Thursday, June 24, 2010

Is Too Much of a Good Thing Too Much?

Writers are neurotic. Now, I don't mean that as an insult, particularly since I count myself in that group, but generally, there comes a time in every writer's career when self-deprecation inches its ugly way into our psyche. This happens, it's been my experience, mostly when we're in the thick of figuring out a plot or revising a work post first draft. We tend to doubt ourselves, we question our abilities. When this occurs, the natural resolution is to seek the advice of other, more established, seasoned writers, editors or educators.

Writing craft books are aplenty. There are books on writing a 'bestseller in 30 days!' or 'unraveling the plot.' Some are real stinkers. Some, however are not. I've read several craft-related books in the past. My personal favorites are Stephen King's On Writing, John Dufresne's The Lie That Tells a Truth and Self Editing for Fiction Writing by Renni Browne.

Those books have taught me, rather quickly, that form and function can be learned. Browne explains the importance of ‘showing not telling’ pretty much on the first few pages of her book, using Fitzgerald as an example. King and Dufresne both tell you from the beginning that they don’t have all the answers and that what works for them won’t necessarily work for you. All advice given in these books are great, invaluable, especially when that neurosis is niggling you, making you doubt yourself.

An issue that can arise, however, is whether or not too much advice—be it from publishing greats or that know-it-all guy in your creative writing class—is simply, too much. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone. I’ve been around enough writers to know that we all have a different approach when it comes to getting a story out. Some like to start at the end, ‘having dessert’ before the main course, (writing your ending before you begin). Some outline. Some would rather cut off their fingers than use an adverb. Advice is abundant, even advice in craft books, but the point, the challenge in taking in all this advice, good and bad, is sorting out which is the best for you.

The first creative writing course I took in college was taught by a highly respected, much published professor who is quite a big deal in our little state. He is a genius storyteller. However, during our first class he told us he would not allow ‘genre fiction’ in his class. No ghosts, no fairies (I know, I was cringing at that one), no fantasy of any kind…nothing that wasn’t based in reality. I could have walked out of that classroom and never looked back. I didn’t. I learned. I listened and what I gained was the nuts and bolts skills of writing a great story. I struggled to write literary fiction for him, probably doing a horrible job of it, but I stuck it out. I continued to take his classes over the next four years because I recognized that he had a wealth of knowledge that I could use once I left his classroom and defiantly wrote as much fairy/vampire/ghost/horror fiction as I could.

It’s the same with reading craft books. If you allow yourself to drown in the abundance of ‘you must’ and ‘this is how it’s dones’ then, yes, that advice will overwhelm you. If, however, you take snippets from all varying opinions and advice you can walk away with an expansive base from which you will build your own style, hone your own voice.

What is essential, I think, in organizing those snippets and expanding them, is to have dialogues with others who have a vested interest in the same genre you do. Like minded writers and editors or even readers will help you. Network. Discuss. Branch out and listen. Not all advice may be golden, but all advice can be applied to your own interests. The information overload you fear will engulf you can only do so when you don’t know yourself as a writer, when you’re too afraid to listen to that instinctive voice in your head.

Listen to others, take in what they have to say, but ultimately, the voice that you should hear above all others, is your own.

If you’re still concerned, still leery, I invite you to join myself and a great bunch of writers on ScribeChat’s Book Club to read and discuss craft books. July’s book of choice is Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees.

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Finding your genre

I've always looked at genre with a glare. In all honesty, I've never given it much attention, because my ultimate goal is to be a writer that simply tells a good story. Think of the imaginary blessed spawn of Neil Gaiman and Toni Morrison. That's who'd I want to be. Unfortunately, I'm discovering, whilst a newbie to the 'business' of writing, it's a bit difficult to wrangle that covetous form.

Many literary agents are focused on certain genres. It's understandable. Why promote a genre you don't necessarily care for? I get it. But the idea of genre was so much on my mind, such a constant when I wrote that I began to find myself focusing on it. I'd change a character's voice, edit out things they might say, behaviors they might have in order to conform into the genre niche. It's a terrible practice, one that I've had to monitor. So, in thinking of this, I, being a good little English nerd, took to the research. What constitutes genre? Who is my audience if I'm writing YA? MG? Fantasy?

What I discovered is this: right now, it really doesn't matter.

So what if my protagonist is still a teenager? Her age doesn't necessarily define who I'm writing for. More to the point, at the stage I'm in (11k words), genre is the last thing I should be focusing on. Like with many things I tend to let filter into my mind, focusing on genre and not the development of characters or the course of the plot only deters me from my goal of telling a good story.

The bottom line is this: if I want to be that Gaiman Morrison hybrid, I have to forget about all things except telling the best story, written in the clearest, most endearing voice imaginable. Mix those things up with a great plot, a strong narrative and I may just end up with the story I want to tell. Oh, and the fairies. We mustn't forget those fairies.

So, question to you, anonymous reader, where does genre fit in with your writing process? What literary marvel hybrid are you hoping to be?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


SO...once, Diana Gabaldon said, on her blog, that the difference between her first novel writing process and those of her colleagues was that while they researched and researched, she researched and wrote. Guess who got published first?

I try to follow the same principle. Current WIP is something I've never done before. It takes fairy tales, folklore and some elements of mythology and sets it up in a contemporary setting. Easier said than done, particularly when my graduate courses contained very little Folklore/Mythology courses and a plethora of 'The Romantic Period,' '17th Cent. Non-Dramatic Poetry' AND more tech writing courses than you could possibly imagine. Hence, my ardent need to read, read, read on the history of fairy tales, myths and folklore. And yes, I am most certainly writing during this process.

Currently, I'm reading "Clever Minds: The Secret History of The Grimm Fairy Tales" by Valerie Paradiz. It's a great read. Honestly. It has also opened my eyes and it has left me with a huge revelation: The Brothers Grimm were complete douchebags. I mean, really. According to Paradiz, the long purported ideal that the brothers went to great lengths, speaking to 'plain folk' all across Germany to collect and write down fairy tales and folk stories, is complete and utter fantasy. Never happened. The brothers, apparently, gathered much of the stories from WOMEN. Women who were educated. Women who did all the compiling, did all the gathering and organizing.

They did collaborate with scholars of the time--men-- and out of the women who told the stories and did the leg work and the 'scholars,' guess who got acknowledged by the brothers once the anthology was complete? I bet you know. Go ahead and be annoyed. I am.

What I'm discovering is that there was a direct correlation between the brother's life experiences and what tales made the final cut. My annoyance at their misogyny aside, I am happily absorbing all of this information. Characters are being drawn, yes, even the douchebaggy ones, and I find myself so very excited by the work I'm doing.

Next up is "The Hard Facts of The Grimms' Fairy Tales" by Maria Tatar. You noticing a trend here? I know, I know, but I feel it's high time we have a feminist interruption of certain aspects in these very patriarchal stories. Oh, yes, I know it's been done before, but I'm hoping that my very unique, original plot will be welcomed among those that have come before me.

Please, my lone, probably rarely active reader, if you have any further suggestions, I welcome them. Am off to spend some more time with the brothers. Can't make any promises that I won't curse their names further.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What's next?

As many of you know, our state as been adversely affected by the oil spill. It's been top priority in the media, top of the 'latest news' links on CNN, ABC, FOX, etc. I imagine it will remain that way until another traumatic event occurs, until there is yet another hurricane, earthquake or innocent child murdered by a cowardly pedophile. This, I know, is the way of things. Society is inherently egocentric. We tend to be concerned with OUR loses, with OUR environment, with OUR city, town, nation.

The sad fact remains, that the cavalier manner in which BP is responding to not only the oil spill but also the livelihoods of those affected by it AND the horrible affect of this spill on our marshlands and creatures that dwell there is, for lack of a better term, insulting. Last week, a friend linked me to a quote given by BP rep Randy Prescott. "Louisiana isn't the only place that has shrimp." This insensitive comment was followed by many (yours truly included) passing along Prescott's email ( and phone number (713-323-4093). And while I know that phone and email messages may be ignored, the resounding insult visited upon our state by this rude comment will not go unheard. Yes, this is true, Mr. Prescott, one can get shrimp from other places. They won't be good, plump, delicious Louisiana shrimp, but yeah, they'll still be shrimp.

A response to the spill and to this offensive comment was beautifully stated by Rob Nelson on here. Nelson sums it all up far better than I could when he said "potholes can't rattle history. Bullets can't pierce charm. Oil can't coat culture and broken levees can't drown pride."

I've said it repeatedly on this blog, in conversations and sometimes to myself: you just can't break Louisiana's spirit. It's not possible, not even when individuals like Prescott, who have likely never lived here, have never experience the unquenchable spirit and culture of our precious state-- of our relentless spirit to endure, to prosper-- rattle off insults that does nothing more but add offense to an already difficult situation.

Earlier, I told someone that I didn't know how much more we could take, and why I believe that, I also believe that we could stomach just about anything and survive. Not only survive but thrive.

Just remember when you're flipping channels or scanning a news site with a flippant look at the latest development in the BP mishap, that there are people here who depend on shrimp, on fish, on crabs to live. It's not merely a job to's a culture, it's a lifestyle that is threatened. I have some advice for Mr. Prescott or anyone who thinks they know what to say about this situation: THINK before you speak and consider, despite your purported knowledge of the situation, every word you utter will be heard and it's NEVER a good idea to let 'diarrhea of the mouth' go unattended.