Monday, October 31, 2011
Friday, October 28, 2011
I’ve had three non-fiction books published in which I was working with other people’s stories, and I’m in the middle of a fourth right now. In addition, I’ve had at least a thousand articles and other short pieces published. In almost all of them, I wrote about things outside my own personal experience, and had to ask for quotes and information from others.
That’s been the case, too, with most of my fiction. The Internet’s bottomless well of information sometimes can’t supply what you need.
You, like the scared little boy at bedtime whose mother assured him that angels would guard him, may need someone “with skin on.”
Here is some of what I have learned about asking people questions for my writing:
1) The more famous the source, the longer lead time you need to give them. I’ve interviewed Rosa Parks, Ruth Bell Graham, Frank Abagnale, and other luminaries. If they’re famous, they’re busy. For a project I'm working on right now, I waited almost two months for Gary Sinese’s interview.
2) Be completely upfront (and humble) about what you intend to do with their comments and information. If you’re writing something on speculation (in other words, without a contract), say so when you are asking to speak to them.
3) Let the person decide the format – telephone conversation, in person (when and where) or email.
4) Ask permission before you record any interview, and get their permission on tape.
5) This is the best way to get interesting content: After you have asked the questions that get at the information you think you need (facts and figures, etc.), then ask what I call “quirky questions.” They include words like “surprising,” “unusual,” “frightening,” and other cues. Here are some (generic, to be personalized to your person):
What was the most surprising thing you learned from your experience?
Were you frightened? When?
What was the most unusual thing that happened?
What do you think that my readers would want to know, if you could give them a personal message?
If you could go back and give yourself advice at the age of your incident, what would you tell you?
What disappointed you?
What do you know about this situation that no one else knows?
Anything bizarre about this situation?
You get the idea! Now put your skin on and go gettum!
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Inevitably, the question arises: What is the most important aspect of fiction? What is the essences of what makes fiction necessary? It's a question I've been thinking about for a long time. And I'm going to share my answer with you.
Yes, I have an answer.
Really. I do.
Stop smiling, I'm serious.
In order for me to tell you my answer, I must tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I sat at a kitchen table reading part of a manuscript. The author sat across from me and watched me read. She fidgeted, picking at her nails, crossing and uncrossing her legs, noisily tried to be quiet. Her squirming made me squirm too. She wanted my opinion regarding the quality of her writing and what I thought of her work in general. That’s what I thought she wanted. But I was wrong. I read on, and as I did, a strong emotion rose in me: boredom. Uh oh.
When I finished reading the scene, I pushed the pages toward her, across the table. She pulled her hands back, as if the papers might be poisoned. She wouldn't touch them. "Should I keep writing?" she asked. "Am I good enough? Or should I just forget it?" She didn’t want my thoughts on her work, she wanted something very different. Impossible.
I pulled the pages back and glanced through them again. I’m not sure why I did this. Perhaps I hoped the answer was written somewhere between the neatly typed lines. But I understood what she was asking. It’s the question that keeps most writers awake some nights.
I read through the first several lines again.
She had skills. Technically, her writing was nearly perfect. Her transitions were smooth, her characters well defined. She had nice, clean descriptive, and enviable grammar.
Hmmm. Something was missing. What was it? Plot? No, she had a plot all plotted out with plot points and pointed plotting. Better go over my handy-dandy fiction must-have checklist:
Writing skill ............... Check!
Clean manuscript ......... Check!
Good plot ................... Check!
Yet, the thing just laid there like a dead mackerel, staring up at me with its one good eye.
Then it hit me! (the answer, not the dead mackerel)
It was missing one thing. The MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL.
I had to answer her. We were in a small kitchen and she was blocking the only exit. I said, "You’re the only one who knows if you should keep writing. My advice is to stop writing so hard and start telling stories."
Readers want a great story told in an interesting way. They want to be engaged, have fun, get lost, fall in love, feel something new, and forget time and place.
But doesn't great writing help all of that to happen? Yes, but good writing is seamless--so good it disappears in the background and the reader can focus on the story.
What's the most important aspect of writing? Storytelling.
Writing is only the means. The story is what matters.
Writers are far better off mucking around in storytelling than we are perfecting our grammar, or mastering punctuation, or detailing endlessly boring events in an attempt to “show not tell”. Story barrels down the hillside and sweeps us along with it. It roars, and whispers, and demands attention. It is bigger than its writer and readers combined. An untamed thing. Telling it takes everything we have: our skill, our action, our guts.
Have you got the swagger of a storyteller? Are you willing to abandon safe places for the sake of story? Have you done so? Share!
Monday, October 24, 2011
I'm at the party dressed in a stola, indigo in color. It is a long shift, and draped over my shoulders and arm I am wearing a shawl-like palla. My palla is red, dyed with the cheapest tint available. My clothing is rough-woven, because I no longer have the wealth into which I was born in Roman society. Because I am a Gentile woman living among Jews and Gentiles who have become Christians, I keep my head covered. I am Priscilla, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Friday, October 21, 2011
Patti and Debbie gave us great advice and insight this week regarding the interview process, as well as sharing their own personal experiences. Expectations are a huge component of the process, especially on the part of the interviewee. One thing to note is that interviews of experts who can help in your WIP aren't just for authors who write non-fiction. Novelists also need the help and guidance of those who know more than they do about any given topic that pertains to their WIP. For example, I hope to schedule an interview with a weaver for the novel I plan to write next.
Since we're on the topic of interviews, I have a question for you. If you could interview anyone at all, famous or not, living or not, who would you choose? And what would your top two questions be for your subject? I know, narrowing it to one person seems nearly impossible. I'm sure we could all fill pages and pages with names of people we'd love to have a one-on-one conversation with. But for the sake of this exercise let's keep it to one person. I'll begin.
My interview would be with Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She has fascinated me for many years. These would be my questions:
- What drove you into seclusion after writing one of the most beloved and influential novels of all time?
- I've heard it said you chose not to write -- or at least publish -- another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird because you feared you'd never equal the success you attained with that incredible novel. But what is the real story? What did it ultimately cost you to write your novel?
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Patti started a great discussion with her last post, because whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you will have to interview people at some point. Asking people for interviews can be intimidating and it can be downright difficult to find the right person to begin with. But your interviewees can also be goldmines of information providing nuggets of new story ideas and directions for development. Here are some of my observations from interviewing people:
- If the book or article for which you are doing the interview doesn't get published, you can feel like you've let the interviewee down. They've probably already told their friends the exciting news that an author interviewed them. Some may even expect to be on The View once the book comes out. I once interviewed two fantastic young people who rode endurance (horses) and they were so excited that their stories might end up in a magazine article. I was careful to say that I was writing it on speculation and didn't know if it would ever sell. It never did, but I was fortunate to spend that time with them hearing about their passion for endurance riding.
- It can be challenging to find the person who can help you without feeling like a stalker. It's unsettling to feel the distrust of others. "I'm really a nice person," you want to say. If you can get a referral or an introduction from someone who knows the person, so much the better. I was incredibly fortunate to find a Family Law Court judge in Los Angeles who allowed me to interview him by phone at his home during the Superbowl. That would never have happened if I hadn't known an attorney who was his close friend. I didn't know the connection, but I asked and hit the jackpot. The judge's advice in regard to family rights and kids switched at birth was incredibly valuable. I spent several sleepless nights worrying over the accuracy of my research until he confirmed that the story was legally correct.
- People have expectations that are hard to get around sometimes. No matter how often you reiterate that you are not telling their stories, some just won't get it. They will contact you after reading the complimentary copy of the book to tell you that you got it wrong. They might be angry or disappointed because they thought that finally their tragedy, their experience, would have meaning. This happened to me and there was nothing I could do about it except to feel very bad and question whether I wasn't clear or could have done the interview better. Thankfully, I was contacted by the person later and her outlook was so different. She was finally okay with it and loved the book. Phew!
- Do your research before you conduct the interview so that you can ask pertinent, intelligent questions. The interviewee will appreciate that you are not wasting his or her time and recognize that you are serious about your craft, perhaps being more willing to allow follow up interviews or take a look at some sections during the rewrite process.
- When you do so much research, you need to be sure you've processed it correctly. I have passed along sections of my manuscript to the interviewee to make sure my facts and understanding of our conversation were correct. For example, I interviewed a veterinarian and later sent her the pages that I wanted checked for authenticity during the rewrite stage. She graciously looked them over and crossed out the sentence where the main character buys hair color at the store. This was a young woman, but again, NOT about her. Whatever. I also interviewed a new mom who had a baby late in life through in vitro fertilization. She compared her experience to what I had gleaned from the tons of new information I'd gathered, and cleared up a few misconceptions.
- Be sensitive to your interviewee's frame of mind, especially if he or she is visiting dark or painful memories. Offer the option of cutting the interview short and starting again at some prearranged time. Perhaps they would be more comfortable writing down their answers and emailing them, which is not ideal for the writer but could be in their best interest.
Monday, October 17, 2011
There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone. --Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Friday, October 14, 2011
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
These sharp teeth of mine, the ones that have stricken some of you with sickish, curious fear, have been doing their work on my own thin bones. Cannibalistic as that sounds, it’s all for the best. I can inflict my furious red pen on others, but it’s all spitting into the wind if I can’t turn that same pen toward myself.
I am reddened, my friends.
Let me stagger closer, collapse in the nearest chair, and begin by asking a question, and then tossing my experience into the fray. Here is the question: What is editing?
My experience: Editing is letting go of the childish notion that excellence in any way resembles good enough.
In my case, ‘who’ is my agent. An astute reader, who, I am sure, dons a cape each morning and flies above the streets of New York City performing feats of pure heroics for the benefit of writers like me. But not only writers. A good agent works for writers, a great one also works on behalf of readers. She analyzes a manuscript looking for the best possible reading experience. And then she talks to the writer about how certain changes in the manuscript can fulfill it’s reading potential. My agent, Claudia, is one of these.
She said, “Bonnie, I think we’re 90% there.” (There is that sweet spot, the giddy good place that makes publishers take notice.) “But, with some changes, I believe we can get closer to 98%.” She had my attention. 90% is good enough. Which we know isn’t good enough.
She pointed out two changes. Two. Such a small number. But this is a novel, and even one change is connected to a hundred others. Two becomes two hundred. I listened closely, and as she spoke it became clear: she is right. Brilliantly, utterly, maddeningly right. I must make the changes. One is an addition. The second is a subtraction. In all, I suspect the changes will mean writing another 15,000 words (give or take), while editing out an existing 300.
How will I accomplish this edit? Here’s my checklist:
1) Listen to people who are smarter than I am (in my case that means my agent, and my brilliant friend Sharon Souza who also read the manuscript. When I finished talking to my agent, I arranged to talk to Sharon via Skype to check her experience against Claudia’s. They matched perfectly).
2) Ask focused, germane questions. As Claudia and Sharon each shared their reading experience with me, I asked questions about theme and plot. I didn’t ask if they liked my writing, or if they noticed this or that clever twist. I centered my questions on their impressions and experience, not what I had hoped they noticed.
3) Make detailed notes. I took notes throughout both conversations, capturing Claudia’s and Sharon’s thoughts, and adding my own ideas to the mix here and there. Both of them sent me follow up emails with their thoughts reiterated. Very helpful.
4) Create a game plan before jumping into edits. I took months to plan the novel before I started to write, and I need to take some time (not months!) to plan how to work the edits organically. In my case, it is made easier because I have detailed plans of how the story is structured, therefore I can start tinkering within a day or so.
5) Read the manuscript again before writing new scenes or drastically editing others. In my case, because the majority of edits is happening in the last half of the novel, I’ve printed out and read those chapters for a couple of reasons: a) rereading will ensure my edits maintain and heighten the voice of the novel, b) I’ll be sure to pick up any dropped threads of character, plot, or theme that aren’t addressed in my notes, but need to be to keep the edits organic.
6) Be kind. Writing is re-writing. I need to be ruthless about the changes, not with myself. So, I turn my furious red pen to my writing, but buy myself some flowers.
Now, please excuse me as I go in search of my notes. And a toothbrush.
Monday, October 10, 2011
I don’t know how it is where you are, but here in Tennessee we are just on the fringes between summer and fall. The days are warm and pleasant, and in the evenings it is time to slip on a jacket. Just perfect for our book club to gather on the screened porch and feel the soft early fall air, sit with our feet tucked beneath us and talk books.
This month’s book was one of those books—you either loved it or you hated it. It was a little slow to get into, and the story was very internal. But the prose was beautiful and the concept was thought-provoking. And being one of those books—we had quite a lengthy and involved discussion. Those are always the books that get us going!
Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel by Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote The Remains of the Day. It released in 2005 and was incredibly well received—in fact TIME magazine named it the best novel of the year—and it was made into a film (starring everyone’s favorite pirate girl Kiera Knightley) in 2010. We were going to watch the movie as well, but since Redbox only has new releases...you know sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss a good old corner video store.
Although this novel fits into the science fiction genre because of its plot, the setting is actually quite pastoral, taking place in East Sussex, England. Hailsham is a boarding school there, and as we come to realize, its students are quite unusual: they are clones.
At some point in what we understand to be recent history, it has become permissible and nearly an industry unto itself to breed human clones. These clones are raised separately from natural humans by Guardians (teachers), and are raised to an age (around 18) when they either become Donors, who may donate various organs potentially more than four times, or become Carers, who literally care for these donors during the process. Carers will also eventually become donors themselves. Once they donate as many times as possible, they die, which is referred to as Completion.
Ishiguro’s novel takes us into the mind of Kathy, a clone who has been a Carer for 12 years—a remarkable span of time for this duty. Written entirely from her perspective, it jumps about a bit, just as it would if she were talking with you and telling you the story. To me, it was like a fictional memoir—very personal, internal, and with many assumptions about other characters which came only from her perspective. Although she refers to hear early childhood occasionally, she primarily narrates her teenage years through to her time as a Carer, which takes the reader into a lot of complex emotions and relationships with her fellow students as they are educated at Hailsham, through a strange existence surrounded by questions. The students themselves fill in a lot of blanks with their imaginations, creating rumors that are accepted as fact because they’ve been passed about for so long.
A great deal of time is spent on the art they are encouraged to create—paintings, sketches, poetry. They don’t completely know why, but to them it is a great honor to have your work chosen by one of the Guardians for The Gallery. And, they don’t really know what The Gallery is either—they just know they want to have their work in it. Ultimately we find out that The Gallery is a way for the Guardians to try and convince others that these clones do, in fact, have souls. Think about that—what would it mean if you had to create art, in its most commonly accepted forms, to prove that you had a soul, as if it is somehow a reflection of your being?
Caring, Donation, Completion—they are all simply what these students have been created for, and they seem to accept their fate, perhaps the way many oppressed cultures still do today. It isn’t only history; as Ishiguro writes, unfortunately oppression is still part of our future. We thought of women in male dominated societies, where tradition or religion keep them in submissive roles. Escape is not really a concept, although they dream of having their destiny deferred so that they can do things like be in love, or work in an office. Not so far off from some headlines you may have read recently? It reminded me of A Dream Deferred, a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (see below). Although they are kept away from society, told they are created for one purpose alone and for the most part, accept that purpose—perhaps it is their dreams, not their art, that reveal them as fully and deeply part of the human experience.
There are moments in which I connected with the characters in Never Let Me Go, thinking of what it is like to be a parent. We do our best to give our children purpose, to teach them—but we, like the Guardians, sometimes only show them part of the world. We skew their vision with our own, and sometimes we keep the truth from them for their own good. Yet we see ourselves in them as well. And like the students, we are created as parents to give ourselves away to our children. We give them little bits of ourselves—our love, our hearts, our passions, perhaps sometimes our frustrations, or even our paychecks. And we know—we accept—that this is our duty, until completion. Sometimes the arrival of our children defers our dreams; other times, our children are the fulfillment of them.
I have a feeling that this male, Japanese author probably didn’t have this in mind when he wrote it. But then again, I maintain that we all find bits and pieces to relate to in literature, and find things that are deeply personal and meaningful and that reflect the human journey, no matter what the story. You might think dystopian science fiction isn’t for you, but you might need to think again—because you never know what will move you.
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
like a heavy load.
Friday, October 7, 2011
I love it that so many people have book readers on their cell phones and tablets. I'm delighted beyond words to know that Kindles fly off the shelves like rockets, when - at least until November - all they are good for is reading books. To me, that's pure sunshine.
But there is darker news, and I'm not sure how to reconcile it with the sunshine. My country (and maybe the world?) is forgetting how to read and write. I'd felt this to be true before I wrote this post, because I've met people whose job it is to teach college students to read. But conscience demands that I back my claim with data, so I looked it up: The SAT college-entrance exam scores for the 2011 high-school graduating class have revealed the lowest reading and writing levels they ever recorded. Ever recorded. Here's the picture:
I agree with Sharon when she says that we should write in language that is accessible to our readers.* That's an old rule. My teacher in high school journalism taught that we should write at an eighth grade level, since that is the level most find easy to follow without explanation.
But when I see this graph, I wonder if we will have to write at the fifth grade level next year, and the third grade level after that, until finally we are all writing "Pat the Bunny" and sending it off to editors.
When I see the graph, I want to sit astraddle the yellow line and rest a foot on the red one, before another human being slides off into inarticulate hell. I want to stack all those people single file on the up-slope, and I want - I want so much - to read to them:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Hardly a word in the poem Lewis Carroll didn't make up, so at least at the time he wrote it, the dictionary wouldn't have helped.
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
There's so much more to language than definition. There is rhythm (just like music) and texture and plain, pure fun.
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
You can see them, can't you? The manxome foe, the Tumtum tree? Meaning needn't be serious. It comes out best when we play.
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
"Uffish" and "Tulgey," such wonderful words. Like mud-luscious, a word coined by e.e. cummings.
One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
You might be surprised how many words have been coined by writers. Did you know that Shakespeare invented "eyeballs?" Not the things themselves, but the word. Edward Spenser coined "blatant" in his poem “The Faerie Queene.” The list goes on and on.
"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.
I'll bet you thought "chortled" was one word Lewis Carroll didn't make up. But it did indeed make its first appearance in this poem. To those stacking up on the red line, I'd like to urge them to use language like a sculptor uses clay. Squish your fingers into them, feel the mud-luscious drip down your arms. Write with beautiful words, and horrid words and repulsive words, and if your reader needs to look them up once in a while, let him tap the page.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Read any uffish words lately, any beamish turns of phrase? Please share them with us. We love to read what frabjous things you have to say.
* And I agree without reservation that we should spare the reader the language common only to Evangelical church-goers. Christianese is jargon, and it's rude to talk jargon in public.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Monday, October 3, 2011
Yesterday, we spent the afternoon shopping at our local Ikea. We bought a samla, a tokig, a nackten and some adorable yrsni. Translation: storage container, salad spinner, bathmat, Christmas ornaments. Earlier in the year, I picked up some items for work and when I submitted the receipt to our finance office, it was returned to me with a note: “What in the world did you purchase? I can’t read this receipt.” I've noticed that Ikea now provides an abbreviated form of English beside the Swedish name on the receipts for easier identification.
It’s a good idea to speak your customer’s language.
It reminds me of some explaining I had to do once on a passage of a manuscript during the editing stage. The scene was a crowded aquarium where the characters were “dodging baby strollers and munchkins.” I was referring to the babies as ‘munchkins,’ but apparently Munchkins are also doughnut holes from Dunkin Donuts (which I did not know) and I sent the wrong message. I can see the visual I created: babies with a messy floor beneath their strollers. It made sense. Dunkin Donuts was relatively unknown on the West Coast at the time, and I was clueless. They allowed me to leave it in anyway.
It is difficult to write from our own experiences and perspectives and remain aware of the universality of the words we choose. Word choices differ between social groups, age groups, regions, cultures and countries. As readers, we generally figure them out. We've seen enough James Bond to know the boot of the car in Britain is the trunk in America, and the bonnet is the hood. The same goes for Australia, as I understand it. Consider carbonated beverages. Depending on where you're from in the United States, you may refer to them as soda, pop or Coke (which is used generically for every brand). Canada calls it pop, also (Bonnie, correct me if I'm wrong). In America, you may have a 'pot luck' whereas in Britain you may call it 'Dutch treat' or in Australia say 'bring a plate.' My sister's new neighbor came over to borrow a round of wool which my sister came to realize meant a spool of thread.
As I said, as readers we generally figure out the meaning or we gloss over the words that aren't crucial to the story. At least, we hope they're not crucial. But it's the writer's job to keep that 'hitch' from happening or at least minimize the downtime before the reader is sailing along again.
The writer of historicals will necessarily use the jargon of the times but sometimes a bit of explanation is helpful. For example, you wouldn't write, "She placed the coins in her reticule which is like a purse" but you might say, "She dropped the coins into her beaded reticule and pulled the drawstring tight." Likewise, if you're writing about a particular locale, you need to include some dialect for authenticity, but not so much that it slows down the pace of the story or muddies the understanding of a critical point.
It is imperative to have trusted readers give us honest feedback before we submit our manuscripts, to ensure that we are speaking the language of our readers wherever possible.
Have you been stumped by a word or phrase that prevented your understanding of a story? Does it enhance or detract when you find a word or phrase that requires that you deduce the meaning from the story?