Tag Archives | MFA

The (Sometimes) Joy of Rewriting

Just in time for Mercury Retrograde, I am launching into the first big rewrite of my novel.  (More on Mercury Retrograde in a moment.)

The background        

GreendoorPezenas

A green door in Pezenas, France. It's a doorway to rewriting, get it?

I started this particular novel last year in late September, and finished it almost a year later, on the last day of August.  By many standards, including mine, that is a slow pace for a first draft.  But there were entire months when I set it aside to work on other projects, so the entire time span of active writing was probably was more like eight months than twelve.

I got the idea for this novel in the shower one day in one of those Eureka moments.  When I started writing, in first person, the voice of the narrator came easily and naturally, much as what happened with my Emma Jean novel.  I love when this happens–you don't have to struggle with voice, it is just there. 

My writing group has been enthusiastic about the story, and responses from people who've read the first 50 pages of it in a MFA alumni writing workshop have been also.  And I already have a ton of ideas of scenes I need to add and ways to deepen certain characters. So, I'm excited to get on with the second draft.

The plan

Thus, I was even more excited when my wonderful client and friend Beverly pointed me towards this page on Rachael Herron's blog.  It presents a coherent, cohesive plan for rewriting.  And, I don't know about you, but in my writing life, coherent, cohesive plans for rewriting have been in short supply, witness this story from my MFA days:

I had finished the first draft of the book I lovingly call my MFA novel (It now resides in a cupboard and will likely never see the light of day) and was ready to rewrite it.  So I asked my MFA mentor, an accomplished novelist, writing teacher, and world traveler (who shall remain nameless only because what follows might sound like I'm dissing her and I don't want anybody to think that because she was amazing) how to go about it.  

"I'll tell you how to do that," she said, tossing her long, thick, red hair.

I leaned forward, excited for more of her words of wisdom.

"You sit in your favorite easy chair and read your novel as if you're reading a book from the bookstore."

I waited.  Then I waited some more.  Being too in awe of her to squawk, "that's it?" I waited longer.  

Finally she broke the painful silence.  "Then you will find a way in."  And she bestowed a smile on me.

So, um, you can see why I'm thrilled that plans for rewriting the novel exist.  And, lord have mercy, said plans involve buying office supplies, like post-it notes! A three-ring binder! 3-hole punched paper! Washi tape!  (Okay, the washi tape wasn't strictly necessary, but how could I resist it?)  I'm in the process of printing out my novel and have already begun following the first part of the plan.

Oh, and today, in my internet travels, I ran across this post from the always helpful Janice Hardy about rewriting.  It's worth a read, also.

Iphone6Paris

A giant ad for the Iphone 6 on an historic building in Paris.

The timing 

And now we come to the part about Mercury Retrograde.  Three times a year, the planet Mercury essentially goes backward.  (Don't ask how, just accept, okay?) Most people intone the words Mercury Retrograde with the same dire tones they use to say black plague, or these days, Ebola virus. Communications go haywire, and technology goes bust.  (Don't even think of buying a new computer or phone during one of these periods.  And whatever you do, don't sign a contract.)  Travel plans tend to go awry.  Fun and games, people, fun and games.

But.

There's always a but, and this is a big one.  At the same time all the above-mentioned crazy stuff is occurring, there's something else afoot–and that is that anything that has the prefix "re" attached to it will be a good activity for you.  So, reorganizing, remembering, renewing, or, ahem, rewriting.  Yes, Mercury Retrograde is the perfect time to return to something you've been working on and a good chance to look at it with new eyes.  So there.  I've just given you reason not to dread Mercury Retrograde.  Just don't get tempted by those new Iphone 6s.  

How do you approach rewriting?

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A Writer Travels

Boeing_window_wing_248675_lOne of the missions of this blog is to write about the writer's life, all of it, and for this writer (moi), travel for work is an integral part of it.

My writing-related traveling began when I was accepted into the brief residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, and fell into the flow of flying back there twice a year, in May and October.

It continued when I was hired as a mentor, lo those many years ago, at the Loft Certificate in Writing program in Nashville (well, really, Murfreesboro, but close enough).  For that gig, I traveled in September and January, and for awhile also went to Nashville in December and April when I was on the staff of the now-defunct Room to Write retreat.

Back in the day, I had clients in Los Angeles, and I'd fly (my favorite commute ever–just two hours on the plane, long enough for a good session of reading and voila, you have arrived) down there several times a year.  (Now I just go visit my friend Mary-Suzanne.)

And now that I do writing retreats, I get to head off the exotic locations such as Diamond, Oregon (population, 9, and we meet in a hotel that was once a stagecoach stop), and Ceret, France, where I'm headed the first week of September.

But at the end of this week, I'm heading back to Louisville again, to be a graduate assistant at Spalding after a ten-year absence.  This all started because at the beginning of the year, I started jonesing to be in the MFA environment again.  I wanted to see how different or similar it might be from the kind of teaching I've been doing, both privately and at the Loft.  I longed to be seriously immersed in the world of writing and literature again.

And, well, seriously immersed doesn't really begin to describe it.  The schedule for the 10 days is 30 pages long!  I'll be assisting one of my former mentors, Mary Clyde, whom I adore, in workshops devoted to critiquing student work, recording lectures, running errands, setting up events, attending readings by faculty and students, and soaking in as many words about writing as I can cram into my brain.  (Oh yeah, and there will be lunches, glasses of wine and dinners with old friends and new along the way.)

(I will also be reading from Emma Jean on Friday the 24th, I believe at 6 PM, and selling my book.  So come see me if you're in Louisville.)

I am going to attempt–attempt–to blog from the residency while I'm there. (If Patrick Ross can do it, surely I can!)  But, like I said, the schedule is 30 pages long, with every day packed and lots of duties outlined for me.   I am not complaining, however.  On the contrary, I cannot wait.

Oh, and the best part?  I don't have to take that cursed 6 AM flight to Dallas that I always get booked on.  My plane leaves at a leisurely 8:20 AM.

Do you travel for work, writing-related or other?  What do you like best or least about it?  Please leave a comment!

Photo by Dolphin22.

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10 Ways To Return to Writing Regularly

Note_creative_author_260972_lTrue confession: I haven't been writing.

Okay, that's not exactly true.  I've been writing blog posts, guest posts, interviews and comments on my client's work.  I've been writing in my journal every morning.  But I haven't been writing writing.  I haven't been working on my WIP.

Until this week.

In my case, I had a wonderful reason not to be writing: my novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, was recently released and I got caught up in the hoopla surrounding that.  But in the past, I've gotten distracted for the most mundane of reasons: all the events of day-to-day life.  There's just no two ways about it, it's easy to get distracted from your writing. 

But this week, as I said, I've started back into working on my WIP.  It took me awhile, but I'm back.  Watch out world!  It didn't happen all at once, however.  I don't think it ever does.  Getting back to writing regularly is  a process.   I found ways to ease myself back into it, which I share with you here:

1. Download Scrivener.  This writing software for writers is intuitive and helpful–who knew such a thing was possible? I'm still playing around with it, going through the tutorial, but I think it's going to be wonderful.  And I feel like I just got a new toy at Christmas, which alone is worth it because it makes me want to go play with it.  You can get a free 30-day trial here.

2. Direct your thoughts.  Consciously tell yourself to think about your novel, as in when you are driving, when you are vacuuming, when you are walking the dog.  It's also especially good to do this when you're thinking negative thoughts about how you're not writing.  Direct those thoughts to pondering character or plot instead.

3.  Take notes.  I'm a huge fan of jotting things down, because it leads to more jotting and before you know it you're in the middle of writing a scene.  Put all the ideas you get from #3 onto paper.  The other thing that happens is that ideas breed with each other, like rabbits.   Soon you'll have so many of them you'll be at the page writing.

4.  Familiarize yourself.  On the most basic level, this is about getting accustomed to working on the novel again.  Remember where the files are stored on your computer, stare at your vision board, recall where you were in the manuscript when last you wrote.

5.  Take micro action.  Now that you've gotten oriented again, set yourself a very small task.  Like, opening one file.  I'm not kidding.  Set yourself up for one tiny action and call it good.  This is a way of tricking yourself back into interacting with the work regularly.

6. Research.  Reconnecting with the ideas and topics of your novel can get you excited about it again.  Make a Pinterest board for actresses who might play your character or locations in your novel. Do a Google search for that obscure subject that fascinated when you began. Look for images of your settings.

7.  Use bursts.  Feeling ready to write?  Okay!  Set a timer for 30 minutes and do nothing else but write until the buzzer goes off.  This means no surfing the internet, no looking at email, no chatting on the phone, no getting up to get more coffee.  At the end of 30 minutes, you get to take a break.  Then start the process over again.

8.  Read!  Nothing makes me want to write more than reading.  I just got a Kindle (last person on the planet to do so, I know) and I'm amazed at how it enables me to devour books.  Which, in turn, makes me want to cover pages with words.  Most of us come to writing because we love reading so much, so use that impulse to propel your work.

9.  Reread.  While you're in a reading mode, go reread your WIP.  From the beginning.  Immerse yourself fully in the world you've created so that you can go forth and make it come even more alive.

10.  Create a vessel. Commit to a schedule of some sort.  Now, I am the first one to struggle with this–I end up rebelling against myself.  But when I wrote Emma Jean, I rose every day at 5 to work on it before the day began.  When I wrote my previous (unpublished) novel, I was earning my MFA and I had deadlines for 35-50 pages every week.  Each of these examples enabled me to complete a novel.

So there you have it–my rundown of how to get back to writing regularly.  Have you tried any of these, or something else?  What works best for you?  I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

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Taking Responsibility: A Story

I've got a guest post over at The Artist's Road today.  The title of it is, A Responsibility to Creativity, and its a bit livelier than it sounds, so you should go read it.  Subscribe to Patrick's site (because it is awesome) so you can return and read more later, and then come back.

This whole thing started with that damned Paula Deen, which you can read about in my post on taking complete and total, 100% responsibility.  

I realize I'm asking you to read a lot, sorry.  This responsibility thing is a bit taxing, isn't it?  I've been thinking about it a lot and while it is tiring, it is also refreshing and helpful in day-to-day life.  In all this pondering, I actually remembered how I first came to take responsibility, like real responsibility, for my writing.

Ten years ago I went to graduate school, enrolling as one of the first group of writers to earn their MFA at Spalding's brief-residency program.  The Spalding curriculum is fervidly inter-disciplinary, which means that at each residency we dipped our toes in a different genre of writing.  Every writer in the program participated in an activity and related writing assignment.  My first semester, the chosen genre was poetry. 

Here's the set-up: I arrived in Louisville exactly one month to the day after the 9/11 attacks.  A backdrop to our intense first residency was the constant strum of CNN reading dire stories.  And then the anthrax attacks began.  Fear ratcheted to an extreme level.  Our motel (another story, featuring prostitutes and drug deals, entirely) was right beneath the flight path for the Louisville airport, and some of our number noticed strange-looking men speaking to each other on walkie-talkies.  Were they planning an attack on one of the planes?  Meanwhile my daughter was calling me from Oregon every day, terrified I was going to be poisoned by anthrax and begging me to come home.

And I was supposed to go to the art museum and choose a work of art and then write a poem about it.

Yeah, right.

Poetry has never been my strong suit.

At the museum, I discovered a tapestry woven for King Louis, the Sun King, which got me to thinking about my own son Lewis, who was at that moment in his last year of high school.  So I sat in front of the tapestry and wrote a poem about it and him.  Louis and Lewis, you know? It was a really crappy, sentimental poem, but one that had maybe a glimmer of hope to it.  I worked with it some more, couldn't get it to where I liked it.  Still it was crappy and sentimental. And I was ready to give up, because what did this one poem matter in my overall writing career, when I showed up at the daily workshop, the cornerstone of the residency.

My workshop leaders that residency were Sena Jeter Naslund, the head of the program, and Melissa Pritchard, an amazing writer and mentor whose teaching and speaking style influences mine to this day.  We will now pause for you to be jealous of me getting to work with these two incredible women. Back to the story.  Workshop was ending and all my friends were heading off the cafeteria to eat dinner, something I was eager to join them in, because I was tired and hungry. 

For some unknown reason, perhaps because she asked me, Sena and I began discussing the poetry assignment.  Maybe she asked us how we were all doing on it, I don't know.  But I do know that I sighed heavily and allowed as how mine was just not working out well.   I'm pretty sure certain that I expected Sena to sympathize with me, pat me on the back, tell me not to worry about it and run along and eat dinner with my friends.

But she didn't.

Instead, her words shaped my future attitude toward writing.

"Well, Charlotte," she said in her smooth Alabama drawl, "why don't you go work on it some more, then?"

Oh. Why not, indeed. 

Why not write another draft?  Why not skip dinner and go work on the poem?  Why not claim my work?  Why not step up and be a real writer?

Why not take responsibility?

And so I did.  Instead of going to dinner, I went to the computer lab and penned yet another draft of the poem, or maybe two.  Finally I got it to a point where I was satisfied with it.  I had no idea if it was any good, and I really didn't care.  Because I'd done my best.  I'd taken responsibility. And that felt good.

But the story doesn't end there.  Toward the end of the residency, the poet mentor held a special session in which he discussed the poems that had been turned in, and singled out ones that he liked as examples.  Yes, you guessed.  Mine was one of three that he praised.  I felt like I'd won the biggest writing award ever, because I knew I had earned that praise.  I'd worked for it.  I'd taken responsibility.

 

 

If you've found your way over here from Patrick's blog and its your first time, please know that I'm not always this long winded.  Also, usually there are pictures, just not this time cuz I couldn't find any.  Thanks for visiting!  Please feel free to leave a comment.

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What About Not Writing?

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about creativity with a purpose.  As usual, I banged the drum for writing on a regular basis.  (This is a familiar subject matter for me, as attested to by these posts, too: Getting Up at 5 AM, Techniques for Writing Flow, and Ah, But Here's the Rub, to name only a few.  I can't help it, its what I do!)

For me, and many writers I know, it simply works better to find some time to write very day, or as close to it as possible.  The reasons are many, but mostly boil down to one word: momentum.  Like the proverbial rock rolling down a hill and going faster and faster, your writing will gather speed if you attend to it regularly.  If you don't, there's a lot of time wasted on catch-up, such as trying to remember what the last name of your character is, or in what chapter the murder occurred.  Things like that.

But recently I found some notes from an old MFA lecture (I'm doing a massive purge of papers in my office).  The topic of said lecture was when to write and when to not write.  I was shocked at the not writing part.  But then I remembered a conversation I had recently with my friend and fellow novel goddess Katy, and she said that she goes long stretches without writing.  The nature of her job (for the above-mentioned MFA program) is such that it is difficult to commit to writing on a regular basis.  What she does is go off on intensive week-long writing retreats in which she accomplishes huge spurts of writing. 

So I've been wondering about the whole not writing thing.  I am always afraid that if I don't write, maybe one of these days I simply won't return to it, which is not bloody likely considering it is the single most consistent obsession of my life.  But still, these things I fear do stop me.

Anyone care to make a better case for not writing than I have?

5

When Should a Writer Write For Free?

We interrupt regular programming to bring you this guest post by Roy Burkhead, as Charlotte is beating her head against the wall at the snowstorm blanketing the city, repeating over and over, "Why, oh why, did I wait until the last minute to shop?"

Enjoy! And cheer her up by commenting.

Do you agree with Roy's rant? When should writers write for free and when should we insist on payment? 

Here's his post:

Writers Deserve Respect and Money, Too

When, precisely, did the professional creative writer become a financial liability in the marketplace and the payday equivalent of trailer park trash, as if he or she was Oliver with an extended hand, saying, “please sir, I want some more.”

Bah—bleeping—Humbug.

Allow me to clarify.

I’ve been using nouns and verbs to pay my bills since the mid-1980s, first as a message handler in the military and later as a young newspaperman in rural America. In the 1990s, I wrote under the titles of technical writer and developer in the emerging eCommerce and high tech fields. Then, in the early 2000s, something happened. That something was a shift from technical to creative writing.

The catalyst that drove this change was my acceptance into a MFA in Writing program, and from the beginning, there was a shift in how people treated me.

My then-employer told me flat-out that if I went back to college-on my own time, she would change my status from full-time to contract. (A suggestion that signified I’d be facing a huge demotion.) I left the company a month later.

I remember with clarity what happened two years later, a few hours before my MFA graduation ceremony. I was in a room with my fellow graduates, listening to the staff of published, name-drop-able writers and poets tell us that we were about to become professional writers.

And we did—and we are.

Since that time, I’ve had a Batman-esk existence with dual writing careers and dual lives.

By day, I am a technical writer using software with fancy names to create documentation that helps keep products moving along assembly lines. By night and on weekends, I am a creative writer.

While there remains bills that I cannot pay (not the least of which are my MFA student loans), the technical writing profession pays a living, respectable, fair wage for a day’s work. And there’s even health benefits. However, I work just as hard (if not more so) at nights and on weekends, and yet the prose has never brought a penny into my home, never put one Happy Meal in my kids’ mouths. Truth be told, that’s fine. As any aspiring writer and poet will attest, we write because that’s who we are; cash does not fuel our need and desire to put words on the page. But I would bet a $25 contest entry fee that—of those same writers—each one of them dreams about that first novel or book going to auction.

The path to that fantasy auction is paved with favors: Web site text, newspaper copy, columns for blogs, newsletter stories, brochures for writing programs.

Self interest is a big part of it; we need publishing credits (and boy-o-boy does everybody in the industry know it). Nothing is wrong or inappropriate with this practice…but only when it’s done at a certain stage in an aspiring writer’s career.

At some point, the freebies must stop. Creative writing is a profession like any other profession (many put it up there with lawyers and doctors), and those working within it deserve to be paid. Perhaps (perhaps) creative writers shouldn’t be paid the same as lawyers and doctors—but a fair wage is warranted.

How much free is enough?

The answer to this question will vary from writer to writer, but I believe that at the DNA level, each writer knows when it’s time to stop giving it away. I reached that point about six months ago. The feeling had been bubbling for a long time, and the last literary straw fell when I discovered that a writing organization of respectable size stopped printing its newsletter. Instead, it posted digital copies to its Web site. It was an excellent business decision—no paper, no ink, and no postage mean more money to allocate to other activities. A few days after discovering the policy change, I received a request (an open offer, really) to write something for the newsletter. I replied, saying that I would love to write something, but I would need to be paid something. Not a million dollars. Not a thousand dollars. Not even a hundred dollars. But something: anything.

The response? Silence. Nothing. I knew then I had made the correct decision, and whenever similar requests came in from similar organizations, I sent the same reply and received the same silence.

The result has been a lot more time to write my fiction, verses spending all of that time and energy writing things for others. While it may be true that small (even medium-size) organizations cannot afford to pay a lot, most everyone—I believe—can and should pay something.

Earlier this month, I learned that New England College is taking a poet and former employee to court.
According to the blurb posted at pw.org, “New England College (NEC), a small liberal arts school that houses a low-residency, poetry-only MFA, claims that poet Anne Marie Macari transplanted its faculty and students to the newly established program at Drew, where Macari is now the director. NEC, which is seeking to bar Macari from her job at Drew for two years, is also pursuing compensation for lost tuition due to a drop in enrollment (from ten students to five) and $33,000 for the salary the school paid Macari during her final year on faculty, according to the Associated Press. Drew increased Marcari's salary to $56,000.”

I don’t know who did what and when. But I do know $33,000 is chump change for a professional working in a profession. No wonder Macari left NEC. I congratulate her on her escape. The $56,000 isn’t much better, but at least she’ll be able to pay her bills and even repay a student loan or two.

Of course, we won’t be able to stop everything we do for free; life is about compromise and friendship. For example, Charlotte is not paying me for this column, and I am fine with that outcome. She has made so many deposits in my professional, emotional bank account that I would never be able to turn her down. (In fact, I contacted her, asking her to consider this column for publication.)

My point is that as a profession, we treat one another with professional respect in all ways. If you’re reading this and you're in a position to pay or not pay a writer, please don’t expect things to be done for free; offer to pay your writers an honest wage for honest work.

–Roy Burkhead

6

Tips For Writing Fiction: Backstory

Before we get to the subject of tips for writing fiction, and specifically, backstory, let me remind you of the contest I’m running.  All you have to do is answer a wee survey and your name will get put in the hat for a drawing with the wonderful prize of a complimentary coaching session with moi.

Here’s the link:  Another Contest:  What Are Your Writing Problems?  You can head on over there really quick and take the survey, I’ll wait.  Okay, good, thanks.  Now onto backstory.

I’ve been reading The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson.  One thing I’ve noticed is that it has lots of backstory in it.  A lot lot. Maybe even a little too much, because backstory, as we all know, slows the narrative down.   

But it got me to thinking and I realized that the novel I’m currently rewriting for the fourth time is the wee-est big lacking in backstory.  As in, it has barely any.  Could this be what one agent meant when she said she loved the novel but wanted it to have a bit more substance?

I think it could.  I believe I came to this place because my last novel, which I like to call my MFA novel, because, amazingly enough, I wrote it during the two years I was getting my MFA, had nothing but backstory.  The novel was one big backstory dump.

So it may not be a big surprise that this current novel has next to no backstory.  But now I think the time has come to add some, and that, and Joshilyn Jackson, have gotten me thinking about it.

Backstory is exactly what it says—it’s the story that happened before the novel opened.  It is what is in your character’s backgrounds, their stories that they carry around in their heads, the events that shaped them.  We novelists love backstory because we love our characters and we want to know every tiny bit of everything that ever happened to them.

However, you may love all those bits of fascinating history, but your reader does not.  You reader loves the current story that you signed on to tell.  And backstory is not it.

The common rule about backstory is to use it only when the reader needs to know something. 

My take is to consider what the reader wants about what led to the situation as it currently stands.  For instance, the Joshilyn Jackson book is about conflict between sisters.  So we naturally want to know at least a little  about where that conflict started and why.

Providing judicious amounts of backstory helps to illuminate the central question about your character: will she change and why?  If not, why not?  In The Girl who Stopped Swimming, I’m wondering if the two sisters will come to terms with their conflict, ie, grow and change.

Be aware that writing backstory requires a delicate balance.   Too much, and the story bogs down.  Not enough, and your reader won’t understand your character’s motivations.  It is hard to find this balance, as my own experience attests. 

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask: what does she need to know and when?

Another guideline for backstory is to be sure to get the story rolling before you drop in chunks of it.  And better yet, do it in little petite batches, instead of the chunk thing, okay?  Think about how you might remember something that happened to you.  Instead of telling yourself the whole story you might remember it in dribs and drabs.  So, too with backstory–feed us a little here, and a teeny bit more over there.

You also don’t want to put all your backstory at the end.  However, you might well be withholding a piece of backstory for dramatic effect–perhaps it is some family history that the heroine finally gets the significance of, for instance.   Which brings up another point about backstory–it can be used as a pacing element.  The above-mentioned example is called a reveal, and reveals are excellent for creating cliffhangers and so forth.

Backstory, when used correctly, deepens a character.  Just remember that most of want we want to see is the character acting on her current problems (which are no doubt related to the backstory) in the contemporary story.

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