Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Porter

You'll see from today's quote that the source of our writerly wisdom was a rather feisty lady:
Oh God! how I have to beat myself over the head to get started every morning. ~Katherine Anne Porter
Of course, I assume she's being facetious or tongue-in-cheek, rather than literal; otherwise, it really would be rather painful.

What Porter alludes to is the discipline it takes to be a writer. It's not easy getting up every day, sitting in front of the computer or with a pen and paper in hand. It takes a force of will or internal drive. Writers are known to be great procrastinators. One who hates to cook and clean will find herself cooking and cleaning in order to avoid the writing that needs to be done. (I'm not referring to myself, by the way; I have other methods of procrastinating!)

But is a writer who doesn't write regularly still a writer? I think the question is rhetorical. In case you're unsure, though, the answer is 'no'. Unfortunately not.

I struggle to be disciplined. I'm not perfect, but hopefully I'm getting better. I find that routine helps. Not just to work at it every day, but preferably at the same time and in the same place every day. For me, that's at the computer in my living room in the mornings.

Do you need to write 7 days a week? Not necessarily. Five will do - whatever five days work for you. And three to four hours at a time or according to a certain page or word count.

Do you need anything special to get going? Music or the television playing in the background? A cup of coffee at hand? A particular pen or type of paper?

Find what works for you - a beating over the head if required - and do it. It's the only way you'll actually get anywhere with this craft.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for O'Hara

John O'Hara was a Pennsylvania author who first became known for his short stories, then went on to write novels. He was highly praised for his ability to write authentic dialogue, and even though I also have a pretty good ear, this knowledge makes me want to read at least some of his work

Here's some writerly wisdom from the great man: 
Nothing could so quickly cast doubt on, and even destroy, the author's character as bad dialog. If the people did not talk right, they are not real people.
 If you're a writer, how does your dialogue stand up? Are you destroying your characters with your inability to make them speak the way real people do? Do you read your work aloud to hear how it sounds? Do you get others to read your work aloud to you? Sometimes this is better than reading it yourself, even if the person doing the reading misses the nuances of tone. You hear how it sounds to others and can correct misconceptions or make changes that clarify what you want to convey.

Nothing is worse than creating one dimensional, incredible characters (and by that I mean non-credible, not fantastic). We want our characters to come alive, to be three-dimensional, complex and believable - just like we are. Dialogue is a huge part of that and impossible to avoid.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Nabokov

Ah, the notorious Nabokov, author of the infamous Lolita. What wisdom would he offer the writer?

Simply this:

The pleasures of writing correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading. ~Vladimir Nabokov
In other words, if you don't enjoy writing, if you don't love the work you're producing, perhaps you shouldn't be doing it. I mean, apart from those rare times when the words flow freely from your brain to the page, we all know that writing is hard work. GeNe Fowler is oft-quoted as saying, "Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." 

Ask yourself why you're writing. Are you a masochist? Do you enjoy staring at the page or screen waiting for those drops to form? Is writing something you love to do? Is it something you need to do? Do you believe that anyone can write a book and, therefore, you are merely taking up the challenge? Do you have anything worthwhile to say?

Yes, writing can be hard, but there should also be some pleasure in it. Putting your thoughts and ideas into words, thinking of an audience, using the gift God gave you...

Sometimes we start writing because we love reading (unless the book is so awful we throw it across the room). Reading is indeed pleasurable - it takes us out of the quotidienne, shows us how people think and act in different situations, introduces us to places we may never see, etc. Never stop reading; never stop stretching your mind and your spirit. But please, only keep writing if you love it, too.  May you feel as SharoN O'BrieN did, that "Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Maugham

Hard to believe, but today marks the half-way point in the A to Z Blogging Challenge. Still lots of good stuff to come; it's not all downhill from here! (Though I feel a bit sad that there were absolutely no comments on J is for Joyce and L is for Lamott).

Today's writerly wisdom comes to us courtesy of the letter M and the author of the well-known (and semi-autobiographical) work, Of Human Bondage

“There are," says W. Somerset Maugham, "three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” 

I take this to mean that there is no great formula for writing a novel, especially one that might be considered classic, a bestseller, or of literary merit.  You either have a compelling story, well-told, or you don't; besides which, there's the effort or luck of getting published, finding an audience, and catching the eye of reviewers. Worse luck, you have a shelf life of about six weeks after your book comes out; after that, if sales aren't good enough, your work gets pulled and returned to the publisher. Maybe there's something to be said for online retailers, after all...?

Anyway, if you google "writers who broke the rules", you get over ten million results. Just looking at one of the hits you discover several authors who bucked the system with extremely successful results. Ever heard of The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger), To The Lighthouse (Virginia Wolf), or The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)? Yup - rule-breakers all.

What can we conclude from this? Knowing the rules is important, but in the end, they're just guidelines. The most creative minds can't be confined or restrained by arbitrary edicts or authorities. Use your imagination, combine with talent and skill, and write the story only you can write. That's the best recipe I have for writing a novel novel.

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Lamott

Welcome to Day 12 of the A to Z Blogging Challenge and the letter L. (I feel like a host on Sesame Street!)

Today's "writerly wisdom" is split between two authors and relates back to our advice from Susan Isaacs, which basically said "get out of the way and let your characters tell the story."

Here we go:
E.L. Doctorow  once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard. ~Anne Lamott
Sometimes in writing, and in life, we want to know everything that's going to happen. We think that if we know ahead of time, we can make decisions that will change the course of events and prevent heartache to ourselves and/or others. Whether or not we would make the right decisions is moot, though, for in real life we can't know the future and we can't control all of the circumstances that will affect us. And if we did know what was coming down the pike, our anxiety and fear around such things would likely prove debilitating. I'm sure Lamott, who in addition to her fiction has written memoir and non-fiction around the topics of alcoholism, depression, single motherhood and spirituality would agree.

Anyway, as with character, so is plot. No matter how careful an outline you create, nothing is written in stone. As you write and your characters become more clear and express themselves more loudly, the plot changes and moves in new directions. The wise writer is not rigid, but goes with the flow. Even if s/he tries to bring things back onto their "proper course", s/he may find that s/he can't keep them there. And that's okay. "You don't have to see your destination...just...two or three feet ahead of you."

I'd say even a couple of inches would do.


For more of Lamott's writing advice, check out the classic Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for King

Day 11 of the A to Z Blogging Challenge brings us to the letter K. Today's "writerly wisdom" comes from an author who will be a stranger to few. Known for his suspenseful thrillers (shall I say 'horror'?), his books have been on bestseller lists and made into movies. Heard of Carrie (recently remade), Pet Sematary, Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption...? Yup. Stephen King's our man.

In addition to his fictional works, King is also well-known among writers for his book On Writing. A prolific author, his advice is both simple and profound:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
You'd think that would be fairly obvious, the writing part especially. But I hope the reading part doesn't catch you by surprise. I was a bit taken aback (okay, quite a bit) when a member of our critique group asked one of our newbies if she read much and the answer was 'no'. It explained a lot. How can you write well if you don't also read? How can you know what good and bad writing look like? How can you recognize whether or not your own work is worth the paper it's written on?

Please. If you're going to write, write a lot. But don't just stop at writing; read a lot too. It will only help develop your craft. Try it and see!

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Joyce

Here we are on the 10th Day of the A to Z Blogging Challenge. Hello, letter J!

Today's "writerly wisdom" comes to us from the Irish author best known for Ulysses (one of the pioneering novels of the stream-of-consciousness technique) and Dubliners.
“For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of   Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” ~James Joyce
It's interesting to note that although Joyce spent the first 22 years of his life in Dublin (Ireland), he spent the majority of his life on the continent, between Trieste and Zurich (Switzerland), and Paris (France). His life in Dublin informed him and in writing specifically about this place, he was able to discover universal truths.

I remember writing an essay about the importance of place in literature. It's no doubt still in a file at my mom's, but even without consulting it, I can tell you that place itself is a character in your novel. It plays a role. It defines what can happen. It sheds light on the other characters, who they are, what forces shaped them, why they think and act as they do.

Some say "write what you know" and this seems to be Joyce's advice as well, by virtue of his example. He knew Dublin intimately and captured the place and its people for the reader. It was the best way to get at the heart of common human experiences, to make them real, and to make us think.

What place do you know best? Can you write about it, and "in the particular [contain] the universal"?