It’s not intelligence. It’s skills, to write.

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I have a favorite writer in my life who’s a good storyteller. Great imagination, vivid characters, passion for the drama of a story. This writer is practicing skills. This isn’t a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of skills.

acrylicsIn other words, being smart will not ensure storytelling success as a writer. Practice of writing skills gives a better shot at that success. You still need imagination, passion, a vivid way of seeing things. You can coax out imagination through playing. You can develop vivid visions by focusing on sensory details. The color. The odor. The feel. That noise. The flavor.

The passion? You can keep that alive by returning to the story, like my dog Tess returns to my chair each night between 6 and 8. I developed a habit of walking her at that time. So now she returns to my desk, passionate about a walk, putting her big-poodle snout under my arm or her paws on my leg.

You don’t have to be smart as a Jeopardy winner to write a story. You only need to dream, to observe, to practice, and have that poodle’s passion for the walk that you take with your story.

Small mags make a large difference

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For a writer just starting out on the publishing trail, small magazines can be the best first step. While I included these smaller pubs in my submission efforts a few years back, I also had the temerity to send stories to The Atlantic Monthly. (Back in the days when the magazine published a short story each month, and the fiction editor allegedly read anything that was addressed directly to him.)

I thought of a submission to The Atlantic as a lottery entry which cost only the postage and envelope. The effort would’ve been better spent on magazines which want new voices.

Gordon van Gelder, publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, said in an online interview that small press magazines are very important in bringing fresh voices to the front:

Every writer needs to learn the craft, and there has to be a place for that learning to occur. Nowadays the pulp market is gone, but the small press remains strong. I think the first story from William Gibson [author of seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer] appeared in a small-press magazine called Unearth.

Many resources can help a writer with a story find these small press magazines. One that I recently subscribed to: SPECFICME, “a bi-monthly, PDF market newsletter for science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers. Every issue features well over 200 hundred markets, from e-zines to print magazines. Along with news about new publications, anthologies, contests, dead markets and a lot more.”

You need writing in your workshop

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On the very first night at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, our professor Lon Otto explained why we were going to be writing, rather than reading, through our class “The Novelist’s Tools.”

“I don’t much believe in the worship of literature,” he said, but added, “Reading has been the way writers have learned to write since before there were classes in writing. When I started out in the Festival, I just did manuscript review.”

The drill, in case you haven’t endured it, is to read 15-20 pages per workshopper — as many as 11 other souls — then comment on the page and in class on the manuscript. You can do the math and see that’s at least 165 pages of stories, or something on the order of 40,000 words to comprehend and comment on.

All that critique just doesn’t teach a writer the way that writing does, Otto said. “Unless new writing is happening, you don’t learn in the same way.”

This is why we stress generative writing exercises in the Writer’s Workshops I lead. Doing teaches more than watching. It’s not like we’ve got dangerous power tools to wield that require safety training and observation, either. Otto was all about release, being “Blake-ian” and giving things a try.

Regular synopsis keeps your story focused

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For our final assignment in Lon Otto’s Iowa Summer Writing Festival class, we had to summarize our books in three sentences. Okay, they could be wooly, complex sentences. But three was all we’d get.

He let us warm up on this overnight task (pretty tough to do in-class) with a summary of the book that we’d brought to Iowa to admire. A novel we liked because we’d read it and found it masterful in some aspect of the craft. Mine was Empire Falls.

Our summary had to include one sentence each: Initial Conflict, Subsequent Complications, and a Conclusion. For Empire Falls, I gave it this summary:

1. Softhearted Empire Falls Diner manager Miles Roby returns from vacation to his hometown where he’s always lived with hard questions: how will his teenaged daughter Tick handle his soon-to-divorced wife’s remarriage, and what will Miles do to buy the diner — and his independence — from the richest woman in the small, failed mill town Empire Falls?

2. While Tick befriends a mysterious new boy in art class with a troubled past and a threatening future, Miles must restart his stagnant dreams and face down his conniving father’s meddling, an unwanted crush from the rich woman’s crippled daughter, and a sinister interest from the town’s rogue policeman in Miles’ family.

3. These threats lead to murder, Miles’ new ability to embrace a risky future, and a new reliance on family to bring hope to his prospects of happiness.

Okay, easy enough. A prize-winning novel from a master craftsman ought to be simpler to sum up than a first novel from me, still learning the finer points of the craft. But here goes, for Viral Times:

1. Prize-winning journalist Dayton Winstead, first widowed, then disgraced and fired when a story gets labeled a hoax, scuffles for survival in a near-future America where the terror of a viral pandemic has made intimate touch more deadly than AIDS.

2. When a frightened, frustrated populace retreats into sexual contact by embracing new full-body, simulated-sex suits linked via networks to make love — or just lust — fundamentalist scientist Jennifer Nation develops a death threat to end the rampant promiscuity.

3. She creates a fatal virus to enter and attack the sim-suits on a network of millions of users — a threat Dayton must track down, while he risks restarting his faith in love and health with naturopath Angie Consoli, before Nation’s seven-day deadline runs out to release the virus.

This is an exercise a novel writer, or anybody crafting a story, should perform once a month. (It’s hard enough that this can be motivation to finish the book, play, or story). From month to month the synopsis will change, as the story develops.

Quick assignments at Iowa

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The briefest of assignments can be instructive, too. They need a few elements to teach you, like surprise, and a very close deadline. Here at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, I’m learning from the short stuff at the end of the week.

Yesterday we had about 3 minutes to compose a poem. Short poem, sure. It was the quick that challenged us. Douglas Goetsch, a fine poet whose work I’ve shared with my writing groups (his latest is The Job of Being Everybody), had us write a poem from a construction worker.

The set-up: There’s been construction in front of the Iowa House hotel (where I’m staying, right on the bank of the Iowa River), ripping up the sidewalk all through the Festival. Early morning construction, waking up guests. So one worker decides to post a sign, apologizing for the inconvenience. He’s not a fan of the work schedule himself. Nobody’s yelled at him about it, but he’s seen people complaining to the foreman.

We wrote, then a few of us got to read aloud in the auditorium. (My favorite, of course). Here’s mine:

That growl and beep, it wakes me too
We’d like to sleep as long as you
So please forgive our sounds of labor
This work, once done, gives the river fresh flavor

Goetsch made it easy for us, in a way, while we were working quick with a surprising exercise. “If it winds up sucking, make it suck exquisitely — make it utterly bad,” he said. Freedom to risk failure. It feels familiar, a part of what we do in the Writer’s Workshop.

Good thing that failure is an option on the way to creation. The final assignment in the Novelist’s Tools class is to summarize our novel in three sentences. Hmmm, 80,000 words to a handful of sentences. Short stuff, tall order.

Words spoken from an Iowa Wheelhouse

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I’ve been at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for three days, so that means tonight the Festival hosted its Open Mike evening. Down in the basement of the Iowa Memorial Union — a building busy with newly-minted freshmen in orientatation — some 30 of us stood up to read our writing in a common room-coffee house called the Wheelhouse. Reading writing aloud. Yeah, a lot like the practices of the Amherst Writers & Artists, and my Writer’s Workshop.

We read without response, except to hear polite and sincere applause (and get thumbs up from our classmates in the audience). The readers were essayists, memoir writers, poets and novelists, as well as short story writers. Fun language and colorful images rolled by, even through nobody was given more than three minutes to read:

“You can’t be sure you’re happy until you’re dead.” (A poem)

A story of ending a love affair on Valentine’s Day

In a memoir, about an aging father helped by his daughter to renew his driver’s license: “His arms, where muscles used to live like huge wads of gum.”

A love letter to wine, from a student in Doug Goestch’s poetry class.

A love letter to breast cancer, from an 18-year survivor of same.

“She considered which lingerie she should wear, what would fit their mood.”

“Gas flames were humming from the fireplace.”

“Hunger evens out a lot of things.”

We had to sign up to read. I went first this year, because in any other slot I squirm, waiting for my chance to perform. My three minute bit was a revision of an exercise from my workshop group: Choosing a shoe description, at random, and writing for 15 minutes about it. It begins:

Square toed purple slides, stacked heel — high enough to give her calf that come-hither arch. Estrella knew what to wear to turn the boys’ heads.

I said it was from my novel Viral Times, or at least backstory I hoped to squeeze into the book. You can read it as a small PDF file. I was happy to “publish” it for the second time; the first was in that writing group, when I read it aloud.

Low res, but not low cost

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Tonight at the Helen Thomas speech, Q&A, and book signing sponsored by the Writer’s League of Texas (more on that tomorrow) I met a student of the Pacific Lutheran University MFA program. The writing MFA is low-residency at PLU, meaning that four times over the three years of study the students are in residence for a couple weeks in Washington state — in “the shadow of Mount Rainier,” as the Web site says, in Tacoma. The remainder of the three years students spend at home, communicating via e-mail and phone with their faculty and fellow students.

Aside from the residency relief — you don’t have to put your life on hiatus to live in a place like San Marcos or Iowa City with lo-res — there’s not a lot of difference between the PLU program and a full residency MFA. It still requires 60 hours of credits.

Oh, the PLU program doesn’t demand a GRE test, something that can stymie writers when they get to the math part of that brain-buster. (Toughest three hours I’ve spent in study or testing, ever. But it had been 30 years since I’d muscled through a standardized test when I mastered my GRE in 2004).

The PLU program is on the low side of the cost curve for MFA programs, but that doesn’t qualify as inexpensive. The student estimated fees of about $18,000 for her degree, including the residency fees. “Or less than the cost of a new car,” her friend added. Good analogy, if you believe that an MFA can carry your writing further than any portable, hand-crafted MFA. (See The Portable MFA for “the core essentials taught to MFA students.”) Current prices are more like $22,000 for the program.

But I found it interesting that the lead quote on the PLU MFA page celebrates teaching one another in groups — something at the heart of the Amherst Writers & Artists method we practice at the Writer’s Workshop. At PLU, “What happens in groups is that we learn from each other. And in the end, what really happens is that we teach ourselves.”

Make a mission, find a theme

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Skills in composing and revising prose will not be enough to create a memorable, salable story. In addition to crafting sentences carefully, you must draw the map for your book, story or play. Why are you writing this work of art? What is your mission that brings you to the notebook or keyboard every day?

You are searching for a theme. This is a element of writing as important as knowing your characters cold, casting captivating conflict, or painting a setting vivid enough for a reader to live in. One way to begin this essential process is to create a mission statement for your story.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute sets out his process for a story’s mission statement.

  1. To tell who will tell the story
  2. To describe the challenges in language, and how you might overcome them
  3. To name the most important, essential content of the story
  4. To describe the story’s form
  5. To name your ambitions and goals for telling the story

Clark says in his Writer’s Toolbox

Most writers aspire to some invisible next step — for a story or for a body of work. For some, this aspiration remains unfilled and metastasizes. Writing down your mission turns your vague hopes for for a story into language. By writing about your writing, you learn what you want to learn.

It’s no coincidence that Clark used that last sentence. Earlier in Clark’s Writing Tools, he passes on a maxim from Donald Murray, the Pulitzer-winning writer of journalism, novels and textbooks like Write to Learn. Murray says that good writers turn stories into workshops, intense moments of learning where they advance their craft.

Murray talks about a daybook in his textbook, a place to write about the goals of your writing, as well as examining language. It’s a concept also visited by the fine “So, Is It Done Yet?” DVD on revision. Get out a notebook and start a daybook on your story. Make a mission statement the first thing you accomplish.

Adverbs yea, adverbs nay: another rule to be broken

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It’s a fundamental of writing: beware of adverbs. They work at their best when they spice up adjectives. But too often they’re at their worst, expressing a meaning already inside a sentence.

They can entertain if you don’t have to rely on them. You can have fun with the pun game Tom Swiftie, where the adverb amplifies the meaning of the sentence. “I need some pizza now,” he said crustily. (Feel free to contribute your own Swifties in the comments section below.)

The repair to sentences choked by adverbs? Find a way to convert the verb/adverb combinations to a strong verb alone. “She went quickly down the stairs” could become “She bolted down the stairs.”

Still, the adverb advisory is an overworked maxim in writing. In the new book The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, Tim Tomlinson lists the “cut out adverbs” directive as useless, but often promoted in creative writing instruction:

The [MFA from Columbia] education I received for over $30,000 can be condensed into eight easy to forget points, and I offer them all for the price of this book:

  1. Write what you know; don’t write what you don’t know.
  2. Flashy style of language without a story to tell is “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
  3. Writing can’t be taught.
  4. Cut out adverbs
  5. Never use the word “always”
  6. “You will never be fictionists.”
  7. Don’t write screenplays; they will destroy your ability to write prose fiction.
  8. There are kinds of stories.

None of these are wrong, he says (“except for the vapid number three and the asinine number six’), but Tomlinson says they’re all useless. “Tear them out and cumple them up, find a wastebasket and practice your sky hook — because with these eight MFA rules as your guidelines, you have a better chance of making it in the NBA.”

Sure, watch the adverbs in your writing. Keep a closer eye on more essential matters such as theme, the guideline to assembling your adverb-free writing into a compelling narrative structure. More on that tomorrow, along with a quick exercise that I’ll be using to get underway with a rewritten synopsis.

It took an editor to be entertaining

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The Writer’s League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference had its moments of inspiration and brilliance. More than 30 minutes of them coursed over the crowd at the luncheon speech of Saturday, the only full day of the event. Lew Wasserman, who founded the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and was book editor for the LA Times and the New Republic, reminded us all why we’re writing and pushing that big rock up the hill to get it published.

“Ideas matter,” Wasserman said to begin, pointing at the book and the printed word as still the best way to transmit an idea to mankind. But he used a speech to spark us, one that he obviously wrote but seemed to deliver with little reference to any notes. Wasserman believed in what he jested was “a declarative polemic.”

“Yes, books do have a future,” he said. We have all these alternative devices” to tell a story — the Internet, TV, movies, video games — “but more trees are being cut down than ever. 75,000 book titles were printed in 1996. Last year 180,000 were published. “The good news is that books will continue to flourish,” he said. The bad news: there are fewer readers than ever.

“Books still retain the patina of authority,” he said, “yet to be rivalled by any electronic device.” Wasserman noted that the king of the electronic message, Bill Gates, still turned to a publishing house to create his “book-like object,” a phrase Wasserman used to describe anything printed, whether by print-on-demand, self-published or produced from a traditional press.

It’s up to the writers of books to keep the arts of solitude and reflection from being overwhelmed in our current society, he said. Reading, Wasserman said, “is almost an anti-social act, because it lets us enter the zone of encouraged independent critical thinking.”

Whew. And you thought you were just writing a funny mystery with some quirky characters, an item the agents at the conference said they were seeking. No, you’re keeping a type of thinking alive and contributing to us all. Keep writing.

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