For readers and for writers.
For readers and for writers.
I first bought the Kindle edition after it was recommended at a writing workshop. However, about halfway through all his delightful footnotes, I realized I needed a hard copy to sit on my shelf next to The Elements of Style. Benjamin Dreyer is that good. Readers, writers, and word nerds of all sorts will enjoy his conversational, snappy (sometimes snarky) commentary on what seems to be the moving target of proper English usage, capitalization, and punctuation.
I’ve even shared some tidbits with my nine-year-old granddaughter. Do you know when “flyer” is the correct spelling and when it’s “flier”? We do, now.
Recommend, but just go ahead and buy the hard copy.
Decluttering has officially affected every aspect of my life. Even my novel. Recently I’ve culled this beast down to a two-page synopsis, a two-paragraph elevator pitch, and finally a Twitter pitch. Not fun.
I loved writing TIES THAT BIND during National Novel Writing Month. Creating those touching scenes filled with evocative details of time and place was fun. 112K words of fun in fact. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was merely building a stockpile of raw material from which I could (maybe) craft a novel. What I had created was a metaphorical slab of marble. Not a book–yet–just a massive lump of potential.
I should have known this, after all I used to teach a lesson about the writing process, using Play-Doh of all things. Students molded and mashed, pulled and pinched the dough until they knew what it could do. And what it couldn’t. Only then did they try to turn it into something recognizable. And only after it was created could they add details—in this case bits of different colored Play-doh. Details don’t stand alone. Descriptive details do not necessarily make a story, whereas relevant details can.
Of course, now I’m doing the opposite. Removing extraneous bits—decluttering the narrative—to reveal what I hope is the novel hidden inside. Like a sculptor, I’m removing the chunks of cold marble that don’t serve my characters’ story arc.
The heart of my story is in there–I hope–buried beneath this beautiful mess.
It seems Amy Tan has been trying to write her story for years. The ghosts of her past inhabit all her novels and each one discloses a bit more of herself. Quite literally. In Where the Past Begins though, she gives readers the actual stories as she sifts through boxes of documents and photos—archives of her life and her parents’ emigration. Diplomas. Letters. Journals. A forbidden love story. The children and the cruel husband her mother left behind in China. The tragic deaths of her brother and father from brain tumors within six months of each other when Amy was a teenager.
Amy tries to understand the motives of her parents and where certain of her own personality traits originated—chief among them persistence and curiosity.
The most enlightening chapter for me as a writer and longtime reader of her fiction is the one in which she shares emails exchanged with her editor as she was writing (and rewriting) The Valley of Amazement. She’d written a story that wasn’t holding together as it should. That novel did contain a lot of detours and rabbit trails as I mentioned in this review a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fact that even Amy Tan needed help to turn this story into a novel made me feel better. Hopeful even. Not to mention confirmation that writing is hard.
Here is a sampling of Amy’s eloquent and insightful prose.
On memory and the amygdala:
“Memory, in fact, gives you no choices over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. It is extraordinary faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar.”
“…without conscious choice on my part, my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.”
“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden. I am more than curious—and it’s not because I’m a fiction writer who seeks a good story to write about. What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened. In the amygdala are vast stores of disappointments and devastations, pain and wreckage. But I also want to know what the amygdala kept, because therein lies thousands of stories of how I became me.”
On the work of writing:
“But in writing fiction, the truth I seek is not a factual or scientific truth. It has to do with human nature. It is about those things that are not apparent on the surface. When I set out to write a story, I am feeling my way through a question, often a moral one, and attempting to find a way to capture all its facets and conundrums. I don’t want an absolute answer. When writing fiction, I am trying to put down what feels true.”
“The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and my infatuation with nuance.”
“The actual writing will still be daunting. It gets harder with each novel. I will have to relearn my craft, overcome the same doubts, untangle the narrative from long detours, or take whichever detour is the story I should tell.”
On the fickleness of acclaim:
“Praise, I had learned, was temporary, what someone else controlled and doled out to you, and if you accepted it and depended on it for happiness, you would become an emotional beggar and suffer later when it was withdrawn.”
“The moon is more admired when it was full that when it was a sliver, and yet it is the same moon even when the perspective of others had changed.”
On her own fiction-writing mind:
“It is curious and open to anything. It is nonjudgmental and thus nothing it imagines is wrong. It is not bound to logic or facts. It is quick to follow any clues, but it can also be easily diverted to another direction, especially if it detects a secret or a contradiction.”
“If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed.”
Insight into the life and writing process of one of my favorite authors was enough to entice me to read this memoir. I’m more that glad I did and happily recommend it. Actually, I’d recommend anything written by Amy Tan. Probably even her shopping list.
With some trepidation, I sent a “completed” draft of my novel (working title Ties that Bind) to four friends who had graciously volunteered to be first readers. Three are fellow members of Lone Mountain Writers. One is a member of my book club, although I hesitate to say “just a reader.” Without readers, there would be no writers. Right?
Every page of this nearly 400 page beast has been read, critiqued, and nit-picked repeatedly, but the whole thing all at once? Not until now. I really wanted to know how–and if– it hung together. Two manuscripts are still out, but the two critiques that have come back are so vastly different, I hesitate to make any major changes before seeing the final two. What? Two readers had very different opinions about one piece of writing?! Unheard of! (And where’s that sarcasm font when I need it?)
My “reader” friend had few comments and wondered if I’d finally publish it now. As if it were within my power to hit “publish” and make my book land on the shelves at Barnes and Noble next week. I explained the daunting process of researching and querying dozens of agents, hoping to convince just one to take on the task of selling it to a publisher. That process could take months. Years, maybe. I was recently told that until I had queried and been rejected by one hundred agents, I shouldn’t consider calling my attempts “failed.” Yes, self-publishing is an option, but…
My “writer” friend thought it was fine writing, just not yet a novel. It lacked a through-line of cause and effect to compel the reader. Crap. She also caused me to question my own judgment about the scenes I had deleted when I cut nearly 14K words from the original 112K manuscript. Had I unintentionally cut out the heart of my story? Double crap.
In light of that, I’ve begun rethinking the structure and scope of what I had originally envisioned as a story of a lifelong friendship between two very different women, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices. Here’s the most recent version of the blurb:
“Baby boomer, Claire Jordan has spent decades building a satisfying career in international relief while running away from the losses that plagued her troubled youth. However, when she receives news that her one lifelong friend Libby is ill, she books a flight home. Libby too, has built a life, but one tangled in the very ties and expectations that Claire has so scrupulously avoided. Together they will discover if it’s ever too late to change your mind about who you believe you are.”
Too much or too little to drive a novel?
While I ponder that question, I’m re-reading books on craft, especially the sections on plot and story arc. My two much-highlighted and dog-eared sources: Writing Fiction (Janet Burroway) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction (Donald Maass).
I remind myself that I asked for this help. And in recent yoga classes, I’ve meditated on remaining receptive to my teachers and trusting I will be able to untangle the many threads I’ve created and weave them into a story.
“The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.”
What a lovely gift my good friend Linda gave me for Christmas. A Lowcountry Heart is a fine collection of the last bits of writing by Pat Conroy, who died in the spring of 2016. His friends and family gathered a few of his blog posts, speeches, and letters and put them together in a lovely tribute to this big-hearted, story-loving, low-country man. Since it’s Pat Conroy, and I can’t ever hope to match his words, I’ve just picked a few quotes to share with you.
“Though I’ve never met a teacher who was not happy in retirement, I rarely meet one who thinks that their teaching life was not a grand way to spend a human life.”
“Teaching remains a heroic act to me, and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.”
“No one warned me that a teacher could fall so completely in love with his students that graduation seemed like the death of a small civilization.”
“…a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out.”
“It is not long life I wish for—it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age.”
“It was at the writing desk that I would be made or broken. In every biography of every writer, that was the secret to our kingdom of words. No other measurement counted for anything at all.”
On the veracity of his memoirs:
”None of them will be true word-for-word…It’s some version of the truth, even though I’m telling you right now it’s probably not going to be yours.”
“If a story is not told, it’s the silence around the untold story that ends up killing people. The story can open a secret up to the light.”
He is generous in his praise for other authors and the act of reading widely. Aspiring writers should take note.
“A great book took me into worlds where I was never supposed to go. I met men whose lives I wished to make my own and men whom I would cheerfully kill. Great writers introduced me to women I wanted to marry and women who would make me run for my life.”
Conroy’s troubled early life, schooling, and profound sense of place provided all the material he needed to make a career as a novelist. Like many readers, I’m sad there won’t be any more books by him. I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of his books, but these are my favorites. Which ones have you liked best?
It’s impossible to say how many drafts Ties that Bind has undergone. It’s been in revision since 2008, when I “finished” 50k words during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Each sentence, each scene, and each chapter has been reviewed and critiqued countless times by me and the very capable–not to mention very patient–members of Lone Mountain Writers. It’s now about 100k.
This past spring, I printed out and read the whole thing cover-to-cover in an attempt to get a sense of how it all hung together. Or didn’t. The result was a hard copy filled with highlights, sticky-notes, and huge sections crossed out. I’ve since made those changes in my manuscript. Nonetheless, I thought it needed (I needed?) one more going-over before letting a few beta readers take a look. (Obsess much?) And no, the MSWord spelling and grammar checks don’t catch everything.
Several people recommended reading it aloud to myself. Good idea, but I have been over this beast so many times, I’ve become “error blind.” I do not read the words that are there. I read the words that I think are there. Silly brain.
Then I remembered that my Kindle Fire has a Text-to-Speech feature. I’d listened to e-books while driving, but never used it with a document. I sent the document (a docx file) to my Kindle Fire. If you haven’t done it before it’s pretty easy with your Kindle’s email address. Find yours under “Settings” and “My Account” on your device.
You know what? It worked!
Ms. Kindle’s voice is female and a little mechanical, but certainly clear enough for my needs. I sat at the computer with the document on the screen and the ear-buds tucked in. I listened and made corrections as the nonjudgmental voice read exactly what was on the page. Bless her heart. She read every single typo, every syntax error, and every other embarrassing “little” thing that I hadn’t picked up in my repeated readings. Some errors were the ghosts of previous drafts–you know, tense or point of view changes.
While I couldn’t see them, I could certainly hear them.
Still, as helpful as Ms. Kindle is, she can’t create the tension that compels a reader to keep turning pages. She can’t make my characters believable or likable. She can’t tell me which scenes and details are necessary and which were merely fun to write. Nor can she do the other thousand and one things to make this creation into a book that someone besides my family will want to read. That’s still up to me.
Stay tuned for further developments.
I discovered yet another layer of revision by making a “word cloud” from my manuscript. I simply pasted my entire manuscript into the tool at WordItOut. You can easily see my overuse of certain words.
I’ve spent the last two mornings removing about half of my uses of know. Only a little tedious. I found most of them were in dialogue that I thought sounded conversational, but was merely boring, you know? Now, maybe I’ll just do that with all the rest.
Thanks to Joan Dempsey over at Revise With Confidence for the link and the insights.
Have you tried this with your writing? What did you learn?
My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year.
That was in 2008.
Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”
Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!
I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.
Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.
Here’s what I heard instead:
Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.
Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.
They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on a long ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.
What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.
In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.
So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.
Now, where’s my sunscreen?