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Friday, August 8, 2008

Counting Down

“Seventy percent of a first draft is garbage and 30 percent is gold, but you have to write 100 percent to get that 30.”

-- Laurell K. Hamilton

Today’s Word Count: 272, 907 (859 words gone!)
Page Count: 1016

As I climb this mountain of the novel, I’ve proven to myself I can a) produce a lot of garbage and b) show the tenacity of a Gold Rush miner, greenhorn though I may be. Every day I see passages that need to rush on down the river, useless silt and fool’s gold. Every day I dutifully pry them off the rock and try not to look back.

I must never be too enamored of a turn of phrase or particular word. Everything should be considered expendable. Why? I need to get this novel down hundreds of pages. Now it's 1016 pages and my goal is 502.

And yet, the paradox of revision is this: a draft isn’t a plank you can saw off. That wisdom is paraphrased from Doris Betts who gave me another perspective after my story got carved by a friendly writers’ group. Fifteen different democratic opinions presided as to how I should revise and I was left alone with teeming brain and reluctant red pen to find the crux, the heart, the kernel. So when in doubt, I count, forcing rational and irrational numbers upon myself.

Word counts, like food and energy rationing, make you realize what really matters. A writing exercise dares you to name your story in a sentence, a phrase, a word. Say it short.

Today’s Writing Prompt: Seven Ways to Say It But Only One Can Stay!

Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: (Kids age 6-10)

1. Look at yourself in the mirror or another person. Find seven ways to describe your face and body or someone else’s. You can pick any parts to describe. What colors do you see? What shapes do you see? What lines do you see? What shadows do you see? What length, height, and width do you see? Make a list of those seven details.

2. Now pretend you are a movie director and you as the writer get to point the camera anywhere so people can see you. Write seven sentences showing us how the camera moves to describe you.

3. Pick your favorite sentence that you wrote but do not tell anyone.

4. Now read the description to someone you know. Ask the person to pick out his or her favorite detail, the one detail that stood out the most.

5. Talk together about why that detail seems interesting or important to the other person. Did you use descriptive adjectives to show color and shape? Did you talk about lines or shadows? Did you talk about size? Did you help the other person really see what you see? Share your favorite detail and talk about why it is interesting and important to you.

Secondary and Adult: (Ages 11 and up)

Describe a person whose features and looks you know well. Make a list of seven physical characteristics of this person and seven similes using the table below. For the first column, use the most specific, concrete words you can. For example, don’t write “gorgeous eyes” or “piercing eyes.” Use the five senses instead. For the second column, use the most unique simile you can think of to describe that facial feature. See the first two examples. It’s okay if your descriptions are intense, overwrought, dramatic, overdescribed – go for it! Write whatever comes to mind.


1. eyes or nose ______________dull green ______still as a murky pond
2. mouth or cheekbones _______sunken_________ like shallow basins
3. hair or any other features of the head ....
4. height, build (bone structure), or weight...
5. voice or facial expression...
6. clothing item...
7. walk or gesture...

Now rate the characteristics. “1” means “doesn’t capture this person” and “10” means “completely represents this person.” If you don’t have any 10’s, try to get more specific, more unique, more startling in your descriptions.

Now you can only pick one feature to capture this person’s essence. Pick one characteristic and write a sentence where the character enters the room for the first time in the scene and we hear the detail and the simile.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

“I considered making (the movie) Kill Bill like climbing Mount Everest…That was a big mountain that I created and I climbed it and I taught myself how to climb as I climbed it.”

-- Quentin Tarantino

Now it’s time to talk about the novel. I’ve made myself a mountain composed of 1,020 double-spaced pages (read 273,766 words as of this morning, and 274,301 the other day, so I’ve managed to cut 535 words this week). This beast got birthed in the early nineties (I think it was 1993) and now IT IS 2008.

Dear God, what have I been doing?

An interviewer once asked Frank McCourt (author of Angela’s Ashes, ’Tis, and Teacher Man) why he didn’t complete his first book till he was past sixty. His response: he taught high school for 30 years. To get where I am today, I have had to leave the teaching profession (14 years), find part-time jobs so I could create the novel’s first draft, and now write and revise outside the forty-hour week (easier now that my work week is no longer sixty plus!). But that excuse is over. What obviously, I’ve had spare time all along, so what have I been doing outside my forty hour work week these last few years? Writing short stories, essays, and educational materials. Doris Betts (author of The Astronomer and Other Stories, The Sharp Teeth of Love, and Souls Raised From the Dead) once described to me and fellow workshop participants something called the “stopgap manuscript,” meaning a piece you turn to when you’re stuck on the current project (or when you think you’re going crazy if you look at another page). Unfortunately I’ve somewhat abused this survival strategy and I need to face the fact that if I don’t get serious EACH DAY about the novel, doing it before all other things, then it will be 2018 and still this same lament.

Oh but wait! The other thing I’ve been doing is learning how to write a novel. Doesn’t that self-teaching take some time?

Whatever. Enough excuses.

Today I will not only cut more words but I will keep in mind this question: what mountain is Daria (the protagonist) scaling? If that mountain is “conflict” (the heart of each scene) then what is the mountain, the shifting tectonic plates beneath it, the rock slides, the avalanches moving that scene forward? Because the current scene I’m working on disregards Janet Burroway’s quote of the prior post. I’m trying to too hard to inform people about what life is like for teachers, rather than discovering things about Daria, the protagonist who happens to be a teacher. I fight to write the soapbox rant inside me – how no one seems to be interested in how teachers teach, the art and science of it, and how teachers really live, the intrigue and politics and drama of it in the faculty lounge and at home, unless it involves someone standing on a desk and ripping up a book (thanks, Dead Poets Society) or sexual scandal (thanks, today’s media). I began this rant long ago and since then a lot of people have worked hard to correct the stereotypes with works like Freedom Writers and Half Nelson. So the novel gets rant-y and teacherly at times, a lot of times.

Not allowed today.

A friend who just subscribed to the blog wrote me an e-mail: “Don't let your blog get in the way of the novel.” He’s one of two people who’s read an entire draft and who keeps me going with promises to get the first copy when it comes out. Thanks for keeping me honest.

Today’s Writing Goal: See above

Today’s Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: Draw a mountain. How tall will it be? How wide? How rocky? Are there animals? Flowers? Trees and other plants? Now imagine yourself climbing this mountain. Now write a description of this mountain, telling us the most interesting parts. Write as if you were making a movie of this mountain and wanted people to see it. What do you discover as you climb? What’s at the top? What’s on the other side?

Secondary and Adult: Describe a mountain you have climbed. A mountain can be a hill, part of a trail that’s an incline, or an actual mountain. A mountain can also be an obstacle in your life, something big you’ve had to overcome. Talk about the easiest parts and the steepest parts. Talk about the side trails. Talk about the summit. Talk about the views. What did you discover while scaling this mountain? What makes you glad about this experience? What regrets do you have?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bio Hazard

"Fiction is written not so much to inform as to find out, and if you force yourself into a mode of informing when you haven't yet found out, you're likely to end up pontificating or lying some other way.” -- Janet Burroway

Welcome to my blog!

This will not be fiction, creative nonfiction, or personal biography. I’ll discuss the life of the craft, especially the how-to struggle behind my fiction writing, rather than the life of this writer. From time to time I’ll share anecdotes but only if I think it’s wise to post them. I first considered posting a detailed bio sharing everything from employment history to meditations on spirituality. Then I caught myself. Instead, if I show any cards, it will be for the sake of casting opinions about the life of the craft.

Blogging is cheap and easy, like talking, so the fast and verbose talkers like me will be especially tempted to spew. The small stuff like the pontificating blog post eats at the big stuff I should be doing – noveling, essaying, short-storying. Robert Frost said, “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second.”

I want tremendous pressure roaring from that upstairs fiction faucet.

Then there’s the hazard of releasing too much personal life through that hydrant into the streets of cyberspace. Call it a bio hazard.

Excessively personal blogging sneezes all sorts of viral trivia out there. Now your family's reaching for Purell and your friends, Airborne.

We wouldn’t stand on our front lawn shouting our most salacious thoughts. We wouldn’t stand up in a restaurant and yell details of a blind date. We wouldn’t rail against our mothers in a full-page ad. We wouldn’t post party plans with a limited guest list on every street corner.

Or do we?

There’s a scene in the movie Me and You and Everyone We Know where the creepy neighborhood guy places huge raunchy signs in his front window directed at passing teen girls – and anyone else who cares to notice. If not a symbol of certain blogs, this scene makes you think about the current urge to confess and rant. The zeitgeist demands you knock aside the confessional and priest and let the whole church in on your business.

Or try this metaphor: snap a bedroom shot of our brains and what you get is bad photos, terrible lighting, the worst of angles…Or how about this one: the glimpse of a neighbor at night before blinds are drawn – only picture that same neighbor staying to vogue and ape at you, fly open, bra slipping.

But online it’s somehow okay.

In the movie No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones’ character laments, “It all started with bad manners” – “it” being drugs and homicide. Lest you think he’s indulging a kind of grumpy-old-man hyperbole, invoke the image of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park fluttering his fingers to emulate a butterfly’s wings. If we open our own little doors online to gossip and retaliate, we risk treading on the feelings of hundreds. Thousands; heck, why not butterfly effect it into the millions? (Personally, I’ll be satisfied if a few friends and family check in!)

If you have no shame and no manners, why should anyone else?

Suddenly you find yourself mudwrestling with strangers.

You’re a *%#*@ idiot.

– Anonymous.


Thanks, #@%$^&. Right back atcha.

-- Alias.

Come on people, now, smile on your brother; tell me, why isn’t everybody gettin’ together in the new cyberutopia?

That little exchange I just imagined – do you want that carved for posterity on your tomb? Will the hieroglyphs of our lives read full of Netspeak and expletives? Suddenly the words we thought were 100% ours – signed, sealed, delivered -- turn on us. We’ve reduced ourselves to a label, a caption, a hormonal moment, a bad-hair day. It’s too late to squirm out of the stereotype. After all, we posted it.

Post no bills about your life you don’t plan on seeing fifty years from now. Tattoos, anyone?

When we keep a diary for the world, can our confessions really inspire evolution? Or do we devolve toward narcissism? Do we force ourselves into situations where we inform everyone else about our emotions, our relationships, our most salacious intellectual meanderings, before we’ve “found out” what’s really going on? Doesn’t discovery merit some private thinking? Doesn’t discovery best happen in an intimate setting between two friends, family members, or lovers…on an emerging canvas, in a dawning melody…and in the writer’s case, in a hidden journal?

I’m an educator, so pontificating is my first language. (Ask my sibling who was forced to face a chalkboard at age eight and spell words like “simultaneously”). I believe it is wise for me to avoid the subject of my life on this blog, since a tell-all could limit my fiction to pedantic concepts, lessons, and themes. I’d rather my fiction be the fertile ground for my finding out.

I just learned the noun and verb “dooce” the other day for something that might well have happened to me. When I wrote a certain FacultyShack article back in 2004, the reaction of my employers helped me decide it was time to leave. The story goes that an anonymous someone forwarded my bosses the link. There was no message attached. My supervisors said they were puzzled and concerned by my article. They noted I had referenced people by name. True. I had referred to some with compliments, using first but not last names. It was also pointed out that I mentioned helping dismiss a subordinate who did less than his job. The upshot was “People might put two and two together and realize what place you’re referring to.” True.

At the time I thought my behavior justified. Hadn’t everything I’d written been basically public knowledge? Didn’t I have a right to free speech? Kinda sorta and yes. But do people want to work with you when you’re standing on your front lawn in your underwear sharing behind-the-scenes, play-by-play action? No. And as Greg Hawks has been known to say: Just because you can, that don’t mean you should.

Dooce who was actually dismissed from her job wrote, “My advice to you is BE YE NOT SO STUPID.”

I still think it’s a good article, and I’m glad FacultyShack published it (maybe because I was in different position, already decided to leave, so my supervisors weren’t forced to make a decision). But you won’t see me holding forth on colleagues, contracts, and other aspects of my current place of employment. You won’t hear about my friends and family unless it’s of benefit to them.

Don’t let me sound disingenuous in this rant. It’s not that the “world,” the audience, doesn’t matter to me; audience plays a powerful role to get me at the keyboard and committed to my art. Now I have someone to answer to when I post my weekly or daily writing goals. Now I have a marketing vehicle.

Don’t let me pretend that today’s spewing isn’t a soapbox rant, either, an occasional flash of my dark side, a TMI place of my opinion. Call this a reflective mission statement, and one of the most long-winded. If I want to get my fiction done, the other posts will need to be shorter. Much shorter.

A final note: I respect those who write memoirs and other creative nonfiction and who choose to publish online. It’s a different mode of discourse and a different writing process that precedes the electronic delivery, whereas blogging fast becomes a scratch pad of self-indulgent, regrettable spewing. It’s too tempting to do sloppy first-draft work when ironically the subject is sacred stuff – your life. That’s why I aim to draft and redraft when I can before posting, letting the post simmer for a couple days before going global.

It’s time for me to turn off the teacher and get to work. All I know is, I have much work to do to keep discovery front and center in my stories.

If you care to comment, perhaps you can keep me honest in this endeavor to talk craft. Thanks for checking in! -- Lyn

Monday's writing goal:

Discover what’s essential about pages 73-76 in my novel But Yes and cut, cut, cut.