More Craft Lectures – TMWW Pt. 2

The Tuesday craft lecture for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop was geared for the poets among us, so we prose writers–at least from my workshop–decided to spend the extra time reading workshop submissions and doing our assigned homework from that morning. Since it involved writing down our dreams, a nap seemed like a good idea, all in the interest of the workshop, of course.

Wednesday’s lecture was probably one of the most anticipated of the week. Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt, had chosen the topic, “Writing a Book for Publication: Approaches to Authenticity and Timing.” The description of the lecture called it “A dual narrative–the writer’s ongoing work on the book and, meanwhile, what’s simultaneously going on in the publishing world…. how do you prepare your organism to thrive in that agar?” Exactly what a writer seeking publication would be interested in, right?

And, indeed, Ms. Jones gave us a vivid glimpse into a publisher’s conference room where editors have to sell a project to her, the marketing staff, the sales staff, the publicity staff, and ultimately the publisher him- or herself. Her opinions were honest if not a harsh reality–if your first book doesn’t meet the sales department’s goals you don’t get a contract for a second one., for example. She did, however, talk about making your writing “stand out” to attract an editor’s attention, so he or she will push hard for your book at that conference table.

She then described her editing process, i.e., “eliminating words to free the story.” Frankly, she seemed to be describing an ideal book, in her opinion, as page after page of “subject-verb-object” over and over. However, she did emphasize she edits literary fiction. This was a great insider’s view of the part of the publishing world we writers are–or were–happily ignorant of, and Ms. Jones may have inadvertently discouraged more people from submitting their work to Holt or anywhere else than she encouraged.

On Thursday, my workshop instructor, Laura Benedict, did her lecture on “Bringing the Sizzle: Five Ways to Add Genre Appeal to Your Writing (Without all the Heavy Breathing.)” Benedict opened the lecture with the question, “Is popular fiction inferior to literary fiction?” She didn’t wait for a reply and responded with, “No, of course not!” She explained that she is not a traditionally trained writer–she started out in marketing and public relations for Anhauser Busch–but when she came to writing she wrote stories she wanted to tell. She made a conscious decision to write genre fiction with supernatural elements because she wanted her work to be entertaining.

The key to genre writing is simple, “Something has to happen in every chapter.” Genre writers, she says, should strive to produce “upmarket” work, i.e., a compelling story with attractive language.” Good genre fiction, Benedict says, “is for a literate reader who loves a story but who doesn’t want to read crap. Bad writing, whether genre or literary, makes me angry.”

Benedict provided her personal definition of the differences between popular (genre) and literary fiction. Literary fiction, she says, “is character-driven. Style and language are more important than plot. Popular fiction is driven by the plot, but popular fiction can be as good as literary fiction when a writer successfully merges good characters and writing with a superb plot.”

Her “Five Ways” are as follows:

  1. If you want people to read your book and enjoy it, raise the stakes–don’t be quiet, go for the awesome factor, not the quotidian epiphany. Make sure people care about your characters but put them at risk, i.e., in situations where they might lose something or where bad things can happen.
  2. Mind your setting for all its worth. It’s okay to use tropes because that means you can concentrate on story.
  3. Keep the story moving; don’t dwell so long on an image you lose the reader. Start by having a clear sense of what your story is about. Use the 3 X 3 exercise: Describe your current work in three sentences of three words each. This is the start of–or is–your elevator pitch.
  4. Create characters with emotional and moral intensity and definable value systems, whether the value system is good or bad. This is especially true for your antagonist or villain; make him or her as three-dimensional as the protagonist.
  5. Enjoy yourself in your work. Genre writers love their jobs because they’re writing what they love.

Great words of advice from one established genre writer to a hopeful one.

Part 3 – Fred Leebron’s take on creative writers using post-modernism.

Revisions, Revisions, Revisions

Whoever said revising is the hardest part of writing, give him or her a cigar. The odd thing is, I don’t know why that 1) surprises me and/or 2) annoys me. After all, I’ve been writing/revising something for close to forty years. Not a single one of my government reports or magazine articles made it to print without multiple revisions. I suppose in that case because the revisions were engendered by third parties rather than being self-induced, I just accepted it and moved on to the next one.

Every writer–no, don’t deny this because it’s every writer–grumbles when it comes to polishing that rough draft. Some people erroneously decide that first cut is good enough and rush to Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing and bestow on us a rough draft full of plot holes, inconsistencies, typos, grammatical goofs, putrid punctuation, and sloppy style. They are usually the first ones to wail that self-publishers get no respect. Well, duh, accept some responsibility for that. And I’ve self-published three collections of genre short stories. I agonized over every word, used the services of a proofreader, and some typos still got past us. I felt as if I’d betrayed the reader in that case. The advantage of direct publishing, though, is that I can upload a corrected version and only lose maybe one day of availability.

When my workshop instructor at Tinker Mountain praised my novel excerpt, he made a point of declaring how polished it was–and then suggested some line edits, ones that were necessary. He didn’t ask me for a copy of the entire MS as is. He told me to go home and revise it then get back in touch. I didn’t and don’t resent that feedback. This is a person whose opinion I respect, and he’s right. It’s a decent rough draft, which needs a lot of work to be a final product.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from grumbling as I go about Revision Round One.

What, you ask, you’re going to revise it more than once? Yes. I have a lot to digest about it: the instructor’s critique but my fellow workshoppers’ critiques as well. As I reviewed their comments, I saw they, with their fresh-eyed attention to the MS, made some good points which I have to factor into a revision. That means at least two revisions, perhaps more because I always hand off a “finished” MS to someone who will look at it from an editor’s perspective.

Why am I grumbling, then? Well, this novel is very different from what I usually write, which are historical thrillers. This novel is a combination of literary fiction and historical fiction (because it has a present-day and a past timeline interwoven), with a strand of mystery added, and the revision is taking me away from my characters, Mai and Alexei, who are like friends. Go on, admit it. Your characters become larger than life to you, too; otherwise, you’d write them with one dimension.

In this novel I’m also exploring a subject I never thought I’d address–race relations, historically and in the present day, and that’s by no means easy. Not that I’m tiptoeing around anything. I’m working very hard to be honest, and it’s difficult. My usual characters are just as bleeding-heart liberal as I am, so to be inside the head of a woman from the 1940’s to whom white supremacy is a given is very, very challenging. I’m trying not to make her a caricature and to show her as a human being, but that’s a trial as well. It’s too easy to just make her evil and not explain why she is the way she is.

However, doing something different from what you usually write expands you as a writer. It opens you to other possibilities, makes you look at your writing differently and more critically. A few years ago, I would have told you I could never have written a story of fewer than 500 words, much less 100 words, but I do it, twice, every week. I never disdained literary fiction–I read a lot of it–but I never thought I’d write a novel-length literary fiction work. But I have, and I’m very proud of it. Better yet, I’m excited about it, and I’ll be even more excited about it when it comes through the other side of the revision process.

Where revising your work is concerned, resistance is futile. You’ll be a better writer through revision.

Happy New Year, Friday Fictioneers!

Happy New Writing Year!

The holidays are great, but they’re over at last. No rushing about shopping or cooking or cleaning up a mound of discarded wrapping paper. The relatives have all gone home, and no more guilt-trips about spending time with your lap top, doing that, you know, hobby thing you do, writing.

I managed to keep to my writing schedule between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but not much else, and I, for one, am glad to be getting back to the writing/revising/reading schedule I’ve become comfortable with. If I don’t, the guilt-trips will come from me.

Friday Fictioneers LogoThis first Friday Fictioneers of 2013 has an apt inspiration photo, and it took me to my usual genre–the thriller. Yes, it’s a bit B-movie, a bit noir, but I hope when you read it you get that I tried to juxtapose beauty and something normal with something dark and abnormal.

That’s what usually attracts me to read fiction, the contrasts between dark and light, good and evil, the usual and the unusual. I’ve often wondered why that is. You’d think with the disruptive life I had, I’d want no surprises in my fiction. I do probably read more literary fiction than anything else, but I often need my dose of something that wrenches me from normalcy, because, well, otherwise life–and reading–would be boring.

Today’s story is “Indulgences,” and, as usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of this post and click on the Friday Fictioneers tab. Then, you can select “Indulgences” from the drop-down list.