Archive | Sentences

Leaping from the Trapeze Without Seeing the Net: Something of a Manifesto

Leaping from the Trapeze Without Seeing the Net: Something of a Manifesto

We all worry about the leap from the trapeze.The title of this post is a quote from a conversation with a wonderful coach named Sharon Sayler (check out her radio show), and I think it’s the perfect description of what writing demands of us.

Someone was saying to me this week that it’s not the writing she minds, but the voice in her head that accompanies the writing. The voice that says, “This is not good enough; this is terrible.” That’s what makes writing hard.

I see my kids creating so joyfully. Charlie loves typing at the computer. He’s 18 months old! And we don’t let him watch any television (except inauguration), but we’ve not been able to shield him from our own obsessions with the computer, and he’s hooked. Leo loves to draw. “More drawing,” he says if he has to leave the blank page to, say, eat. And when one page fills, he says, “New page.” With delight.

That voice that critiques the writing as we go is the sum of all that is wrong with the world. It’s a voice that lacks empathy, artistry, depth (other than the depths of despair), compassion, curiosity (what might come of following this line, this trail of words?).

If we heard this voice directed at anyone else–on the political stage or at a restaurant or on television–we would know that we’d sworn enmity to this voice and all it believes in. But in the privacy of our own offices or journals, that voice becomes an ambassador from the land of common sense. It’s Carl Kasell, and you can win him recorded on your answering machine.

The most important thing to remember about the voice that tells you anything at all about the wet new writing you’ve just laid upon the fibers of your page is that that voice is wrong. Plain wrong. That voice doesn’t know. It’s the loudest kid on the bus arguing about whether or not there is a Santa Claus or who is the best softball player. But it doesn’t know the truth; it doesn’t even know how to pause softly and fumble for the truth. It’s a bully. Don’t let yourself be bullied.

You won’t know the worth of the writing until later. Much later. After the draft is finished and some time has been spent recovering yourself and engaging with other things, you will curl up with it and get to know it, this thing that you’ve created. You will have the distance from it so that you can treat it as a friend, not someone you snap at to take the garbage out, not all the shame from the worst moments of your childhood heaped upon the thin thread of your attempted sentence. It will be something else: its own being, separate from you, alive and flawed and wonderful and fixable.

You, at your kitchen table, at your neighborhood cafe, under a blanket on your couch, waiting in the car for your kid to come out of gymnastics. You are working miracles. You are leaping from the trapeze without seeing the net. You are soaring, caught in the currents of air, in the uncertainty that gifts us with new possibilities we could not have imagined otherwise.

Treasure that act. Trust it. Silence the voice. Laugh at it. Shrink it down to size. Write down what it says and put those words in the mouth of your villain. Copy out the opposite of the voice’s evil message and post those words around your house and in your notebooks (computerized or not).

I, and hundreds of thousands like me, are waiting on the other side of a page for that miracle you grind out with so much labor and hesitancy and recklessness and terror and joy. I know a world of people who are not supposed to exist–freaks and queers and manly girls and girly men and all manner of others who are not, anywhere, described or anticipated. If someone is trying to add “readers” to that list, I defy them. We are everywhere, waiting, for the next story that will change our lives.

[Thursday, Feb. 26, I am offering a FREE TELE-CLASS on dialog. Dazzling fun that will grow your writing in ways you won't believe. Email me for information about how to join us.]

Posted in Imagination, Mastery, Models, Momentum, parenting, Revision, SentencesComments (3)

Pumping “I Ran”: Verbs Going Viral

Pumping “I Ran”: Verbs Going Viral

Pushing adverbs (quickly, slowly) into verbs (walked, drove) pumps up the sentences in a revision. “Walked slowly” becomes “lumbered” or “strolled” while “drove quickly” becomes “zoomed” or “skittered” and so on. Take those ordinary verbs and those excess adverbs and mix.

Now Deanna Carlyle has shared her list of 1,000 verbs, and I’m going to guess that this one will “go viral.” There’s something about verbs. What can I say? They keep things moving. So shake up your writing and check this out. Then come up with your own 1000 verbs, hey?

She’s got another great write-up about improving your descriptions. My students are deep into editing their books, and this week, we are working on sentences. I love this part of revision. Your cursor (or your pencil) becomes a scalpel, incising this word, then a needle, appending that. Relief: that first draft really can transform. The wrong words hold place for the right ones, the weak hang out until the strong can be found.

Anyway, I think she’s got some good tips and some great examples:

My monthly writing tip will be going out in the next week or so, and it’s going to be about sentences. If this sounds as enticing as chocolate or a foot massage or breakfast in bed, you are the person to whom I am writing. Sign up over to the right where it says, “Get Monthly News!”

Posted in Editing, Language, Mastery, Momentum, Revision, SentencesComments (0)

To Be or Not To Be: The Art of Close Editing

To Be or Not To Be: The Art of Close Editing

I just finished reading two books, in which the authors, very different stylists, both avoided the repetitive usage of the verbs “to be” and “to have” as well as other overdone usages of sentence structure and sentence subjects. They dazzled.

One, Annie Dillard’s triumphant latest novel The Maytrees, lays down line after line, precise, poetic, thick as slabs of homemade, whole grain bread:

Sometimes now Lou searched old albums to test her proposition that nothing so compels a woman as the boyhood of the man she loves. She saw a snapshot of boy Maytree in cap and knickers dwarfed by his cross-eyed father on a wharf. In the prints, Maytree’s cap’s shadow blacked most of his face. Here again he crouched on the beach, as at a starting block, between his hairy mother and his visibly half-dead grandmother, in a wind harsh with that present’s brine. In those prints she saw unease in the boy, as if he had been scanning the offing for the man.

Notice, too, no excess articles: ” in cap and knickers.” But “blacked”! Now that’s a verb.

And for contrast, we go to Junot Diaz’s Drown. I’d read a couple of the stories. One I taught in a creative writing course and another a student had brought in to class. But it was not until I adored The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that I plucked my first edition hard-cover (bought back when that was the only edition available) of Drown from the shelf and devoured it. I think I’d convinced myself that the hype probably had it wrong; instead, I was wrong about the hype.

Check it out, looking again at the mastery of verbs:

He’s tired and aching but he looks out over the valley, and the way the land curves away to hide itself reminds him of the way Lou hides his dominoes when they play. Go, she says. Before your father comes out.
He knows what happens when his father comes out. He pulls on his mask and feels the fleas stirring in the cloth. When she turns her back, he hides, blending into the weeks. He watches his mother hold Pesao’s head gently under the faucet and when the water finally urges out from the pipe Pesao yells as if he’s been given a present or a wish come true.

“Urges” is not a typo; it’s Diaz’s twist.

None of these sentences eats its own tail, crushing meaning, curling in on itself. Neither do they plod, predicting each other. I’ve not picked the best passages or any in particular. I’ve merely leafed through, finding something to put down for you as representative of the whole.

I’ve just finished a pass through the novel I wrote at the end of 2007, starting in NaNoWriMo. The pleasure of editing is that it bolsters the writer, assured that these sentences can be revisited and strengthened. She can

replace “to be” and “to have” with better verbs,

flip the subject of the sentence,

cut excess articles,

move adverbs into verbs and adjectives into nouns by choosing stronger words.

Metaphors can be brought through a sentence, so that the verb alludes to the metaphor, too.

Cliché’s can be tweaked or excised.

Slogging through close editing reminds me that the first draft just needs to get on the page; it’s easier to fix it than to get it right in the first place, at least for me. I get, at the bone, that writing is rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

The good news about the ninety-nine percent perspiration–the secret news–is that the hard work pleasures the mind and the body, which want to pump, push and ache. The doubts and misery about the one percent inspiration melt in the face of the methodical effort that can turn out a perfectly juicy sentence.

This week, my revision course begins with Reading as a Stranger. I just posted the lecture and am reminded that anyone with a legitimate call to writing starts out (and continues on) as a reader first. Getting to be an ace reader of your own work rewards the inner reader that put you in the middle of this writing mess in the first place.

Oh–and I am going to get my monthly “writing tips” newsletter out this week, though there’s been both hell and high water, so if you want to get that in your email box (not more than once a month), sign up in the right side margin.

And if you have nothing to revise? Get something down. The worse it is, the easier it will be to make it better later . . .

Posted in Editing, Language, Mastery, Momentum, Revision, SentencesComments (0)

Where the Wild Things Are: NaNoWriMo in Perspective

First, I want to apologize if I’ve been . . . grumpy. Grumbly. Cranky. Throwing small tantrums. Complaining about being uninspired. Writing blogs about futility and a passive-aggressive Zen approach to life’s matters, large and small. It’s been a tough month.

But it has also been a GLORIOUS month. Ah, perspective. Ah, the joys of looking back on the mountain over which you’ve come. The sweat dries. The thirst is quenched. The sun settles behind a peak and the sky reflects brilliant pinks and greens and oranges. You have not yet turned to see the mountain that is ahead. For once in your life, you are totally in the moment. Well, the moment and the exhilarating past, more exhilarating with every passing moment.

Seriously, though, right after my last whiny blog, I turned a corner. Maybe it was seeing how close I was to finishing. (Who said the light at the end of the tunnel is that of the oncoming train?) Maybe it was the longevity and intensity of my commitment finally paying off. I started to love my little book, and what’s more, I started to enjoy it. My characters surprised me in that way that writers sometimes say that characters can do–and what that really means is keeping at it long and hard enough that you can surprise yourself, dig below what you know you have to say and turn up something you’ve never told yourself before.

Maybe the cause of my change of attitude was reading Where the Wild Things Are aloud to my sons a couple of nights before I completed my 50k words. Reader, do you remember this book by Maurice Sendak? Max, the protagonist in a wolf suit, is getting into mischief “of one kind and another,” until he tells his mother he’ll “eat [her] up,” and is sent to bed without any supper. Well, as happens, trees begin to grow in Max’s room that night, and jungle, “until . . . the walls became the world all around.” Max gets in a boat and sails “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” They–the wild things–try to scare him by roar[ing] their terrible roars and gnash[ing] their terrible teeth and roll[ing] their terrible eyes and show[ing] their terrible claws,” but Max is able to tame them “with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once” so that “they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all.” This is how Max becomes their king.

As I read to Charlie and Leo, the parallels to what I had been spending my evenings at the computer doing became evident and exciting. Yes, I had set off on a long journey without my supper, and yes, my little manuscript had tried to frighten me in a myriad of effective ways, but I had persisted, staring into the yellow eyes of my book without blinking once (okay, well maybe I blinked a few times, but I kept returning to stare), and eventually, I tamed my story. Well . . . in the way that Max tamed his wild things, which is to say, he commanded the wild rumpus to begin.

The next few pages of this marvelous children’s book are devoted exclusively to pictures. Of the wild things rumpusing. During our story-reading ritual, we spend these pages chanting, “Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus. Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus.” There is one monster who has more or less a bull’s head, and the boys point to him and say “Moooo.” (Or really “Mmmmm,” which is actually a more authentically bovine lowing sound, which they know because Berkely has a little farm up in Tilden Park. Farms? In Berkeley? Mmmmmm. But I digress. Which is the great joy of blogging but not, perhaps, of consuming said blog.)

And so I rumpused with the monsters of my fears and the monsters of my dreaded imagination and the monsters of the stories I have to tell that I long to tell and the monsters of the stories I have to tell which I do not even know I know, and 50,000 words later . . .

I was having fun. Feeling inspired. Writing my monstrous menagerie. Which goes to show that you can’t wait to rumpus until you feel inspired. You have to rumpus to keep the monsters moving, rumpus like your life is leaning into that stomping frenzy and hanging from the tree.

I want to quote the next two pages (or six lines) in full, and hope that this does not violate any copyright law (which for those of you who grew up in the age of the internet was an old idea people had about protecting the uses of their texts). I think it’s okay because this book is one you need to buy and own, for the pictures, for the story and for the underlying lesson I’m about to careen home.

I also want to say that during a most rocky horonal time of my post-pregnancy year, I read these pages to myself and they made me cry, they carried so much resonance about the human condition.

“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed

without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely

and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

Then all around from far away across the world

he smelled good things to eat

so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.

I think this perfectly sums up the writer’s dilemma, the artist’s conundrum, the pull between the vital, scratchy world of rumpusing with monsters and being their king, and the declawed, yummy place where someone loves us best of all. Marge Piercy in her poem “For the Young Who Want To” says of writing, “You have to like it better than being loved.” I know exactly what she means: you can’t write to be loved, to gain love, you certainly can’t write for the love of your critics or your rivals or your mother. On the other hand, that’s a tall order, to like it better than being loved. Perhaps she had not snuggled with a one-and-a-half year old lately when she wrote that line . . .

But there’s one way to redeem ourselves, we who may not like writing better than being loved . . . who may not like anything better than being loved. If you write and write and write and write, if you write like you were married to writing and didn’t believe in divorce, if you write like writing is the way you get your oxygen and expell your carbon monoxide (remember that I dropped out of high school and forgive me if I have this equation slightly wrong . . .), if you write even when you are angry and lonely and even when you are tempted by a late-night bowl of cereal and an episode of Californication, something strange will happen. You will eventually and painstakingly and unconsciously learn to love yourself. To love the recesses of your imagination that can make you laugh or shock you (as if they themselves were one-and-a-half year olds). If you keep at the writing like it was your kid and you could not make another choice but to get up with it and sit up with it and feed it and rock it and sing to it and wipe its bottom and ask it if it wants to use the potty and mop up the urine off the floor and read it books and take it to the park and swing it as high as it can go in the swing and agree with it that, yes, that is an airplane . . . you will come to love it and it will love you and you won’t have to choose between writing and being loved.

And when you get back to your bedroom, your supper will be waiting for you. And it will still be hot.

Posted in Mastery, Momentum, Mothering, parenting, Sentences, Writers and Other PeopleComments (3)

Swearing V. Telling: Scenes from Writing and Life

Remember when I posted about Charlie’s first swear word? And remember how he was holding the dust pan while saying, “Shit, shit”? Well, it turns out that what he means to be saying was, “Swish, swish,” which–according to Grandma–is the sound a broom makes. (I knew it was Grandma’s fault!)

Meanwhile, outside my house there is some large-scale chipper turning great hunks of tree trunk into tiny flecks of wood. There are trees going down all around my house–old, far-leaning or dead pines and view-blocking non-native eucalyptus. We’re not responsible for any of it, but our view has been partially restored and it’s marvelous to stare out through the hurricane-shaped break in the trees to see University Avenue running down to the bay, and then the islands and inlets and finally the mountains across in Marin.

Last night, Angie said, “Go turn out the lights and look at the view.” It took a while before I remembered–I was emptying the tub and answering email and worrying and fussing about things–but then, as I was shutting down the house, I went into her office and turned out the lights. The fog filled the crevices of bay and city, lit up from below–a magical sweep of mystery. And, as an added bonus, with the lights out, I could not see the boxes of crap and unfolded laundry.

There are always cross-currents: the magical view and the piles of laundry. The swishing and the swearing. I think that cross-currents are at the heart of what makes a story. You take this piece over here and this seemingly unrelated piece over there, and put them together. It’s something like playing a chord on the piano. The individual notes create a new sound when you play them together. Harmonies and the like . . . As ever, my metaphor is slipping my grasp; I know more about writing than I do about playing the piano. The point is that a coincidence of sound–or of stories–produces a third thing, a something-else that I believe is at the core of fiction. Resonance is another good word here.

So I am getting ready to write a novel this month. Have an 18-month-old and a 14-month-old feels very different than having a 2-month-old and a 6-month-old. Those were quiet days, days given over to nursing and sleeping and songs. These days we spend in parks or running up and down the plywood board that is out in the yard or careening through the living room on the bulldozer. Right now it is nap time, and if I had nothing else to do, I might be able to write 2,000 words during nap time each day. You know, maybe just for the next 30 – 45 days, that’s what I’ll do. Though G*d forbid the nap gets cut short as it sometimes does.

Meanwhile, my students have mapped out their amazing books. They have taken up every challenge I’ve thrown at them–pitches and problem/ solution lists and character arcs and interviews and Aristotle’s incline. They know about their books just about everything I wish I knew about mine before jumping into the dark, warm waters of the writing itself. Me? I’m a little behind, I’m afraid. I have part of a pitch and part of a problem-solution list . . .

My focus for my students, though, and myself, for the next six weeks (since we are going to carry on past NaNoWriMo’s 30 days to get a real book-length manuscript), is now scene. Sensate detail. Keeping it real, so to speak: a physical world not dominated by the stutterings of internal monologue run amok. It’s the difference between swish and shit: the first an actual sound produced by an actual gesture, the second a commentary, an opinion, if you will, an internal monologue.

This is what I say to myself and to my student writers: stay with “swish”; let the reader get to “shit” through the action. It’s stronger to create the feeling in the reader via the concrete world than to tell the reader about the feeling.

Check out the following options:

A) I felt enormous pain.

B) The pain ground like glass across my eyeballs.

C) The knife slipped, and the serrated edge cut into the meat of my thumb, a sharp gash.  A blue vein severed, and blood leaked, red and bright, across my palm.

A) is just a statement. Nothing wrong with that. We know something in our heads from reading it: someone felt pain. B) is what certain people consider vivid writing. But do not be fooled. It is still abstraction, burdened with metaphor. It is a more complicated statement, but it is not an experience. C) is a description. If you are like me, C) makes you grab your hand and grimace.

None of this is great writing, but C) at least gives your reader somewhere to go.

Posted in Detail, Mastery, parenting, SentencesComments (0)

Three Ways In: Tips on Writing First Lines

Three First Lines:

1) “I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once.”

2) “People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade–a lady with a dog.”

3) “Before I met Tim–who, in spite of everything I’m about to tell you, would be my best friend for the next four or five years–my mother warned me on the way over to his grandmother’s house that I had to be nice to him.”

These first lines don’t tell you everything. No journalistic “who, what, where, why and when.” Fiction doesn’t have to provide answers. Instead, it must stimulate questions, in the reader. We read fiction to raise our blood pressure . . . which in turn makes us more relaxed, much the way cardiovascular exercise raises our heart rate in order to make our hearts healthy. Okay, not sure the metaphoric equation works, but you get the idea. I hope.

It just strikes me as funny that there is a tension involved in reading–good reading–but there is nothing more relaxing than being caught in the grip of a great novel or story, unable to stop reading. It feels so active, this kind of reading, so involving, and yet there’s the ol’ body, lying in bed, the book propped on pillow or chest . . .

But that’s the middle. In the beginning, we’re more tentative. We pick up the book and know we might put it down again. We’re starting a relationship with this new story, and we don’t know if we like it, if we care what happens in it, if we’re going to go the distance.

We read, “I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once.” (Alice Munro, “Face,” The New Yorker, Sept. 8, 2008, p. 59.) What? Here’s a shocking claim. All we know about the person making the claim is that he (as will prove to be the case here) is “convinced.” Certain. And that his father, if he is right, only looked at him, in the sense of really seeing him, one time. That suggests conflict. Two characters not meeting each other’s needs, locked into a relationship of high need. It’s a brash statement that goes against basic expectations of the parent-child relationship.

Try writing a strong, shocking claim like this that turns a socially-given relationship on its head.

A lot can be suggested in one line: “People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade–a lady with a dog.” (Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog,” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (NASF), eds. Cassill and Bausch, p. 236.)

Gossip. “People were telling one another . . .” A whole social world is suggested here, and an importance is given to this newcomer’s arrival because rumors are circulating about her. She represents a change in the status quo. And, of course, this is the first line of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” so the title is echoed in the first line, and we know that this lady and her dog matter.

Try introducing a change in the status quo through gossip, and set it up with a title you can echo at the end of the first line.

3) “Before I met Tim–who, in spite of everything I’m about to tell you, would be my best friend for the next four or five years–my mother warned me on the way over to his grandmother’s house that I had to be nice to him.”  (Donna Tartt, “Ambush,” from Tin House,in Best American Short Stories 2006, ed. Ann Patchett, series ed. Katrina Kenison.)

There are two levels of warning offered here. The mother’s overt warning to the narrator takes place in the action of the story. The second warning comes in the aside. It suggests that the events to come contradict the eventual friendship that does, we are told, develop. Both warnings alert us to conflict, and we love conflict (when we are reading).

So try working two warnings into an opening line–one in the action and one in the narration. One from a character and one from the narrator herself.

Each of these first lines introduces at least two characters in some sort of opposition. By creating your own examples, you will suggest whole stories to yourself.

You’ll notice I’ve suggested imitation. Artists go sit in museums and recreate the masters. Why shouldn’t we writers imitate technique? I’ve found it a great way to develop my writing muscles. Feel free to imitate not only the function but also the rhythms and structure of a sentence.

I remember a fight in graduate school. A bunch of people were up in arms about some avant-garde poets who simply rearranged the dictionary and called it art. I shrugged. In essence, we are all rearranging the dictionary–because words are what we have to work with. Plagiarism? NO! Respectful imitation? By all means . . .

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