Tag Archives: writing tips

Been There, Done That

The Prompt:

Today, page 48 of Room to Write asks us to write 101 places we’ve been or 101 ways to dance. The goal is to list them as quickly as possible, ideally within 15 minutes. I’m choosing to run with Places I’ve Been:

Response:

1 London
2 York
3 Edinburgh
4 Inverness
5 Bath
6 Dover
7 Calais
8 Paris
9 Nice
10 Cannes
11 Monaco
12 Vernazza
13 Corniglia
14 Riomaggiore
15 Monterosso
16 La Spezia
17 Parma
18 Rome
19 Venice
20 Florence
21 Salzburg
22 Munich
23 Dachau
24 Interlaken
25 Zurich
26 Barcelona
27 Berlin
28 Oberammergau
29 Dusseldorf
30 Amsterdam
31 Stockholm
32 Pula
33 Rimini
34 Budapest
35 Saalbach
36 Vienna
37 Besse
38 Les Deux Alpes
39 L’Alpe d’Huez
40 Geneva
41 Courmayeur
42 Pesaro
43 Anzio
44 Sermoneta
45 Mougins
46 Juan-les-Pins
47 Sevilla
48 Grenada
49 Malaga
50 La Mancha
51 Madrid
52 Southampton
53 Chipping Camden
54 Tywardreath
55 Fowey
56 Falmouth
57 Flushing
58 Devon
59 Woebley
60 Bristol
61 Manchester
62 Wolverhampton
63 Ashby St. Ledgers
64 St. Albans
65 Brighton
66 Canterbury
67 Cambridge
68 Oxford
69 Windsor
70 Portsmouth
71 Isle of Wight
72 Lewes
73 South Downs
74 Greenwich
75 Blackheath
76 Bibury
77 Stratford-upon-Avon
78 Chawton
79 Chicago
80 Disneyworld!
81 LA
82 San Simeon
83 Monterey
84 San Francisco
85 Carmel
86 Paso Robles
87 San Luis Obispo
88 Los Osos
89 Santa Barbara
90 Tamarindo
91 Buenos Aires
92 Torres del Paine
93 El Calafate
94 Rotorua
95 Queenstown
96 Auckland
97 Christchurch
98 Marrakech
99 Istanbul
100 Mumbai
101 Delhi

Reflection:

Wish I could say I got this one in under the wire, but it took me closer to 20 minutes–mostly because I kept checking Google Maps to verify spellings or remember names of places caught in my head–in which case, I should’ve just powered through with a description or best-guess spelling (as I’m sure I still managed to botch plenty!). I clearly ran with cities, as that seemed the easiest way to start out and made for some fun (albeit quick) reminiscing about past travels.

The point of the exercise is to stretch ourselves into our well of memory. Just when we feel frustrated because we can’t find inspiration from either imagination or experience, an activity like this can remind us of all we truly have to draw upon. Maybe it’ll dislodge an idea for a story setting. Maybe it’s an experience you had, or people you met, in that location that can figure into the plot or characters, or simply lend rich description for visualization and texture.

Who knows, but by the end, I actually felt disappointed that I’d already hit 101. I feel like I “wasted” spaces on places I’ve might’ve just made a train connection, not leaving room for more of those where I had proper experiences–but that’s how free association of thought works, I guess! When I delved into my memory well, I suddenly relived the sequence of certain travels, connections and all (which is some of the logistical nitty-gritty that could figure into stories, to add a layer of reality). I barely scratched the surface of my home country and state, for cryin’ out loud! 🙂

Here’s my actual travel map:

Screenshot 2016-03-08 19.26.29

Actually, it would be fun to try this sometime and only focus in and around my hometown so that I’d have to branch out beyond cities and list things like schools and grocery stores and playgrounds. Or try the “Ways to Dance” option as a more imaginative exercise, as I figure at some point you just have to start making up moves. Um, which sounds amazing.

Well then, I’ve made my journey round the world in 20 minutes. Tag, you’re IT!

 

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The Lazy Way to Write a Blog Post…

…copy/paste something you’ve already written. 🙂

Okay, so we’ve established by now I’m not the most reliable of bloggers, and now I’m not following through on my promise for this post to be about 1st-person narration. Fact is, I haven’t prioritized time for thoughtfully compiling thoughts/excerpts on that topic, but I will, I will…

What I have been prioritizing lately—FINALLY!—is my second manuscript. I’ve been close to the end for months now, but, just like with my first manuscript, the characters’ voices went quiet. I probably should have pushed through anyway, but I didn’t, and now I’ve got them all screaming in my ear. So, when I have free time (or blow off work to create pseudo-free time), I am writing the rest of my novel. And giving advice to friends to get them started writing theirs!

Which brings me to my lazy post today. The novel-esque email responses I just inundated my dear friend with this week as she prepares for NaNoWriMo as a first-time writer. Here goes:

Q: How do you narrow down an idea? I have a million…

A: [First of all, I thought, “Lucky girl!” It took me ages to generate even one idea for my first manuscript.]

Evaluate each one for how easily you think you could run with one for an entire novel. Do some have nicer complexity than others? Are they more appealing for you to research and live with for a long, long amount of time whereas others you might tire of or not be able to develop very far? And is there just that one that really, really speaks to you from the inside…you can’t get it out of your head, it gets you excited because it’s so original/meaningful/interesting/etc., you can already see the setting and hear the characters, it is THE book you were meant to write?

You can also try writing little vignettes for each idea and see which one takes off, inspires the most possibilities. Foregoing an idea at one time doesn’t mean it can’t be revisited at another, either as another book or as a short story.

That’s always another avenue—write several short stories and compile them in an anthology. With short stories, you can also submit them individually to contests and publications (e.g., magazines, anthologies, e-zines, etc.), which builds a publication history you can cite in your novel’s query letter down the road. It’s a great way to earn credibility. I only wish I could be more prolific that way. 🙂

One blog that I follow is www.milo-inmediares.com. The guy (Milo) is a maniac about writing/submitting stories based on Ray Bradbury’s early discipline of writing and submitting one story a week to get his start. Milo helped create the Write1Sub1 blog, too, to encourage others to write one story a week or month so that, at the end of the year, you have a large collection to work with, not only because getting published is such a numbers game but also to have that accomplishment for yourself. It’s a proper repertoire. Anyway, in either his April 2011 or April 2010 archives, he blogged every day about one new publication to submit stories to, in case you wanted to explore the short story option with all your different ideas.

Regardless of what length you write, just remember every story has an arc: exposition builds to rising action, which reaches climax and descends with falling action toward a resolution. The major climax occurs late in the story (and resolutions shouldn’t be too dragged out). There must be some sense of ongoing internal/external conflict that builds and builds before getting resolved in the end, but minor conflicts along the way help build tension, too—subplot helps add complexity/depth. I’m hoping to blog in the coming month about some stuff on story progression. Oh, and the NaNoWriMo organizers are so awesome—they provide so many great resources and pep talks along the way. It’s such a special experience, and I’m so happy you’re doing it!

Q: So much to take in, I feel far from prepared for this. The issue is I have no actual ideas, I have had no time to even think about them, develop them.

A: [Okay, so I obviously misunderstood her first question, thinking the exact opposite. And, yeesh, leave it to me to overdo it regardless…here was my attempt to backpedal.]

Oh no! I didn’t mean to flood you with info. There are just all sorts of options for wrestling down an idea. How to approach it varies for everyone. It’s really just a matter of what makes you tick.

When I first considered ideas, I didn’t have one to hold on to either. I started with what I loved to read—and that’s a top tip I’ve heard from authors since: write the book you want to read.

So I thought about how I love ghost stories of the Gothic variety, yet also liked the modern edge of supernatural stories like The Time Travelers Wife. I also thought about how whenever I read or watched a ghost story in a book or on film, the story always went a different way than my expectations had hoped for. So then I thought about what consistently caused my disappointment and jotted down in a journal all the elements I would love to see in a story, what, for ME, would be intriguing, atmospheric, and frightening. I just had pages and pages of all this related and random stuff, and then I started to research the topic from different angles and recorded my findings in the journal, too. Then, as slices of story started to occur to me based on what I’d brainstormed/researched and really wanted to feature in the story, slowly but surely the dots started to connect.

And a lot of it comes from just writing it. I told you about subplots before, but sometimes those just occur as you go along. Secondary characters appear out of nowhere because you start to see them or instinctively know that your main characters would meet them in a certain situation or whatever. I at first created this one gal simply to give my protagonist a friend at school as it seemed unnatural for her personality to not at least form an acquaintance. But then as I wrote this other person, suddenly she started behaving oddly and became a mystery unto herself. That was purely spontaneous writing, and then the strategy and planning came in afterwards when I had to determine why she was acting that way, what new role she could play in the overall scheme.

My point is, so much comes to you when you finally just start to write. That’s the spirit of NaNoWriMo—it doesn’t give you time to think about it much; you just have to write and keep going, keep pushing forward and forward and then sort out what you’ve got when you’re done. No one comes out of it with a polished and complete novel. And it might not even be a novel but a free association of ideas that spins off in tangents. The ideas could first come through THAT process, and it could serve as a way of finding your writer’s voice, too, so you can determine what tone to approach your book with.

You just don’t know until you write, so forget what I said for the time being about story arc and outlining and whatnot. Just take what time does come to you on a day to scribble out something. Practice describing your daughter as she plays with something. Write an entire paragraph about her disgusting boogers now that she’s sick! Pretend your house is the setting of a story and describe it for a reader to “see.” Maybe write about a funky dream you recently had. If you get in the habit of writing a little something creative every day, it really warms you up and gets you into a groove. It’s exactly the same thing as exercising, you know? The more you do it, the more energized you feel and the more you want to do it. And just like there’s a runner’s high after pushing past a certain distance, there’s a writer’s one—that’s why I keep harping on this one point: write! If you can tap into that weird mode where it’s almost like the story already exists independent of you and you’re being chosen to tell it (it’s a little haunting but so wild!), you’ll get it and so many inhibitions about the task will drop away.

So what do you think, have I steered her okay? Is it better for a first-time writer to go into it with more structure or less as they find their voice and creative footing? What other advice would you give?


The Curious Case of the Missing Editor

OMG, the Monkey screeches again! (for those of you who are still left to hear it)

Though I’ve obviously been MIA, my title isn’t in reference to me. As an editor, I’m always at the ready—always on the job, in fact, even if it isn’t my own, apparently. You see, I mentioned before how I’ve been more in Reader than Writer mode lately, and I’ve got to say I’m gobsmacked by some of the poorly edited work I’ve read lately. And I’m talking traditionally published stuff by best-selling authors. Even the best indie authors know not to dare self-publish without consulting the expertise of an editor. At least they should know if they take their writing seriously and want others to as well. Repeat after me:

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

Everyone needs an editor.

We can be ever so proud of our book babies and earnestly believe in our talent, but it’s downright diva to think that any of us could possibly be above the need to have someone else edit our work (and neglectful of editors to let anyone slip through the cracks). I don’t just mean proofreading to clean up the spelling/grammatical bits; I mean deep copyediting, where, yes, you might have to let go of that sentimental scene or hack out some delightful description, no matter how poetic the prose. Anyone who wants to evolve from rookie status should understand the value of a fresh pair of eyes. None of us are perfect in any way, shape, or form.

Hats off to indie author Tahlia Newland, for instance, who in the last few months has published an imaginative suite of stories through Catapult Press. Having myself offered some input on a couple of her projects, I was just one of several beta readers Tahlia makes a point to share her pre-published work with before then employing the services of a professional editor. I’ve been following her blog for a while and, consequently, her journey to bring her short stories and soon-to-be-released Lethal Inheritance novel to readers, and her revision process has been nothing less than comprehensive, involving a team of critical eyes. She also runs the Awesome Indies website, which upholds a standard of quality for the independently published.

Some traditionally published authors, on the other hand…

Well, of the last several novels I’ve read, one that I enjoyed while reading but was quick to criticize in hindsight was The Tiger’s Wife, by TĂ©a Obreht. Now, this is a bestseller that has had readers falling over themselves in absolute love with it, and I just have to say, “Eh.” NO QUESTION, Obreht is a debut author that will be a literary force to reckon with going forward. She has a spectacular if not intimidating command of the English language (which is not her first language and surpasses many of those for whom it is!), a maturity transcending her years, and her capacity to describe is absorbing. I’ll delve more into that last observation in a future post about 1st-person POV, but for now I just want to say that, while a tremendous and captivating storyteller, Obreht should have trimmed down a substantial amount of that description, along with secondary characters and story lines. A classic rookie case of wanting to keep in every great idea that crosses the mind, she was just too ambitious with all the folk stories of sorts that she chose to interweave—we’re introduced to an exhausting list of characters who are described in exhausting detail, only for them to fall off the planet with no lingering consequence. The tangle of tales, I felt, ultimately rendered none of them as effective as they could have been (standing alone as part of an anthology, maybe?) and, in the end, left the primary story thread underdeveloped. And her editor should have known this.

To be honest, I think a lot of the readers who gave The Tiger’s Wife rave reviews did so because they didn’t get it and attributed that fact to some profound, intellectual meaning that was surely just going over their heads. That their comprehension simply and understandably fell short in the face of genius. And, hey, you can bet I originally gave benefit of the doubt that my own questioning was a product of me being dumb as rocks. But I don’t think we readers should be so quick to sell ourselves short. When I find myself discussing this book with a group of women on the same page, and all of us educated, well-read, and discerning yet equally baffled as to whether there’s indeed some grand overarching purpose unifying the excess, methinks it actually all boils down to, nah, it was just really crappy editing.

But by far the most abysmal absence of editing I’ve recently encountered was in Julian Fellowes’s Past Imperfect. Now, Fellowes is another brilliant storyteller. He’s brought us the Oscar-winning Gosford Park and hugely popular Downton Abbey. But after just finishing the aforementioned novel (as well as reading his book Snobs a few years ago), I’ve come to the conclusion that screenplays are clearly his forte. Why? Because there’s no doubt he knows his subject matter (rich people). No doubt that he conceives compelling stories, engaging dialogue, and settings that are a feast for the eyes. But he can’t write narration. Or, rather, he has a clumsy handling of it. He’s very good at description and development, but in Past Imperfect, he seems to have invented an entirely new narrative POV: 1st person omniscient! 

That’s right, his 1st-person narrator can read the minds of every other character in the novel:

A pink cloud of nostalgia hovered over him for a moment. “The library was one of the prettiest rooms I’ve ever seen, never mind lived in. But no.” He shook his head to loosen these disturbing, self-indulgent images. “I’m finished with all that.”

*

“What happened to her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” She sighed, saddened by the inexorable process of life.

The narrator can also see what other people do while on the phone with him:

“And Terry.”

He was puzzled for a second, and then he nodded and smiled. “You’re right. I’d remembered it as being before we left.”

Unless this was a video-conference (which I assure you it wasn’t), seriously, WTF. Or should I say, WTE, as in “Where’s The Editor?”

Because he/she certainly wasn’t there to correct the error in “reaping what you sew.”

And certainly didn’t caution Fellowes against too much telling or constantly interrupting the flow of dialogue with needless narration:

“Are you on good terms these days?”

The question seemed to take him by surprise and return him to the present. My words had told him something beyond their content. “Why did you want to see me?” he asked.

*

“Which ‘some’?”

“Sorry?” The phrase sounded foreign. I couldn’t understand him.

*

He shrugged. “It was obvious she was talking about Damian.” He must have caught and mistaken my response to this news, and hurried to undo any possible hurt. “She was always very fond of you, but…” How was he to phrase it?

I helped him out. “She wasn’t interested in me.”

We both knew she wasn’t, so why should he argue? “Not like that,” he said, accepting my own verdict.

*thump*
*slam*
*swish-swish*
*bam-bam-bam*

Oh, sorry, that was just the sound of me tripping over narration, brushing myself off, then proceeding to deliberately bang my head against the wall. Back to what I was saying…

The long and short of it is, Writers: Each of you needs an editor. And Editors: Even if your authors are already best-selling superstars, don’t cut corners in polishing their work. Just as every writer should take pride in their writing, editors should take pride in their editing, whatever the constraints we face.

I like to think I do, and yet I still don’t claim to master the art on my own—for the work that I do for a small publisher, I have three other editors on my team for any given manuscript, and it’s always a learning process for me. I’m pleased to say, though, that two more guinea pigs I’ve developmentally edited on this publisher’s behalf are out in the world as of September, making five published novels in total, with three more on the way this winter. I also just finished editing a short-story prequel to one of those books, and a freelance manuscript that I’d proofread for the sake of querying has already found itself an agent. SO proud of my authors, and may we all continue to write, edit, and prosper.

See my related post: “Editing Out the Editor

Also, stay tuned for some reflection on use of 1st-person narration


No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” – Part III

Right. So, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t live up to my end of the bargain at the end of my previous post. I haven’t completed any creative writing since then, but I did get through another round of edits on someone else’s super-fun paranormal romance and am taking on some additional freelance work writing/editing commercial documents and web content for a couple small businesses. Hey, it pays the bills. I do find myself in a peaceful sort of limbo today, though, that should allow me a chance to crack open manuscript #2 and crank on its final chapters. But first things first: in getting psyched and inspired to write by those who’ve already done it so well, it’s time to wrap up my little literary miniseries here with some final quotations from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

On peer critique:

He liked the works of his friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but can be disastrous as judgment.
~ from “Ezra Pound and the Measuring Worm”

We still went under the system, then, that praise to the face was open disgrace.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

That fall of 1925 [Scott Fitzgerald] was upset because I would not show him the manuscript of the first draft of The Sun Also Rises. I explained to him that it would mean nothing until I had gone over it and rewritten it and that I did not want to discuss it or show it to anyone first.
~ from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Every writer is different, but hopefully we all understand the value of actively soliciting constructive criticism of our work. That said, I totally share the reluctance Hemingway had when it comes to handing over an early draft, the desire to give yourself the opportunity to critique it first before letting other eyes judge what is surely not yet your best. There does come the time, though, to fork it over, and I’m still steeling myself for this step…I do know a select few friends whose loyalty wouldn’t impair their judgment; they would tell it to me straight without fear of hurting my feelings, which is fortunate and terrifying all at once as I endeavor to shape what I do into something truly good by any measure…but what defines good writing?

On good writing:

[Fitzgerald’s] talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think. He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good one in his life.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

He spoke slightingly but without bitterness of everything he had written, and I knew his new book must be very good for him to speak, without bitterness, of the faults of past books. He wanted me to read the new book, The Great Gatsby, as soon as he could get his last and only copy back from someone he had loaned it to. To hear him talk of it, you would never know how very good it was, except that he had the shyness about it that all non-conceited writers have when they have done something very fine, and I hoped he would get the book quickly so that I might read it.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. […] If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.
~ from “On Writing in the First Person”

Then I started to think in Lipp’s about when I had first been able to write a story after losing everything. […] It was a very simple story called “Out of Season” and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood. […] And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them. Oh sure, I thought, I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.
~ from “Hunger was Good Discipline”

I feel the strong need to emoticon that last one, but will do it here so it doesn’t look like Hemingway stooped to my level. Here it is: 🙂 I think that observation speaks (to an extent) to the debate in my first post in this series about writing to the market…I think sometimes you do have to throw the reader a bone and hand-hold just a little if you want them running along with you and cheering you on—rather than giving up on you because you’re trying to be a profound and abstract literary genius, sitting up there on-high in your little turret all alone but for the company of a story only you could love. 🙂 (There, I emoticoned again! It’s a modern disease!) But to continue…

In writing there are many secrets too. Nothing is ever lost no matter how it seems at the time and what is left out will always show and make the strength of what is left in. Some say that in writing you can never possess anything until you have given it away or, if you are in a hurry, you may have to throw it away. […] They say other things too but do not pay them too much attention. They are the secrets that we have that are made by alchemy and much is written about them by people who do not know the secrets or the alchemy. There are many more explainers now than there are good writers. You need much luck in addition to all other things and you do not always have it. This is regrettable but nothing to complain about as you should not complain of those explainers who tell you how you do it and why, if you do not agree with them. […] Good writing does not destroy easily…
~ from “Nada y Pues Nada”

I must say, I’m touched by Fitzgerald’s humility regarding The Great Gatsby, as well as the esteem he was held in by his contemporary Hemingway (even when other aspects of Fitzgerald’s life hardly impressed him). What a fascinating time to be a writer back then, when there was still uncharted territory—hell, when there was still un-agented submissions!—and classic American literature was given new voice. So many pioneering and influential artists, right there in Paris at the same time and toasting cocktails to one another…no wonder Woody Allen wanted to pay homage with his recent film Midnight in Paris. An era idealized in nostalgia? Sure. But there’s no questioning the contribution that those people at that time made to what so many of us continue to aspire to today; it was a recipe for greatness whether they knew it themselves yet or not…a wonderful alchemy of talent and ambition that not even the explainers can explain.

In closing:

“Hem, you won’t forget about the writing?”

“No,” I said. “I won’t forget about the writing.”

I went out to the telephone. No, I thought. I would not forget about the writing. That was what I was born to do and had done and would do again. Anything they said about them, the novels or the stories or about who wrote them was all right by me.

~ from “Nada y Pues Nada”

PART I

PART II


No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” – Part II

Yikes, have I taken long enough to follow up on this? Busy days, folks, busy days, and I clearly lack Hemingway’s discipline…for writing anyway. His discipline seemed to stray when it came to women…

Right, moving on. I left off last time with commentary on how Hemingway’s autobiographical yet “fictional” book A Moveable Feast might have been called The Early Eye and The Ear had its author let himself live to see its publication. To continue:

The Early Eye and The Ear gets at the need to hone your craft, something Hemingway truly believed in and worked at all his life. It implies talent, for you must have a good eye and a good ear to begin with if you are to be successful, but it also suggests that you need experience to develop your abilities as a writer, and Paris at that time was for Ernest Hemingway the perfect place to do this.

Indeed, I imagine Paris isn’t too shabby a place to do it. Especially back then when being an expatriate really would have felt exotic as opposed to today’s globally minded society that shuffles the likes of us in and out the door with more frequency. Not that moving to London wasn’t a massive inspiration for me and my own writing, but I probably hear North American accents here as often as any, and the likes of Starbucks is everywhere (which I’m at peace with because I very specifically love their chai lattes and granola bars).

At any rate, any place is fitting for a writer—or human being in general—that can introduce you to new perspectives, cultures, aesthetics, interesting, worldly if not quirky people, and allow you to expand into a sense of self you might not have realized you could be back home. I’ve learned firsthand how moving away helps you see that home with sharper clarity; as Hemingway said, “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.” Let’s hear more of what he had to say about those days when he first endeavored to become a novelist…

On starting to write a novel:

I knew I must write a novel. But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel. It was necessary to write longer stories now as you would train for a longer race. When I had written a novel before, the one that had been lost in the bag stolen at the Gare de Lyon, I still had the lyric facility of boyhood that was as perishable and as deceptive as youth was. I knew it was probably a good thing that it was lost, but I knew too that I must write a novel. I would put it off though until I could not help doing it. I was damned if I would write one because it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly. When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice. Let the pressure build. In the meantime I would write a long story about whatever I knew best.
~ from “Hunger was Good Discipline”

Since I had started to break all my writing down and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

Now, as he alluded to in that first quotation, Hemingway had lost not only the entire manuscript of his first attempt at a novel but also the majority of anything else he had written, and he didn’t have any copies. He then went on to write The Sun Also Rises. Talk about rallying! That must have taken tremendous drive, patience, and discipline to simply sit down with pencil and notebook and start writing again. Fortunately, he was seated in the midst of life, buzzing around him with inspiration…

On writing from life:

In the early days writing in Paris I would invent not only from my own experience but from the experiences and knowledge of my friends and all the people I had known, or met since I could remember, who were not writers. I was very lucky always that my best friends were not writers and to have known many intelligent people who were articulate. In Italy when I was at the war there, for one thing that I had seen or that had happened to me, I knew many hundreds of things that had happened to other people who had been in the war in all of its phases. My own small experiences gave me a touchstone by which I could tell whether stories were true or false and being wounded was a password.
~ from “On Writing in the First Person”

A girl came in the cafĂ© and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek. / I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere […]. The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. […] I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
~ from “A Good CafĂ© on the Place St.-Michel”

So, it seems Hemingway had found a sweet spot in a cafĂ© where his writing could flourish. I had to laugh, then (but with as much pity as humor), at his agitation when other people disrupted that peace…

On less-than-ideal writing conditions:

The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafĂ© crèmes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed. […] Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake. A pencil-lead might break off in the conical nose of the pencil sharpener and you would […] sharpen the pencil carefully with the sharp blade and then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack strap to lift the pack again, get the other arm through and feel the weight settle on your back and feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake. / Then you would hear someone say, “Hi, Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a cafĂ©?” / Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook. This was the worst thing that could happen. […] Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. There were other good cafĂ©s to work in but they were a long walk away and this was your home cafĂ©. It was bad to be driven out of the Closerie des Lilas. You had to make a stand or move.
~ from “Birth of a New School”

It appears he made a stand. It wasn’t pretty. But he made his point. Then there’s that friendly chap F. Scott Fitzgerald, fellow member of the Parisian literati who invited Hemingway and his wife Hadley to join them in the French Riviera.

It was a nice villa and Scott had a very fine house not far away and I was very happy to see my wife who had the villa running beautifully, and our friends, and the single aperitif before lunch was very good and we had several more. That night there was a party to welcome us at the Casino […]. No one drank anything stronger than champagne and it was very gay and obviously a splendid place to write. There was going to be everything that a man needed to write except to be alone.
~ from “Hawks Do Not Share”

I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

Not that Ernest couldn’t whoop it up on his own terms, but, when he wore the writing hat, it was all about productivity.

On the discipline of writing:

I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when you had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.
~ from “Miss Stein Instructs”

And now that Hemingway has made me feel thoroughly guilty, it’s time to go get some work done. You should, too. Let’s say we write ourselves proud for a while and meet back here when I post the last installment of this series. Deal? Good. Now keep those eyes and ears open…

PART I

PART III


No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” on Writing – Part I

“It is not that things should be published. But I believe now that it is important that they exist.”

Ah, and that quotation wasn’t even Hemingway; it was his friend Evan Shipman. But I figured it made a good segue from my previous post about “When Not Being Published Doesn’t Feel Too  Shabby,” no? Who was Evan Shipman? Alas, perhaps if he hadn’t held the views on publishing he did, his name would be as household as Ernest Hemingway’s by now.

Evan Shipman, who was a very fine poet and who truly did not care if his poems were ever published, felt that it should remain a mystery.

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” he once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”
~ from “An Agent of Evil”

Ah, sustenance. Indeed. Well, it doesn’t seem  even the published can necessarily count on that anymore. But this is how F. Scott Fitzgerald did:

He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoreing. He said it was whoreing but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best they could write without destroying their talent. He said he had learned to write the stories for the Post so that they did him no harm at all. He wrote the real story first, he said, and the destruction and changing did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it but I needed a novel to back up my faith and to show him and convince him, and I had not yet written any such novel.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

[After Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby:]

I was trying to get him to write his stories as well as he could and not trick them to conform to any formula, as he had explained that he did.

“You’ve written a fine novel now,” I told him. “And you mustn’t write slop.”

“The novel isn’t selling,” he said. “I must write stories and they have to be stories that will sell.”

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

“I”m going to.” he said.
~ from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Hm, and did he? Was Scott a sell-out? Or was he just doing what he needed to do to make a livelihood of his craft? It raises the question that hits me time and again—to what extent do writers need to write to the market if they ever want to be published? Just at the start of their careers to get a foot in the door? Throughout their careers to keep earning a living? Is there a happy medium? And could writing to the market harm your writing if it’s any less than your best? Questions I don’t feel the need to answer at this time. (But see my post “To Market, To Market” if you want to further chew on it.)

Moving on, the bits that I’m quoting here are from one of my latest reads, Hemingway’s posthumously published book, A Moveable Feast. The title, though chosen by his wife after his death, bears Hemingway’s stamp, taking liberties as he did with spelling and punctuation out of an innate grammatical logic of his own—in this case, the “ea” in “Moveable.” In any case, I used to read so much Hemingway in my teens and twenties and had neglected him for a while until recently reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife about his days in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife Hadley. This led to reading A Moveable Feast, his own accounts of what transpired in those ol’ Paris days, and then re-reading The Sun Also Rises, which is essentially autobiographical of a group trip at that time to Pamplona, Spain. It’s funny how we readers bring so much to a story’s meaning depending on our evolving frame of reference, because first reading that novel a decade or two ago was a different experience for me than reading it now as a fellow American expat in Europe—especially different after attending a bull fight in Madrid last year (and sobbing like an infant, I might add. I’m not going to run out and join PETA or anything, but I’ll say this: Never. Again.)

Anyway, that’s the side of literature I’ve been embracing again: being a reader. Nonetheless, as I won’t be entirely foregoing the trials and tribulations of being a writer (as implied in my last post), I thought I’d share some insights on writing Hemingway gave throughout his Paris memoirs—Paris being where he was still cutting his teeth on his pencil. I’ll break it up into separate posts as this is already getting long, but before I close up shop today, I’ll share this from Seán Hemingway’s introduction to the book. Regarding how A Moveable Feast was originally going to be titled The Early Eye and The Ear:

The eye, a term usually used in the connoisseurship of fine art, draws an interesting comparison between writing and painting […] Hemingway first developed his eye, his ability to discern the gold from the dross and turn his observations into prose, in Paris in the twenties. The ear, which we think of as more pertinent to musical composition, is clearly important to creative writing. Hemingway’s writing typically reads well when spoken aloud. When complete, his writing is so tight that every word is integral, like notes in a musical composition.

Hemingway’s writing isn’t for everyone. I, too, fluctuate in my response to it sometimes. But I’ll never question my overall love for his storytelling if only for For Whom the Bell Tolls. He brought something different to the table, and even if it isn’t the style other writers or readers want to embrace, the discipline and the principles he abided by were universally sound. Until next time, when we’ll hear more of what Ernest has to say!

PART II

PART III


And now a word from our sponsors…

* * BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP * *

This blog is temporarily on hiatus.

The Primate was at first preoccupied with October travels,
and now with November NaNoWriMo.

(see sidebar widget to track my progress…
…and have mercy. I joined 12 days in.) 

Please stay tuned for The Fallen Monkey’s winter season line-up, though, when it returns to its regular schedule.

Same Monkey Time. Same Monkey Channel.

*


What Characters Looove to Do…


Characters love to—

* sigh *
and take deep breaths
when they’re not
catching their breath at the back of their throats
or gasping!
They like taking sidelong glances as they
look out the corner of their eyes,
and they’re fond of
muttering,
mumbling,
murmuring,
and growling
through clenched teeth.
They’ll pinch the bridge of their noses
or roll their eyes in frustration
or furrow/cock their brows in confusion.
And their mouths drop open in shock.
In good moods, they’re wild about
smirking
and
winking
and
blushing
as they
chuckle or snicker or giggle
with smug grins.
In tender moments, they’ll
whisper
and do everything
softly and gently.
And they absolutely get off on
beginning to do some things
while starting to do others.

These are just some of the things I see characters loving to do all over the place when I edit manuscripts. (I catch ’em with the naked eye, but a tool like “Wordle” might also help authors divide and conquer those tendencies)

What penchants do YOUR characters have?

*


Blog Neglect

It’s happening again. Right now. As I type.

Well, not as badly right now as I’m technically tending to my blog by typing in it, but pretty badly nonetheless considering the worthless content I’m proceeding to dump here…

…just to say…

…that I’m traveling again so probably not going to give my blog nor any of yours proper attention until August. My sincerest apologies.

As penance, while I could do without a caning here in Singapore, how about next week I let the monkeys in Bali pelt me with their poop. Fair enough?


The Red Pen: Top 3 Errors in Grammar

Following up on my previous post, below are the three most-recurring grammatical corrections I make in my editing assignments.

1. Tense consistency:

All manuscripts I’ve edited so far have been narrated in past tense. While it’s still okay (and necessary) for their dialogue to use present tense, sometimes there are incorrect lapses into it in the narrative. More often, though, I’m correcting the times when past tense is used instead of past perfect.

Past perfect is basically the past tense of past tense. If the main action of your narrative is already in past tense, events described as having occurred prior to that are denoted as even further in the past by using past perfect tense. e.g.:

  • I called him. (past)
  • I had called him. (past perfect)
  • I was upset. (past)
  • I had been upset. (past perfect)
  • Why didn’t he tell me this before? (past)
  • Why hadn’t he told me this before? (past perfect)

[Brief flashbacks can be easily handled this way. If ever writing a lengthy flashback, though, in which you think using past-perfect for paragraphs or pages on end might be awkward / distracting / lacking immediacy, you can alternatively offset the scene in italics and/or as its own section.]

2. Commas for coordinating conjunctions:

Unless denoting a pause for particular emphasis, a comma is only needed before and, but, or, for, so, nor, yet if the clause following one of those conjunctions could stand alone as its own sentence. e.g.:

  • I called him, but I hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him but hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him, and I asked about tonight.
  • I called him and asked about tonight.

3. Semicolons:

A semicolon is basically the same thing as adding a comma + conjunction (and, but, or, etc…). It separates what are otherwise two complete sentences that could stand independently from each other. e.g.:

  • I called him; I hung before he could answer.

The easiest test for when it’s appropriate to use a semicolon or comma+conjunction is to ask yourself if you could use a period in place of either. And the point of not just always using a period in that case is to vary your simple sentences with complex ones.

This goes right back to what I was saying last time about varying sentence structure. Unless repeating a certain structure for emphasis, it’s good to change it up. Of course, sentence fragments can also be used for an effect, but you’ll use those only to a limited extent. As long as I’m totally dorking out here, I’ll take this opportunity to share the basic sentence formulas for evaluating structural soundness.

The cheat-sheet of basic sentence structure & punctuation:

I = Independent clause (it can stand alone as its own sentence)
D = Dependent clause  (it can’t stand on its own, unless for stylistic emphasis)
c = coordinating conjunction

Starting with the simple sentence below, the subsequent compound sentences can be formed a few different ways:

I .           The monkey screeched.
I , c I .    The monkey screeched, and it fell out of the tree.
I ; I .      The monkey screeched; it fell out of the tree.
I D .      The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree.
D , I .    When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched.

So there you have the basic building blocks for any sentence you could come up with, like the compound-complex ones below that combine the above in different ways for all sorts of crazy fun ;):

ID,cI.
The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I,cI.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I;I.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched; it grabbed for a vine.

I,cID.
The monkey fell out of the tree, and it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

I;D,I.
The monkey fell out of the tree; as it grabbed for a vine, it screeched.
I;ID.
The monkey fell out of the tree; it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

And blah-blah-blah, blah-blah. I think you get the idea. How we phrase our sentences usually comes from a more innate, magically creative place, but the basic formulas above remind us of the options and, at the very least, are a great way to check commas and semicolons. Even if you want to play with this punctuation, too, for stylistic reasons, you still have to know the writing rules in order to break them.

I’d better leave it at that before the red pen editing section of my brain lights your brains on fire, too…


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