The Mark Blog

SEARCHING FOR STRUCTURE

 

I am happy and relieved to say that yesterday at noon, I emailed my final manuscript to the PEN Center USA offices. Of course, this isn’t the final version. Much has changed since the beginning, even since the Mid-Project Review. I’ll continue to work on it after the Final Review, which will be at the end of June. However, for now, this is the manuscript. Up until yesterday, I was still debating about the order and placement of the stories. This has been an ongoing process. At the Mid-Project Review, we all agreed that the chronological structure I was trying to implement simply wasn’t working for this book. Yesterday at about one in the morning, exhausted and convinced that the structure was as good as it was going to get at this moment in time, I retired for the night. Which gets me thinking about the structure…

Strangely enough, deciding on a structure for your book is sort of like choosing a school for your child. School selection has been something I’ve spent a considerable amount of time pondering this spring. When you stop to think about it, a school is the structure you drop your child into. Unfortunately, I chose incorrectly for both my child and my book. The error in thinking was similar in both situations. I made decisions based on my preferences, as opposed to what is compatible. I thought a progressive school would offer an out-of-the-box approach to learning. Turns out that this wasn’t the best fit. My child needed a different structure. A similar thing happened with the collection of linked stories. I looked at some of my favorite books, such as Little Altars Everywhere, and noticed that they were structured chronologically. This intuitively made sense to me. I tried to make it work—I really, really hoped it could work--but the collection was too stilted and lop-sided in many respects using this organization. This obviously wasn’t the best fit, either.

Back to the drawing board. The second time around, I strove to make a more conscious choice for my child and the book. I asked for advice from people I trusted and listened to different opinions. I’m grateful for all of the wise people I met along this journey, especially at The Mark. I tried to read between the lines. I asked myself questions: does this structure make sense? Why or why not? What are the pros? What are the cons? I allowed myself plenty of time to ponder the decisions. I wrote about it a lot. I wrote in my journal about the school situation and wrote a handful of outlines and played around with notecards while thinking about the book. Most importantly, I followed my gut. If something didn’t seem to be right, even if looked fine on paper, I discarded the notion.

Nothing is perfect. In one way or another, I’ll probably have to tinker with it again. This is all right. The objective is to find a good overall fit. As one of my writing teachers once told me, “Anything (in writing) is OK--if it works.” It’s just about finding out what works.

BOOKMARK THIS: Tips on Revision

From The Guardian, M.J. Hyland discusses the importance of revisions, how to avoid clichéd pitfalls, and stresses that there is not a single first draft in the world that is, or ever will be, perfect.

The article reads:
"I've never read or written a perfect first draft. Perfect first drafts don't exist. And yet most writers, at the beginning of their careers, think they must. This intimidating myth of effortless gift persists because successful authors aren't in the habit of admitting to writing weak drafts and rarely show the public their mistakes."

Hyland continues with a list of writings tips:
1. Remove exaggeration (tell the fictional "truth"). "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink." George Orwell

2. Cut out cliches. "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov

3. Remove your failed similes. A bad simile is embarrassing, like a long joke with a weak punch line, told by a nervous comedian. "Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm." John Steinbeck

4. Don't attempt a final version of the beginning of the story until you know how it ends. (And don't waste time fussing over the beginning until the rest of the work is done.) "Be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid." HW Fowler

5. Do at least one of the following to help you see your prose more clearly:

• Write by hand

• Use an ugly font

• Read your work aloud, or have somebody else read it aloud

• Write your second draft without referring to the first draft

To read the full article, click here.

The Finish Line

Above is a picture I took of the cabin in Big Bear where I am now sitting, writing this blog entry. I’ve come here to be away from distractions while I finish my book, due tomorrow at noon. Or, at least, this particular draft of it. I’ve made a lot of changes since the Mid-project Review, even written a few brand new stories that were birthed from the ashes of previous ones. I’ll get as far as I can by the deadline, and then send it off as is. Done? Not quite. As close as I can get over six months and three marathon writing sessions alone in the woods? You bet.

The cabin belongs to a friend, a fellow teacher and artist, and it’s crammed full of old things: paintings, collectibles, trinkets, vintage furniture and furnishings, records, and books. It’s tough to resist dusting off one of the hardcover classics on the bookshelves, many of which I’ve still never read, sitting back by a roaring fire, and flipping through the weathered pages. That pleasure will have to wait. I’m here to work, dammit.

I have allowed myself a couple short reading breaks to get me inspired. I read two now-classic short stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Raymond Carver’s “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (What great, and similar, titles.) Both are amazing, near-perfect examples of what’s possible within the scope of twenty pages.

Though both writers kicked off the so-called “modern era” of the short story, these stories are written in a more classic style. They both start with long character summaries and then shift to the heart of the story, the scene where their lives become unraveled. In a way, this goes against the maxim, “start in the middle and go from there.” But who knows what their process was? They may have started in the middle, and realized that the story would be built better if they pulled back and gave more context. Certainly, their continued popularity shows they must have been doing something right.

This is heartening in a way, because lately I’ve been worried that my stories were too traditionally plotted in this post-postmodern age. I’d been reading Gary Lutz and Amy Hempel and admiring their more episodic, pastiche approach. Their approach relies not so much on plotting, moving logically from A to B to C, as on small bursts of scenes, building momentum, and focusing less on the what and more on the how. They’re essentially minimalists, avoiding anything extraneous or cliché, and their impact, in particular Hempel’s, is all the stronger for it. Lutz, relies a bit too heavily on the restructuring of language for my taste. He is so consumed with finding new ways to communicate that I find the stories themselves less gripping, and have a harder time connecting with the characters. I guess you’d say it’s more experimental, a form of writing I admire in theory more than practice.

Reading them made me feel about as much a postmodernist as Flannery O’Conner. I am, however, telling very contemporary stories, set from the ‘80s to present day, modern in content, and writing rather explicitly about things that would go unmentioned in most eras of literature. I’m hopeful that this combination might prove alluring: classic story structuring for contemporary stories.

Then again, over time, I may gradually shed convention, strip away the formalities, forget about the what and zero in on the how. But right now, with just one day left, it’s a little late to reinvent any wheels. Instead, I’ve got just enough time to make sure there’s enough air in them, that the gas tank isn’t empty, and that the car remains on the road, driving on.

Not One for Good-byes

I've never been one for good-byes. I'm the person who lingers on the curb at the airport, or stands in front of my house waving until the car disappears around the corner, or runs back inside a friend's apartment to give her another hug. But, whether I refuse to say good-bye or not, the Mark Program is going to say farewell to me on June 29th, the date of our Final Review.

Last week, we had our last workshop and, tomorrow, our final manuscripts are due. In a month, at the Review, we will be challenged to think through and discuss our projects. The program isn't done, but we're in the final phase. I've never been one for good-byes and I know that saying good-bye to this program is going to be no different.

So, as I mold and polish my manuscript to be its best self and contemplate what I might be asked at the Review, I also feel the need to think about what it will be like after the program. My hope is that, in mentally preparing myself, I can make this transition smooth, happy, and productive. Here are some of the ways -- ranging from the small and idiosyncratic to the broad and goal-oriented -- that I am trying to prepare myself:

• Re-subscribing to The New Yorker. (There's something about its arrival each week that creates a nice rhythm and keeps me feeling looped in to contemporary news and writing.)

• Creating a comprehensive reading list of both fiction and craft books for myself. (I know George Saunder's new Tenth of December will be on this list, as well as more Aimee Bender, Toni Morrison, and Denis Johnson. I've been meaning to read Charles Baxter's craft book, Burning Down the House, for a long while.)

• Cleaning off my desk.

• Developing a strong and clear outline of my novel. (This will include which chapters are working as they are, which chapters call for revision, and which need to be written.)

• Seeking and reading books that are successfully narrated from a first-person adolescent point-of-view. (My novel is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, Lillian. I'd love suggestions.)

• Organizing a calendar of deadlines to apply to conferences and fellowships and to submit to contests and journals.

• Thinking through concrete writing goals and next steps. (For the Final Review, each of us is required to make a list of writing goals. For myself, I'd also like to set some deadlines for each of these: when will I have X chapter written by? when will I revise X by?)

• Reconnecting with writing friends and setting dates for exchanging pages and workshopping together. (I love community and find it so helpful--and fun--to read each other's work and to give and receive feedback.)

I don't look forward to bidding farewell to The Mark Program. Yet, at the same time, I am anxious to launch into the next phase of writing and revising, confident that--as a direct result of this program--I am in a better place to finish my novel. When I have to wave good-bye and pack my bags, I'll do so knowing that a deep, positive mark has been left on my novel and, even more, on me as a writer.

GROWING WITH BOOKS

I’m the type of reader who always seems to have a favorite book that I keep coming back to. In the second grade it was The Little House. By the time third grade rolled around, I had transitioned to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. In fifth grade I discovered Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In the course of a year I must have read the book de jour over a dozen times. Easily.

Junior year of high school I became obsessed with The Sun Also Rises, reading it multiple times. At the time, I probably didn’t even understand half of the subtext. But that’s how it is when I set my sights on a certain book. I can’t leave it alone. The following summer I went to visit family on the Dalmatian coast. Waiting for my uncle to wrap up work at the public library, I spotted a copy of Hemingway’s classic, translated into Serbo-Croat, on his desk. In spite of my limited reading and writing skills in my first language, I wanted to give it a try. My uncle thought it was a great idea. It took me almost the entire two months, but I read it in my mother tongue as well.

I used to think that we choose the books we read. We buy or check out a book and read it. We make a choice using our brain. They don’t magically appear on our nightstands. However, I’m beginning to realize that books choose us as well. There’s a bit of serendipity when we find just the right book, one that seems to speak to us at just the right time in our lives. Once I heard someone say that books are alive. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant. After reflection, I’ve come to realize that the pages of our favorite books are infused with energy. Whatever is happening, all of the joy or pain on the page springs to life in our minds. In this way, the books we love are living entities.

Over the course of The Mark program, I’ve discovered a new favorite. It’s William Trevor’s After Rain. In recent months I’ve returned to Trevor’s book to study the technical elements of his writing. How did Trevor manage to tell a story from differing points of view? I reread “Timothy’s Birthday.” How does he end a story with an image? I look to “A Day.” Returning to our favorites allows us to gain greater depth and understanding. And when we reread a favorite, it’s like being reunited with an old friend we always seem to learn something new about.

Bookmark This: 33 Unusual Tips To Being A Better Writer

These writing tips from thoughtcatalog.com includes everything from getting enough sleep to adding more fiber into your diet. It is a great read for anyone who needs to add some extra structure into their writing approach.

Here are some of our favorites:

Coffee. I go through three cups at least before I even begin to write. No coffee, no creativity.

Make people cry. If you’ve ever been in love, you know how to cry. Bring readers to that moment when they were a child, and all of life was in front of them, except for that one bittersweet moment when everything began to change. If only that one moment could’ve lasted forever. Take them back to that moment.

The last line needs to go BOOM! Your article is meaningless unless the last line KILLS. Read the book of short stories Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. It’s the only way to learn how to do a last line. The last line should take you all the way back to the first line and then “BOOM!”

Click here to read the full article.

Abandonment Issues

It’s coming down to the wire. One more week. That’s it. My plan is to pull some marathon writing sessions, but will that work? I’ve been working steadily all along, writing more over the last five months than I probably ever have in my life. But the more the characters develop and the more I uncover, the more there is to write about. And the more I write, the more I need to re-write. Now that the stories are truly linked, I’ve become aware that I may need one or two more new stories to fill in certain holes within the bigger collection. Is one week enough time?

Probably not.

Last Sunday, I had most of the day free and thought I’d get a ton done. But all morning everything that came out felt flat, dull, informational, and not very literary. I took a break, played some tennis, ate lunch, cleaned my room, made some coffee. When I returned to the story, I went back through the flat, boring stuff, and, with the general idea intact, began to rewrite the work sentence by sentence, until I went into a whole other realm. This time, the words were coming out looser, and what seemed trite or cliché before began to take a new shape. After a couple hours I read it over. Decent. Better. But it also occurred to me, it might be a whole new, as-yet-unworkshopped story. And, as I’ve learned from this process, a first draft is still a first draft, no matter how good I think it might be.

All day for four okay pages. At that rate, one week is only going to produce 28 pages. My book is probably over 200 pages by now, most of which still needs some re-writing.

I have found that with looming deadlines, I’ll kick into gear. That’s one of the best parts of doing The Mark Program. I’ve had to rewrite stories in a week, and I’ve used every possible hour of every day to meet that deadline. While it may be true that cramming at virtual gunpoint doesn’t necessarily always produce the best work, it does produce work, and sometimes that’s the important part. I can always polish and finesse later, but it’s nice to have a good base upon which to start.

Realistically, I won't be satisfied. This won't be the final draft of my manuscript. I’ve come to terms with that. But I do want it to be as good as I’m capable of making it within this time frame, and that will mean some late nights/early mornings and a lot of coffee. As I’ve expressed previously, sometimes the process can feel endless, and knowing when something is ready may just mean being ready to abandon it. It’s just nice to have a set date of temporary abandonment, so I can go back to doing what I do best: nothing.

That’s a joke. I love doing things. In fact, I get uncomfortable if I don’t have some kind of creative project to work on. Long vacations, rather than relaxing me, can make me more anxious, like why am I wasting all this time when I could be working on something?

During the month break I have before the Final Review, I have two projects in mind: an album and a screenplay. No rest for the wicked. And I like it that way.

WRITERS' REEL: A CONVERSATION ON WRITING WITH AMY HEMPEL

Amy Hempel is an American short story writer, journalist, and teaches creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University. Here is an insightful interview addressing poignant questions on every writer's mind.

Her Strategy for Short Story Writing:
"Take on a large subject or concern and find a small, personal way in."

On Talent:
"It is not about talent... necessarily. It has more to do with how badly you want to do a thing, and if you will work harder than the next person because you want it more."

What She Looks for in Stories:
"I will read stories where the stakes are high. I will read any story about somebody getting through a hard thing. I want to know how that person did it."

On the Importance of a Good Sentence:
"I don't like to see a bad sentence on the page. What if I was hit by a bus and that's what people saw? They wouldn't know I was trying to make it better. They would think that was the best I could do."

Truth in Fiction

I've discovered that it's often difficult for me to describe a work-in-progress in any way that satisfies me.

I've heard that it takes an hour to write an hour-long speech, two hours to write a two-hour speech, and three hours to write a ten-minute speech. One has to really know what one wants to say in order to make it concise.

For a very long time, I have struggled with how to articulate what my novel-in-progress is about. As part of the Mark Program, we've been asked to write and revise log lines and brief synopses of our manuscripts. (Natali and Eric are writing story collections, and I'm writing a novel.) In large part because of the Mark, I have a much surer sense of how to articulate what my novel is about, in terms of both plot and thematic concerns.

Oftentimes, I struggle to answer the related question of where my novel-in-progress comes from. How much is true--born of real life--and how much is fabricated? I like the response of my former teacher, Pam Houston, who says that everything she writes--regardless of its classification as either fiction or non-fiction--ends up containing about 82% truth. In another variation, Mark instructor Antoine Wilson likens life to a lemon and the fiction that emerges from it to the zest. I've been extending the food metaphor: If life is a cookie, then stories are the chocolate chips. You nibble out the bits of life that catch your breath--the distinctive emotional truths--and they, I believe, are what make a work of fiction.

I don't know where I'm coming in with my truth percentage but I do know that, through every hour that I sit with manuscript, I am discovering with greater intimacy what my novel is about. I am learning the rhythms of my character Lillian's heart, I am learning about the overarching obsessions of the manuscript and, this weekend, I also, perhaps not by chance, ate many chocolate chip cookies.

RULES OF A WRITING DATE

At workshop a couple of nights ago, Antoine asked us if we were planning extra time for revisions before the final review. The manuscripts are due at the end of this month. There’s just one more workshop, early next week. The weekends will have to be marathon writing sessions. Other than that, I don’t have large blocks of time I can allocate to revisions. The only solutions I can think of are to block off shorter segments throughout the day and to set writing dates. Writing dates are something I learned about from Mae, an Emerging Voices fellow.

We have now been doing writing dates for close to three years. It started when our kids were still toddlers. I was so sleep-deprived in those days that it was hard to start writing again on a consistent basis. Writing dates were something that Mae had heard of from a friend who learned about it during an MFA program. There’s not much to the notion, but there is a method.

Once you have a partner, you need to decide on the logistics of the writing date. Mae and I chose to devote a forty-minute block of time for one evening every week. It’s important to always stick to the same day and the same beginning and end time. In this way, a habit is formed and you always know that no matter what is happening in your daily life, that chunk of time awaits your writing life.

The next component of a successful writing date is to set up a routine as to who is the initiator and who is the time-keeper. The initiator is the person who calls at the agreed-upon time. During this call, it’s important to exchange writing goals for the block of time you’re about to begin. Even if you plan on spending the time doing a writing prompt, it needs to be stated. I’ve found that verbally committing to an activity keeps me focused and accountable. It’s less tempting to get side-tracked by a different story or to switch from, say, drafting to revising.

The time-keeper is the one who (obviously) times the writing session and then calls the other writer at the end. During the closing call, it’s imperative to be honest about how it went. There are some days that are filled with fabulous focus and the writing goal is achieved. There are other times, when the writing didn’t go as well; maybe it was like walking through molasses. Either way, it’s all part of the process and that’s all right.

Writing dates transformed my writing life. They’re instrumental to building momentum. There’s something about being accountable to another writer that makes a person rise to the occasion—even if they’re sleep-deprived.