Saturday, July 24, 2010

How I Write, and Why

My writing process has evolved over the years, but when I first got some ideas that turned into novels, I had an experience I didn't expect. With every novel I've written (6 so far) each one starts with characters and a vague plot line, and then as I'm thinking about how the story will unfold, a scene flashes in my head - sometimes with dialogue, sometimes not - and I quickly write it down before I lose it. In each case, this scene has become the pivot point in the story, and then a more specific plot line begins to fall into place. I write this down and weave it together with a time line so I know the exact sequence of events. For this reason, I don't think in terms of chapters. I think in terms of events that happen in a character's life on a particular day. That helps me determine what led up to that moment in the story and what consequences will come after that moment. If I know what's going to happen in a scene, I write that scene, but if I need to think about it a while or do research to add authenticity and believability to the scene, I might put it off until I have the other scenes written that are still bouncing around in my brain. As a sort of 'place holder,' I write notes in the manuscript of what will need to happen in this yet-to-be-written scene so I can go back and fill it in later. Fortunately, I'm at a place in my life where I can write all day and all night if I need to get essential scenes on paper, and then ponder and brood over scenes that need more careful attention.

Sometimes some of my best ideas come when I'm in church. Insights and ideas in a talk or lesson relate to something my characters are experiencing, so I make notes and add those ideas later. I don't expect inspiration to plant something in my brain without effort on my part. I seek inspiration and expect it to poke and prod and move forward ideas that have already been generated. If no inspiration comes, I take that to mean the idea isn't worth following. This whole process is a fascinating exercise in the way the right brain (creativity) coordinates with the left brain (analytical). When I'm writing it's all right brain all the time, and when I'm revising, it's left brain.

Once a rough draft is on paper, I start combing through the tangles to smooth it out, making sure the sequence of events is accurate. My goal is polished brevity - saying the most in the fewest words. One of the things I comb out is sentences written in passive voice unless there's a particular plot- or character-driven reason for keeping it passive. I also comb through and revise all sentences that start with 'the.' That sounds quirky, but it makes the prose really sing with a brighter, tighter, more readable way of saying something.

Also, I'm the queen of tweak, and the longer the plot and characters "brew" in my brain, and the longer the manuscript remains in my possession unsold, the more subtleties and refinements I find that add richness to the story and the people.

While writing, I also listen to good music - without words - that stimulates my brain. I pray my way through every project. Above all, it's essential to have readers who will tell you the truth. In my previous writers group, everyone loved me and everything I wrote was wonderful, just wonderful, so I didn't get the feedback I really needed. Now I have several good critics who love me enough to tell me the truth.

A few years ago I interviewed with an editor who asked me why I write and who my audience is. I told him I can't NOT write, but apparently that wasn't good enough. I guess he expected me to say, "LDS women between the ages of 24 and 65 who have a college education and always get their Visiting Teaching done." I can't think in such marketing terms. My mindset comes from what a college professor once told me: "If what you write is good enough, your work will find an audience." I write because it appeals to the crusader in me. I write because I see things being ignored or swept under the rug in our LDS subculture that we ought to be discussing openly among ourselves. If the emperor is naked, I notice and I tend to mention it, and that makes some people uncomfortable, but very often those are the problems we've been in denial about. I write because lives and marriages are falling apart and not very many writers are addressing those issues in fiction. A writer's responsibility is to shine a light, and sometimes that light illuminates dark corners. I write because characters come alive in my brain and won't go away until I've written their story. I write because I have a talent and not to use it would be disrespectful and disappointing to the Creator who gave it to me. Even if I never get published, this exercise enriches my spirit.

For probably 25 or 30 years I've avoided reading fiction by LDS writers because most of it didn't have substance or depth, which left me still hungry. I know other LDS women with that same complaint. So I decided to write for people like me, who are looking for soul-satisfying, sink-your-teeth-into stories that touch our common core values. For that reason, I haven't written fantasy or escape so far. In the last six months, however, since I've started reading more contemporary LDS writers, I'm finding quite a few that I like very much, and I'm recommending them to those friends who gave up on finding good LDS-written fiction. We've come a long way, baby, and that's good.

That's my writing process and my philosophy. All I can say to recommend it is that I have a manuscript pending with a publisher. Talking about this reminds me how very much I miss teaching writing!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Confessions of an Incorrigible Book Buyer

Hi. My name is Pam and I buy books.

I often describe myself as an old broken-down English major because I learned to love and appreciate literature at that impressionable time in my life, and although my tastes have changed over the years, it's a habit I can't break. There's something compelling about a story, but really, as someone said, the meaningful experience in all literature takes place in the white spaces between the words. Maybe that's where story and reader connect.

A defining moment came the day AFTER graduation. I'd been through the English majors reading list, passed the exam and had my diploma in hand. As I passed through the campus bookstore and looked down that long line of racks and racks of paperback novels, I nearly swooned. I could read! I was literate! More importantly, I wasn't tied to a list of books somebody else required me to read. At last I could choose for myself. It was in the days when an expensive paperback might cost as much as $3, and those were no-nos for me, but I remember taking eight books to the checkout and spending a whopping, unheard of, budget-busting $12. This is significant because I was blissfully unemployed at the time.

Nevertheless, I went home and began to devour my treasures with the degree of self-indulgence one can only know when one is bone-weary of doing what other people want and expect one to do. These were all the best sellers that I'd agonizingly ignored while I was finishing the reading list to pass the test and graduate, but now it was my turn – nay, my right – to get caught up with the world of popular fiction.

In the years since graduation, I have not been inclined to borrow books from the public library because it's too restrictive; it puts me again on somebody else's timetable. I want the freedom to put a book down for a few weeks and pick it up later when the mood strikes again, to glance at it occasionally and know that inside the covers is a treat waiting for me. I have a reader friend who sometimes has as many as five books going at once, fiction as well as non-fiction, and she keeps them nicely balanced in her mind.

No, I'm the kind of reader who must possess books. When we moved last year after 33 years in one place, we passed a lot of our books on to other people because we knew space would be limited in our new place. In fact, in our old home, the bathrooms were the only places that didn't have bookshelves. In our much smaller new place, our books nearly filled the three big new bookcases we bought, but I still buy books. I'll decide later which ones are keepers and pass the others on to friends who will appreciate them, where they'll have a good home and be loved.

Unfortunately, or fortunately if you're the author of books I buy, I have what I'd call story staying power. I like books that go on into sequels and trilogies. I'm even into one series that goes to a fourth book, and another series that's supposed to have seven eventually. It's like making new friends.

As for the classics, I like Dickens, the Brontes and Austen interpreted and illustrated for television – perhaps it's due to a shrinking attention span no longer compatible with that prose style – but the characters are always welcome in my imagination, and I don't feel compelled to possess these volumes in my own library. My favorite novel, which I cannot do without, is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I purchased a new copy recently because I'd worn out the original I'd had since college. No one writes more luscious prose.

In our new place, I've found a home in our local book club, reading some books I probably wouldn't have chosen for myself, and being pleasantly surprised. I'm just glad I don't have to analyze the plot and the characters and the subplots and the socio-political influences and write papers about them and worry if I've second-guessed the teacher sufficiently to get a good grade. I can simply enjoy them as new friends. On second thought, maybe I should have majored in something I didn't love so much. It was a lot of hoop-jumping to fit somebody else's view of what an English major should know.

But that's another thought for another time. For now... My name is Pam and I buy books.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Romance With Words

When I was in the ninth grade, Mrs. Breckenridge assigned us to write an essay every week. She evaluated our work, consulted with us, handed the papers back, and we would revise. It was where I learned the joy of writing the perfectly honed sentence. Occasionally, since then, I’ve written a few more, and the hope of achieving a well-written sentence keeps me going. When the mind is as blank as the page. I discovered that the real writing comes in the revision. In fact, the word “revision” means to look or see again, and in that process, re-thinking also takes place; careful writing demands careful thinking.

One of the joys of the language is the fun of spoonerisms (saying blushing crow instead of crushing blow), malapropisms (“We get along so well; we have a great repertoire…”) and other “in” jokes language lovers share. I love puns. Once my college roommates mounted on one of the odd ceiling angles in our attic apartment a bigger-than-life-size poster of a famous Russian ballet dancer. They were all waiting to see my reaction to this handsome bigger-than-life-size face with piercing eyes greeting me as I walked in the door. Their conversation stopped as I stood and frowned at it for a moment. With one hand on my hip, and in mock disgust, I said in frozen tones, “Well, you’ve got your Nureyev!”

My mother’s use of mind-numbing clichés is legendary in our family. She had them all in easy reach in every conversation, including a few she made up. She never swore, except to declare, “Son of a biscuit-eater!” When she sometimes stumbled over words, she described it as saying things 'bass-ackwards' or 'getting my tang all tungled up.' Whenever we drove anywhere, she narrated. If there had just been a heavy rain, she’d say, “Boy, they’ve sure had a gullywasher through here.” She knew the names of all the wildflowers, the history of the town we were passing through, told her previous experiences there, and named people she knew who lived there, or had lived there, or planned to live there. Because it was endlessly interesting, and always hilarious, we learned to forgive the clichés.

In our family we have developed a few twists and turns in the language, too, especially regarding names. It makes us unique, binds us together, and is one way our children tolerate their old broken-down English major parents. Our son Jordan has become Fjord, and in the spirit of 'right back atcha,' his sister Jennifer is Fjen. Our non-‘J’ daughter Elin has even become Fjelin. Jordan’s blog name is fjordypants. They have come up with dozens of names for me, probably because Pam is an easier name to play with; therefore, Dad – Roger – is always Dad. They tried once to refer to us affectionately as their pets – Rogerbil and Pamster – but only my nickname stuck. When I’m not Mom, I’ve also become Pamalamadingdong, Pamalino, Pammie-Wammie, or any number of variations on the theme. When Elin married, her intended asked me if I wanted him to call me Mom or Pam. I said either was fine, but Chickie Babe was probably not appropriate. Both our sons-in-law call me The Pamster.

In our conversations, and as we play games together, we fondly recall common experiences, stealing phrases from a movie or video that we can remake to suit our circumstances. With us, Star Wars, Singing in the Rain, The Great Race, The Farley Family Reunion or other favorite movies are part of the language smorgasbord we nibble from. Ultimately there is a right and wrong to grammar, although some of us have been known to reply, when asked a preference, “It don’t make no nevermind to me.” Strangers listening to us might think we’ve developed our own language, or just arrived from another planet.

When I teach creative writing, I always read from The Great Gatsby the description of the parties Gatsby throws. It’s as thrilling a passage of prose as a person can find in American literature. Fitzgerald describes the people and the scene without using the words spoiled, lavish, excessive, or prodigal, and yet the reader comes away thinking those words. That's fine writing. In the spirit of saying it that way, I once wrote an essay on the perils of being short without using the word ‘short.’ It reads pretty well.

I love the sounds of words as well as the meanings. On my blog I have a list of my favorite words, and although it’s incomplete, it still tells a great deal about me and my brain: wonky, imprimatur, absquatulate, crapulence, rendezvous, fracas, ephemeral, ethereal, cinnamon, carbuncle, polliwog, murmur, tarnation, chiaroscuro, credenza, glissando, ubermensch, summer afternoon. And I’m just getting started.

Some language-poor readers of one of my novels, reading a manuscript copy, didn't get the humor of the malapropisms used by one lovable character with a penchant for mangled language. She says, for instance, her daughters’ homes have leatherneck furniture and granola countertops, while her big old Victorian home has become a milestone around her neck. Her cruise ship passed through the Panama Corral, and she describes the food as laminated in honey and soy sauce. She got a nasty garfunkle on her foot and almost missed the dance. We should understand when she says to her niece, "I'm glad you found your glitch in life." I was surprised that some people reading a manuscript copy of the book have written corrections in the margins. I feel sorry for people who can’t or don’t have fun with language.

Words can thrill – “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” – or frighten – “We regret to inform you…” or send chills – “I am the light of the world.” To master the use of words is a great gift, but to appreciate words is an even greater gift. And I salute Mrs. Breckenridge for being the kind of teacher who could put me on the path to a language-rich world.