Tag Archives: Justin Simien

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!

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