Category Archives: Writing

Following My Own Advice

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The letter from my editor was polite, even encouraging.  She said something like, “Marion, this is going to be a very, very powerful read, but I find some things about it puzzling.”

And then she went on to explain her puzzlement, including saying that she didn’t know who my main character was, a young boy whom the story inhabited closely from the first page to the last.

It’s a novel, and it’s a novel I’d been working on for a long time.  Far too long.  At least that’s the way I was beginning to feel.  And though I had convinced myself that the manuscript was ready to be seen—I wouldn’t have submitted it otherwise—I had known the entire time I was working that something wasn’t quite right at the story’s core.

I began revising with the editor’s brief comments, reaching back in, finding a new place to stand in the story.  And then one day, having finished revising about five chapters, I looked ahead to the rest of the story and I could finally see what was wrong.  What had always been wrong from my first conception . . . with my character, with my story.

To resolve the problem that lay at the core of my novel, I needed to perform one simple but profound maneuver.  I needed to turn my central character, Ben, inside out!

Ben is reconnecting with his mother who abandoned him when he was three, and in my first conception of the story he is filled with resentment.  He doesn’t want to see her.  He’s there only because his parents said he had to be.  All he truly wants is for his life to go on as it has in the past, just him and his dad.

How many times have I said to developing writers, “Your character must want something?  Your main character’s desire is the energy that drives your story.”  And having said that dozens of times before writing classes, having said it hundreds of times in notes on manuscripts, I had failed to say it to myself.

What does Ben want?  When delivered to his mother, his only desire is a negative one, resistance.  And so the energy informing my story was anger, nothing else.  One of my early readers had even said, somewhat cautiously, “I wonder if this kid isn’t too angry?  It makes him hard to like.”

I had heard her comment, understood the truth in it, but I couldn’t imagine any way of presenting my story without that overwhelming anger.  So I kept working, committed to my original conception.  When my discomfort with the manuscript rose too high, I decided, as we writers are prone to do, that what was wrong with my story was me!  I’m getting too old.  I’m running out of energy.  Maybe even, running out of brain cells.

(There’s almost nothing that can’t be blamed on old in this maturity-denying society.)

It took my editor’s puzzlement and a new round of revisions to come back up against that truth.  When I arrived at it, at the understanding that my character was starting from the wrong place to carry my readers with me, I found myself holding months—no let’s be honest, years—of work in my hands and knowing it hadn’t yet come to anything worth reading.  And it was very possible it never would.

Sometimes that kind of darkness is just darkness.  Sometimes it’s the setting that allows the glimmer in a new idea to come through.

“What if,” I said to myself, “this boy, instead of being sullenly angry, is naively hopeful.  What if he is the one who engineers this meeting, confident he can get his mother to come home?  What if?”

“That would mean starting over from page 1,” said another voice, also mine.  “That would mean passing every single line of the story through this new lens.”  It was a discouraged voice.  A tired one.  Let’s face it, an old voice.

“Well, why don’t you try?” the more hopeful voice said again.  “Isn’t that what you would say to another writer?  Try it?  What do you have to lose?”

Why is it so much easier to teach others what I know than it is to apply my wisdom to my own work?

Which is the same as asking, Why is it so hard to follow my own advice?

Just in case you’re wondering, I am doing that now.

And guess what.  It’s working!

Positive Expectation

A writer’s career, more than any other career I know or can imagine, is dependent on our having a friendly relationship with our own brains.

Sometimes in my life as a writer that friendly relationship is just there.  It requires neither thought nor effort.  The project I am working on itself creates that friendship.  The work is a gift I return to day after day with full energy.

That kind of experience is, I presume, what is referred to as being “in the zone.”

Then there are other times, other projects, that I struggle with from the first paragraph.  Books where I start and stop, start and stop, where I find myself reimagining and starting over at the point I expected to be done.

“Why,” I ask, in the midst of this kind of muddle, “can’t I just write the blasted thing?  What’s standing in my way?”

Photo by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash

I have always avoided the term “writer’s block.”  It seems an easy excuse to quit trying.  But I have come to understand something.  The what that is standing in my way when my work falters is always, always me!

In fact, it’s my own brain and the unbidden, often barely noticed conversation I’m having with myself.

These days that one-sided conversation goes something like this:

“Marion, can’t you see?  You’re old.  You’re losing it.  Do you remember how you used to be able to hold an idea, with all its complexity, in your mind from the beginning of a long work to the end?  Now you can’t even remember that inspired idea you came up with yesterday!  And if you bothered to take notes when the idea came, you’ve probably lost your notes.”

That kind of self-talk, I’ve discovered, is powerful.  Really, really powerful.  And when I get caught into it, guess what?  My time at the keyboard turns into a struggle.

Awhile back I sailed into a new novel without quite sorting everything I needed to know about my story’s foundation.  “It will come,” I told myself.  “After all, I’ve been doing this for a long time.  I know what I’m doing.”

(That’s another kind of self-talk entirely.  Too much confidence based on assumptions I know better than.)

And some of it did come.  But some of the story’s foundation remained elusive.  All the way through my work, it remained elusive.

I am fortunate to have an editor interested enough in my work to read this almost novel and respond with, “I think it has the potential to be a very very powerful read, but it also puzzled me a bit . . .”

Then she spelled out her puzzlement.

And I sighed, knew she was entirely right, spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself—and very, very old—and then said to my brain, “Okay.  Time to go to work.  Time to do what you told yourself you didn’t have to do.”

And I have gone to work.  And I can do it.  New ideas to resolve the puzzlement are flowing.

All inside my head still.  Inside my enthusiastic brain.

But the work will begin to hit the page tomorrow.

New ideas, new words will come out of this old brain of mine as long as I feed it the right kind of food.  And the right kind of food is positive expectation.

“Okay, Marion.  You know how to do this.  In fact, you’ve been doing it for a long time.  Now sit down and, without trying to skip over any steps, use what you know!”

Writers Helping Writers

Photo by Cristian Newman on UnsplashLoon Song

It’s lonely and isolating work, this writing business.  Usually we manufacture ideas in our heads with little input—or even interest—from others.  We sit, day after day, poking at a keyboard, making words appear, weighing them, revising them, weighing them again.

Wondering if we’re coming anywhere near the dream we began with.

We do all this alone in a room, alone inside our own heads.

And then we gather the manuscript we’ve produced and send it into the world to be judged.

And wait.

And wait.

Too often to hear, “No.”  “No.”  “No.”  “No.”

No exclamation point on the “No,” even.  Just a solid, flat, impenetrable “No.”  The editor either wants what we offer or she doesn’t.  Discussion isn’t invited.  Even worse, often these days the “no” comes in the form of silence.

Once more we weigh this piece we’ve created out of our very bone and sinew, perhaps revise again, send it out again.

And wait.

Again.

Is it any wonder that writers need other writers.

Partly just to share our joys, our frustrations.  But also for a reality check.  Another writer can provide the objectivity that is impossible for us, alone in a room in front of a screen that gives back our words so impartially.

Another writer can even help us shape our work into something that is more likely to receive a “yes” out there in the world.  But there are some things we have to keep in mind when we ask one another for help.

First, we need to be clear what we are asking for.  If we know what our concerns are—too long? the reader’s attention caught fast enough?  characters believable?—asking questions up front can be useful.

(Careful with that one, though.  Some questions are best left until after a first reading so they don’t prejudice the reader into seeing a problem just because we asked.)

Sometimes we get back a response that is completely unexpected.  When that happens to me, that surprising comment often gets put aside.  But then I go on to find another reader or two.  When I hear that unexpected reaction a second time, I’m ready and on board.

(My agent recently suggested a change in a novel he was about to send out that felt difficult and unnecessary to me.  I said, “No.”  Now the same suggestion has come from the editor, and I am, of course, instantly on board . . . and grateful to have heard it from my agent first.)

Second, consider the source.  This is the kind of situation where writers’ critique groups are useful.  We learn whose comments we most value by hearing them addressed to others’ manuscripts, because we are objective about others’ work.  Then when the time comes for our own work to be discussed, we know who to listen to most deeply.

(And while other writers can usually give us the best value as critics, in my early writing years, I knew few—in the beginning no—other writers.  But I still found discerning readers whose perspective I trusted.)

Finally, before we ask anyone to critique a manuscript, we need to examine our own hearts.  Are we truly open to doing further work on this piece?  Or are we at the point that all we want to hear is praise?

(There is nothing wrong with wanting appreciation for our work.  We all need praise at every stage, of course, but sometimes we are still looking for guidance to dig back into a manuscript and sometimes we are ready to let it fly.  When we reach that stage, the best we can do is to let our manuscript try its way in the world.  If it doesn’t make it out there, we can we always return to our writer friends for another dose of reality.)

And if you’re reading this and feeling “Oh, I wish I had more of a community of writers around me,” here’s an idea.  LoonSong, the small-community writers’ retreat that will be meeting in northern Minnesota from September 6th through the 10th, still has openings.  And this year you can even opt to come a day early for extra writing and conversation time.  I’ll be there.

Check it out at www.loonsong.org.

LoonSong

The best way I know to find those special soulmate writers who can forever afterwards be accessed through the internet is gatherings such as LoonSong.

And the best way I know to have a successful career is to open ourselves up to informed feedback . . . and to informed support.

Storytelling Animals

That’s what we humans are, storytelling animals.  A skill we use to distinguish ourselves from the rest of creation.  We tell stories.  Our dogs and our cats, our cattle and our canaries may communicate, but tell stories?  Not possible.

Until we learn more—and I won’t be surprised if someday we do learn more—we might as well go with that.  It’s our stories that set us apart from the rest of creation.

But why?  To what end?

If we want only to teach one another, to pass on the wisdom of one generation to the next, surely we have more straightforward ways.  Two plus two equals four.  A butterfly emerges from a chrysalis.  Mix two primary hues to create a secondary color.

And of course, we do communicate with facts and ideas, yet we keep returning to stories.

My father was a chemist, enormously intelligent, but a concrete thinker.  He could not understand how I could get a college degree in literature.  He asked, What is there to study?

Someone accused me once of immersing myself in fictional worlds as a substitute for living my life.  The accusation hit close enough to home for me never to have forgotten it.

I remember the time on a year’s sabbatical in England that some neighbors stopped by to ask if we would go caroling with them.  I hesitated.  I was writing, you see.  In fact, curiously enough, I was writing a story set in the Minnesota I had left behind.  Fortunately, sanity prevailed and I shut down the computer and joined the caroling party.

What I remember most about that evening wasn’t offering ancient carols through the streets of an equally ancient village, though that was all quaint enough to be remembered.  It was encountering a tiny, curled-up ball of an English hedgehog as we crossed a grassy field.  But if I hadn’t left the story I was building behind I never would have met that hedgehog.

Photo by Piotr Łaskawski on Unsplash

I’ve been in the business of making stories for enough years to have asked the question many times.  Why?  Apart from the not-incidental fact that stories have come to be my primary source of income, what makes them so important?

And again and again, I come up with the same answer.  The stories I tell make meaning.  My meaning.  They take the substance of what has happened to me, the substance of fact combined with the substance of feeling, and give it significance, importance, consequence, value, worth.

I have had, as has everyone else in this world, both wonderful and terrible things happen in my life.  I have had the deepest secrets of my heart warmly received.  I have struggled with isolation.  I have learned a skill and used it to benefit others.  I have loved and been loved in return.  I have watched my son die.  I have seen my daughter and now my grandchildren sail into the world with confidence and strength.

And I suppose each one of these happenings could have been enough in itself, but it never seems enough to me.  I am compelled to take the randomness of rewards and the certainty of loss and create significance out of them.  I must take the feelings that came with dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered and make them mean something, too.

Life never comes with meaning intact, at least not in my view.  Meaning doesn’t exist until we create it.

Over the years, over many, many years, I have learned that when something I have experienced plays out again in a story moment I create or when it is echoed in a story someone else has offered me, my experience takes on a more certain shape.  The feelings attached to it do, too.  My life is no longer random, no longer simply pleasant or unpleasant, uplifting or devastating.  My life, with all its random events, all its unpredictable feelings, becomes story.

And story is meaning.

Revision, Then and Now

Photo by Yolanda Leyva on Unsplash

I have always revised.  Of course.  Every writer does.

But revision has come to be a very different thing than it was when I began publishing in 1976.  Then I worked at a typewriter.  At first it was the 1956 manual portable (beige with white keys) Smith Corona typewriter that had been my high school graduation gift.

Eventually I moved on from that to an electric typewriter (it made pondering moments a bit tense by sitting there humming at me) and then to an electronic one.  One of those machines, an IBM Selectric, was self-correcting, meaning if you caught an error while the page was still in front of you, you could flip a switch and type backwards, whiting out the words you wanted gone.  I learned to type as rapidly backwards as forwards.

But always when I worked on a typewriter I had a routine for revising.  I triple-spaced my original draft, leaving room while the page was still in the typewriter to go back right then to type in changes.  Once the page was out of the typewriter, I could write in my changes by hand.

When a page became too cluttered with revisions, I would retype it, switching to a different color of paper.  I changed the colors with each draft, which allowed me at a glance to know how long a particular page had been part of the manuscript.  (What use that knowledge was I’m no longer sure, but the practice gave me a pleasantly colorful manuscript during these early stages.)

Looking back at that cumbersome process—typing, correcting, retyping—and thinking what it is like today to write from first draft through every level of revision on a computer screen, I have to smile.  The smile is one of delight.  I love today’s technology!

I love the way it takes so much of the physical labor out of the process of writing.

I love the way it allows me to finesse every detail of a manuscript every time I look at it.

I love the way I can save multiple drafts, so I can experiment with a piece and still, should I need to, return to its earlier form.

I love the way Word challenges my spelling, even leaps in to correct common mistakes before my fingers notice they have stumbled.

And I love the way I can save reams and reams of manuscripts, from the failed to the already published, inside one small box.

Remembering those typewriters, I wonder, in fact, whether I ever truly revised before.  Certainly the process now is more organic, more fluid, more deeply intuitive.

I have never reread my early books to try to weigh them against the work I do now. Even if I did, there would be, of course, no way of knowing whether the changes I might see were based on the freedom offered by today’s technology or whether they would simply represent a writer’s natural growth in mastery.

But every single time I sit down to write today, I rejoice.  I rejoice at the way I can slip in and out of a manuscript, shaping, smoothing, enriching, culling.  I rejoice in the power under my fingertips that makes revision downright fun!

I remember those old manuscripts, the piles of brightly colored pages.  I remember the final process of retyping the whole blasted thing—with carbon paper so I would still have a copy when I entrusted the original to the post office—and I am so, so glad to live in the 21st Century.

Yes, I know.  The 21st Century has its problems.  Enormous ones.  And we aren’t doing much to resolve them.

But oh . . . the technology that makes it possible to create on a computer—and revise, revise, revise—isn’t one of them!