # 50. Write about your grandparents.

Some Aspects of Craft from Zadie Smith

z smith A few days ago I stumbled upon a youtube video by Zadie Smith. It was a lecture given to students of the Columbia University’s Writing Program. In it, she distilled ideas on her method of writing. Some of which I thought was insightful, and others remarkably pleasing. I post it here only as a means of sharing her insight, not to copy her work.

Watch the video here, when you get a chance. Or read her novel, Changing My Mind where it is also included. Here, I present part of the lecture in the form of a mock interview.

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What kind of a writer are you?
I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it.

Do you have a cheering squad?
It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone. I gather sentences round, quotations, the literary equivalent of a cheering squad. Except that analogy’s screwy – cheerleaders cheer.

Do you read while you write?
It’s a matter of temperament. Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra – they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those.

I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage.

Do you ever tinker with the first twenty pages?
What’s amazing about the first twenty pages is how little confidence you have in your readers when you begin. You spoon-feed them everything.

You don’t trust the reader to have a little patience, a little intelligence. This reader, who, for all you know, has read Thomas Bernhard, Finnegans Wake, Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec – yet you’re worried that if you don’t mention in the first three pages that Sarah Malone is a social worker with a dead father, this talented reader might not be able to follow you exactly.

For writers who work with character a great deal, getting back to the first twenty pages is also a lesson in how much more delicate a thing character is than you think it is when you’re writing it.

What should a writer do when they are finished writing their novel?
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second – put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal – but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle.

The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer…You need to forget you ever wrote that book.

Well, that brings us to the end of the discussion. I hope you enjoyed the interview. Remember to check out the rest of the lecture, either on youtube or by reading the book. I send my best regards and keep up the great work. Meet you back here next week!

(FYI: Other topics of the lecture includes: the middle-of-the novel magical thinking, dismantling the scaffolding, the last day, the unbearable cruelty of proofs and years later: nausea, surprise and feeling ok. Check out the video, even if only to capture the beginning where she discusses some of these things.)

Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist: Some Advice

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About a week ago I came across a post by Damyanti about Tim Tomlinson and his novel, the Portable MFA. (Read it here.) What interested me at the time was that Damyanti had said that that book had given her the confidence to write. And having read the introduction, The MFA vs. the Portable MFA, I can see why shelling out less than one hundred dollars would be better than paying between $35,000 – $50,000 to get an MFA degree. Believe me I’ve tried. I was told not enough publications to my credit, so I continue to write. Anyway, after reading her post, I checked through my stack, realized that I had a copy, but as yet hadn’t given it a read – so many books, so little time. Now though, having read the first chapter on Fiction, I can see that it is indeed valuable and that led me digging through the stack to see what other books I might also have overlooked.

 

on becoming a novelist
Which led me back to On Becoming a Novelist, a book by John Gardner. I had read it a few months ago, but during a lull in the writing I am finding it helpful. Consider it suggestions to a developing writer. Below I offer you six pieces of advice or things to consider as you write your novel. If you possess a copy, go through it again. See if you find anything hauntingly helpful, like the list below.

 

 

Six things to consider if you want to write:

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John Gardner

1. What counts is the character’s story and the first quality of good storytelling is storytelling.
2. The young writer should read to see how effects are achieved, how things are done, sometimes reflecting on what he would have done in the same situation and on whether his way would have been better or worse, and why?

3. The wise or more experienced writer gives the reader the information he needs to understand the story movement by movement.

4. Good fiction affirms responsible humanness.

5. Maintain a vivid, continuous dream. (i.e. tell the story without butting in, like I’m doing here by adding this bit.)

6. Look inward for approval and support. Have the endurance and pace of a marathon runner. (Here I think of Haruki Murakami) Be driven and directed by an inner force.

Thanks again for your post, Damyanti. Read it above and catch you all next week!

Become Your Character

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You know, I’ve always wanted to be an actress. Well, at least when I was younger. I even joined the drama club in Secondary School (Junior High) and managed to get a few small parts, before stopping completely because of exams.

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Once or twice I can even remember getting butterflies in the pit of my stomach, and experiencing stage fright. But thankfully I have learnt how to deal with them, because even now it rears its ugly head just to show me who’s the boss. Each time though, I take it in stride, always making a decision to do what I am supposed to do. Read a piece of poetry or give a speech.

But before all of that, there was always writing. Something for which I didn’t need to learn any more lines, because I would be the one creating them. The one assuming the role of that said character, or the entire cast, depending on what the story needed. Busy learning how to come up with appropriate lines for entirely different situations, which (as I am sure all of know) is more than nice.

stephen king     Believe me, writing is amazing. So, when I read that piece of advice posted above – become your character at least when you write from the novel on writing, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (by Nancy Kress), I thought I’d share it with you. Because our readers cannot go into our heads, to learn everything we know about our characters. Instead, we have to get everything down on the page, leaving only the salient bits that are relevant (for whatever part of the story they are at).

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint

And what better way to do that than by crawling into our character’s (/ characters’) skin. Especially when writing, so we can create an accurate picture. Get everything that’s pertinent. Then, when we’re done, we can slip back out, and assess what we’ve done. Both as a writer, but also preferably as a reader, to ensure that everything’s just alright.

Like always, keep writing and all the best!

12 Rules of Writing from 3 Master Craftsmen: What’s the Best Advice You’ve Ever Been Given?

Usually, I come to you with a question and then provide all of the answers. But today the tables have been turned, because I would like to hear from you. My Question: What’s the best writing advice that’s ever been given to you? It can either be something stated directly, or something you’ve picked up while writing and working on a project. You decide.

ImageHere, I’ll provide my own, after letting you in on one of my biggest secrets. For the past two or three years I’ve been a huge fan and follower of various writing websites, some of which have offered as much insight as the books I read and discuss here. This website has continually offered me great beginner advice that I would like to share with you, as well as, recommend that you check out the site; it’s called: brainpickings.org.

Maybe some of you have heard about it, but to the others when you’re through reading this article, do take a trip across the world wide web. For some time now, I’ve been intrigued by the type of advice offered to beginners by more professional writers. And like with many other things, I am learning how to accept the things that gel with me and drop the ones that don’t. On the site mentioned above, various writers like Ernest Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood (et al) offer anywhere from 8 to 10 pieces of advice. Or rules as it were, and from this group of four, I have chosen to discuss a few rules from the latter three, because they have been the most helpful thus far.

For me, Zadie Smith is like a level-headed guru, who offers practical advice. Some of which I have learned, others that I go over again and again. Below are three of her rules.

Image3. Don’t romanticise your vocation. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

These are the three pieces of advice that appeal to me most, but if you go over the entire list, others might stand out for you. As a beginner myself, aiming for the Young Adult reader, I have to remind myself that I cannot, as yet, do everything to get my novel to the level that it should be at. But every book created takes or will take me one step further. Closer. It will be the same for you. (As you can tell I am a firm believer in making incremental changes, small inroads into my weaknesses so that eventually they will be overcome. Only time will tell.)Image

Neil Gaiman is the second master craftsman, I look to for assistance. His rules are simple, direct and sometimes comical. Follow them anyway. Rule 1. Write. 2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. 3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. 4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and like the kind of thing that this is. (Gaiman’s link here.)

A lot of good advice, remember: writers write. And if you pay attention to the advice of writers, sometimes some things are often repeated. Pay attention to those, they are really important. Finally, the last writer, Margaret Atwood, seems pretty zany but her craft is superb. So, read on.

Image1. Take a pencil to write on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils. 3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do. 4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick. 5.  Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. 6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

If you can hear the slant of humor coming through, then maybe you can also see all the valid points that are swirling around with them. Things like holding the reader’s attention and backing up your work. To check out Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Advice to Beginning Writers, go to brainpickings.org. Trail the site on weekends, when you get a bit of free time and look out for anything interesting.

Now, I leave the floor open for you. In the reply box below, please share any bits of advice that you’ve found helpful. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from each other.

The Promise of a Good Beginning

What’s the best way to start? For many writers this choice can be daunting. But using other novels as a guide, you can find a way that will suit your story. It may even garner you some attention, if from beginning to end the fictive dream is maintained. Now, consider the following openings by a few authors whose work I greatly admire. They are used here only for reference:

I was born on the night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds is whisper thin and when magic, old magic, sings its heady and sweet song to anyone who cares to hear it. (Once a Witch)

Rei Ellis whispers to me as the light goes dark.
“Anna, don’t go.” (Auracle)

Tana woke up lying in a bathtub. (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown)

According to Nancy Kress, in Beginnings, Middles and Ends, “Every story makes two promises to the reader.” One is emotional and the other intellectual, “since the function of stories is to make us both feel and think.” To do this however, the writer has to engage the reader. Grab them. Hook them into the story so that nothing else matters.

Can you do the same? The three openings above highlight ways in which three separate authors have tried to do just that. Sometimes a writer can open the story with a prologue and at other times, at chapter one. Whichever method you choose, remember that every story is different, so if you opt for a prologue, use it wisely, to dispense information that is pertinent to the tale; without which the story might not make sense. Or be weighty.

Truth be told, the first opening from Once a Witch is taken from a prologue which does a lot to enhance the story, which in and of itself is quite compact. In fact, you can think of it as a story that has two parts. The first part being somewhat like Harry Potter going off to Hogwarts. But unlike JK Rowling, this author (Carolyn MacCullough) has only a few pages to catch you up on her protagonist’s past before the spinning of the tale.  How she does it? You’ll have to read the tale and find out for yourself, but the first few sentences give you a glimpse of the protagonist and lets you know what sort of story you are about to encounter. I believe without it, the story would not seem complete or fully fleshed out.

Nevertheless do remember that every story is different. And the decision to use or not use a prologue, should be taken with care, because the information introduced in a prologue should be something pertinent, that will further the reader’s understanding of the story. Something without which the reader may be confused or hesitant about undertaking the journey. For some this might even be the why of the story. Clues that will only come to life after you have accepted the challenge and agreed to delve further in for example in Shaunta Grimes’ novel, Viral Nation.
So, using a prologue can help you to create a better story, if you give the reader vital information. Do the same with your story. But make sure that whatever it is that you are telling them is just enough for where they are in the story, and that it is not a sensory overload, of too much information being introduced into the story all at once.

For other writers though the first few words of chapter one heralds a new beginning. Think of Auracle (Gina Rosati), the two lines quoted above and the first line of Taken (Erin Bowman) given below. Both of them present you with the main character (and hint at the people that they hold dear).

Today is the last day I will see my brother. (Taken)

Whenever possible, start your story either with your main character or the opposing force. And if you cannot begin with the opposition, then use some other minor link to it, that shows the reader what’s at stake. If you can help it, don’t wait.

Because part of what will make you a good writer, is your ability to convey emotion to your reader. To get them interested in what is going to happen to your protagonist. But to do that you will have to make them care about who your protagonist is and then eventually what he is up against. Think of Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Part 1.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flickered the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

And then, another part of what it takes to be a good writer is to be a good reader. Use emotion but make sure that what you present is believable. Take your readers on an emotional journey and remember to make your opening words count, like Mr. Bradbury. Or even with the two pieces below:

An icy wind seeped through the floorboards and I shivered, pulling my gray wool sweater tighter around myself. (Blackberry Winter – Sarah Jio)

I felt it coming this time. I shoved my drawings into the hidden slit I’d made in the back of my mattress, then grabbed the metal bed frame to steady myself as my brain suddenly jolted back into connection with the Link. (Glitch – Heather Anastasiu)

Although I have focused mostly on first person point-of-view stories, such openings can work no matter which person or perspective you choose. Reel your reader in. Start strong and make every word count. A strong beginning sentence, paragraph, chapter or prologue if well done can be enough to entice your reader and get them to dive in. How? Let them see your main character doing something. Or familiarize them with the story world and your opponent. Take it one step at a time, if you are a beginner or still learning some of the techniques. But make sure every word counts and whatever is said, is meant.

And until next time, keep reading, writing and blogging!