What I’m Writing

The shorter the better

dino

This week my friend Leland Cheuk published a craft piece in SmokeLong Quarterly about how he began to write shorter and shorter fiction and why that’s working well for him. Like Leland, I spent many years only writing novels. For some writers, and readers, the novel is the ultimate form. I revere novels, I love reading them, I’m conditioned to that length and expanse and the long, slow arc that occurs within two hundred plus pages. But, this penultimate form not only takes years to complete, but more and more rarely are novels actually published. The bulls-eye has gotten smaller for what publishers want to publish, what will make them even a few dollars. Another writer friend of mine recently said to me, us literary fiction writers are the poets of thirty years ago. I understood right away that she meant we’re fringe weirdos. Leland embraced short and flash fiction a couple of years ago, and he found that his intelligent, humorous and very creative work was much more readily accepted for publication in literary journals, and now he’s published a collection of short stories, Letters From Dinosaurs, some of them very short. I would believe that if a dinosaur sat down to write a letter, it would short and to the point. I met Leland after he’d turned to shorter fiction (as well as his novels) when he joined my writing group, and I’m lucky to have read many of the stories in his new collection while they were still in development.

I’m trailing far behind Leland in my forays into shorter fiction. I’ve written about five short stories in the last two years, which is five more than I’d written in twenty years, but they’re not very short. I still fall into the old-school tradition of writing say a sixteen page short story. Leland has inspired me try something much more new and different for me, to go for the 2,000 word (four page) story. To pack action and character and theme into sentences that work triple time. To make a beginning, middle and an end occur in a tight, complete, satisfying arc that readers actually have the time to read, and journals actually have the space to print.

I know myself well enough to know that I won’t stop trying to write novels, and I probably won’t stop writing a 16 page short story when that story bids for my attention. But reading Leland’s article about his stories, one that takes the form of a letter, one all in bullet points, one that is a group email exchange, was a welcome reminder- have some effing fun with your writing- do strange new things with it, and you just might find more of it appearing in print while you’re experimenting. Life and writing are change, after all.

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WHAT TO WRITE

Last week, in honor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the author, essayist and journalist, Jill Dearman, re-published some of her interviews with Brooklyn authors from recent years. The funny thing about this was that in the very same week, I’d crossed paths with Jill after quite a few years, through our kids’ school and I’d said, “We used to know each other through our writing, perhaps the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, somewhere…..” In our early morning bus-stop encounter, neither one of us remembered this author interview we’d had about eight years earlier, before these bus-riders were even born.

Well, I really enjoyed reading these Brooklyn author interviews of Jill’s, and re-reading my own. One thing that jumped out at me, that I hadn’t remembered discussing with Jill, was that the author, Jeanette Winterson, is a writer who I consider an influence. Winterson is a diverse novelist, but what runs across all her fiction is surrealist poetic prose. I admire her literary acrobatics, her voice, and her skill. I also admire her subject choices. Every time a writer sets out to start a new long piece of fiction, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities akin to sky-diving at a frenetic speed, and trying to choose your next perch, a safe-landing, while your body whizzes past possibility after possibility. Before I jump, I have many conflicting thoughts, such as, I’m gonna choose something really commercial this time, I’m gonna do that young adult sci-fi idea, I’m gonna write that historical fiction book that requires five years of research, I’m gonna write a chapbook of poems about youth.

I harbor a secret belief that there’s a Jeanette Winterson novel in me that I haven’t had the courage to write. My apparent commitment to realism is overpowering for one thing. A lack of imagination, and my fear that I might have the imagination to start it, but how could I possibly sustain that level of imagination to finish it, is another obstacle. The reason I keep thinking about writing a surreal novel, in the style of a fairytale or allegory, aka a Jeanette Winterson novel, is that they are so divine to read. Her writing instigates my own imagination. She baffles and tosses around her reader into make-believe worlds that are fierce rivals of the real world I always depict in my own writing.

Lately, I have an urge to write in new genres. I’d like to work on poems, fairytales, short stories and this blog on the side of my latest novel endeavor. Maybe my Jeanette Winterson homage can get a little foothold on the page in one of these shorter forms, while I still grow the courage to make that big landing of a novel in a new and stranger voice.

A WRITING DAY

danny-shanahan-i-try-to-write-a-little-bit-every-day-new-yorker-cartoon

Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.

LENGTH AND STAKES

I know this from every long piece I’ve ever written. One hundred pages is your first real test. A novel allows for a lot of establishing, as well as unspooling backstory. The novel form unfolds and builds. That establishing and hopefully skillful doling-out of backstory can sustain a long momentum. But if your plot is not successfully moving forward and wholly satisfying the reader, this momentum will falter at a hundred pages. I experienced this when I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Sign for Drowning. Every single hair on my head was brown. I had only been an adult for six years. I was a writing innocent. I was intentionally writing a series of vignettes. Oh my. And things went along swimmingly- all my teachers and fellow grad students agreed- for a hundred pages. Wham. It took me about eight years to figure my way out of that lack of forward momentum. A couple of months ago, I reached page one hundred of my revision of my current novel. I wavered as I approached it. I looked in every direction for oncoming traffic intent to derail my project, and I found things were secure. The book, its plot, was solidly built and moving under its own force, and I was able to steer the narrative ahead. I passed. The book passed. About a week ago, I arrived at another junction. It happens to be page 160. I haven’t written quite enough novels to know if page 160 is a typical crossroads. But what happened here, this time, was about the higher stakes I’ve raised in my earliest chapters. The stakes are higher. This is very good news. The characters are going through harder, scarier, more threatening and immediate challenges. A gun in the first act….(actually there are guns) Higher stakes in the second chapter of this book require higher outcomes, starting on page 160 it so happens. I’ve been sitting here for about a week, wondering how to meet the stakes I’ve set up. The very end of the novel achieves what I want. But I’m not at the very end. I’m at the three-quarter mark perhaps and I sense the time is now to climb higher with the stress, the challenge, the total fear of my unwitting characters. They were pushed. They had a chance to equalize for a minute and re-group. I have to torture then again now. I’m trying to decide just how.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

9781594200694_custom-f03becf20830b170ef232802ff0e955a36b8ef02-s6-c30Turning to E.B. White for help with your writing is a double-edged sword. His advice is spot-on, unequivocal. Do it. Everything E. B. White has to say will improve your writing. However, read enough of his offerings from Elements of Style and you will soon grow to believe that you cannot do it. Writing that well, avoiding all those pitfalls- fatal missteps feels impossible. Now, if you’re reading this and you’re an arrogant writer, then go right ahead and dive into Elements of Style, and you’ll probably walk away thinking, I do all that already. As in all things arrogant, your thinking is misguided. You don’t, you’re wrong, and look again. Read one page of your writing and you’ll find these common weaknesses in style. When I read Elements of Style, I feel guilty of all he warns against. I’m pleased if I was at least already aware of the bad habit. There’s someone in my house who is obsessed with E.B. White. It’s not my four and a half year-old, although he is reading The Trumpet of the Swan.

We’ve always taken E.B. White very seriously in my household. When in doubt about creating straight-forward drama in our writing, my husband and I have turned to the first sentence of Charlotte’s Web more than once. “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” Recently, I sense we’re about to get way more steeped in him. As I write this, there are six of his books on my coffee table. I don’t want you to suffer vicariously from the notion that you just can’t do everything correctly, as he urges us to. So, I’ll share just a little of his sage advice. But trust, humble writer friends, there’s more good advice where this came from.

Write with nouns and verbs.

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech…In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.

Do not overstate.

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgement or your poise…..A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.

Brooklyn Public Library

lib frontThe Brooklyn Public Library, main branch has been my writing home for many years. Although I joined the Brooklyn Writing Space for a few years, leaving right before my son’s birth, I never needed it. This large, airy, majestic and architecturally beautiful library is a block from my home. The second floor, and many other rooms/floors/alcoves/spaces have work tables and abundant outlets to accommodate writers on laptops. (There’s also delicious coffee and food in the lobby these days from Four & Twenty Blackbirds Café.) But its not the bells and whistles or amenities that entice me. It is that near silent room on the second floor with huge windows, high ceilings, the five or six long tables that seat up to 8 people, the cranking heat in winter and cool air in summer, the tens of thousands of bound books sleeping on their feet all around and the cross-section of Brooklyn citizenry circulating with the air, that just makes me purely happy- and productive. I wrote the final draft of The Sign for Drowning in this room, at these tables, and the first draft of my current novel.

baby in libIn fact, as my maternity leave drew to an end in early 2011, I realized that if I brought the baby to the library every morning, I could finish my first draft of the novel before returning to work. I’d bundle him up and plop him in his stroller right before I knew he would start his morning nap and we’d hike over to the library. I discovered their elevators because of his big stroller. Then he’d sleep for over two hours in this room which was not meant for babies, and I’d write in the perfect atmosphere. Many times, I’d eventually look at him after two plus hours, and see that he was already awake, contentedly watching. Maybe he was as pleased as I am to just have a clean well-lighted space to think. He’s got his own library card now and does his own browsing. And I’m back for more hours a week than I have been in recent years, gratefully.

E in lib

 

 

 

 

WRITING MUSIC

During the years I wrote the first draft of my second novel, I constantly listened to Iron & Wine while writing. The albums I listened to disappeared during the first song and we’re only really noticed when they stopped, and I would think, thirty minutes just passed?!  And then I’d start the album again. I always listen to lyrics when I listen to music, and therefore music can be too distracting while writing. But I trained myself to not be distracted by their incredible story-telling in their songs. Actually their rhythms and percussion- and perhaps even their vivid images, sent me into a trance every time. Needless to say, it was very unsettling to hear their music any time I wasn’t writing. These albums are Pavlovian writing tools, not something to hear while talking, cooking, socializing- driving alone could be an exception, but not really, I will start writing in my head. Don’t get me wrong, if you haven’t turned this music into a mind control device, it’s very listenable in any context.

The last few months I’ve gone back into this novel in a new and deeper way. I’m probably writing the fourth draft at this point, and the funny thing is that during the second and third drafts, I could listen to quite a few other artists while writing. But not now. Iron & Wine seem required again. Luckily they’ve been busy too and I’ve bought another album. It works just the same. Repeat.