Sunday, October 30, 2016

Learning to Revise

By Sharon May

My writing has taken two forms over the years -- academic essays and fiction. In pursing degrees in English and American Literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I’ve written at least fifty academic essays. At one point in my life, I was very good at writing them, winning writing awards at two graduate schools.

I was so proficient at writing academic essays, I didn’t have to revise to earn an A. I revised one 20-page paper when I was required to do a ten minute reading of it. Honestly, that was the only academic paper I ever revised.
So as an academic writer, I never really learned to revise my own words, which is ironic since as an instructor of writing, I help students revise their writing all the time. I can explain the concepts and steps in revision, but rarely applied that knowledge to my own writing.
For the past two summers, I have begun writing fiction again. During that time, I have had to learn how to revise. At first, I wasn’t sure where to start, and finally with one story, I decided to imagine I didn’t even have a draft and start a new version of the story. That kick-started my revising. As one can imagine, my writing has improved dramatically. Belonging to the writer’s workshop has given me ideas and guidance for revision so I look forward to the meetings.

One benefit of revising is that now when I’m drafting something new, I’m questioning myself as if I’m already revising. This has helped prevent mistakes I would have previously produced. So far, drafting this way has not interfered with the flow of ideas from brain to paper, and therefore I take this as positive growth in my writing process.

In my journey into revision, I started reading online articles about revising fiction.  While reading, I came across 12 Writing Fiction Checklists” on the website Fiction Notes. I have found these checklists useful to help me evaluate my writing, which leads to new possibilities.

Of all the quotes I’ve read online about revising, I think Colette (Casual Chance, 1964) reveals the power of revision best when she says, “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing Fiction: Reading My Idols

By Laura P. Valtorta
 Yesterday I watched an interview with Stephen King on PBS’s News Hour. He’s always a fun interview. King’s thrillers are page-turners, but the book of his I enjoyed most was his 2000 autobiography, On Writing.

During the television interview, King talked about learning how to write. Oftentimes, he said, writers read their favorite authors and emulate them.

One of my favorite authors is the Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. From Handmaid’s Tale to Blind Assassin to The Heart Goes Last, her accounts of women’s superiority, struggles, and triumphs never fail to be inspirational, entertaining, and funny. Each book is different. Right now I’m re-reading the dystopic trilogy – Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. I’m studying Atwood’s balance of description and dialogue, her use of complicated vocabulary and invented words, and how she employs humor to make a point.

No one can be better than Atwood, I think. And then I read Donna Tartt, whose writing is not as well-crafted as Atwood’s, but who makes me visualize situations I’ve never dreamed of. I agree with almost everything that Atwood writes. Tartt and I don’t agree on anything – and yet I adore her fiction.

A trait that Tartt and Atwood share is that they take great pains to describe the habits and appearances of their characters. I can see Atwood’s Oryx very clearly, and I know a lot about her childhood. Tartt’s character, Harriett, is a girl I could recognize racing past me on her bike, with her swingy black hair and sarcastic voice. Neither Oryx nor Harriett is a photograph.

Providing just the right description, while leaving the reader hungering for more, is a gift. I wish there were a word-scale I could use. A passage that sounds good when read aloud might not contain enough description.

This kind of research – reading my favorite fiction writers – is something I’ve immersed myself in since childhood. Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. For that, I have to thank my mother.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

They Open Their Mouths and Thrust Out Words

By Bonnie Stanard

The 1670s in France is the setting for a story I’m working on about a traveling troupe of actors. As soon as a conversation came up, I had to ask myself, how did people talk in Renaissance France? Obviously, the writing should remind the reader the story takes place over 300 years ago. And in France.

After much consideration, I’ve decided to signal the time with early English expressions and the place with a sprinkling of French words. Not ideal, I know. But what to do? If you’re thinking I should simply move the story to England, that introduces a different problem. In England, unlike France, acting was a male profession. The first recorded performance of a female playing a role on the English stage is December 1660, too close for comfort. And as far as I’m concerned, no women, no story.

Some writers can produce books with almost no dialogue. John Banville, Charles Frazier, and IsabelleAllende come to mind. For most of us, dialogue is a device whereby we advance the plot, elevate tension, or reveal motive. The conversations we give our characters differentiate their personalities. You can get more suggestions about how to write dialogue than you’ll ever need from workshops as well as online. I’ll only say that the writer of “How are you?” or “What’s up?” or “Hello” is digging a grave.

Carefully chosen dialect reminds readers about where and when the story is unfolding. In some cases it delineates social status. Some editors go to the extreme in warning us against using dialect. Obviously Anthony Burgess ignored them and wrote the best-selling A Clockwork Orange with a patois so dense some of us could only understand the audio version.

So, when to use dialect and how often? Too much and the story drags. Too little and it becomes generic contemporary writing. If you will, somewhere between “By my trowth, thou dost make the millstone seem as a feather what widst thy lard-bloated footfall” and “You are fat.”

Much of my time lately has been devoted to developing a lexicon of dated English words and expressions. Researching colloquial language is not as easy as getting other background information, such as the nature of housing, clothing, social circumstances, and political environment. This information can usually be found in recorded history. Most books of this sort are available fromAbe Books.

However, history books don’t reveal how people talked at the time. Shakespeare’s plays have probably demonstrated more about dated colloquial English than any other source. I have a flip-card booklet with Shakespeare’s insults, which makes for fun reading (Thou Spleeny Swag-Bellied Miscreant).

I’ve added a number of expressions to my lexicon from Margaret Butler’s historical fiction novel, Lion of England, which brings to life Henry II in the 12th Century. This book is a great example of how language makes a story real to its time. A good reference book, English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, gives you lists of words in use by the century of its appearance. Then there are online sources such as Elizabethan Slang and Elizabethan greetings.

They knew how to insult back then—milksop, dunderhead, whey face, toadeater, or rank-scented, lumpish prig. I can get so carried away with language that my lexicon grows at the expense of my story.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Go on and Binge Read. Everybody’s Doing It.

By Kasie Whitener

Admittedly, I am a binge kind of person. I’ve been known to watch 13 hours of football on a single Saturday and follow it with nine hours on Sunday. Everything I do from beer consumption to internet shopping meets the limits of “binge” as defined by the CDC.

So reading three books a week, two at the time, totaling 41 fiction and 8 nonfiction books so far this year with 12 weeks left is de rigueur for me. It’s expected I’ll ignore my family for an audio book, my Kindle, a freshly purchased paperback, or a beaten-up library loan.

‘Kasie-with-a-book-in-her-hand’ is my default setting. And every time I feel bad about it, I read another successful author say, “Read,” is the best advice they can give to aspiring writers. (Like Lev Grossman of The Magicians did recently on Quora.)

Reading for pleasure is a pastime I’d all but abandoned for years. Though in graduate school I regularly consumed two to four novels a week, it was work and afterward I went through a long reading drought. I came back to reading via Twilight. A fact I share with a lot of vampire fiction writers I know.

Both of my parents are avid readers. My father carries his iPad around with him and will break open whatever book he’s reading the minute the conversation lags. My mother borrows books from my shelves two and three at the time.

My reading habit is impacting my daughter, Hollie, who listened to a few of the books I consumed via Audible while we road-tripped this summer. She knows the Kindle estimation for how much longer I have in the chapter is a way to get more time watching a show or playing with her toys.

In our house, “Just let me finish this chapter,” is sometimes interchanged with “Three more football minutes,” or a solid half-hour.

I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it. Not when I ignore work, eschew social engagements, or turn off the TV. Especially not that last one. I’ve even made enablers out of my team. Each week, my consultants report what they’re reading as a means of promoting literacy and study in our company.

A good binge read inspires my own writing. This latest series has taught me to hope there’s a place for literary fantasy, despite several commercial agents trying to lump my Byron-era vampires into genre fiction. Reading the All Souls Trilogy has renewed my faith in my own work and given me a hint at an agency and publisher who might support it.

A good binge read puts things into perspective. When I raced through a series of poorly written NYT bestsellers, I felt reassured that my own rejections may only be a result of submitting to the wrong authorities.

So read up, junkies. No writer ever said they wished they’d read less. If you want to see what my team’s reading, go here. For more of my list, click here.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Diversity in Art and Audiences

By Laura P. Valtorta

Currently I am writing a novel about a black character and a white character that I plan to turn into a screenplay. I expect to make a lot of ugly mistakes.

While studying how to make these characters more genuine, I tell myself – “Woman – go forth and meet with artists and people in many different communities. Watch. Listen. Ask questions.”

An excellent place to do that was the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival, that I attended as a filmmaker on September 1-3, 2016. Here is an email I sent to my peeps:

Family, Friends, and Filmmakers: This weekend I attended the Long Beach Indie Film and Music Festival in Long Beach, California ( where "Queen of the Road" won best TV pilot against some formidable competitors from Hollywood!

This festival was special because the founder, Dr. Daniel Walker, shared with the group a vision like my own: to see diverse people creating and sharing art. Like me, Dr. Walker wants filmmakers to be diverse (more women, more African-Americans), and above all, he wants audiences to be diverse so that we can sit together, enjoy art together, and discuss what's important to us.

This festival (180 films and performances) and the artists were diverse in every way! Age, skin color, sex, disability, gender identity, nationality. I could go on. At the awards banquet, I sat next to a woman my age who had a film entry in the student filmmaker category! My table included a German director, a doctor who made music videos, and people from Australia.

This mix of people made for excellent talk-back sessions with directors after each film. I felt comfortable asking questions that were really on my mind about filmmaking and American society.  Some of my questions were obnoxious – but they were important to me.

For the first time I did not feel out of place being an older female director. There were other women, older than me, who were presenting awesome films.

Funny how more diversity makes us all feel more welcome.

When Dr. Daniel Walker spoke, it was refreshing and liberating to hear a man speak about something we both found important -- drawing people together through art. When I accepted the award, Dr. Walker told me that he knew about my work and thought I was doing some great things. This was a true compliment!

Dr. Walker teaches Latin American studies in Long Beach, which is said to be the most diverse town of its size (500,000) in the United States. The diversity extends to age, sex, gender identity, skin color, language, disability, and nationality – just like the participants in the festival itself. Heaven!