Practice makes better


sad girlWith the insecurities, easily hurt feelings and sense of not belonging, middle school is still the stuff of nightmares. Yet, much as we might want to have avoided those years, middle school experiences are rough drafts for later life. Fortunately, writing poems or prose does not have to be as painful. We have the opportunity to erase our mistakes and revise.

Early in my novel-in-progress, for example, reporter Janelle Martin familiarizes herself (and the reader) with the cast of characters and their hometown. To do that, she drives around the city past schools, churches and homes significant to the accused bioterrorist. Here’s an early draft of her arriving in town:

“The dashboard clock said 12:12 a.m., too early to check into the Holiday Inn Express and not ready for lunch, so Janelle stayed straight on US-30, allowing it to become 8th Avenue South and followed it past Clinton High School.”

That was the middle school version. Later, I went back, moved the mapping detail up from later in the narrative and added clarity. One sentence became three:

“The dashboard clock read 12:12 p.m., too early to check into the Holiday Inn Express. The chips and cookie had dulled her appetite, so she wasn’t ready for lunch. Before leaving Chicago, Janelle had mapped her interview locations, but with no interviews scheduled that day, she began a lazy loop around Clinton on a self-guided tour.”

The next paragraphs in both versions describe the key locations she passes. However, in the second version, I added how these places have changed, concluding with:

“So many changes to touchstones in Paul’s life. She wondered if upon returning from Afghanistan he had felt like a stranger in his hometown.”

Those final two sentences help put her drive in perspective and hint at Paul’s state of mind.

Perfect? No. Final version? Not sure. I’ll see where my writing takes me. I can’t go back for a middle school do-over, but I can revise my writing to make my readers’ experiences better.

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Details, details


boat sunsetAt sunset on a late June evening, a fisherman sees an empty boat drifting on a northern Michigan lake. Would the man be fishing from the shore, a dock or boat? What fish would he be after that time of day and year? Would the sun be below the horizon or above? In his eyes or behind him? How would that affect how he sees the boat? What kind of boat is it?

Being attentive to details helps draw readers in, putting them at the scene. Like the fisherman, they are squinting to make out the boat that keeps disappearing in the waves splintered by the sun’s refracted light. Know, too, why a fisherman would be out on the lake that time of night. The sun sets around 10 p.m. that far north in the summer, and with the lake’s afterglow, it could even be later.

Writing might spring from the well of creativity, but reality shapes it. Only in action movies or TV shows where a suspension of disbelief is part of the viewing experience do brutally beaten characters hop up to single handedly take the bad guy down. It’s great entertainment, but not great writing.

Recently, I wrote a scene set in a hospital intensive care unit. Since this was a real hospital, I researched how to get there, where one would park, which building to enter, which elevator to take and on which floor the patient would be. In rereading the scene, I realized it still was missing color. If I were in that room, what would I see? There likely would be a cardiac monitor, pulse oximeter, arterial lines and urinary catheter. There also might be chest tubes, a Swan-Ganz catheter or central venous catheter. However, all the medical knowledge my character has comes from watching TV shows. She wouldn’t identify a pulse oximeter or Swan-Ganz catheter by name, but the descriptions have to be accurate.

Research is as important in fiction writing as it is in creative nonfiction or memoir. Get the details that make the difference online, first hand or from experts. Good writers get the details right.

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Delete. Rewrite.


DeleteInsertBackspaceI was feeling pretty smug on Friday. I was going into the weekend with all my to-dos checked off and a little more than 2,500 words added to my novel, excluding revisions. But something wasn’t sitting right with me.

The narrative flowed. The dialogue was believable. There even was some dramatic tension.

Yet, something was off. I kept coming back to the conversation in the car. It was filler, 745 wasted words. The reader learned nothing new, and the information I restated was not important enough to mention twice. Earlier, I’d hinted that Janelle might gain additional insight by spending more than an hour in the car with Paul’s parents, but I hadn’t delivered. I was feeling less smug.

The car ride, the precursor to a dramatic scene, contained no drama, no heightened expectations, nothing that would make me (or you) want to turn the page and keep reading. Nearly a third of my week’s work was junk not worth salvaging.

I’ll be able to use a sentence or two, move them to an earlier section. As for the rest, I’ll highlight the words and hit delete. Today, I’ll rewrite that section, plus another 500 words or so.

For the past several months, I’ve been taking a new approach to writing. Members of my critique group suggested moving the story along and revising later. Previously, I’d revise as I wrote, which made for lovely prose, but stories that crept forward. In the write now-revise later model, I find that plot problems are more apparent. However, the prose stinks. So, I am trying a hybrid approach, revising my work of the previous days before I write new sections that get things going again.

Of course, there’s still the no-fail way to find problems: Step away from the computer. Let the plot percolate in the subconscious. After it’s steeped a while, ask do I care what’s happening, do the characters interest me and further the plot, why do they act as they do, and what needs to happen to keep me turning pages? When I know the answers, I go back to the keyboard. And maybe hit delete.

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Read to write – and enjoy


NYTtblcontentsReading is one of my greatest pleasures, and I suspect it is one of yours, too. It’s my treat to myself after I’ve completed the day’s work. If I’m feeling particularly self-indulgent, I’ll put the to-dos aside and curl up on the couch or sit in the sun with a good book (the real thing, not a digital version).

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students to read like a writer and to write like a reader. That might explain why I am such an annoyingly slow reader and such a compulsive revisionist. It takes me nearly a full week to finish reading the New York Times. Not because there’s that much news or I’m a news junkie, although there is and I am. It’s because I read everything.

“A blond woman in a hot pink spandex tank hoists a sledgehammer over her shoulders, then slams it down with a dull thud onto the big tire in front of her.” (“Never Quit” by Heather Havrilesky)

I care nothing about extreme fitness, but with an opening sentence like this, how can I not read the second. Or the third. The headlines, too, draw me in. Captivating in print, they are rewritten for search optimization online. “Never Quit” becomes “Why Are Americans So Fascinated by Extreme Fitness?”

Articles I likely would pass over in other publications, I read and reread word for word to analyze why the images are so clear, the structure so crisp and – most importantly – the story so compelling.

“Once a year, Elimelech Ehrlich travels from Jerusalem to Lakewood, N.J., with a cash box and a wireless credit-card machine.” (“Beggarville” by Mark Oppenheimer)

The Times journalists are fine reporters, but just as importantly, they are unparalleled storytellers.

“In August, Tom Steyer and seven campaign advisers sat in a small conference room in Coral Gables, Fla., trying to figure out how to save the world.” (“Money Talks” by Jim Rutenberg)

The leads in these The New York Times Magazine stories from the October 19, 2014, are ones that would be at home as openings to detective, espionage or science fiction novels.

Our time is limited; each hour is precious. There are a lot of good writers out there – and a lot of bad ones. There are fewer excellent ones (with outstanding editors). Find them. Read them. You will be a better writer because of it.

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Filling holes


WordsFillingHoleWe were leaving our critique group last week, comments and suggestions duly noted, when one of the members began asking me more about my main character’s motivation. Easy questions. I had written her back story before I started the book, so I knew what made her tick. I understood her quirks and insecurities better than Janelle did herself. In each chapter, I revealed more about the reporter, so that readers got to know her. I thought I had everything accounted for, but this question brought me up short.

“Why Paul?”

I knew what she wanted to know about Paul and why she wanted to know it. I didn’t know how she had latched on to Paul’s story in the first place. What made her want to write about a year-old case? What brought it to the forefront of her consciousness when the case against him was tight and the media had moved on long ago?

I didn’t know.

All the next day, I mentally proposed and tossed out answers. I did what I always did when chewing on a plot turn or character’s development. I walked. I worked in the yard. I did something physical to free my mind, allowing it to work in the background to find a creative solution.

It worked. The answer came to me, and it was so obvious, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before.

I rewrote sections of my first chapter to include it. The answer not only made the chapter stronger, it explained why Janelle felt so passionately about writing the untold story that she was willing to have a heated exchange with her editor (an added section) about the journalistic value of pursuing it. Without the explanation, Janelle could have appeared to be just an idealistic, headstrong reporter. Now, she has a strong and valid argument that justifies her time and interest, even if it is writing on her own time and at her own expense.

Whether she gets the story she envisions is another issue.

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Bringing it home


familyFamilial relationships are complicated. And they should be just as complex in fiction as they are in real life. With the oldest child an accused bioterrorist, the Blake family has more than its share of complications.

In the ninth chapter of my book-in-progress, Chicago Tribune reporter Janelle Martin meets and interviews the family of accused bioterrorist Paul Blake. She knows she must carefully negotiate the family dynamics, being both respectful and professional, while uncovering new ground.

From interviews with friends, a teacher, police, the local paper and people in town, Janelle thinks she knows everything relevant about Paul as a child and teen. What she doesn’t know is the trigger or process that turned the good boy into a bioterrorist. No one she has interviewed so far has been able to explain that. Several think he’s innocent. She hopes that the uniquely intimate relationship that the Blakes have with Paul will provide the smoking gun.

To complicate matters, the reader knows something that Janelle doesn’t recognize. The reporter has gotten too close to her subject and to always be objective. That’s an objectivity she needs to recover.

Yesterday, I left Janelle thinking as she walked around a cemetery near her hotel. She is trying to identify what she specifically wants from the Blake family interview and how best to get it. She is framing her questions and anticipating roadblocks, so that she would know how to overcome them. The encounter will not be easy. For anyone.

The reporter will ask the family questions to gain insight and to open new avenues into understanding Paul. What questions, other than the obvious ones about his friends and changes his family noticed, do you think Janelle should ask Paul’s parents and his younger, young adult brother and sister? The reporter’s deadline is looming and she needs answers and direction to find those answers without alienating Paul’s family. She needs a complete picture of him and doesn’t have what she needs to write her story – yet.

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Wealth of writers


writing_in_notepad

As I listened to the local authors read from their works in 27 Views of Charlotte, I was overwhelmed by the wealth of talent in my adopted region. We had gathered at Park Road Books last Saturday for the book launch. I was there to support several friends whose pieces are included and to pick up a copy as a gift. However, the event became a celebration not just of the book or the city it profiles in poetry and prose, but of Charlotte-area writers, those represented in the volume and those who are not.

My friend Jack Claiborne, who wrote the preface and is author of a number of historical books on the region, explained that decades ago, Charlotte’s writing community was a small one. He said that today it has burgeoned and the voices being heard are as diverse as the region’s increasingly eclectic population.

I have written before about the value – no, the critical importance – of being part of a writers community. Mignon Ballard, author of the Augusta Goodnight mystery series and 13 other books, triple underscored that point to Saturday’s group. She wrote in 27 Views how winning a Charlotte Writers’ Club short story contest gave her much-needed confidence and led to her first published book. Through the Charlotte Writers’ Club, she connected with other fledgling and successful writers who offered each other clear-eyed, constructive criticism. Within this group, Mignon writes, “I was at last among people who not only loved the craft as I did, but were seriously intent on developing those skills.”

As the authors mingled with book buyers after the presentation, signing each others’ paperbacks, it felt like a family reunion. An important part of that family was the one hosting the party. Park Road Books, the city’s only independent new book seller, is an integral and supportive part of our literary community.

I have some acquaintances that do not frequent the independent bookstores in their communities and others whose only collaboration with writers is online. For me – and for many of the authors in 27 Views, that just doesn’t hit the mark. Nothing is more essential to my development as a writer than meeting face-to-face with others in my profession and the people who will be selling my books.

I plan to stay in touch with some of those that I met on Saturday and add them to my ever widening circle of support.

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