Category Archives: Writing

Week Six Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s week six of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group — we’re closing in on the summer and on our project goals!

Here are our week six goals.

Week Six Goals:

Anne:

I need a Patriot Pass for last week, but I’m continuing with Gardner this week.

Bev:

Week 6: I am going on vacation and will keep a journal of my trip.

Cynthia:

This week, I have two goals:

1.  Continue with writing and revising my Library Assessment course group project of doom.
2.  Continue to find and annotate sources for my Law Librarianship course in advance of Thursday’s online workshopping session (nothing like a deadline to make me produce words)!

Laura:

I didn’t make progress on my creative writing, but I did some writing for my graduate class. This week I need to write another annotated bibliography, and catch up on my blog posts.

Lisa:

Last week was fun, but I got NO writing accomplished.
This week, I hope to write five pages.

Mike:

Week 5: Revised a few more pages of my short story, continuing with the third-person-to-first-person conversion I started last week. Realized I still had some logistical and motivational issues to sort out in the plot, so I started thinking through those as I revised (eliminating altogether some of the passages that had troubled/bored me the most upon my initial re-read).

Week 6: Complete revisions (ahem, again) while doing some research into antique reselling and siblings screwing each other out of family heirlooms, since that is the key backstory in my short story, and there’s just not enough detail there yet to make it fully come to life.

Rachel:

Admittedly I’ve been slacking a bit this week with writing group—but mostly because I’ve been writing other things, so that’s good, right?? (YES!) One of the essays I’d written last year (around the time of winter writing group, actually) is being published later this week, so I’ll cheat a little and say that was an accomplishment :/ This week is a little crazy at work and I know I’m going to have limited creative energy, so I’ll shoot to go through my old notebooks and flesh out some of the stuff I’ve written before, to stock up for my blog. Love that low-hanging fruit!

Robert:

This week wrote 4,153 words. Next week’s goal is 7,000.

Sarah:

Coming soon…

 

This week’s resource post is about listening: listening to the people around you and finding other resources to listen to.

I tell my creative writing students that good listening skills are essential to writers. We need to listen when others talk if we’re going to write realistic and believable dialogue; and we need to listen to what people say to identify what they’re revealing and what they’re hiding. We learn someone’s life story by listening to what they say, but we learn someone’s character by identifying what they leave out.

We also need to listen to the world around us because it’s our environment that provides the richest details for our writing: we just have to pay attention. Right now, there’s a garbage truck rolling through my neighborhood, picking up and dumping trash cans. The cans aren’t really cans at all, but thick rubber, and the sounds they make thudding back on the ground from the truck’s fork lift is an uneven thud. The truck’s brakes gives a dirty sounding wheeze whenever it stops in front of another house, and I can hear that it’s about three houses away.

We can also seek outside resources to listen to in the form of podcasts. I’m a huge fan of podcasts, and because they’ve become so popular in the past few years, there seems to be a series for everything and everyone. It’s not surprising, then, that there are tons of writing podcasts out there. One of my favorite reading websites, Book Riot, put together a list of good podcasts for writers.

Some series are long and some are short; some you’ll love and some you will…not love. But there’s something in there for everyone, so give them a listen!

Until next week, writers: keep your ears open and your pencils ready.

Write on!

Productivity: It’s Not Just For Robots!

This is the second go-around in our writing group for Rachel Kwon: she first appeared during the Winter 2017 session, and she wrote her excellent first guest post in January. I’m happy she’s back in the group summer (especially since she’s considering starting her own blog, and blogs are great!) and I’m thrilled that she’s here for her second guest post!

This is a guest post from Rachel Kwon, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

I like to think of myself a semi-serious amateur writer (and a very serious fried chicken enthusiast, but that’s another story for another day), and while I am still shaky on the creative elements of writing—you know, producing words so earth-shattering that readers weep and call their mothers immediately thanking them for giving them life so they could read the work—there is one thing I know pretty well, and that’s productivity. Productivity and smashing a to-do list are admittedly less sexy than a well-written piece, but they’re still necessary.

So, how does one self-motivate and make time for writing, particularly writing for leisure, when there are so many other things competing for time and attention? I think a big part of it is simply creating structures and treating it seriously, even if it’s “just for fun.” I’ve found that these three things have helped me improve my writing (and also simply to enjoy it more):

1. Establish a routine…

I don’t think the details really matter that much, but for me, as a hardcore morning person I do my best thinking when the sun is coming up, so about a year ago, I started doing a thing where I would wake up, stretch, put on the coffee, and literally just start writing. Just 15 minutes or so, in my journal, sitting at my writing desk, about whatever was in my head. It was writing that I would just do for myself, but I found that by doing it regularly in this way, I’d come up with ideas for stories or essays that I’d want to share with other people, and it became easier to do that by just having a dedicated time to do it. (Our post about momentum last week really resonated with me, because I feel that having my routine is sort of like free momentum—it’s always easier to keep things going once they’ve already started than to start a brand new thing, and that’s what my routine has offered.)

Rachel's Writing Space

Rachel’s supremely covetable writing space

2. …but know when to stray from it.

Interestingly, early-bird-writing is the exact opposite of the routine I had for over a decade, which was 15 minutes of writing, lying prone on my pillow, before going to sleep. The circumstances of my life were different and I needed to wake up around 4:30 or 5 a.m. so I didn’t quite have that same zest for writing in those wee hours (or for anything—I don’t care how much of a morning person you are; there’s a very fine line between late night and early morning and I believe that line is around 4:30 a.m.). I also like to mix up the setting sometimes and write in the park or in a coffee shop or on the subway (not during rush hour, because then I would have to write into a stranger’s armpit, which is less fun). Some of my best writing has been scribbled on the back of a bar napkin.

3. Don’t overthink it.

Overthinking plagues me. I can’t help but obsess over the most seemingly trivial details. I used to be of the mindset that I should choose my words extremely carefully, and not write them unless I really meant them. That might be a good philosophy if I were using a typewriter, and a typo (literally!) or some imperfect phrasing really was a disaster, but these days I’ve adopted more of a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” mentality, and oddly enough, I find that I’m a lot more productive when I just write SOMETHING, anything, and then whittle it down to what I actually want to say, the way I want to say it. These days I spend HALF as much time and energy writing a draft of something, no matter how horrendous it is, so I can spend TWICE as much time editing. Someone once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “You don’t win the Tour de France by reading about the race and planning the perfect ride; you win by getting out there, riding every day, and making incremental improvements each time you do.” There is definitely an element of “just do it”-ness involved.

So, there it is. I have some other quirks that I think help, like my preference for Muji 0.38 mm black pens, but those are the high-level structures that I believe have allowed me to be productive with my writing. Now, I think it’s fried chicken time!

 

Thank you, Rachel! Now, go get some chicken.

And the rest of you, write on.

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If I dance fast enough, Rachel can’t eat me! (Image via Giphy)

Week Five Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s week five of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group — how you guys feeling? I’m feeling all write! (yes punnnnnnns!)

I offered up a Patriot Pass this week — some people were traveling and knew they wouldn’t be doing much with the short holiday week — so whenever you see it, please imagine those writers doing this:

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Actually, please imagine everyone doing this.

Here are our week five goals.

Week Five Goals:

Anne:

My reading of the Gardner book has been transformative. I’m continuing it this week.

Bev:

I am done with my course revisions! During week five, I am going to write a letter, because I haven’t since January.

Cynthia:

Patriot Pass!

Laura:

I did a little work on my new story. It wasn’t as much as I’d wanted, but it counts! Next week I’m going to keep chipping away at it. I got a great idea for another new story during my class this week and I’m going to keep it on the back burner. It might be a nice distraction next week, or something I can do toward the end of the summer.

Lisa:

Patriot Pass!

Mike:

Week four progress: Once I started revising the story in question, I realized how badly it was being served by the third-person narration I’d used (i.e. boring as shit). I rewrote about six pages out of the current twelve to first person, and I’ve been really happy with the effect it’s had on the voice. I also moved a few passages around and hit at least two scenes that need to be scrapped or rewritten altogether (as the change in voice wasn’t quite enough to fix them).

Week five goal: Finish revising the remaining pages of the story in its new first-party voice. I missed the contest deadline, so I will be reading some past issues of a few other lit journals to make sure the finished story would be something of interest to them.

Rachel:

I figured out most of the tech and logistical stuff behind launching my blog (I used to have one when I was a teenager and in college, and MAN, blogging has really changed since then!). I’d like to get a critical mass of posts, maybe five or so, before actually publishing, so this week’s goal will be to either select one from stuff I’ve written before (like my essay from last winter writing group, for example), or to write something afresh.

Robert:

This week: zero words.
Next week: goal is 7,000 words

Sarah:

Week 5 goals: I have to edit a new article I wrote on postmodernism and start another article, this time a case study because I need to change things up a bit. I started a 5-week graduate class so I also have some discussion posts to do. Then read, read, read as I pull articles for my course in the fall.

Ted:

Coming soon…

 

Because of the weird holiday week, I’m going to give everyone a couple of writing exercises from the book What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. It’s one of those staples of a creative writing workshop (from the ’90s…) and my copy is yellow with age. But it’s still a good resource for writers.

What If Cover

The exercise I’m going to give you guys for today can be used to supplement your current project — try just a background scene that develops one of your minor characters, something you don’t have to include if the style is too much of a contrast  — or it can be a one-off if you need some space from your current project and want to just stretch your creative muscles for a couple of hours. Here it is:

THE EXERCISE

Write a short story using words of only one syllable.

THE OBJECTIVE

To make you conscious of word choice. (Bernays and Painter 194)

For my academic writers, you can try this, too. Work on a part of your research, lesson plan, syllabus and make everything one syllable. See how you can simplify wherever possible.

What If Exercise 70

(Bernays and Painter 194)

Have a safe and creative week, and as always, write on!

 

Bernays, Anne and Pamela Painter. What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.
HarperPerennial, 1991.

Week Four: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s week four of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group and words are happening!

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Image via Giphy

Here are our week four goals.

Week Four Goals:

Anne:

I’ve changed course of little bit. Inspired by Laura’s post last week, I started reading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I have owned book for decades, and I even took it to Aruba last December / January to read, but I still haven’t read it. So that has become a priority for this week.

Bev:

Week Four goal: Finish course revisions. Period.

Cynthia:

This week will be devoted to gathering research and roughing out an outline of ye olde group project for Library Research Methods and Assessment. If time permits, I’ll continue to find and read sources for my Law Librarianship annotated bibliography project.

Laura:

I didn’t hit my week three progress, so my week four will be doing double-duty. I’m still looking for a good “home” for a short essay I wrote, and I need to start a new short story. I didn’t get the windmill blog post written, so that’s my job for this week as well.

Lisa:

Last week: Actually wrote about two pages!
Next week: Shooting for five more!

Mike:

This week was not productive. I made a few notes on the scenes I had planned and started the outline, but got distracted by work stuff. Towards the end of the week, it hit me that I had too many unfinished short stories floating around, so I decided to reconsider my overall goals and hold off on the new book for a few weeks.

Week Four: Complete a final round of revisions on a short story I’d workshopped over the winter and try to submit it to an Open Fiction contest that has a deadline this Friday…

Rachel:

I outlined some topics to write about for my book, and even started writing one of them. The idea I was thinking about for last week was to self-publish through a blog or something, and I think I’m going to try it. Lately, I’ve been trying to adopt a “done is better than perfect” mentality, which is hard because it’s the opposite of my gut instinct. Anyway, my new end-of-summer goal is to start publishing on a blog, and next week’s goal will be to figure out how to do it. (You know how I feel about blogs, Rachel! [I love them. I love blogs.])

Robert:

The last week’s goal was 7,000 words. I wrote 1,995 — I was out of town for three days.

This week’s goal, as usual, is 7,000 words, but I have four days of home renovation, so I doubt if I’ll make it. (Robert, you’re always ahead of the game, so do your renovations!)

Sarah:

Coming soon…

Ted:

I spent hours on this one sonnet, trying to capture an idea about courage. It seems so small, considering the time and effort and countless revisions. Anyway, that was my week three goal, to hammer and polish it to what seemed the right luster.

Week four goals are about re-entering a fiction work (a quasi-children’s fantasy) and finding that elusive momentum…

 

And thank you, Ted, for the perfect segue! This week I wanted to talk about momentum, specifically, keeping it. We’re in week four of our eight week session, and this might be the time you’re losing a bit of steam. You’ve made progress for almost a month, either by producing words and pages, ideas and outlines, or by letting your project consume many of your waking thoughts. And that’s exhausting.

Roo Sleeping

Roo is exhausted just listening to me type about it!

But even if you’re tired, you need to keep the momentum. And if you don’t think you have anything more to say right now about your project/s, then you can keep the momentum by revising.

Janet Burroway, author of an excellent book on writing that I use in my creative writing classes (and she’s appeared on the blog before), has five helpful questions to ask about your work as you’re revising:

Is the language fresh? Have you avoided clichés, familiar descriptions, and any unnecessarily abstract language?

Is it clear? Have you answered the journalist’s Ws: who, what, when, where, and why? Will the reader understand when scenes change, when time has passed, and when new characters are introduced?

Is it too long? Cut. Cut everything you don’t need. Cut adjectives. Cut words that aren’t moving things forward. Each word matters, so if you find one that doesn’t, get rid of it. (If I were revising this section, I’d delete everything except the first word: cut.)

Where is it underdeveloped? See below for an exercise to help you with this one.

Does it end? The ending does not need to be happy, nor easy, but it needs to happen. Your protagonist should change in some way, even if it’s small. She should accept something about herself; she should see the reality in which she exists; she should decide to act; or she should decide to not act. If none of this has happened, your story hasn’t ended. (Burroway 205 – 206)

Five easy questions to ask during any step in your writing process! The fourth question, about development, can be explored further with a writing exercise Burroway includes:

Burroway Try This 7.13

(Burroway 206)

Doing this exercise will help whenever you feel stuck or if you feel yourself slowing down. And if you need more help, get Burroway’s book and check out the excellent things she has to say about all aspects and genres of creative writing.

Until next week, write — and revise — on!

 

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 4th ed., Pearson, 2014.

 

 

 

 

Week Three: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s week three of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group and you guys are getting it done. Nice work!

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Image via Giphy

Here are our third week goals.

Week Three Goals:

Anne:

I’m sure that we all know that this is a major asset. The perfect writing area, created:

Anne's Office.jpg

Anne’s newly organized writing space!

Are you asking: is that a active writing stool? Yes. Is that a giant 4G screen with the correct software installed although right now it shows a picture of a boat? Yes. Are those shelves full of writing books? Yes, and some family pictures. I think it’s perfect. The writing notebook is the next project, for when I can’t be in my writing space.

Bev:

This week, I got three chapters from the new textbook revised! Hooray! Also, I began researching agents and turned up two prospects. Sadly, I need to spend some time rethinking my query letter, which I will be doing this week in addition to researching more agents. And doing at least two more chapter notes and lectures.

Cynthia:

This week’s goal is as follows:

Collect research sources to supplement evaluation plan abstract for Library Research Methods course. Begin to collect resources for Law Librarianship annotated bibliography.

Laura:

I started a new story last week, so this week my goal is to keep working on it. I also need to write a couple more blog posts documenting my trip to the Netherlands, so I’m adding that in for this week as well.

Lisa:

Progress report: My trip interfered greatly with my progress this week. I wrote zero pages 🙂 (Yes, but Lisa, you spent quality time observing children in their natural vacation habitat, so you can count that as “research.”)

Next week: I hope to catch up and write five pages.

Mike:

Week Two Progress: Wrote about three more new pages of the book (against my goal of ten). I’m realizing my goals need to be a little more granular than “write x more pages.” I’m not having issues with what to write necessarily — since I’m working from a true story, I have the built-in crutch (if I’m not sure what to write next) to just tell what really happened. What has slowed me down so far is the impulse to focus on the individual scenes I’ve started and making sure they’re compelling. This week, I realized that the narrator’s voice wasn’t quite working. I switched what I’d written from third-person to first, and I realized quickly how easy it is to make a young Lithuanian woman in the 1930’s sound robotic, since the easy impulse is to take out all contractions and idiom from their language. I went back to a few books I love that have interesting narrative voices, whether it’s a non-English speaker or a contemporary of my narrator to make sure I absorbed what they did well. So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell is going to be my constant companion throughout the next few weeks of drafting this out.

Week Three Goals: Complete drafts of two early scenes — one of which I’ve started, and one of which I have yet to start. Also, review some of the research materials I have on the story (a conversation I recorded with my dad a few months ago talking about his mother) as well as an online repository of info about the kind of Swedish ocean liner that brought my grandmother here (since the middle portion of the book will be on-board the ship).

Rachel:

Last week, I was supposed to learn more about the landscape of what’s already out there for my book idea. As I suspected, there are already some books out there around the topic that I’m thinking of, but none from the perspective of someone with my background. So this week I’ll start outlining the book chapters. I am also considering revising my big summer goal, but I think I need a week to think about it, so that will also be on my docket for this week.

Robert:

This week’s goal was 7,000 words. I wrote 6,815, so that’s good enough. My current total is 35,700 words.

Next week the goal is another 7,000 words.

Sarah:

Coming soon…

Ted:

Coming soon…

 

This week’s post is inspired by John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.

In this book, Gardner argues that while “there are techniques — hundreds of them — that, like carpenter’s tricks, can be studied and taught” (8) there are no real rules of literary (non-genre) fiction. Writers must trust that they can tell the good from the bad, and this knowledge will come from two things: 1. practice; and 2. reading a lot. Like, a lot.

I have no doubt that everyone in this group is a good reader. We’re here, aren’t we? We’re here because we love to write and we love to read. But Gardner also talks about the benefits of a higher education for a writer, because it is in a college or university setting where a writer can encounter a literature course in which the professor leads the students through a close reading  of Macbeth, looking at each line, each word, and analyzing how and why Shakespeare made the choices he did, why he didn’t include stage direction, why he made the loss of the Macbeth’s child so subtle when making it clearer could have increased sympathy for Lady Macb. You don’t get that when you’re just reading it yourself.

Out Damn Spot

And why didn’t she just use this soap? I mean, it says there right on the label that it’s just what she needed.

Along with a great reading experience like that, though, might also come something else that Gardner argues is essential to a writer, and that’s the ability “fully understand the other side of one’s argument” (10). Because that same Shakespeare professor, or (more likely) another student in the class might argue that the three witches Macbeth encounters are really time traveling robots. Sure, okay. Let’s get into it.

It’s much more likely that in higher education, however, that you won’t engage in too many arguments about Shakespearean robots (though if you do, please, please give me a call and invite me to the conversation). But you will engage in robust debate about the contemporary relevance of the philosophical questions set forth in The Handmaid’s Tale; about the effectiveness of using multiple first person narrators in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings; about whether it is better to use simple syntax (Salinger) or complex syntax (Woolf) for a slowly paced story; whether it’s a grotesque violation of the audience’s trust or a brilliant violation of genre when a writer does not reveal who the killer was at the end of a literary mystery novel (if you want to know who this writer is, let me know; otherwise, no spoilers).

And it is by examining and arguing about these things that will help you understand how other great writers write and how you, as a young writer, can mimic the greats — how you can set forth a philosophical question in a way that will transcend history; how you can frame a story within a story as a way of developing the character of the storyteller; how you can violate genres and expectations.

But because it may not be realistic for all of us to immediately enroll in a college level literature class, your homework this week is to read something and then discuss it with someone else.

I have two text options for you (though of course you can choose your own): one creative and one academic.

The creative text is a short story called “The Swim Team” from Miranda July’s 2007 collection No One Belongs Here More Than You.

No One Belongs Here More Than You

As you read the story, please think specifically about these three things:

  1. What is the story about? Why do you think that?
  2. Why doesn’t July use quotation marks for dialogue? Are there other writers you’re familiar with who use this style? Do you like it or not? Why?
  3. How does July tell the story? Does she use traditional first-person narration? Does she embed stories within stories? Why does she do the things she does? Do you like it or not? Why?

The academic text is a chapter from Michelle Fine’s 1991 book Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban High School.

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Image via Goodreads

As you read Fine’s chapter, please think specifically about these three things:

  1. How does Fine incorporate creative writing into her work? Is it only in the passages she includes as references, or is it her style as well? Does she reference creative texts differently than she references scholarly texts?
  2. What kind of relationship does Fine seem to have with the subjects of her study? What about her writing makes you feel that way?
  3. What kind of relationship does Fine want to have with her audience? What about her writing makes you feel that way?

Anyone who wants to chat about the text they’ve read can do so in the comments on this post — have at it! What do you think? Why do you say that? And is there anything you can take from these writers and mimic in your own work?

Have a great writing and reading week!

 

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage Books, 1985.

 

 

Week Two: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the second week of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group!

We have a new member of the group this week: Ted. Ted is a colleague of mine in the English Department at MCC and someone I’ve exchanged work with over the years. He’s an excellent reader and has given me consistent and helpful feedback. He primarily writes poetry, but he can carve out some mean prose. Welcome, Ted!

Here are our second week goals.

Week Two Goals:

Anne:

I did review Save the Cat. I’m going to continue with organizing my writing space, organizing my writing notebook, reading the next Save the Cat book and taking notes, and generally psyching up.

Bev:

Last week I was working from 8 to 5 at a summer science institute for K-8 teachers. It was tons of fun, but the only writing I did was three lectures and a bunch of cut-down lab handouts.

Onward! This week I will make up for last week by finding two agents and sending out query letters. I mean it this time!

Cynthia:

This week, I am working with my group mates in my MLIS course to develop a library evaluation plan, and we are writing the abstract and outline this week.

Laura:

I failed to meet my week one goals; I kind of lollygagged and putzed around all week, getting over my jet-lag (bad excuse), reading a good book (slightly better excuse, but still not good), and watching television (nope, I just went backwards). My goal for week two is to write every day and to find somewhere to submit my new essay. Same as last week.

Lisa:

Coming soon…

Mike:

Week One update: my original goal had been to write 15 pages of the new book. However, I underestimated how long it had been since I’d tried writing from a completely blank screen with no outline, structure, etc. I wound up writing a little over two pages, which I’m happy with as a start. They also provide a clear path to breaking out into two longer opening scenes. I edited a few pages of an old short story (which had not been part of my original plan), and then interrupted that to write an outline and few key lines of a completely new story that came into my head. Someone posted on Twitter over the weekend: “Taking a break from not finishing one story to not finish a completely separate second story,” which for some reason seemed very fitting.

Week Two goal: write a full draft of each of the two scenes I started with from my work this week, ideally, winding up with about 10 total pages from them.

Rachel:

I definitely did not make any headway on my week one goal so consider my week two a copy-paste of week one. 😟 (I have a very similar update for this week: no shame, no shame!)

Robert:

My week one goal was 7,000 words, and I wrote 8,669. For week two: my goal is 7,000 words. Currently the novel is at 27,885 words.

Sarah:

Week Two Goal: I have to finish my week one goal, you take late work right? (YES I DO, SARAH.) So finish my article on STEAM initiatives and start an article I am currently calling “Postmodernism: what the hell is it.”

I am struggling to focus on work with all this sunshine and fun. So I am also starting to read a new Ross King book. Reading, even historical fiction, helps me focus.

Ted:

In an effort to be more pragmatic (odd, uncomfortable feeling) my eight week goals are to be thoroughly re-committed to three separate pieces of fiction, which I’ve begun and re-entered in erratic fashion. I don’t see myself completing any of them necessarily — to find them irresistible would be perfectly fine.

I also want to pull existing poetry into different configurations pf manuscript — again, with a notion of establishing momentum (and discipline).

Well: we shall see.

 

These sound like excellent goals — thanks, writers!

This week I wanted to write briefly about pace, which, as the dictionary defines most appropriately for our context, is “the speed or rate at which something happens, changes, or develops.”

Pace is important for all writing, academic and creative. It should be considered for scenes, chapters, and sections, and it should also be considered for the entirety of a piece, no matter how long. It’s essential to have a pace that matches the kind of story you’re telling, and it’s essential to know how to regulate your pace: how to slow it down when you need to spend more time on character development, and when to speed it up when you’re trying to convey something quick like action, or to summarize rather than detail exposition or main ideas.

Okay, so how do you figure it out? How do you determine if your story — holistically — is moving too quickly or too slowly, if you’re moving past important information without giving your reader enough time to think, or if you’re boring your reader with scenes that feel like they’ve got their feet stuck in puddles of cold syrup? My advice for this: know the scope of the piece you’re writing, and then ask yourself if it’s possible to write a well developed, thorough piece in that amount of time and space (developing your characters, ideas, and themes well enough to heighten conflict, get readers caring about your story, and to reach a believable resolution).

If you’re writing a novel or a series of books, then you’ve pretty much got all the time and space you could ever need. The book I’m reading right now (as part of my procrastination activities last week) is the second in a series and it picks up directly where the first book left off. The writer, Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemisin, clearly had a big story to tell and an enormous world to describe, but she didn’t want to rush it or overwhelm the reader with a 1,200-page brick, so she gave us a 468-page first book that moved through this new world and all of its characters and plots with a pace allowing the reader time to absorb everything smoothly and evenly (like a really good makeup foundation [yep, I just did that]); and her second book, which is about the same length, is consistently paced to match the first.

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They’re good. Read them. (Image Credit: Amazon)

So if you have a big story, give yourself some room. If you’re trying to tell a big story in a short-story format, considering either narrowing your story to a single scene — something that can feel like a complete story with a conflict-crisis-resolution but that fits into the world of your larger story (J.D. Salinger did this with his Glass family stories; William Faulkner did this with the fifty or so stories he set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi; and I’m sure there are a bunch of other writers [more contemporary, less male, less white…?] who have done and continue to do this as well). If you try to fit too much into too small of a space, your pace will suffer. It will be rushed; your characters will be underdeveloped; your resolution will read as unbelievable, or flat, or both.

Here’s an example from something else I was doing last week instead of writing: watching television. (Are you really surprised? You know me by now. Don’t be surprised.) I started watching the Netflix series Dear White People, which is based on a 2014 film by the same name. When the film came out, I was eager to see it. It sounded clever and timely, and it took place on a college campus, which is a setting I love for stories of all mediums. But I thought that Justin Simien’s debut feature didn’t live up to its potential, and I believe it’s because he was trying to tell too large of a story — the intersections of five (primary) young people navigating contemporary race relations at an Ivy League university — in too short of a time. The movie was rushed and the characters were kind of flat and I didn’t feel connected to them or to the story.

But the series is different, and it’s because Simien, still at the helm, now has space. He’s able to devote thirty-minute episodes to developing the same story from different characters’ points-of-view, giving background and perspective that a single 108-minute film just can’t do. The pace now fits the scope. Success!

Unfortunately, as far as figuring out the actual, technical pace of your story and each scene within that story, the ball is in your court. There is no magic formula, no matter what well-meaning listicles may say. You have to read a lot and ask yourself, “How is this writer giving me exposition? How is she balancing that exposition with action? With character development? With conflict development?” And then, if you like what the writer is doing with pacing, mimic it as best you can. And if you don’t like it, analyze what they’ve done and avoid that at all costs.

And watch t.v. and movies, too, because they’re great for figuring out pacing. If you’re ever confused about a plot point or a character, odds are that the story’s pace is too fast. Fix it, re-write it in your head, and then remember not to make that same mistake.

So your homework is to read and watch t.v. and movies and pay attention to pace. Apply it to your own writing and see how it goes.

Oh, and I guess you should write, too. Yes, please do some writing.

Good luck, all, and see you here next week!

Week One: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the first week of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group and I’m already behind schedule!

So, really, things are working as they usually do.

This is week one of our third summer online writing group (holy cannoli we’ve been doing this for three years!) and as usual, we have a great group of writers. So far (we may have a late addition or two since I neglected to send a reminder email [who’s not surprised? me.]…) they’re all returning members, which means they’re familiar with my shenanigans and are willing to deal with me for another summer! Ha-ha, suckers! (j.k. you’re not suckers; you’re all great and I’m really glad you’re in the group again!)

 

To give you a refresher of how the group will run, please notice that below you’ll see two lists of goals that each participant has submitted:

  1. A list of big picture goals–what everyone hopes to achieve by the end of our eight week session
  2. A list of first week goals–what everyone hopes to achieve by the end of our first week

As we continue on each week, I’ll only include everyone’s weekly goal, but please come back here for a refresher on each writer’s big project goals.

Big Picture Goals:

  • Anne: My goal is to continue with the study of Save the Cat, reading the next book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. I also want to make a notebook and a planning board for using that method for planning scripts.
  • BevMy goals for this summer will be modest because we are getting a new edition of the textbook we use for one of my classes. My life this summer will be completely ruined by course revisions, which are going very slowly so far. However, I am going to commit to finding at least one agent and sending out one query letter for my memoir each week.
  • Cynthia: My eight-week goals would be to research and write giant paper about the future of law librarianship giving the increased use of technology in both fields.
  • Laura: My eight-week objectives are to write every day (no word count or page goal, just writing every single day); to submit a short essay I wrote in December out for publication; and to start and finish a new short story.
  • LisaEight-week goal: First few chapters of elementary level chapter book.
  • Mike: I’m pretty sure about my overall goal — write a first draft and then do at least one round of revision on 100 pages of a fictionalized account of how my grandmother came to immigrate to America. (Mike is also taking an online workshop through the Southeast Review and has promised to share any good tidbits he learns!)
  • Rachel: I have a medium-term life dream to write and publish a nonfiction book before I turn 40 (seven years from now). For this summer, my 8-week goal is, broadly, to figure out how to do that, and specifically, the output will be an outline of the book by chapter plus a written draft of the first chapter or introduction.
  • Robert: My goals are to write a thousand words a day. I’ve been doing that for the past few weeks and I’ve written 20,000 words of Love and Numbers.
  • Sarah: Big Picture Objective: I am reworking my Humanities Through the Arts course to run without a textbook in the fall. To make this work I have a lot of writing to do. I have articles to write for topics within the course that I cannot cover with outside sources and lectures to script for some depth of content.

First Week Goals:

  • Anne: Start reading Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.
  • Bev: Finding the first new agent and sending out a query letter.
  • Cynthia: Start giant research paper
  • Laura: Write two new blog posts about my recent trip to the Netherlands, and start the new short story.
  • LisaFirst week goal: Get started! 3 – 5 pages.
  • Mike: Work on the draft and get something useful from the online workshop.
  • Rachel: For week 1: I should probably confirm that the book I want to write hasn’t already been written 🙂 I know of at least one book that is similar to what I want to write. So, I will do a thorough search of what’s already out there and then decide if I should move forward with this particular idea.
  • Robert: One thousand words a day.
  • Sarah: Week 1 Goal: I need to get in the groove of writing one article while editing previous ones. So this week I need to finish a draft of an article on the placement of the humanities in higher education from land-grant colleges to STEAM initiatives in the US, and edit the course outline.

As usual, we have a terrific mix work represented here, which I always love. I’m looking forward to hearing about everyone’s progress over the summer.

To get everyone motivated for the week, here is an interview with writer Susan Sontag from The Paris Review‘s “The Art of Fiction” series. Sontag is an interesting writer for us to consider, given the makeup of writers in our group. She has written about writing, about war, about photography (I saw a couple of her titles as I perused the book shop during a recent visit to the Foam Photography Museum; a little Sontag seed was planted and sprouted for this post!); she has written fiction and non-fiction. Her style is journalistic, personal, and creative.

So read the interview, get a little inspiration, and then write away!

Portrait Of Author Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag: Image Credit The Paris Review

Because this post is so late, I’ll be doing a quick turnaround next Monday. Until then, good writing, everyone!