Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dogs, Bones, and The Day That's Different

Dogs, Bones, and the Day that’s Different

I was recently at a writers’ conference at which Lin Oliver, the “founding mother" of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, offered some tips from successful writers.

One of those tips that resonated with me was advice from Susan Patron, a former librarian and winner of the Newbery award in 2007 for The Higher Power of Lucky.

Her advice to struggling writers was to “begin on the day that’s different.”

For fledgling writers especially, that is superb advice. Many of our early drafts are like a dog on a hunt for a buried bone: we sniff around the borders of our story, we scratch at the backstory until we’ve rubbed it raw, we chase our tail before our nose catches the scent of what we’re really up to.

When I’ve critiqued manuscripts at conferences and workshops, I’ve noticed that where to begin is a struggle that defines them all. If you follow Patron’s advice and start out on the day that’s different – the day your character discovers he’s adopted or her best friend is really no friend at all or he happens to be strolling by the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, you have begun with the day that’s different.

The day that’s different will surely hook your readers, helping them catch the scent of the bone you’ve planted. After that, you can let your readers scratch at the backstory and chase after the plot from chapter to chapter. Until, of course, they reach the meaty bone they’re after: the satisfying read you’d been setting them up for all along.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Beginning Fiction Writer? Practice with Poetry!

Beginning Fiction Writer? Practice with Poetry!

            Here’s a piece of counter-intuitive advice for beginning fiction writers: practice with poetry!

            Fiction writers understand the need to show, not tell. They just don’t always know how to pull it off.

            Telling, of course, robs the reader of the joy of experience.

A beginner might write, “I was devastated by my mother’s death.”

            A more practiced writer shows the devastation: the frozen fingers that would never again flutter over the biscuit dough; the curly grey hair that would miss its monthly perm; the cold cheek that would no longer warm your own. You get the idea.

            Often, on the challenging road to showing, beginners fall into the ditch of telling.

            Poetry can help with that.

            Poetry is all about showing. Its emotional pull is assured because poetry never tells.

            Think of Williams’ red wheelbarrow, Oliver’s wild geese, Whitman’s noiseless patient spider.

            Practice with poetry. Its images will tell you the way to your own more perfect showing.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Poet's Wives, Rotten Lives

Poet’s Wives, Rotten Lives

Having just finished Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I am reminded of what was once said about poet John Berryman: “All poet’s wives have rotten lives.” Messud’s novel confirms that the same might be said about an artist’s friends and family members as well.

Messud’s Nora wishes nothing more than to be a successful artist, and when she is pulled into the life of renowned artist Serina Shahid, she vicariously experiences the euphoria that intimacy with the creative process brings. But she also learns that the mesmerizing artist can be cruel, sacrificing everyone, no matter how close, in pursuit of their ambitions.

What Messud implies is true, of course, of ambitious people in general. But in the artist’s case, such sacrifices are particularly painful, for at least an ambitious plumber or lawyer can expect remuneration for hard work; pursuing the life of an artist offers no such guarantee.

Achtung: Life with an artist is not for the faint of heart. The loved ones of artists require not only sensitivity to the nature of artistic pursuit but also an unblinkered understanding that artistic endeavor requires sacrifices of them as well.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hogs, Mathematics, and Critics

One of the hardest things for writers is to keep going.

There are time pressures.

Skill deficits.

Frustrations in the writing process itself.

No wonder that most aspiring writers struggle with one huge hurdle: finishing.

Worst of all is that nagging inner critic, that inside-your-head voice that says this isn't any good.

As a corrective, try to remember that even the very best writers have been creamed by the critics.

Here's one of my favorites: The 1855 critic of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass said that Whitman was "as unacquainted with art as a hog with mathematics."

We all know what we think of that, don't we? Hogwash!

Trudy Krisher