Breathe life into your characters by making them conflicted, strange, endearing.
This post is brought to you by Fiction Fix, so please read it here. (Above is a little hint about the content.)
Breathe life into your characters by making them conflicted, strange, endearing.
This post is brought to you by Fiction Fix, so please read it here. (Above is a little hint about the content.)
I’ve seen many an article in which the writer talks about how he or she has gotten rid of smart phones permanently, and I’ll have to say that I’m not one of those people. Believe me, I fought even getting an iPhone much longer than is normal for a so-called millennial, but I finally got one three years ago. I don’t play games on it (although I did at first), and I’m not the type of person who has to have the latest version. I like it for the convenience of being able to take snapshots and videos of my kids and check my email on the run and make phone calls and look up obscure trivia all in one device. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m glued to my phone all day. My rule is that I simply don’t use it at all if ever I wake up in the middle of the night (unless, of course, I get an emergency call or text). It’s easy for me to ignore it. In fact, there are some times when I am so busy that I’ll got 12 hours without doing more than checking the time.
But then there are those other people who can’t pull themselves away from whichever device is their vice of choice (and see how “vice” is already there in “device” – it’s like it was planned that way). These people check their email if they happen to wake up at three A.M. They play Farmville at their children’s band concerts or ballet recitals. They talk through the checkout line at the grocery store and text while driving. A lot of this comes down to a lack of common sense as well as courtesy – blog topics for another day.
The iPhone isn’t my problem, anyway. We have a semi-joke in our house about “my” MacBook. We bought this computer almost four years ago when my husband went back to school. At the time, I thought it would be great to have after he graduated, in addition to our desktop model. And for the longest time, I didn’t do much with it. He took it to class, typed term papers on it – was even typing one in the hospital room when our second son was born – but then… well, I kind of took it over after he graduated. (Don’t worry – I did get him an iPad mini to make up for stealing his tech.) By that point, our desktop computer was on it’s last legs, but I wasn’t worried about replacing it – the MacBook was more than adequate. It’s where I do everything from this blog to typing my NaNoWriMo novels to doing my freelance work to editing photos and creating photo books (for me and for clients). I’ve taken it on every vacation since we bought it, including Disney World, and I’ll even carry it in the car to work on projects if it’s a ride of 30 minutes or more (and when I’m not driving, obviously).
But this weekend I’m going to leave it at home.
That’s right – I’m letting go! My in-laws are taking the kids Friday after school through Monday – the longest I’ve gone childless since November 5, 2007. And this time, instead of my husband working half the nights they’re away, we’ve actually booked a room at my friend’s bed and breakfast – a first for us. My elder son was shocked to hear that we’re going to be doing fun stuff, too. And here’s something really different for me, the planner: we don’t have a plan. We’re going to go and just do nothing – or anything. And I’m not taking the laptop. I’m not going to write at all. Now, it’s only going to be for one night, but these are baby steps, folks. While I love writing, my husband can tell you that sitting down to innocently write a scene turns into balancing the budget for an hour and editing for Fiction Fix and any number of other computer-related distractions. We’ll take our phones (and probably the iPad) so we can FaceTime our kids and watch Netflix to our hearts’ content. I’ve been so busy lately that I refuse to go on a vacation only to do more of the same while paying extra for the room. (And see – I’m even posting this blog early just to make sure I’m distraction-free.)
We’ll have our books and a new-to-us area to explore. It’s going to be the perfect pair-of-introverts weekend.
I’ve noticed a pattern over the past several years, especially since I started substitute teaching: the school year speeds up exponentially after spring break. It’s like a race to the end of the year, to fit in all the end-of-year projects and parties and field trips. Everyone, especially the children, can feel that summer break is fast approaching, and life takes on a frenetic pace.
Maybe that’s why I’ve heard more than one person complain that May is the new December, as if December is a bad month. I quietly took issue with this notion. My favorite time of year is Advent, preparing for the birth of the Christ child. I love the Christmas music, Christmas shopping, wrapping Christmas presents at night while watching Christmas movies, doing the Advent calendar with my kids, and – yes – my seasonal socks. Yet for many people it’s a nightmare of obligations and deadlines and buying presents for people they don’t really like. I get it – December can be stressful. Not to mention that if you’re in college, you have exams, while all you can think about is the long break that’s so close you can almost touch it. I can certainly commiserate because I was a December college graduate. And that year, while I thought it would be such a relief to finally be done with school forever-and-ever-amen, I found myself immersed in not only editing but also typesetting the second volume of Fiction Fix when our previous typesetter bailed. People were counting on me, and I wasn’t able to enjoy December – or even being done with college – like I’d expected.
Maybe this is how my friends feel this month.
For me this year, May is more than teacher’s gifts and good-byes and summer planning. I took the Florida Teacher Certification Examination this past Monday, which meant cramming for almost two weeks. As soon as I got through with that, I took on the end-of-year books for my first grader’s class. These books hold the kids’ projects from August through the end of the year – over 20 pages of 12×18 construction paper – but what I didn’t realize was that about half of these projects still had to be glued to the paper before the books could be assembled. Another mom and I thought we could knock it out on Tuesday, only to find out we were in way over our heads. I’ve taken pages home every night, still have five or six to go, and need to finish by Tuesday.
So my May has been busy. I’ve put off the usual things that fill up my to-do list, things that are still waiting for my attention, and I can feel them getting ready to pile back on. Like two freelance projects that I hope to finish in the next month, before our family vacation. Like a friend’s novel that I’ve been slowly beta reading since January. Like my own fiction projects, which I blogged about as recently as last week.
But I’ve been living with a kind of giddy feeling, anticipating the (temporary, at least) cessation of certain obligations. This weekend alone, three culminated: yesterday was my son’s last baseball game of the season; this morning was the last Sunday school class I have to teach until September; and this afternoon was my community chorale’s last concert of our spring season. Not to mention that this week will be the last meeting of my third-year Education for Ministry group (which means I’m almost finished with the 1000+-page history book we’ve been discussing since last fall). After Memorial Day weekend, my son has a partial week of school, and then first grade will be over.
What this means is that, even though we have school for a few more days, when we’re home for the evening, we’re home. I’ll have time to cook and actually enjoy supper. By the end of the month, I won’t have to wake up at 4:30 for a blessed two-and-a-half months. This doesn’t mean that I’m just going to sit around and twiddle my thumbs all summer – the kids and I will be plenty busy – but it does mean that I will be able to stop and breathe for a minute.
I love summers because I get a break. I’m grateful for this because so many parents aren’t able to have the time off with their kids. But if I’m not careful, I can allow myself to dread the end of summer break. I have to remind myself that I always love the beginning of a new school year, and I have ever since I was a kid. This year, my little guy will start preschool, so it’s going to be even more exciting. As my kids grow, everything seems to speed up, and I have to be careful not to stress too much over all the activities and responsibilities that go with being a mom-slash-chauffeur. What I do, I do for them and for us as a family. School and tutoring and daily chores are part of our life, but if we begin to allow the fun stuff – the baseball and the play dates and the trips to the park – become obligations instead of fun, it will be time to reassess. I don’t ever want to let a particular month turn into a time of dread, and I hope everyone else embroiled in the busyness of these times will do the same.
Last week, my son took some things to school for show and tell, except it’s not called “show and tell” anymore. I don’t know if this is a global change or just one at his school. For them, it’s “show and share” (and for younger kids, it’s just “share”). The cynic in me thought that it’s just another way to say the same old thing a different way.
But then I got thinking because that’s what I do. Is there a difference between show and tell and show and share? Certainly, people don’t like to be told what to do. Sharing seems a lot more friendly, and the change of one word could be a way to encourage children to take turns, etc., etc.
And for writers, of course, there’s something in that one poor word, “tell,” that just makes us cringe.
As an editor for a fiction journal, I throw that little four-letter word around all the time. It’s a great reason to reject a story. One part of the job description for readers and editors at Fiction Fix is to give notes on why we accept or reject each story. I try to pull quotes from stories, where applicable. If the dialogue is awful, I use an example. If the piece is full of malapropisms, I’ll list a couple. And if there’s too much telling, I include that in my notes, as well. Except one story this week… I couldn’t choose. There were too many examples, each worse than the last. In the end, I noted that the entire piece was one grand example of telling. Minor problems we can fix, but rewriting the whole story? That’s just a skill that the author needs to learn.
But what’s so wrong with telling, anyway? Isn’t at least some telling necessary? After all, they’re called storytellers, not storyshowers (well, and no wonder because you could easily read it as “showers” instead of “show-ers”).
Some telling is necessary, of course. But in this particular story this week, telling was in the form of: “And another nine years passed, and little Joey was suddenly in high school.” Yawn. I’ve read much more creative ways in which to show the passage of time.
One example of an author who I think did a great job with telling was J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series. The more fantastical the world, the more world-building is necessary, and that can easily turn into info-dumping, AKA telling. To create the wizarding world, not only did Rowling have to introduce new names and places and ideas to her readers, but she also had to introduce them to one very important character: Harry Potter, himself. What a great way to present much-needed information! As Harry was fascinated with his first owl post and trip to Diaogn Alley, so were we, and we got to see it through his eyes. We were shown.
But then, there were other times when we had to learn important information, and an author with less finesse could have completely blown it. Instead, Rowling had two characters in place, Hermione Granger and Albus Dumbledore, who were storehouses of knowledge. Hermione, being the bookworm that she was, knew more than most witches and wizards her age to begin with, and if she didn’t know, she went to the library to find out. And Dumbledore… well, he was full of all kinds of bizarre and useful bits of knowledge, although he was slow in divulging it all. Potter fans, do you remember the end of the first five books? With a sense of relief, you knew that Dumbledore would tie up quite a few loose ends… and leave you hanging just a little, which was where the next book would pick up.
Other means of imparting facts in unique ways that Rowling and other authors have utilized are by having the characters find facts and discover clues in books, e-mails, letters, diaries, newspapers. We’ve all read dictionaries and textbooks, right? That’s where we get our info, too, so it’s perfectly acceptable for characters to gain their insights in this way, as long as the author doesn’t rely on it too heavily. After all, the narrative does still have to move forward.
But then there are the ever-so-awkward dialogues, telephone conversations, and internal monologues that are meant to convey something important. For instance, a first person narrator will have a more difficult time describing him- or herself than if the book has a third person narrator. Say the female narrator needs to come across as humble. She’s beautiful, but she can’t tell you that herself. So instead, someone says it to her… but it gets overdone:
“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda gushed, “the way you’ve braided your hair is just so becoming! I love the way the light catches your golden highlights, and your blue dress just brings out the blue in your eyes perfectly!”
Okay, so we know that Celeste’s hair looks nice and that she has golden highlights. And her eyes are blue. But do people talk like this? (Admittedly, some do, but they are few and far between. And doesn’t that drive you nuts? Also, note the use of the word “gushed.” Ick. Please don’t write or talk like this because your average person doesn’t.)
Here’s a more natural way to convey similar information:
“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda said. “Look at you! Didn’t I say you would clean up well? And that blue is just the perfect color on you.”
Wait a minute. What happened to the braid, the hair color, the specific reference to the eyes? What happened to the gushing? Although most people don’t like relying on italics, that’s how I tend to hear people when they’re talking, and an italicized word here or there saves you from overused dialogue tags, such as “gushed.” And how important was the physical description, anyway? The more you write, the more you’ll discover that things like this don’t always matter. But, if you’re still not sure, here’s another way to get your point across:
I tried the braid that my mom had shown me, and although I would have preferred sweats over dressing up, the blue sheath she had picked out matched my eyes, at least. I smiled in the mirror, already imagining how Amanda would gush when she walked in the door.
Okay, so maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but you get a little bit of description, plus some character development. (See how she’s uncomfortable but pleased at the same time?)
Oh, and the telephone conversation. Listen to someone talking on the phone one day. From one side of a conversation, you can pick up a lot, but you usually have to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself (or sometimes let them remain a mystery). So in books (and movies, too), should the characters spell out everything for the readers’ sakes? Check out this one-sided conversation for what not to do:
“Hi, Mom. It’s Cindy… I know you expected me to call earlier, but there was a line at the phone… Yes, I guess a lot of other kids are homesick, too… I miss you a lot, but it’s been a great week here at Camp Sparkly Lake, where you’ve sent me for two weeks… Uh-huh, I’ve made a couple friends already. Jessica is a cheerleader just like me, and she can do a backflip, also just like me…”
It could go on and on. Why would Cindy say so much stuff that her mom already knows? People don’t talk like this! I know that you’re trying to minimize the telling, but this isn’t the way to do it. Try instead:
“Hi, Mom… I’m sorry, but there was a line at the phone… Yeah, probably, and I guess I am a little, too. I mean, I miss you a lot, but at least I’ve made a couple friends… Yeah, there’s another cheerleader here named Jessica, and she can match me backflip for backflip. Pretty cool, huh?”
Here, you can imagine what the mom’s saying, and Cindy’s responses are much more natural. As for the other information, like the name of the camp and how long Cindy’s staying, these can be told quickly, but in a way that won’t turn off your readers:
Although the line to the phone looked about a mile long, I supposed it was time to call home and give my mom an update on my first week at Camp Sparkly Lake.
Ta-da! A teensy bit of telling can go a long way.
Which is good advice for me to heed. As an editor, telling slaps me in the face and leaves me reeling. Yet as a writer, info-dumping is so seductive. And since I tend toward the fantastical (or at least magical realism), there’s usually quite a bit of world-building involved.
It’s so difficult to craft those opening pages, believe me. On the one hand, you have to capture the interest of Any Reader, that fickle person who will drop your book like a live grenade if you can’t seal the deal within a sentence or two. On the other hand, you have to create the rules and boundaries of your fictional world up front. If you do a bang-up job of painting your characters in the beginning, waiting until ten pages in to wallop the readers with a garbage load of information, you’re not doing anyone any favors. You have to impart info without hanging a flashing, neon sign over it that reads: WORLD-BUILDING GOING ON HERE! LOTS OF INFO TO DUMP! DON’T GET BORED! I PROMISE IT’S IMPORTANT TO THE STORY, AND YOU WON’T REGRET THIS IN 50 PAGES! Yeah, right. As I’ve said countless times, every word must count.
If you follow my blog, you know that I’m almost done editing last year’s NaNoWriMo novel. The first draft clocked in at 148,000 words. The second draft, which I distributed to beta readers, was 129,000. It took lot of editing on my part to cut those 19,000 words, but it wasn’t enough. I have to take some of my own medicine, and my goal by the end of this month is to not only be done editing it but to have it under 100,000 words. (Right now it stands at 107K.) My readers have asked me how I can cut so much. And they liked the book, so I must have done something right. But at the same time, I know that my first person present narrator needs to keep some things to herself. She doesn’t need to think of what she’s going to do, explain it, and then act. Yes, I’m in the storytelling business, but I would much rather show it.
I would much rather leave my readers wanting more.
With a good book, even picky writers and editors like me won’t notice the craft. It will melt away, and the story will shine through. That doesn’t mean that we won’t savor great lines or powerful scenes. But what it does mean is that the writing won’t get in the way. It will serve the story completely, as it’s meant to. And in the end, we won’t think, Well, a lot of years passed, and those characters sure did grow up – they must have because that’s what the narrator kept telling me. Instead, we’ll think, Has this author written anything else? I’ve got to have it now! I’ve got to read more books like this, and maybe one day, I’ll be able to write something this great, too.
Something worth sharing.
It has been a busy weekend. Of course, it’s my mom’s birthday, and I’m copy editing the sixteenth volume of Fiction Fix, and I’m taking a Writer’s Digest bootcamp all at once. Life is full and wonderful like that sometimes.
I have a lot to say about my writing experience this weekend, but I’m too wiped out right now to even put together a coherent thought.
So while I leave you in suspense, talk amongst yourselves about the last time you could write about whatever you wanted and not care a bit what anyone else thought about it. That’s next week’s topic.
Oh, and of course, happy birthday to the best mama in the world. Better to celebrate with her than worry about deadlines, anyway.
Has this ever happened to you? You’re with a group of people – let’s say a moms’ group, with everyone exchanging tips and anecdotes – and someone says, “We could write a book.”
“We really could!” someone else chimes in.
Another mom even throws in a title: “Temper Tantrum on Aisle Four – How to Survive the Toddler Years!”
Everyone laughs, and they go about their lives and forget about it. But you linger on the thought that maybe you could write a book. Then again, the idea that you don’t know how to start – and what would make your book any more special than any other, any more worthy of the New York Times Bestseller List? – is intimidating, so your idea stays an idea and no more.
On the one hand, you might be right. Everyone does have a story (or three), and some of them aren’t worth telling (and those are the ones that seem to be repeated the most). But any time you impart a nugget of knowledge to someone else who seems to get something out of it, you feel that I-should-really-write-this tug.
Nowadays, blogs (much like this one) pick up the slack. A mom blogs about potty-training her strong-willed toddler, and other moms unite behind her or take comfort that they aren’t alone in the struggle. A man loses his job but figures out how to make a living from home – and writes a great how-to post. Someone with an incredible weight-loss story posts a menu and workout routine online to help others in the same situation. Blogs are great resources, and the topics they cover are endless.
But still, there are those for whom blogging and swapping stories around the water cooler aren’t enough. The problem is that they aren’t necessarily writers and don’t know what to do. The idea persists, won’t let them go.
Sometimes for decades.
I get all kinds of mixed reactions when people find out that I’m a writer. They want to know what I write. (“Novels? How can you write so much?”) They want to know how much freelance work I can handle. (“How do you manage it with two kids?”) They marvel that I’ve actually made an occupation out of this – you know, it’s not just a cute hobby. (“You mean you edit and write for a living?”)
And sometimes they ask me, kind of sheepishly, if I can help them with something they’ve been wanting to do for years.
One such person is a client of my parents’ business and happened to mention to my mom that she had a writing project. My mother said that I’m a writer, and the next time the woman came in, I was there. I gave her my business card and promptly forgot about it. I talk to a lot of people about my services, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to hire me.
A few weeks later, to my surprise, she called. She went into great detail about this project, one that she started over ten years ago. Her kids have been encouraging her to write a memoir because she’s led such an interesting life, but she doesn’t use computers, and the woman who helped her start it has been too busy to continue.
As I talked to this woman and learned her story, I realized that there are so many people who lead amazing lives, but some of the best details will die with them. They may not have a great command of the English language, but they have stories worth passing on. It would be a shame for this woman to never see her dream fulfilled just because she’s not a “writer.” I feel privileged to help her share her bit of history with her family.
Another opportunity arose in late May. I had just published my children’s book Hero (shameless plug – buy it here!), and Peter shared it with his kindergarten class. Afterward, one of his teachers mentioned that she has always wanted to write a book but needs help.
“Sure, let’s do it,” I said before I even knew what she wanted. Hey, I had just illustrated and published my first children’s book – I was flying high and felt like I could do anything.
Her face lit up as she described her 20-year dream. She used to take her children for bike rides around Amelia Island. They would stop at interesting trees, and she would make them create stories about how those trees came to look like that. Combining her love of nature with her interest in developing writing skills in children, she wants to create a book with photos of interesting trees and writing prompts. As with her own children, kids will “Look at this tree” and be encouraged to write a story about it.
It’s right up my alley. Although I’ve never created a book like this, I must admit that I love writing prompts. I love anything that starts with a tiny seed and blossoms into a beautiful story.
I really feel that I could give her a push – much like with a child on a bike with the training wheels removed for the first time – and watch her go, but I also understand that I’ve been in the publishing world for a while now, and it’s no longer mysterious to me. If you’re not right in the middle of it, though, you might think writing a book is unattainable.
I was there once. I’ve talked about my college fiction workshop before, and the second time I signed up, our instructor Ari pulled a group of us together (the ones who were serious about getting published) and gave us the low-down on publishing. 1) It’s a competitive market that’s difficult to break into, and 2) it’s still not guaranteed to be everything you hoped and dreamed even if you do get published. What Ari suggested was that we pull our best stories together and create our own publication. And so Fiction Fix was born. With his direction, we figured out what we were supposed to do, and more than 11 years later, Fiction Fix is going strong as an online fiction journal. We’ve grown quite a bit from that group of desperate writers who just wanted to see our stories in print; now we receive submissions from all over the world.
We were lucky in that we had someone who saw our desire to write and be read and who knew just when to push us. But for those out there with the desire but no direction, no help, no idea except THE IDEA for a story or book, the task can seem daunting. But here’s the thing: if you have a book that you want to write, the only thing in your way is your own indecision. Instead of dreaming or joking about maybe writing a book some day, you need to take action.
Indie (self-published) authors are more prevalent than ever. The internet has done many wonderful things for writers, on-demand and e-publishing being two of them. And even if you don’t write, these tools and their practitioners have made publishing a much more attainable reality than it used to be.
An internet search can give you everything you need, from writers’ support groups and social networks to online book publishing to lists of freelance editors (like me!). Don’t ever assume that the person you’ve just looked up is the real deal until you’ve done some research. (I learned this the hard way, regarding literary agents – read my story here.) Also don’t assume that the big companies are your only choice. Everywhere you look, you will find writers and editors with different levels of expertise. You’ll even find local printing companies, graphic designers, and illustrators who can all help bring your book to life. These are real people with whom you can share a cup of coffee – and your dream.
But if you’d like some resources, here are some websites to check out:
So… do you have a story to tell?
Want to help with the writing prompt book?
The writing prompt book I mentioned is the brain-child of my friend Karen Saltmarsh. We’re going to title it Look at This Tree, and we’re looking for high-quality photos of interesting trees that could tell a story. To the left is an example from a park that I visited in Washington State. (Don’t you think there could be a secret hideout for some mythical, woodland creature under the roots?) If you have something you’d like to submit, please fill out the contact form on my Writing Services page, and Karen and I will consider your photo for her book.
A couple months ago, I blogged about time management, and a friend joked with me that he would read it when he learned how to manage his time.
I know the feeling, and I’m the one who was giving advice.
My problem isn’t procrastination but, rather, taking on too many projects at once. (My husband is probably applauding me for admitting this.) I have no idea what boredom is because as soon as I check one item off my to-do list, something else takes its place. Currently, I think of them as “The Big Three” looming projects.
First, in September I took on a job with a client that doesn’t quite fall in my area of expertise, but she was desperate, and I knew I could handle it. It’s the end of May now, and I’m just grateful that she’s patient.
Second, in November I participated in NaNoWriMo – a huge time hog but the most fun I’ve ever had writing – and I’m still editing my manuscript, getting ready to claim my two free paper copies from CreateSpace.
Third, in January I decided to pull an old writing project off the back burner, figuring I would finish it within a month. That didn’t happen. In fact, it’s this project that is making me so tardy with this post.
And a bonus – my dad started a blog for the family business. I’ve contributed one article so far (and thanks to my patient readers for reading it a couple weekends ago instead of my usual post). I edit each blog, even when I’m not the writer, and I’ve posted most of them, too.
These are in addition to substitute teaching, reading and editing for Fiction Fix, bookkeeping part-time, and being a mom. I’m sure I’m forgetting something. The wonderful news, however, is that The Big Three are finally wrapping up. I can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel – and I think I’ll get there in time to have a breather before school gets back in session. And then I’ll be in for it because this mama hopes to go back to school some time in the next year. I mean, what else am I supposed to do with my free time?
Now it’s time to get back to it, so the next post you read can actually include an announcement about finishing something for once. Until then, back to work…
A common flaw among many new writers is the idea that criticism is bad, and any corrections made to their golden prose mars the original genius.
With the right attitude, however, this can be overcome in the workshop setting.
Yes, I was a new writer at one time – or at least new on the workshop scene. I was in my late teens and had been writing for years, but as for my serious attempts at fiction, the only people who had read it were teachers or family members, none of them writers. My mother can proofread like a fiend, and my teachers could tell me all day long what was wrong with my grammar, but as far as improving my stories, I was kind of on my own.
So I wrote grammatically correct, typo-free stories that just weren’t all that easy or fun to read.
I thought I knew how to write a bestseller. After all, I’d subscribed to Writer’s Digest from the time I was old enough to afford a subscription, and I read anything about the craft that I could get my hands on.
After visiting one fiction workshop, just to test the waters, I realized how much I could benefit from not just knowing how I should write but receiving critiques and criticism from other writers.
The Workshop Format
Not all fiction workshops are created equal. I’ve attended anywhere between 120 and 150 individual sessions, the majority in person (usually in a classroom setting) but a few online. Anyone who tells you online is preferable either has only experienced this version and doesn’t know better or hasn’t attended a live workshop with a successful format. Dialogue between the critique-ers is such an important element, and in my opinion, it’s hard to capture that online.
There are workshops for creative non-fiction and fiction alike. Choose whichever best fits your needs. I chose fiction, and I took my friend Ari’s semester-long workshop seven times, four for credit and three post baccalaureate. Workshops are available at colleges at the undergrad and grad levels, but I’ve attended others put on by small groups of writers who couldn’t commit to an entire semester or weekly meeting. The Internet is a great resource for finding one in your area.
Ari’s format was pretty straight forward. We almost always received stories a week in advance, read them and marked them with edits and critiques, and when we met for the workshop itself, we sat in a circle, and he read the story aloud. Then we started in with our comments and critiques, in no particular order, and we kept going until Ari felt we were done. The author sat among us the whole time but was not allowed to say one word or make any kind of gesture or facial expression to “help” the conversation. Authors were merely flies on the wall.
It’s tough being the author in this situation, especially those times when it’s obvious that no one gets it. But as Ari pointed out, the majority is often – although not always – right. If an entire room of people can’t make sense of the story, chances are that changes need to be made. How to implement those changes is up to the author, often based on suggestions from the other participants.
I’ve heard of other workshops in which the author is allowed to respond or engage in the dialogue, but as hard as it is to just sit there and take it, it really is beneficial to be silent. For one, the workshop is full of other writers who will all be in the hot seat at some point, and if you can’t respect one another, you don’t need to be there. The workshop is not a place for personal attacks but a place of learning and growth. It’s a place of safety, although not necessarily comfort. By not being able to respond, the author can learn where the story falls short because other readers are allowed to express their own perspective without the author’s bias.
I also know of workshops that allow the author to read the story, instead of the instructor or another writer. The problem with this is that the author will read it how he or she intends it to sound – whether it’s truly written that way. Another reader may not get the inflection right, may not get the exact cadence, but this will highlight for the author problems within the text. This is how, after all, the general public will likely read it – something the author needs to know.
5 Benefits of Joining a Writers’ Workshop
1. Meet other writers.
Many of us are introverts, and the idea of venturing out to meet new people is frightening. My writing meant enough to me that it was worth the discomfort of meeting a roomful of new people. I never intended to make life-long friends, never intended to spend time with these people or become involved in their lives. And that didn’t happen at first. But the wonderful thing about workshops is that if they’re effective, the same people will attend again and again. My second semester, a group of us bonded and created Fiction Fix, and it’s still going strong today, well over a decade later. My instructor and friend Ari gained such respect for me that he agreed to workshop my first finished novel. A few of the friends I made in the workshop have even chosen me as their editor. One recently published her first novel. (Check out Brightleaf.) Don’t complain that you don’t have any connections – join a workshop and start making some!
2. Develop a thick skin.
The publishing world is harsh. I know this from both having my own fiction rejected numerous times and working for Fiction Fix, where we’ve rejected a lot of… refuse. If you’re serious about publishing but cry every time someone says something negative about your work, you won’t make it long in this industry. Sure, some of the comments you’ll get are unwarranted, but you need to learn to filter out the hurtful stuff from ignorant jerks and utilize the nuggets of pure wisdom.
The workshop environment is the perfect place to grow your alligator hide because, as I said, it’s a safe place. No one’s out to get you, just to help you. Criticism is merely a means to help you improve. Your first workshop will be tough, but it gets easier, I promise.
3. Sharpen your editing skills.
Even if you don’t plan to edit professionally, it’s handy to be able to self-correct. Spelling and grammar may not be your thing. They are for me, but there are amazing storytellers who can’t spell their way out of a paper bag – and that’s what the professionals are there for. But after you’ve attended enough workshops – and I’m talking about workshops that tackle others’ stories, not just your own – you’ll start to pick up on things by osmosis, and you will inevitably meet an author or two who has concrete editing advice that will stick. You’ll soon find yourself looking for the errors in your own work that you’ve found in others’ stories.
4. Discover your own style.
My earliest stories were formatted after Michael Crichton‘s style. A few years later, I moved on to Stephen King. If you’re not careful, you can easily fall into the pattern of imitating whatever author you’re reading at the time. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not good to let it dictate how you write.
What you want is a consistent style that is yours and yours alone. Just as you may be able to hear a song on the radio and immediately know who it is because of the distinct sound, you want someone to pick up your story and say, “Yep, this is Bob through and through.” (And I mean that in a good way, of course – not “Oh great, it’s him again.”) Sure, you may borrow different aspects from your favorite writers, but the end product should be all you.
In the workshop setting, I learned about POV (point of view), clichés that drive people nuts, and “rules” that may not be grammatical law but are certainly stylistic norms among seasoned writers. Yes, these issues are covered in any number of books and blogs and interviews, but it’s so much more informative to get this information in a practical setting. It took me a year of workshops to find my own particular style, my writer’s voice. And it sticks whether I’m writing children’s picture books, middle grade fantasy, young adult dystopian fiction, adult sci-fi, or even this blog.
5. Improve your writing.
This may be your ultimate goal, and it’s certainly a worthy one. If you come to the writing table with an open mind, the above four will automatically improve your writing. You’ll have friends who care enough to be honest about what does and does not work, who will support you in every literary endeavor (and then some); you’ll mature enough to be able to hear their criticisms without getting your feelings hurt; you’ll develop the tools necessary to not only fix what needs to be fixed but to not make those mistakes next time; and you’ll create a style that becomes your own literary hallmark. Sure, I still write garbage that’s not fit to print. But I’ve internalized so much valuable advice that I have an inner critic who says: You’re going to write that?! You know better! Many of my first drafts are better than what I thought of as “polished” in my pre-workshop days.
Why You Shouldn’t Sign up for a Writers’ Workshop
There are many other benefits of joining a writers’ workshop, but if you read #5 above and thought, I don’t need to improve my writing, then maybe you need to step back and do some soul searching.
I find it sad that some people are unable to improve because they simply use workshops as a venue to receive accolades for their writing. They are very disappointed when someone points out flaws. How dare they! these writers think – and sadly, a lot of them are not new to the writing game. They should know better. One older writer who attended my first workshop quit after his story was critiqued because we didn’t give the response he wanted, and he didn’t think he could get anything else out of our sessions. Another writer was so disillusioned when no one understood his story that he refused to go back and make changes. These are the type people who most need the workshop and, sadly, get the least out of it because they refuse to think they need to improve.
I do admit that I expected praise for my brilliance when I workshopped my first story. Turns out it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I thought. I was taken aback, sure, but I learned a lot. So I guess I need to add, as a prerequisite, that you should leave as much of your ego as you can at the door – and then just leave it there for good.
If you can do this, your workshop experience will change your writing life in unexpected, life-changing, and lasting ways.
At the end of 2012 and again at the end of 2013, I posted lists of the books I planned to read in the next twelve months. I’ll have to say that I’m pretty proud of my progress so far. It’s just into the second quarter of the year, and I’m already on the tenth book from my list of 23 titles. I’ve only gotten sidetracked once so far (something that happened quite often last year), so I have some hope of actually getting through my entire list.
It was fun looking at the year ahead and asking myself, “What do I want to read?” Whereas many people look forward to vacations and promotions and other big events (and I do, too, don’t get me wrong), I love the anticipation of discovering new fictional landscapes and re-reading some of my old favorites.
When it comes to choosing books, I know that some people read book jackets and may even skim a few pages before making a final decision. Others will look for titles that have won awards. But that’s not really my style. How, then, do I choose the books for my list? Many times, I read books by authors that I’ve read before. If I’ve had good luck in the past, I’m likely to read more titles by those authors.
Other times, I’ll either see a movie or the preview of a movie based on a novel, and if intrigued, I’ll pick up the original books. This happened most recently with the Divergent series, which I read, then saw the movie. It also happened with Harry Potter. I saw the first two movies, then jumped on the bandwagon. Every time, I’m pleased that I got the books because there’s just so much more to love on the written page.
Lastly, and perhaps the greatest way to introduce me to new books is through recommendations and reviews from friends who know what I like to read. In fact, that one extra book I’ve read this year was from a friend who is responsible for lending me some of my favorite titles. When I see someone with similar tastes with a book in hand, I’m always interested to see if there’s a new favorite in the making.
I love personal recommendations and book reviews because they’re not written by some writer who’s paid to make books sound good. Reviews have sometimes saved me from wasting my time (“It turned out to be a good love story in the end, but the writing wasn’t any good.”) and have often encouraged me to try books that I might not have read, otherwise (“It’s long, but you’ll want to make time for it.”).
My regular readers know that I’m on the staff of Fiction Fix, and one of our goals is to not only publish great new fiction but to also encourage people to read until they’re full to overflowing. In order to mix up our blog a little bit, we decided to write book reviews – but in new and fun ways. The first way was in haiku form, the second as six-word reviews. Read the whole story here, and check out the haiku reviews, all of which are now up. (One six-word review is available, with more to follow.)
I don’t know about you, but these reviews have certainly encouraged me to expand my library, yet again. And it’s never too late to make your own “must read” list.
That’s right: what are you reading? If you’re a writer, you better have an answer.
If you want to know why, check out this week’s blog here, care of Fiction Fix.
Speaking of reading, I’ve already read seven books from this year’s list. How are you doing?
And one more thing: if you don’t have anything new to read, check out the latest issue of Fiction Fix, volume 15. It just came out this week, it’s free, and there’s some great stuff in there. Enjoy!