Sunday, March 30, 2008

Help! I'm procrastinating

What I do when I don't want to write:
  • Do the dishes
  • Play fetch with the dog
  • Research carpal tunnel syndrome (which I'm getting from all this typing)
  • Research the Kennedy assassination (subject of current novel project)
  • Play Scrabble
  • Reheat coffee
  • Read Entertainment Weekly
  • Bite cuticles
  • Nap
  • Watch Youtube videos of great drummers
  • Research Hollywood celebrities to play the movie roles of my novel
I have time to write. I schedule it each day. I have the will to write. Sitting down each morning, I am ready, fingers poised to pour out the brain's inspiration. And some days, the brain rebels. My dog won't come inside when I call him; the brain won't form a sentence, or when it does, the sentence blows. DELETE. Try again.

Not sure what that's about. I know this, though. The Internet is the enemy. Some mornings, I have to get belligerent. This involves a trip to Barnes & Noble where the Internet costs money, where I have to sit down and write (or browse the new fiction--I REALLY am my worst enemy).

The things we tell ourselves, the acrobatics we go through....

Thursday, March 27, 2008

They're JUST adverbs

In an earlier post, I mentioned my belief that writers cannot be objective about their own work. For example, I had a character utter the following sentence in dialogue: "'I'm bored," Sam said, stifling a yawn." Advice: if a character says he's bored, chances are, the reader is, too. Bad writing. Didn't even catch it, but a reader did.

Any great writing teacher, will tell you: avoid adverbs (to which I want to raise my hand and ask, "Completely?"). I had a teacher who said adverbs were like mice. They multiplied when you weren't looking, littered themselves throughout your manuscript never to be noticed again. And when do we notice? We're worried about plot, characters, pacing, suspense, setting, dialogue, arcs, titles, chapter breaks, names, realism, style, flow, book tours, the Pulitzer. Okay, well maybe not so much the last two. Point is, who cares about a pesky adverb?

Truth is, they are like mice. Want a different metaphor? They're artery cloggers. No single one shuts down the system, but get enough clumped around a verb, a paragraph, a novel, and you'll have full cardiac arrest (read: rejection).

One of the worst adverbs is the qualifier VERY. I just ran a check on the first third of my novel (40,000 words). I have 23 very's. Many are in dialogue, but I'm thinking at least 20 can go.

23 out of 40,000 isn't terrible, but I can give myself no pats on the back yet, for I've happened on the most nefarious of adverbs: JUST. Ran the check (Oh, God, the horror). I have 165. And that's only the first third of my manuscript. Do I self-flagellate, cut my wrists, buy a headstone? No, but there will be an amphibious landing on the black sands of JUST, and we will plant the Good Writing flag on Mt. Adverbial if it kills us. Sorry. Melodramatic digression.

As writers, we must pay attention. We don't see what we aren't looking for. Test the theory and look at this video. Pay careful attention. When you see how right I am, then stage your own amphibious assault. (adverb count on this post: 15. Jeesh).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Critiquing: "I just don't get it"

A student of mine wrote an honest e-mail saying that a critque I provided on a fiction piece irritated him. Certainly, I wasn't trying to irritate him. He asked my opinion, I gave it, and he didn't like what I said. Should I have been more encouraging? Should I have cited more well-executed turns of phrase?

It begs a good question: why invite criticism of work when it will only irritate or crush the fragile ego that every writer keeps hidden in a well-buffered room of the brain? We spend years plying the craft, reading about it, improving our skills, and when it comes to feedback, we cringe and hope only that it's softer than the last round. It seems ludicrous we'd put ourselves through such torture, only to make the suggested improvements and submit it again. It's asking someone to tell you your face is ugly when you think you're making the best of what you have. Flannery O'Connor when asked if writing programs were stifling too many young writers uttered her now famous phrase: "My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." That's a real pick-me-up, isn't it?

And how hard is it to stomach criticism when the critiquer just doesn't get it or is not of the same caliber writer as you? Maybe we should all adopt the Kerouac approach. Write insistent first drafts, don't change a word, and proclaim their urgency and the beauty of first thoughts. Or maybe we should listen to Anne Lamott: write the shitty first draft, thank the good Lord it's over, and revise, revise until the work is no longer an embarrassment. Maybe you're like me--an inveterate reviser, so attached to writing and erasing and writing again that unless someone yanks the damn thing out of my hand, I'll rip right through the page. Walt Whitman revised Leaves of Grass his entire life. John Irving rewrites until he drives himself to drink. It's a compulsion I know well (the revising, that is). And why do I rewrite like a obsessive compulsive? I'm avoiding feedback. Work that isn't finished is permitted to be bad. Works in progress, by their very definition, are not polished. Never underestimate the convenience of a good excuse. But like all things, we must come out of the room eventually, manuscript in hand, and share the words. If you want to see it published, you will indeed share the words and solicit feedback from a test audience. Even Spielberg would nod his head at that one.

The tough answer about criticism is you take it. Writers lack objectivity about their own work. It's why I can't see I've used the word really three times in one sentence (when I shouldn't be using the word at all). It's why I don't catch the bad dialogue ("Hi, Danny"), the cliches ("wide as a house"), or the dangling participles ("She had brown hair weighing a hundred and ten pounds")--this after reading it ten times through.

The way to accept criticism is to ask for it ONLY when you're ready to receive it. Ask for it too early, and the catalog of opinions will confuse you. Ask for it when you're too fragile, and you might give up. Employ the readers you trust, whose opinions you respect, and filter all results. But be careful. Just because a reader may not be as articulate as you'd like doesn't mean the criticism can be ignored. Sometimes "I don't get it" is more powerful than "your use of the objective correlative resonates with me."

We must all learn to leave ego at the door, to make the writing about the writing, not the writer. If you need to hear that you're wonderful, give the book to your mother. If you need to hear the truth, share it with a teacher or writing colleague. It's horrible medicine, but it's what makes healthy (and publishable) books. In the end, when my agent says, "We're not getting the response we hoped for with the novel," I have three choices. I can give up. I can curse the literary establishment for being tone deaf to my lyrical genius, or I can write another book.

I'd like to say, I just shut up and start writing, but in truth, I give up (for about a month). Then I throw darts at a map of New York City for about another month. And then (alas) I get my ass back in the chair and start the next book. Flannery O'Connor wouldn't be happy, but my mother would.

Monday, March 24, 2008

It takes a year

Well, I started this blog a year ago, and now I think I'm ready for the first entry. I suppose this makes me either the world's most egregious slacker or perhaps someone neurotically (psychotically) contemplative. Was it Flaubert who was said to spend all morning inserting a comma and the afternoon taking it back out? That's me, only it's probably a sentence I'll end up trashing later on.

My father was always one for not doing work twice--an example: carrying the trash can to the door, only to carry it to the outside can later. It's a little funny I'd end up spending half my life doing double, triple, quadruple the work writing, revising, trashing, writing, revising, rejection, etc. When he asks how the writing is going, I tell him the words came out right the first time. This very second, he is calling on the cell phone asking me to proofread one of his legal brief. (I didn't answer. I'm so bad.)

Okay, to the point. I just finished reading an excellent blog by Kate Flora, a lengthy expose about trying to live the life of a published writer. Her words have pushed me off the fence of my Prufrockian indecisiveness. I had to share, and thus becomes my first blog entry. Aside from being scarily accurate and a touch depressing, Kate's piece is a must-read, a caveat emptor, to anyone thinking of persisting in this writing mess. As an old professor advised: "Quit if you can." And if you can't? Well, don't go reading Kate's blog with any sharp objects within reach.

Here’s the Truth: Staying Published is like Spending Twenty Years on Survivor