Week Three: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week three of the second annual Lake Projects Summer Online Writing Group, and everyone is meeting goals and kicking butt! Good work, group!

Last week everyone shared their second week goals and I gave everyone an assignment on using contrast in their pieces. (I’ve got another assignment this week, so prepare yourselves!)

This week, in addition to setting Week Three goals, we welcome two newcomers to the group: Matt (this is our second Matt, thus he will be called Matt The Second [I would use initials from their last names, but both Matts have last names beginning with an “F,” so this is just more fun]) and Tina. Matt is a former student and member of MCC’s creative writing club, Writer’s Block (also alumni of WC are: Alena, Aliena, and Anne D.), and Tina is a culinary instructor and pastry chef at MCC. I’m excited to be expanding the group and can’t wait to see what they’re working on. So welcome, Matt the Second and Tina!

Week Three Goals:

  • Alena: My goal for week three is to read part of a spy-thriller novel by a local author (Dragon Heart by Peter Atterberg) and eventually give him feedback as he continues his series. I also would like to continue to write more on my many works-in-progress. I am approximately 15 pages into my 60-page count goal for these eight weeks.
  • Aliena: (Quick note: Hello other Alena! Great name! o//)Okay, so. Remember how I was going to clean a space to write in?Yeah, about that.Good news: I got furniture! Bad news: I needed to displace my very extensive collection of cardboard boxes filled with junk into my writing area to make room for the aforementioned furniture.As such, my week three goals are as follows:
    1) Clean up my gorram workspace.
    2) Write some gorram words. More specifically, finish the demo scene of the podcast so it can be recorded.
  • Anne D.: My goal this week is to look into magazines to publish a short story. I know Writer’s Digest has lists of magazines that publish by genre so I will try there first. Right now I am looking into historical fiction or general fiction short stories. Any suggestions are welcome! And I have a story idea planned out. Plus I will start to research it this week, hopefully. (Anne, I’d also take a look at the New Pages alphabetical list of literary magazines — it’s a comprehensive and helpful resource)
  • Anne H.: Anne set sail on the Pacific as a means of finding poetic inspiration, so she will submit her goals upon her return to dry land…
  • Bev: I ended up doing three blog posts — busy week and lots to write about! I finished Ch. 8, March. This week I will do my usual blog post and tackle Ch. 9, April.
  • Emily: Realistic goals for this week = three questions for book and three hours revising breast cancer paper.
  • Katherine: Last week I did get some good writing done, but not quite as much as I would have liked. Technically the writing that I did last week was not from my to-do list. I started breaking the entire piece into chapters or sections. Some breaks were easy. Some breaks need more development in order to have the sections make sense independently.Next week I hope to clear up a bit more of my messy chapters and to write the only item currently on my to do list. 
  • Laura: I broke open my big writing project (a detective novel) and am almost finished with the first chapter. I’m really happy with the simple fact that I’ve started it, since for me, starting is the hardest part. I usually let things live in my head forever. But now, this also lives in actual words! The body is about to be discovered, so my goal for this week is to discover the body (that will end the first chapter) and start the second chapter (which will introduce my protagonist).
  • Lisa: This week I hope to write about five more pages. Fingers crossed!
  • Matt: It has been an exhausting week, emotionally, hasn’t it? (Yes.) Under other circumstances I might have processed some of that by writing, but after taking some time to hug people and dwell on the tragedy, I kept working. It was nice to have an exterior focus.

After making a lot of changes and revisions to the first eighty pages of The Liminal Man during week one, I went back to the beginning and started reading through again. As I write this at the end of week two, I’m just a few pages from the end. I’ve concentrated on the back half of the story, removing some more passages, tightening up. On balance, I have only reduced the page count from 149 to 147, which isn’t really worthy of a parade or anything (but it’s Pride week, and there’s no parade here, and it’s been sort of a shitty week for the LGBT community so if any of you feel like giving me a parade, that would be cool). I’ve got eighteen more pages to read tonight though, so maybe I’ll just cut the back nine if I’m craving an inflated sense of accomplishment.

Seriously though, I’m pretty happy with how things are progressing so far. Next up, I will be jumping back to roughly the middle of the story for another read-through, just to get a sense of how the changes  feel from farther away. I’ll probably make more changes. Frankly, I’ve become a bit cavalier about cutting things out, and I’m quite pleased about that. It’s been a long time coming. So week three will probably be about cutting out as much as possible while I’m still feeling brazen.

Matt, here is your parade:

  • Matt the Second: 1) Finish the piece of prose I have started for the Raue’s poetry reading; 2) Look at what I have for my play “The Relationship”, and see how I can revise it to give it a new scene I had imagined. My ultimate goal for this is turn it into a full length play instead of the ten-minute genre it now sits in. This new scene will be the first step in that process; 3) Look at my play “Confusion” to see how to give it more specificity. This one is a ten-minute play as it stands right now as well and I believe it will remain that way. There just seems to be a lack of certainty in location and whether or not both characters have certain traits, if I remember correctly. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at it. Perhaps, it might be a good idea to have it workshopped with how to make it more specific in mind before I start revising it.
  • Mike: For week two, I continued revising one of my nearly-complete short stories as planned. However, I realized after reading it that while my last round of revisions had tightened things up and gotten rid of a lot of excess crap, it left the story with less narrative continuity than I thought. I realized I needed to rewrite it completely, with a specific favorite story in mind for a guide (“Ralph the Duck” by Frederick Busch). I re-read the opening to Busch’s story a bunch of times and then rewrote (and re-read) the first three pages of my story. For week three, now that I have a better vision for my short story, I hope to rewrite the next ten pages of it, leaving the ending (which was never fully written to begin with) for week four. (Mike, you’ve given me something new to read! I’ve never heard of this story and am going to get my hands on it ASAP — thanks!)
  • Ray: Week two goals completed. Three chapters are roughed out and written. 🙂 I think I am only going to go for two this week, though. (Reasonable goals are a writer’s best friend, Ray, so good idea! [although writer’s also like coffee, so…coffee might be a writer’s best friend…let’s think about this for a while].)
  • Robert: Goal: 7,000 words this week.
  • Rosalie: I finished my week two goals of an introduction and four lesson plans for my Spanish Art Tour, but have a real setback going forward. I met with a group of my colleagues and learned that each lesson plan must include a short essay about how the work of art fits into the overall collection. Since I did not include that in my first tour (I think I blocked it out) I have to go back for some major rewriting. I did include your assignment about comparing things in my work since I included contrasts between Protestant and Catholic art in my tour. I think it was interesting. (Glad to hear it, Mom!) Next week I’m going to write the four remaining lessons for Spanish Art and include the essays but intend to put off rewriting the earlier efforts for now. I also wrote and gave a presentation for some colleagues. Not one of them agreed with anything I said, but we had a lively discussion so I guess it was a success? (Yes, it was.)
  • Sarah: Week two was really productive. I finished a paper for one graduate class ahead of schedule! Both classes are done now, woot!

Week three goal is actually not to write but to read. I need a break. This academic year I completed fifteen graduate credits. I’m in Vegas this week, reading a book called Possession, about private collectors of antiquities. Hopefully some fun reading will help me switch gears from writing for assignments to writing for my own interests. (Good writers are constant readers, so good goal for this week, Sarah!)

  • Tina: Big Picture Goal: download my brain. I have many stories rumbling around in my head.
    This week: Flesh out the big story. My Dad was adopted; he was abandoned on V-day in 1945. I have some news articles but mostly questions. Got my DNA done, found some relatives but no real answers yet. If I can’t find answers, I’d like to write my own version of what I imagined life was life for a scared single Mom in 1945.

Now, I mentioned another assignment, so here it is.

Last week I started reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It’s this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, and I only had to wait on hold for a few weeks before it was available from my library, which surprised me. The other bookworms in Crystal Lake are clearly too slow on the uptake, and too bad for them because so far it’s terrific (full disclaimer: I’m only 26% through it). Live and learn, library suckers!

Anyway, as I was reading a passage where Nguyen’s protagonist has been called to the office of a man he has betrayed (the General), and he is fearful he’s been found out, I noticed the wonderful details in a few sentences that built the tone — a tone of violence and an alertness to danger and defense. Check it out:

Have a seat, the General said from behind his desk. The vinyl chairs squeaked obscenely when we moved. Cartons and crates hemmed us in on three sides. The General’s desk was cluttered with a rotary-dial phone heavy enough for self-defense, a stamp pad bleeding red ink, a receipt book with a blue sheet of carbon paper tucked between the pages, and a desk lamp with a broken neck, its head refusing to stay raised. (Nguyen 79)

Wonderful, right? Nguyen’s narrator is claustrophobic and attentive to each and every detail that will cause him harm or that he might use to his advantage. It’s a perfect example of the way you can use details to do what you want, what you need them to do.

I am frequently asked by my creative writing students questions like, “How many details are too many details?” and “How do I know what to describe?” What my students, and what all writers should do is to take a page from Nguyen’s playbook and identify which details will contribute to the atmosphere, the conflict, the characters, or the story (and all of these things, if you’re lucky).

And that’s your assignment for this week: go through a scene in your WIP and take a hard look at the details you’ve written. Is each and every single detail there for a purpose? Does it develop your character? Does it add conflict or tension? If it doesn’t, you don’t need it and you need to take it out. That’s right: take it out. (Hint: there is a 98% chance that the color of your protagonist’s hair and eyes are irrelevant to the conflict and story, so take them out [seriously: right now]).

In addition to editing to get rid of irrelevant details, identify places where you can add in some details to amp up what you’re trying to do in that scene (use metaphor, simile, and analogy instead of a lot of adjectives). The lamp in Nguyen’s passage has a “broken neck,” and the ink pad is “bleeding red ink” because our narrator is scared that he’s about to be found out as a traitor and executed. Where can you find these types of details to add into your own work?

For my academic writers, I’ve got a variation for you: remove any extra words, especially adjectives, but take a look at the passages in your work that are very important. Maybe it’s the results/conclusion section of your piece, or maybe it’s near the introduction to clarify the thesis. Wherever it is, ask yourself: will my reader understand the importance of this section? If not, add what you can to make sure the significance is clear. Develop that section more, repeat key words and phrases, or just plain tell your reader that “This is important.” That’s the beauty of academic writing; you’re not trying to be subtle.

Okay, that’s it! Later this week we’ll have a guest post from Katherine, so check back on Wednesday for that. And until then, write well, everyone!

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. New York: Grove Press, 2015. Print.

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