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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why Harry Potter Should Help Raise Your Kids

I'll admit coming late to the whole Harry Potter thing. As in, really late: a few weeks ago I just embarked on book three. I don't think there's much better than a day off work, chocolate plus Fritos, and a great book like a warm blanket.

This is only to be topped by making your own story magic. Clearly I had this figured out at nine: that my little cahier could hold a hundred stories. This was my version of wizardry and casting spells.

If Harry Potter tales make you feel safe yet make your heart beat fast, and if they make you forget yourself, then we already have three good reasons for our kids, preteens, and even older teens to read them. We all want escape--the healthy kind that lets our mind rest, our spirits calm, and our hope soar.

You can enjoy the twisty turns of the hairpin plot for sheer, diamond-slope action and breathless momentum, and you can also read deeply for gems in the subtext--the values. I'll dare say "family values" said here without praise or scorn, but what I think family values ought to be. What Harry finds at Hogwarts--his real family--teaches him to be a wise, kind human being.

Some Adults Do Know Best. Professor Dumbledore has Harry's back and he knows exactly what tools Harry will need when. Plus, everything's better when he's around.

Phonies: Not Just Made for Muggles. Check out Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. WIth him Rowling mirrors our society's PR hounds and paparazzi, showing us how easily we're sold by a stunning smile and a flashy tale. He's also a bad a fake as the Dursleys who lie their way through life, a standout moment being when they pretend Harry doesn't exist in order to impress a potential customer, Mr. Mason.

And a corollary of that: The Truth Will Always Out. Whether in the form of a house elf Dobby or Hagrid's baby dragon, you can't hide things for long. These symbolic outings won't be lost on the likes of Bernie Madoff or any Hollywood star who's tried to conceal adultery.

People Choose Evil. We May Want Slytherin Down Deep in Our Hearts, But We Don't Have to Go There.

Heroism is Handed to the Unlikely. The Messy-Haired, the Orphaned, the Quiet. Initially, Harry is unimpressive. He's a victim, he's a dodger of bullies, and he's a skinny survivor who barely escapes high jinks hardly of his own making. We're not ready to hold any parades, and he's not even as well-defined as the academic, obsessive Hermione or the goofy, hot-headed Ron. Yet he emerges strong, wise, and dependable at all the right moments. We also like to believe that our ordinary selves might be worthy of note someday for great deeds.

Even When You're a Hero, People Will Hate You. Every time Harry and his cohorts accidentally lose points for Gryffindor, the rest of his house and sometimes the whole of Hogwarts turn on him. At least with the first two books, Harry's fans are quite fickle.

Your True Friends Stay With You When It Gets Ugly. Like Forbidden Forest ugly. They will face basilisks and white queens and boggarts and trolls for your sake. I don't think quirky friends come more loveable than Hermione and Ron, and the secondary characters like Neville Longbottom also have their heroic scenes.

More Expensive Sports Gear Doesn't Mean You'll Win. No matter what Malfoy's dad just bought him yesterday, sometimes you'll get the snitch with the 2000 model, and that's all that matters.

These are just my first musings of why Harry's captured hearts. I've hit on themes because I'm thinking a lot these days about YA books being redemptive. Check out how blogger and author Nathan Bransford identifies Rowling's other skills--allowance for character flaws to management of an artful, intricate plot to deft usage point of view.

Back to Book Three. Sirius Black's on the loose in Hogwarts. Why I stopped there, at one of the scarier moments, I'll never know. Wait: yes, I do. Another tenet for the list of Family Values: Sometimes You Have to Put the Book Down, Because When You're Big, There are Consequences the Next Day.

Which is why I miss being nine and staying up late under the covers. I wasn't the one who had to get me up for school in the morning. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Writing Prompts for Students:

-- Which Harry Potter character are you? Why?
-- Which Harry Potter book is your favorite? Why? What do you remember most?
-- If you could make a bumper sticker that sums up what a Harry Potter book or the whole series means to you, what would you choose?
-- Write four status updates or tweets for Harry or another favorite character.
-- Do you believe in magic? Why or why not?
-- How do you define magic? Is the magic in the Harry Potter series true magic, in your opinion?
-- Write a story where a character suddenly discovers s/he has a certain power unknown before this moment.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

-- Have you read the Harry Potter series? Why or why not? Which YA or middle grade or children's books do you prefer?
-- Are the messages that the series sends the kind of messages you feel are wholesome, redemptive, and wise? Why or why not?
-- If you could craft a series for children, preteens, or YA, what messages would you like the work to subtly or not so subtly send?
-- Some agents tell those who write middle grade or YA works to take care that their works don't come off as "preachy." Have you read any works that seem that way? What do you think? Should authors take care to be more subtle, symbolic, and clever with sending messages through their works?
-- Should authors even bother to send messages or should they just tell the story?
-- Make a list of books you must teach and books you would like to teach. Which books are a risk? Why? How might you explain and teach them in a way that others see these works have merit?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Seeking Redemption

Okay, what's the best Christmas present ever? Having a boy who happens to be your stepson tell you that a book you gave him is pretty cool.

"I read like 40 pages last night," he said. Then a day later, "I finished."

I bought Heavy Metal and You by Chris Krovatin off Amazon after reading some reviews, then read it myself before I wrapped it (or sent it back). Each time the F word appeared, each time drinking occurred, each time the possibility of sex was mentioned, I made a mental note. Where is this going? How will the character's choice be handled? The jury was still out.

I finished it and deemed it worthy of boy consumption, especially by one whose first choice of music is thrash metal. This story of a heavy metal-obsessed youth was now authorized for his access. Why, despite all the aforementioned flaws? Because the tale was redemptive.

With teens in that strange, limbo stage of kid one day and young adult the next, you can tear your hair out wondering if that R movie or that less-than-savory language in a classic piece of literature is doing unspeakable damage to heart, mind, and soul. English teachers wrestle with this before they crack open a book with a class; how will we get through this hypersexual language in the repartee between Mercutio and Romeo? Do we explicate it, or do we ignore it? How about the mention of rape and incest in To Kill a Mockingbird, never mind the "n" word in that or Twain a dozen other canonical works on the yearly American Lit lists?

Here's my checklist of how difficult words, difficult themes, and difficult character behaviors redeem themselves:

1. Does the character struggle with issues of conscience? Does he act wrongly but reflect at some point about mistaken actions? Is there internal as well as external conflict?
2. To what degree are wrong actions glorified--such as taking drugs, cussing, etc.?
3. Does this character or a foil evolve in any way? How static and trapped are the characters in a one-note stance or attitude?
4. Does the plot and its resolution challenge the darkness--and by darkness I mean hatred, hedonism, narcissism, racism, sexism--or is it merely stated, as in, "People make terrible choices, terrible things happen, and well, there it is." Is the plot merely a mirror of human misery or is it a discussion of human misery? By discussion, I mean, is there interesting action that explores our journey through misery, with sparks of light somewhere, giving some kind of hope?

When we talk about the book, I raise these issues. I also treat the plot seriously--those choices by the characters, analyzing them without immediate judgment, trying to get to the root of the evil all humans seek. How else do we train youth to listen to the angels on their shoulders?

There is always the risk that exposing youth to the existence of bad choices can preach an unintended message of, "Well, he did it, so why not me? He survived it, so why not me?" True.

I feel safer knowing as a stepmom that I am in charge of the discussion that occurs before and after. This is not a simple pitch in the dark, hoping the ball will hit some target; it's a throw within your control. He knows I already read it, and he knows what I think of cussing and underage drinking.

As a stepparent, I'll take different risks than I would as a teacher pitching to 100-some students; the audience is much more diverse, and thus your argument has to be sure and solid--often erring on the side of canon rather than contemporary--in order to justify a choice. You want to talk with colleagues who've taught the work before, besides having read several critical reviews. And if you're pioneering a choice, listen carefully to all the feedback you get. Risks I've taken in the past include Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, and Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen. I still stand by these works as worthy and redemptive.

As you build your reading list for children or students, do the works meet the four-question test? Can you add some questions to the quiz?

If you feel you can argue the case for this book in front of one of your parents or grandparents, your favorite English teacher, and/or your partner, chances are the work is redemptive. Then you can head off to the child with work in hand, and gamble that he, too, will see all the light shimmering through the darkness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What's the Moral of the Fable of Facebook?

"Breathe, eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and check Facebook: these make up a significant portion of a very short list of daily activities that you have in common with a quarter of a billion other humans."

-- D.E. Wittkower, "Why Mark Zuckerberg, Not Julian Assange, is Person of the Year"

I'm always trying to find morals in things. I have this writerly need to understand the world in a sentence. I indulge the illusion that somehow, someday, I'll absolutely, completely understand this person, this place, this situation...It's addicting. Are all writers control-freak analysts like me?

No disrespect, Aesop, but morals bring the property values down on a piece of literature. Not only should we never tack them like bumper stickers to the tail end of our stories, but we should never write them all over the living room walls, like the previous owner of our house did. Let's just say BELIEVE IN YOURSELF spoke loud and proud for several months before the realty figured the place would sell better with a new coat of paint. My neighbors told us later that there's a buried message in our living room.

We must also beware of characters in our stories spewing theme capsules--like Ron Weasley vomiting slugs in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. No one wants to see slugs on the lawn while touring the grounds.

Inserting a moral isn't wrong; it's just bad form to leave it there. In fact, moralizing is a necessary step in the writing process. First you discover a truth of human nature or "how things are"; then you own it in a topic sentence, stating this grand idea oh-so-boldly; then you delete the ego and make the idea speak subtly, luminously through scene, character, and image. I don't always follow that particular sequence, but I get better and better at spotting theme cropping up in a draft--cue final metaphor!--ugly weed you need to pull before the realtor shows with client.

So like my stories, life gets the same once-over (AKA, neurotic contemplation) in search of message. Since life is full of Facebook these days, I continually ask what this form of social networking means. I first wrote to understand it in two stories: "Facing It," where a man struggling with Asperger's discovers more than he wants to know about his wife via Facebook, and in "Postal," which begins with a ten year-old girl pestering her mother for an account. Her mean-girl pal already has a profile, yet one more notch in the bully's belt. Facebook plays the role of evil technology in both stories, a tool for characters to pursue their worst desires.

One theme I've derived personally from my travels through Facebook is that it's a platform to be childlike or childish. (I thank Seth Godin for the inspiration to see things through this lens.)

Childlike means playing with new ideas, being open to new people, and engaging in dialogue. Childlike is embracing adventure and opportunity and reaching out...attending new events, liking new things, joining new groups. Facebook is a great platform--trampoline--for these activities.

Childlike also means playing school, where we take turns teaching each other. Recently two of my friends engaged in a fascinating political exchange regarding the deficit--people who may never meet except through my status update. I see writers in my local network post on various topics, and suddenly I'm hip to latest news in the publishing industry or have a good summary of a bestseller. I'm more culturally literate than I was seconds before.

If childlike is open, joyful, and curious, how great is it to use Facebook to encourage a fellow writer and to invite one another to book signings?

Like blogging, Facebook extends the conversation when the print you read alone leaves you hungry for dialogue. I read of Laura Maylene Walter's writing journey at Poets and Writers and now I follow her blog. Every experience worth sharing can now be shared with so many.

If you can do all of the above with the adult wisdom of not revealing too much personal data and not taking an obnoxious, righteous soapbox stance (cue my mistake), then childlike is great.

But it's hard for us not to cross the line into childish (i.e., Status update: Flossing my teeth...My husband just told me to lose weight...My wife told me to sleep on the couch). It's hard to craft a political post or an angst-ridden statement without sounding too indignant, too angry, too martyred. Tantrums. Pouts. And once you have done this, consider you have successfully walked into the mall with a megaphone (thanks, Greg, for this perfect analogy). So many of us have forgotten this bio hazard. Maybe because we're not left standing with the megaphone and everyone staring, we think we got away with it. We didn't.

Childish is making it all about you, all the time. Try pitching your book incessantly, grasping at fandom without giving anything back. Facebook must be a gift to others in some form, or people won't read the post. No one wants the sales guy knocking on their front door; why would they want it on the computer or phone? Jane Friedman dissects the problem beautifully here at "When or Why Social Media Fails to Sell Books."

Childish is staying on Facebook when you should be writing.

Childish is ignoring live, real-time relationship for virtual. Be wary, O introverts, of siren songs, screens luring you away from complex, raw, uncontrolled face time. It's in the rough shuffle of daily life where we get our best inspiration.

Facebook starts something. It gets wheels turning and forces us to write 420 characters or less. Child's play, child's speak. Then comes the question: are we ready to deepen those thoughts, best shaped offline? Slowly, reflectively, sans distraction? That's adult behavior.

The adult inside me just posted this update: I'm nowhere near done understanding the message of Mark Zuckerberg's new medium. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What I Know Right Now

...that if you read enough books and blogs on querying, platforms, and publishing, you do get wiser.

...that certain types of advice on querying, platforms, and publishing can sound like truth but ultimately be subjective. At this interview you might hear you shouldn't tout your experience teaching high school students because just like parenting, teaching doesn't make for YA expertise. Then elsewhere on a reputable blog, you'll read that you ought to promote your teaching background, as it does show you've met at least 1,000 teens and might know something about their literary tastes.

...that whatever you read as an absolute "no-no" or "don't do" in queries, heed it. If it's a "hem-haw, I don't know, I probably wouldn't try this," trust yourself that if you do try it, you'll find a clever and professional way to do so. Example: comparing your manuscript to best-sellers or beginning your query with the cliched "What if?"

...that you should listen to your Late-Night Heart. For some it might be the Early Morning Muse. Whenever it strikes, obey. The notion may reek of craziness or desperation, but just do it. Listening to both has led me to a complete manuscript and positive query responses.

...that you should never go anywhere without a way to write it down.

...that if you tend to be particularly inspired while driving, get yourself a digital recorder, learn to talk to it like the griots of old, and save your fellow commuters a heart attack.

...that I don't do this for the money alone, but I do deserve to get paid.

...that there are many, many fabulous writers out there, and not all may get their chance.

...that you should write angry and revise kind. Write for revenge and justice. Then in a cooler moment, write out of compassion and hope for your fellow man.

That's what I know, right this minute.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Foiled at Every Turn

"We are what we are." Felix Ungar to Oscar Madison, The Odd Couple

Sick with stuffy nose and post-Thanksgiving collapse, I flipped the channel to Turner Classic Movies so I could zone out with some soft lighting, calm music, and old-school story. I got that plus a great lesson in characterization. If you aspire to write great characters, see the 1968 film or read the frequently reprised play, The Odd Couple by Neil Simon.

Watch Felix move through a scene without saying more than twenty words--how he throws out his back in the midst of a suicide attempt or clears his sinuses with OCD flair in the middle of a diner. You'll see how Simon paints character through wonderfully excessive physicality.

Observe the poker game in Oscar Madison's disgusting home full of ancient pizza slices and dust bunnies the size of cats, and see how a group of secondary characters (at first just sweaty, surly, unimpressive men) become a gaggle of high-drama hysterics at the prospect of Felix being suicidal. Simon understands how to sweep broad strokes with his brush, then come back and fill in the shadows, the light, the muscles, the heart and soul. Each man is unique with every word, twitch, grunt. We end up caring about all of them. Not one character is needless background, merely warming a seat. Everyone matters.

But the main reason The Odd Couple should be subject of study for all writers is how it serves metaphorically for a golden rule of characterization, every time a conversation erupts in your story. Oscar and Felix are drawn together, magnetically, for a reason, so this story can be told: they push and pull upon each other, yanking the blinders off, hot lamping and shadowing, lifting up and squashing down. These guys go from friendship to enemies in the course of a conflict that peaks in silent stand-off (yet another instance of Simon's slapstick, purely physical comedy that says more than any words). These guys foil one another in mere movement--even in every breath Felix takes. Who can't relate to that? There has been at least one person in our lives whose neck we wanted to wring.

Watch Oscar and Felix at work. They are what they are in perfect contrast to each other, and in their short stint as each other's "wives" they learn how they each need to grow a little bit more each other's direction. Then go write your next dialogue between any two characters. What's at stake? Who's wanting what, and how are each in the way of these wants?

Foil, foil, foil each other, all you characters in our fiction. Let that fresh conflict ensue in every scene. Even two best friends in a story should enhance each other's differences; how?

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is another fantastic read for studying just this skill. Beneatha, Ruth, Walter, and Mama are masters of foiling another, and like Oscar and Felix, their entrapment in a small space escalates the conflicts. Even if you're not much into writing dialogue, remember that when your characters do speak and when scenes do unfold, foil is the operative word. Someone must be stopped in the achievement of his goal; someone must be prevented from getting exactly what she wants. Otherwise, we won't stick around till the end.

If you just can't pick up another book this holiday rush, make a New Year's resolution to support your local community theater. Consider seeing a play like taking a class in characterization. Playwrights get the complete urgency of foiled characters with the restless audience waiting to be entertained. I personally can't wait to see Amadeus from PlayMakers along with the NC Symphony this weekend. I know I won't only get fabulous theater and incredible music; I'll get another example of character foiled again: Mozart, full of mania and graceless humor, but so genius the world itself could not bear him. Talk about obstacles. Man versus self, man versus world. Foils everywhere you look.

Watch a play, see a film, and take note. See what these characters are and make that black and white in the places where you can. You are already doing this in your writing, or you wouldn't feel the momentum, and no doubt, you need to do it more.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who is 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.

1. Who or what in your life is your biggest foil? Why? How?
2. Think of a favorite character in your book and write about who foils him or her the most. Write a letter to the character about how to handle this foil, or, write a letter of complaint ot the foil.
3. Start a story with this line, "Curses! (Insert your own expletive) Foiled again!"
4. Make a list of how your protagonist is a hero to some and a villain to others. Every character has a beef with someone. Then make a list of how your protagonist is a foil to every person s/he meets. Write a scene exploring at least of these items on the list.
5. The Day from Hell happens to everyone. What's one day where you were foiled at every turn? Write that story.
6. Write an acrostic poem using FOILED AGAIN as the phrase to generate one sentence about every character in your story (as many characters as you can address). Each sentence must address how the character foils or is foiled.

Monday, November 29, 2010

10 Great Gifts This Holiday Season

1. Subscribe someone to a literary magazine. Literary magazines offer hidden gems of short fiction, essays, and poetry you won't find elsewhere. I suggest The Missouri Review. A better kind of bathroom reading, for sure!

2. Buy a nonreading tween or teen a graphic novel. My favorites for teens: Maus: A Survivor's Tale and American Born Chinese. Tweens: Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I also stumbled across Toon Books recently; check them and their high-quality comics for emerging readers.

3. Buy something from an indie press. You're going to find unique writing that ought to be on the best seller lists: Graywolf Press, Dzanc Books, Press 53. As Press 53 says, "Literate yourself!"

4. Buy something from an indie bookstore. If you're a Piedmont North Carolinian like me, check out Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh), Flyleaf Books (Chapel Hill), or The Regulator (Durham). If you're somewhere else, check out your indie options at Indiebound.org. Shop local and keep your nearby citizens employed.

5. Join your local library or donate in the name of someone you love. Was there anything cooler when you were a kid than coming home from the library with 15 books spilling out of your arms? I felt rich as a king. If you've got kids and never had them borrow and return books, it's a great life lesson--and a gift of time well spent together that will keep on giving.

6. Ask a favorite teacher what books or curriculum s/he needs for teaching. Educators often have to pay out of their own pockets for the curricular guides that improve instruction and aid their professional development. Check out teachers' councils, those nonprofits that sell curriculum, such as NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), NSTA (National Science Teachers Association), National Council for the Social Studies, and ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages). Send your favorite teacher that link and ask what book or journal would be ideal for teaching in the new year. Other great teacher haunts: ASCD, Chicago Review Press/Zephyr Press, and Free Spirit Press. My Teaching Romeo and Juliet (co-authored with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet) and Teaching Julius Caesar books are available at NCTE and The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons That Nurture Wisdom and Empathyco-authored with Jane Dalton is at Zephyr Press. The latter is a good gift for any teacher who values your child and community building. If you know of great sites for art teachers, theater teachers, dance teachers, band teachers, coaches/PE teachers, please comment.

7. Buy someone a Kindle, Nook, or another e-reader. Books have never been so easy to read this way...they're even great on an iTouch with an ereader app.

8. Buy a book of poetry. I suggest Mary Oliver. She'll put your mind on higher things and you won't feel the stretch.

9. Buy a writer you know a magazine or a book about writing or getting published. I suggest Hope Clark's ebooks for those who are trying to get published, get funded, and promote their work. Or check out a magazine such as Poets & Writers or the AWP's The Writer's Chronicle. Or, buy that friend who keeps saying, "I need to write my book," a copy of The Artist's Way. No more excuses.

10. Buy a lovelorn teen girl who has a thing for bad-boy characters a YA book with good-boy characters. YA author Jennifer Hubbard advises.

Got good ideas? Let me and your fellow gift-givers know.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Meeting Madison Smartt Bell

"Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success. The fiction workshop is designed to be a fault-finding mechanism; its purpose is to diagnose and prescribe...Whenever I pick up a student manuscript and read a few pages without defect, I start to get very nervous. Because my job is to find those flaws. If I don't find flaws, I will have failed. It takes a wrenching sort of effort to perform the inner volte-face that lets me change from a hostile to an enthusiastic critic and start rooting for the story to succeed. (Though in fact there's nothing more exciting than that moment, and probably it's the main thing that makes me want to teach.)" -- Madison Smartt Bell, Narrative Design

J.K. Rowling remembers the first time she saw long, long lines wrapping around corners of New York City streets. She wondered, What are all these people here for? and then realized, Me. It was her first Barnes & Noble signing.

How fabulous is that? How might it help America to have paparazzi chasing authors down the street--lots of 'em? What if for every pro athlete, political pundit, and sex tape maker with her own reality show, we made time and autograph space for favorite writers? Thank goodness for YA literature and its fans: teens and tweens flood bookstores when the sequel is imminent.

The other night at the awards ceremony for the NCSU Short Fiction contest, I met an author who should be turning heads: Madison Smartt Bell. It's possible he's not on the tip of the tongue of the average reader. I mean, he's only written nine novels, two short story collections, and an incredible book for all those seeking the expertise of a writing professor. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form is a must-have all of us in pursuit of our personal MFA. From the way he discusses teaching, you know he's a delight in the classroom, too.

He's also a delight in person. He asks you questions, he wants to talk music when I tell him my husband plays, and he's got a wry, calm sense of humor that came forth when he read from Devil's Dream. What emerged as he read is a pitch-perfect storyteller, painting a landscape of character and setting so rich I saw it shimmer before my eyes. He told the story of the Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his horse King Phillip that attacked Federal soldiers. I saw every moment and heard every sound of that melee. I heard all the voices gathered around the stove bringing forth biscuits, especially Henri, the son of Toussaint L'Ouverture (for purposes of fiction). Henri has come to the U.S. to lead a slave rebellion but now has found Forrest as his man to follow.

I have Bell's autograph, and I'm thrilled his eyes judged a contest where my story, "3.0," became a finalist. I aspire to write well as I can, and his works aid me. Writers, remember that solo work at our pages is just as essential as time spent being a fan.

How much have we read today? Raved today? Return to that page written by someone else, that page that may not yield instant gratification but with a little more concentration, opens worlds of absolute beauty. And if you don't have time or chance to stand in line for the signature, find a way to let authors know what their work means to you. Root for their stories to succeed as much as yours.

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.

1. Whose autograph would you wait in line for? Why?
2. Why should people wait in line for yours?
3. Write about a time when you rooted for someone to succeed.
4. Write about a time when someone rooted for you to succeed.
5. List all the persons/places/things you are currently a fan of and why. Prioritize them. Then choose only one and discuss why that deserves your fandom.
6. Which author, living or dead, might you wait in line for? How has the author's writing changed your thinking? Your life?
7. Have you ever met a person whom you idolized and been more than impressed? Why?
8. Have you ever met a person whom you idolized and had a disappointing experience? What was the experience as compared to your imagination? How much do you excuse person and circumstances or blame them?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Frame It

"To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by — it's hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities." -- Philip Roth to Tina Brown at The Daily Beast

Philip Roth is right that we need to read novels in a short span of time. And Mortimer Adler is right that we must come back and read again and again, and maybe even again, until we get what the author aims to do.

I read James Baldwin's Another Country and then reread the first few and the last few pages. All of a sudden, the frame of the novel appeared, and what seemed to be a meandering journey gained a crisp, clear focus. What before seemed a realistic series of events with interesting characters became coherent narrative about real people. An opaque title suddenly translated. Baldwin's genius lifted off the page in this simple yet brilliant frame of dark and light.

Spoiler alert, or, if you know that reading it yourself is the real ride, listen to this: Baldwin begins the story with Rufus Scott, a black jazz musician wandering the wintry, dark New York City streets in suicidal desperation. Over 300 pages later, Baldwin ends the story with Yves, a white French emigre, coming off a plane from Paris to New York on a hot, sunny day and seeing his white lover, Eric. The connection between Rufus and Yves is Eric, who has loved both men. Many fascinating, compelling characters have come and gone between pages 1 and 366, but their connections and small degrees of separation remained unclear to me in a larger sense till my eyes saw the darkness and light of Baldwin's descriptions. Then the theme got as simple as black and white.

On pages 1 and 2:

"It was past midnight, and he had been sitting in the movies...since two o'clock in the afternoon."

"...he had growled in his sleep and bared the white teeth in his dark face..."

"The Avenue was quiet, too, most of its bright lights out."

"...the blackness of the side streets."

"A hotel's enormous neon name challenged the starless sky."

"The great buildings, unlit, blunt like the phallus or sharp like the spear, guarded the city which never slept."

"Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen--for the weight of this city was murderous--one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell."

Baldwin wrote the last pages of this novel in 1961 from Istanbul; I wonder if he could imagine an American reader in 2010 hearing "these towers fell" in a whole new way.

Rufus later throws himself off the George Washington bridge. The setting alone drives him to it, though we learn there are many other reasons besides, all born of the city and its greedy, self-serving, racist ways.

The opening is so full of rich, aching prose--the world in which Rufus walks--you could make a whole novel about that. But Baldwin travels many worlds inside America. Take the one of Yves, a male prostitute who's found an American lover to welcome him stateside. What is the America that greets Yves?

On pages 365 and 366:

"The hostesses stood there, smiling and saying good-bye. The sun was bright on their faces, and on the faces of the disembarking passengers; they seemed, as they turned and disappeared, to be stepping into a new and healing light."

"...he had hit the light, the sun glared at him, and everything wavered in the heat."

"Eric leaned on the rail of the observation deck, grinning, wearing an open white shirt...with his short hair spinning and flaming about his head."

"...and he strode through the barriers, more high-hearted than he had ever been as a child, into that city which the people from heaven had made their home."

From murder and loneliness to healing and love; from darkness into light. From death to life. Surely, Baldwin means another country in each description, not one and the same? The frame of dark and light links these two worlds inside America, as do all the people in between. The hateful city is a loving city for some. The problem that the novel poses is, Why can't it be for all?

In every country, each of us lives in a microcosm. We know not the other countries of our fellow man. When it comes to race and oppression in the name of race, we know nothing of our fellow man, Baldwin tells us. He even says it outright in the novel, sitting behind Rufus' shoulder, before we're really ready to know what it means:

Entirely alone, and dying of it, he was part of an unprecedented multitude. There were boys and girls drinking coffee at the drugstore counters who were held back from his condition by barriers as perishable as their dwindling cigarettes. They could scarcely bear their knowledge, nor could they have borne the sight of Rufus, but they knew why he was in the streets tonight, why he rode subways all night long, why his stomach growled, why his hair was nappy, his armpits funky, his pants and shoes too thin, and why he did not dare to stop and take a leak.

Ironically, Mortimer Adler has taught me "how to mark a book" and treat the literary genius on the page with the respect of my annotations. This same man propounded a Eurocentric canon without black authors because "They didn't write any good books."

The artist in Christ no doubt called out the poor and the downtrodden the same way Baldwin does. Notice them, says the Sermon on the Mount. Cross the lines of one country into another, says Baldwin's novel.

As winter deepens and the days darken early, we who have enough food, light, and home to share would do well to see the other countries pressing at the edges of our sight. The shape each country takes differs for individuals and so does the color, class, nation, sex, orientation, and faith. We can never be sure we know everything of another man's world. Our pen hovering above the page should take note. And then, our hearts should take action.

Writing Prompts:
-- What country do you live in, inside this country? How do you know?
-- Is there another country you see inside America and wish to enter? Why?
-- What is it about your country that you wish others knew?
-- What author writes about other countries of geography or soul that make you want to go there? Why?
-- In your daily experience, is the novel dying, or do you make time for it? How? Why?
-- What activity do you give your undivided attention to? How do you commit your undivided attention? Why?
-- Finish this sentence: "In another country, I will..."
-- Write a poem that uses the word "country" to refer to something other than a geographical space.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Just Read It

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I'm reading a heck of a lot more.

Instead of generating a new set of 50,000 words, I'm reading others' thousands of well-crafted phrases, sentences, pages. Not only does reading help me edit those reams I've already generated, but I've decided it's time to go old school and finish a novel sooner rather than later. I have to think tough and act tough like a coach and say, "GET IN THAT CHAIR AND START READING, HAWKS!"

Sometimes I fear Philip Roth is correct in his assessment that none of us are finishing novels anymore. He's famous for his recent assessment of our reading habits: "The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people's reach anymore." He claims "multiple screens" command our attention. And the only way to truly grasp a novel is to read it over a short period--not a year, as I have sometimes done.

We know Roth is right about the state of things, but I think he forgets who's in charge here. Sure, multiple screens blather, cajole, blink at me every day, but I've got access to power button, remote, and all accompanying cords. HAL does a hard sell but I still know how to turn the thing off. I also have the power to physically remove myself from the room with the flat screen and find my office or bedroom and that waiting book. I've also returned to reading as the last thing I do at night. Sure, I'm tired, but that never stopped me as a child, and there's nothing more peaceful than absorbing a few pages of well-written prose.

It's in this spirit that I finished James Baldwin's Another Country. This amazing book is worth its own post, so more on that coming soon and how authors explore an idea via frames and subplots.

Now I'm rereading Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, I'm reading Dance of the Happy Shades, an Alice Munro short story collection, and Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. Yet I'm reading Ellen Foster a bit differently than the other works: I'm gobbling it in an hour here on a weekend, a half-hour there before bed, and should even finish it today, as I believe and agree with Roth is the way novels should be read.

Then I'll return to it to make sense of it. Roth is right that novels need "the concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence"--and one way I will give Another Country and Ellen Foster and other works of art their deserved attention is to use technology. Here's where those "multiple screens" come in handy: I will blog about these works, book next to the keyboard, and study them in old-school manners of lit analysis. These exercises will hone my craft, sharpen my eye, and educate myself and perhaps a wider audience that there's beautiful method behind the seemingly effortless prose.

Now I must leave this screen and the books behind because I have other modern, hectic things to do, but just as I have a craving for the charms of those multiple screens, I also crave the quiet and beauty that those reading moments allow me. Before this day is over, I will slip into the world Kaye Gibbons has created. I will bring my whole, quiet self, and I will be a better human for that focus and time alone with another human's mind.

Friday, October 29, 2010

How Do You Do It?

"I don't know how you keep track of it all." -- from a colleague in reference to my workload

I like being a chef with multiple burners heating multiple pots, simmering full of somethin' good.

I'm a concrete and a random worker, moving easily off one project onto another then to another, then back to the original. I'm also good at hanging in for the long haul. A writing workshop leader once told me I was an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs Inventory, which is a good profile for finishing a novel. Today's writer can't just be the lone warrior in the garret if she wants to be published. And while I'm not an extrovert who gains energy from others as much as I gain energy from being alone, I have just enough "I" to labor late over my writing tasks and starting early every morning.

Here are the six sections of my to-do list:


Each has at least two if not four bullets of tasks.

You have to find the joy in each demand. You have to love starting a new project like revising my old novel as a prequel or taking on a brand-new novella for NaNoWriMo. You have to love binding up a manuscript with huge rubber bands for the Bakeless Prize or Dana Awards, and you have to love scouring Poets & Writers for the latest information on literary magazines. Give your all to every bit of the process.

In "Why We Write: The Pressure of Young Promise" (latest issue of Poets and Writers) Laura Maylene Walter shares her long, arduous journey as writer without reward. If you slog and struggle daily toward your writer's brass ring, you must read this meditation and then see the inspirational Editor's Note.

Just this week, my former student and current friend, Teresa Smith Porter, felt her spirits flag. She's a successful photographer (My Friend Teresa Photography) who labors to get the best shot and make her clients shine. But it was one of those days when she was tapped out and struggling to see the horizon. Then she got the call. She had won 1st Place in the Wedding Photographic Society Competition, Photojournalism category. Then she got another call: to do a spread for a magazine. Now it was one of those weeks you dream of. She'd had weeks like this before, but in between for every artist is the labor, the unglamorous, exhausting, driving toil. Bleary-eyed and dehydrated, she has posted at 3:00 AM on Facebook out of the sheer joy of loving her work. Now that's my kind of crazy.

Do you love it? Writing. Do you? If you do, then make your list and keep your head down. Your spirits will lift, I swear by it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Solving Each Problem As it Arises


Solving Each Problem as It Arises, 1966-1968. John Baldessari. Yale University Art Gallery.

A few weeks ago at the Yale University Art Gallery, I was taken with this acrylic on canvas by John Baldessari. I love the stoic font, all caps, marching across the page in time to indomitable logic. Art = solution to problems. Get it, people. Get it! We only stop for hyphens as unstoppable reason storms forth.

Art = reason? Art as solution to each problem as it arises? The first thing that strikes me about this artistic statement is how it runs contrary to the artist mythology: that art is all muse, all inspiration, all the time.

Then I read Malcolm Gladwell's scathing and ever-incisive review of social networking when compared to face-to-face civil rights activism of the fifties and sixties. I agree with him that status updates and tweets aren't the true stuff of revolution, and that led me to think how my efforts larger than 140 or 420 characters were weak and apolitical, too. Sitting alone in my office spinning yarns does not feed the poor or challenge systems. There is no way that art matters the way hard-core, in-the-streets activism matters. No problems are solved. That's what I said to myself.

“Human nature is the problem, Wendy.” That's what one character tells another in my novel. He's explaining that so much evil in the world can be explained by the twisted desires of human hearts and not by big, inhumane systems. He believes he's pointed out the root of the problem, and through him, through Wendy, I investigate the source of evil and how people survive it.

When I finished the first draft of the novel, it wasn't anywhere near perfect, but I did say to myself, "I've 'interpreted the subject to the extent of (my) capabilities...I may have a one-(wo)man exhibition whose theme is the solution of the problem." (I take liberties with Baldessari's own words here.)

Some think art is useless, just another form of wallpaper or furniture, and maybe with some art forms and certain artists, they are right. Is the solo work of a mind, fashioned in clay or pulp or ink or paint, worth considering? Even if a solution isn't found?

I found the postcard of the painting for purchase as I left, but I had already copied down the message. This will haunt me for a while.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Group Therapy: That's Some Sweetness for Sure

There's the beauty of solitary, silent writing time, when all you can hear are the voices of your created characters living out their lives. Then there's the beauty of communal conversation about writing, encouraging and insightful words exchanged with peers who struggle with similar demons, drama, and fears about whether those voices are valid.

Yesterday my writing group was a fabulous, proverbial "shot in the arm" that this writer needed. I've been working, yes, but not creating. I'm querying, marketing, mailing, and prepping this or that, humming round the edges of my writing, but turning from the newly-minted page or even from minting. I thought maybe I just needed to bear down and work harder in order to cough something up, but nothing's emerged, particularly the motivation needed to do so. I felt, as they say, "dry as a bone."

Then I found sustenance and drink in my group. It got me to thinking about what makes magic in a writing community and why we need one.

The peers: may yours be like mine. Serious writers, all of them, intent on grappling with craft and getting it right. All of them write for various audiences, whether academic, spiritual, or athletic, and so they appreciate the power of each noun, verb, and adjective.

Also they are serious encouragers. We don't do deep critiques at this stage, though maybe someday we will, letting one person's draft be the focus of an entire meeting. Right now we listen carefully and support one another. The most important foundation that must exist prior to critique is built on this kind of trust and appreciation. There's no competition, there's no fear of others' success, nor is there any scarcity model that there's only so much room for so much writing. Everyone's on board to express themselves as honestly as possible and as effectively as possible in their writing and to make sure that everyone else does as well. Integrity of theme, integrity of phrasing, integrity of sequence matter deeply to all of us.

Thank you Laurie, Katie, Beverly, Marcia, and Susan. You smooth the path for me to return to the interior life, the solo hike, and come back not so thirsty and confused.

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: Me and Everybody Else

1. Do you like working in a group? Playing in a group? Why?
2. What are bad things that happen when people are in groups? Good things? Explain why you think these things happen when people get together.
3. Describe a story you have read where something happens when a group of people get together. What happens? Is it good or bad? Why? What advice would you have for each member of the group?
4. Imagine that you can create any kind of group for any kind of reason. What group will you create and invite others to join? What will this group do?
5. Do you like to be the leader of a game or the follower? Why? If you could make up any game, what roles would there be? What role would you play?
6. Have you ever shared your writing with a large group? What happened? What did people tell you about your writing? How did you feel afterwards?

Secondary and Adult: Groups, Mobs, and More

1. Do you like working in a group? Playing in a group? Why?
2. Think about the pros and cons of people forming groups and list good and bad things that occur when people band together. What causes the best and worst of human behavior when in a group?
3. What stories and novels have you read that illustrate the best and worst of group behavior? Think of To Kill a Mockingbird, "The Lottery," Julius Caesar, "The Destructors," Lord of the Flies, Things Fall Apart, and other tales of people in groups, communities, or mobs. What happens? How would you evaluate the outcome of this group action? What advice would you have for each member of the group?
4. How do individuals rise above the actions of a group? Think of examples from your own life and from literature.
5. Imagine that you can create any kind of group for any kind of reason. What group will you create and invite others to join? What will this group do? Will you lead or follow? Why?
6. Are you a leader or a follower?
7. Have you ever shared your writing with a large group? What happened? What did people tell you about your writing? How did you feel afterwards?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sweet or Sour? Opinions Vary Widely

"Writing is a profession for talented, imaginative, sensitive Gila monsters (I say this because good writers don't give up, and legend claims that when a Gila monster clamps its jaws on something it won't let go.)"

-- Mary Beth Parker, founder of the Dana Awards

So is that why my jaws are aching? I've clamped down pretty hard lately.

I have an email inbox full of rejections for various manuscripts. Because I'm a fanatical optimist, I'm determined to find the sweet in the sour (actually, sweet and sour is a GREAT combination, if you've ever been obsessed with sour gummy worms).

The sweet: in between ten rejections here, thirty there, I've had at least one publishing success every year for a while now.

The sour: the rejections still seem to pour in like lava.

In the sour moments, kind agents will speak with regret: "I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work. However, opinions vary considerably in this business..."

Ah! The sweet! Let me cling to "opinions vary considerably." So, is Agent X saying she could be wrong?

The sour side of my brain says, "Ha, keep deluding yourself."

More sour comes with Agent A's fear: "We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list." I'm afraid, too: that my project ain't right for anyone's.

More regret: "...I regret I wouldn't be the best match in this instance." Oooh, flashbacks to online dating and Match.com. Ugh: fade to black. But wait, sweet: I met my fabulous husband online.

More on the fact that the agents could be wrong, which I'm not sure if is sweet or sour: "I regret to say that I don't feel I am the most appropriate agent for your work. Considering the subjective nature of the business, I hope that you will find someone who feels differently, and I wish you the best of luck in your search for representation."

Form, form, form letters: I've given them out many times too as I turn away applicants for employment. How's it feel now, Hawks, huh? Sour, sour, sour.

You've got to appreciate when agents get terse to the point of not even punctuating the final sentence:

"Not for us, thanks. Better luck elsewhere"

I could bemoan the fact I'm not worth an additional period, or, I could look at the sweet fact that a) I got an answer (many agents don't answer at all) and b) The note is concisely kind.

After a certain amount of rejections, one starts seeing things. "This certainly sounds like an original and compelling premise for a novel, but I’m sorry to say it’s just not quite the right match for my list at this time." Wow! He said "original"! He said "compelling"! Wow!

Hahahhahahaha. Lyn, everyone says that. You have, too--you've seen brilliant ideas in many a student manuscript while knowing the piece was many moons from completion.

"Please do not take this rejection as a comment on your writing ability." This is said while also saying, "Given the large amount of submissions I receive, I can only properly represent material that greatly excites or interests me."

No great excitement or interest, then. I do understand.

I can't help but end on sweet. It's my nature, to cling to the candy moments.

"You write very well, and I'm intrigued by the concept, but--is the entire work told through journal entries? I confess that's not a format I connect with; that said, it sounds like you have a lot of good material, and I do think you should continue writing and sending
this out."

This one I will attach to my monitor.

Mary Beth Parker, Dana Awards founder, says in "How We Started":

I've learned a heartening but frightening thing in managing the Dana Awards: that there are thousands of excellent writers out there...Which is heartening for the sake of literature, but frightening because of the sheer numbers of good writers looking for recognition--so much competition for each one of us, and so many people who deserve notice but aren't getting it.

Now that's a truth both sweet and sour. That's my story for now, and I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pallid Characters That Leap Off the Page

Alice Munro has a gift for making a wallflower leap off a page.

"Red Dress--1946" is a short story from Munro's collection Dance of the Happy Shades that sings a siren song to a reader, even though the protagonist is somewhat feeble and fumbling, as thirteen year-olds often are.

Why would we follow a shade of a girl who isn't aggressive, angry, or mischievous like, say, Scout Finch? Scout throws punches, says the unmentionable, and leaves us wanting more. Meanwhile, Munro's character doesn't even have a name. So how does Munro make us care about Pallid Polly (what we'll have to call her going forward)?

1. The secondary characters surrounding the protagonist yearn hard after something. There is the mother, who dolls her daughter up in costumes of Victorian lace, Scottish plaid, or embroidered peasant blouses with black-lace bodices. There are boy-crazy girls infesting the high school dance, too, ones the angry Mary Fortune slams, an upperclassman who gives PP a cigarette. Her motto: "Live dangerously." She invites PP on what might be more date than outing. Everywhere in PP's world swirls hot, angry, and sad desire, and some is projected straight onto her limp, acquiescing body. She almost leaves the dance with Mary but is stopped by Raymond Bolting, a boy in her class: "He was in my way...He thought I meant yes. He put his hand on my waist and almost without meaning to, I began to dance."

2. The protagonist finds her desire in counterpoint to everyone else's, and that tension is interesting. PP wants only to miss this first dance, moving inexorably toward her. Because she is a nervous wreck in high school, unable to keep from trembling at the board, at being called on, in any instance, the dance looms like a horror. She invents a desperate measure to thwart it:

I started getting out of bed at night and opening my window a little. I knelt down and let the wind, sometimes stinging with snow, rush in around my bared throat. I took off my pajama top. I said to myself the words "blue with cold" and as I knelt there, my eyes shut, I pictured my chest and throat turning blue, the cold, greyed blue of veins under the skin.

It's this sick desire for illness that resonates with everyone who has ever taken the path most twisted when they don't dare buck the system.

3. The setting vibrates with anxiety and lust. Most readers are ready to sign up for this ride, just to rubberneck and snap a photo. After describing a humiliating moment where her male classmates reduce their young English teacher to tears, PP explains the school in deft exposition of teen angst:

But what was really going on in the school was not Business Practice and Science and English, there was something else that gave life its urgency and brightness. That old building, with its rock-walled clammy basements and black cloakrooms with pictures of dead royalties and lost explorers, was full of the tension and excitement of sexual competition, and in this, in spite of daydreams of vast successes, I had premonitions of total defeat.

The photo we snap is one of ourselves. Who hasn't walked into a situation with total dread of failure?

4. The angst feels epic because PP carries someone else's happiness in her hands. No spoilers here: Just read the whole story, and then embrace those final lines. You'll feel sad and yet fulfilled.

I wish I could say, Here's the straight formula--here's the step-by-step science of it all, but it's not as simple as my four points. They are a start for those of us who would make our writing great. And if we must have a Dull Dina, a Wimpy Wanda, or a Pallid Polly serving as protagonist, then something must happen, something must matter. Munro shows us one way to make it so.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

You Have No Idea What This Story's About, Do You?

"What’s the more important thing about writing? Writing lots and lots? Or thinking about writing lots and lots?

Like speaking, writing is a habit driven practice. Sadly, writing ill-thought-out badly written, clumsily articulated stories is not practice for writing crafted, imaginative, and inventive stories—because so much of writing is habit. Mostly it’s practice for writing more ill-thought-out, clumsily articulated tales. Improving your writing is always a matter of changing your habits.

That requires thought—thought about writing, starting with the word, the phrase, the sentence.

You know you’re improving your writing when you start thinking thoughts in the form: 'I am no longer going to do X, Y, or Z . . .'"

-- Samuel R. Delany

Note to self: You have no idea what this story's about, do you?

Answer to self: No, I don't. Not really.

Thought I did. I started this particular short story back in 1987, and it began as a blow-by-blow replay of 8th grade girls I once knew destroying one of their own, the most popular gal in the bunch, and treating her as Hester Prynne. One of those, "but it really happened" stories that torture instructors. "But, but Teach! I can't leave that out because that's the way it happened!"

Talk about tales as old as time. A writing partner and I just had a discussion about tropes (in the sense of cliche): how we've already heard the story I've got. And, as if the universe exists to underscore lessons I need to learn, I leave this conversation and run across the movie trailer where a teen girl proudly wears an A across her chest. An interesting twist on the trope. Haven't found mine yet.

It didn't hurt to hear my tale is tired because I've lost count of which draft it is and what year. Now I have some real distance. I can see where I try to stuff a thousand themes and scenes into the story. It's over 30 pages and full of all kinds of scenes.

My partner's critique was so helpful because she pointed to the paragraphs where she said, "Wow! Tell me more." This was the clue where my tale took off from the trite, the trope.

In my novella of a story, the protagonist confronts her fear that God wants her to give up boys and go for Him. She studies various sisters in her Catholic school out of fear and loathing, and sometimes admiration, wondering if they are symbols of her future.

Now that's a bit more interesting.

Time to confront the question of whether I should move the Mean Girls to backdrop status and the Hester Prynne gal to subplot, if not delete altogether...time to dream up new scenes and let the voice of Nina--whose name might also get tossed, too--emerge in prayer, superstition, and planning. What actions will a spiritually confused girl take? So much to do with this story, now that I see it anew.

And there's plenty of time, time enough till the real story speaks. I wouldn't want it any other way, such as the way I've taken -- a trite ol' road much too traveled.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What I Did on My Summer Vacation...Or Not

If I mention this often enough will you stop doing it?


If I see this in a letter addressed to the Query Shark, your chances of getting on the blog drop to zero. If I see it, you haven't read the archives. Or you read the archives and didn't pay attention. I've mentioned this enough times that I'm starting long past boring myself.

Learn it. Know it. Follow the damn directions.

-- Query Shark, Query #168

I doubt English teachers assign that back-to-school essay anymore, or, if they do, let's hope they've found more inventive titles. "What I Did..." does carry a whiff of nostalgia for me, bringing back my teen years, when all I had to do was watch those newfangled MTV videos or follow my romantic heroes on The Guiding Light; maybe meet my friends at the pool with SPF 8 rather than 30+ slathered on my skin; dream about boys for hours; or read, read, read. All that free time...In a manuscript I'm reviewing, the teen narrator gets up one Saturday morning, eats a waffle her dad makes, and goes back to bed--to read. Anyone miss that?

What I've done on my summer vacation is write queries, edit queries, learn about agents, and query agents--and doing this whenever I'm not revising my novel, getting feedback from kind readers and writing colleagues, or giving feedback. Somewhere in this frenzy, I make time to read. While the learning process is no vacation, there's something invigorating in the journey. A steep learning curve will keep you wide awake.

First, good news: there are many agents out there. For those who think a few rejections signal the demise of their writing career, hold on. Agents exist who want unsolicited submissions; start your search on QueryTracker. It's free and it's inspiring the number of names returned to you.

I'm amazed at how easy the Internet makes it to find agents, learn their submission guidelines, and send a query. Today, there's no excuse for misspelling a name when you can copy and paste or sending too many or too little pages when they specify exactly what they want, such as "NO ATTACHMENTS, EVER." Basic courtesy aside, the spam blockers, viruses, and different operating systems of the world demand such rules. Do you want your email to arrive or not? Perhaps it's the English teacher in me who always had a bulleted list of guidelines for her students, but I get this system, 100%, and I follow the rules. I don't mind the time it takes; it's a sign of respect as you knock on the door, pretty much like dressing up for an interview.

While I might have the formatting and etiquette down, I'm still mastering the art of the query. That's a journey in itself, learning how to capture not only the substance but the spirit of your novel and then to sell it with style.

I'm also impressed with how many agents take the time to educate writers. At our Googling fingertips is a university course in "how to write a query": everywhere, tips from agents who blog weekly, daily, with concrete examples of what to do and not to do. If you don't already follow Rachelle Gardner or Nathan Bransford, do. Then there's Janet Reid's Query Shark: she puts your query through boot camp. I'm working up the courage to enlist, and just that thought has me trying draft #10? #15? of my mine. I note that despite her drill instructor MO, she is patient with the very, very weak queries that keep streaming her way like minnows eager to be eaten.

I'm also discovering my own particular process. I skim the QueryTracker profile of an agent, then the one at the agency site; I search for interviews with the agent, such as Chuck Sambuchino's blog, Guide to Literary Agents. I want reasons to submit, and I need to get a feeling this person could be a good fit. That research fuels the final paragraph of each query, a two-sentence summary of why I'm submitting to this particular agent.

One of my writing colleagues, who has a fabulous blog of his Argentinian Fulbright adventures and a superb YA novel he's querying, gave me this response when I asked how many agents to query and how many rejections should freak me out:

"This is the typical story I hear: 100 queries sent, 5 partials requested, 2 fulls, major revisions requested, then an offer of rep. It's a long process and if we're lucky an agent will offer some advice which makes the book better."

I won't say how many I've sent, but a report on the specifics of agent responses is coming soon. I will say my colleague's concluding line sums up the attitude one must have to make it through: expect the process to take a good while, and appreciate the feedback you do get.

Some way to spend a summer vacation! I won't lie: I did go off the grid for about 8 days--no writing, no querying, no work--and it was glorious. But when that true vacation ended, I returned gladly back to the grind. Sometimes it's the sweaty, complicated work that makes you feel life force at its strongest. It's fraught with as much hope as disappointment, either of which will get me up o' mornings either mad as hell or driven as can be.

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.

Note these are mixed-age prompts this week.

1. Complete one of these sentences:
--This has been the summer of my content/my discontent...
--In hot weather, I...
--Summer makes me...
2. What is your favorite season of the year? Why?
3. What was your worst vacation, ever?
4. Describe summer using one sound, one color, one smell, one shape, and one taste.
5. What is the sum of summer?
6. Are you a better person in summer or winter? Why?
7. What's the hardest work you've ever done in a summer?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whose Voice Is It Anyway? Avoiding Literary Chateaus

The other day when Facebook tested me to see if I was real and not a robot before I posted a link, I received this challenge: type

literary chateaus.

Hmm, I thought. That sounds possible (as opposed to "morph zeitgeist" or "flared hemlock"). In fact, it sounds a lot like the castles of fancy-schmancy phrases I build in the air of my prose, just because I love the sound of 'em.

Note to self: whether in draft 8, 9, or 2000 of a story, listen up for those literary chateaus. Then sweep away those castles that don't fit your character's point of view.

This is particularly challenging when writing third-person limited. We forget that everything is through the lens of that one character we've decided to follow. We can't let stray narration creep in that sounds like us or worse, the thesaurus.

Here's an outtake from my writing: Andy, the protagonist of my story "Facing It," is riding with his wife in the car. A song comes on the radio. I, not Andy, write: "'Tainted Love' warbled its mournful anthem about obsessive pain."

Andy, due to Asperger syndrome*, has trouble distinguishing gradations of emotion ("mournful" and "sad" are to him, essentially, the same thing). He has difficulty reading social cues. He also doesn't like music a whole lot unless his wife says she likes something, and then he'll listen. All these character details I'd established prior to this moment.

So all of a sudden, the guy calls a song "mournful"? He can't bond with Soft Cell's lead singer as he "warbles."

Andy is also a science teacher whose idol is objectivity.


New line: "'Tainted Love' blasted the car."

Now that sounds more like Andy. It's his voice, not mine, that needs to drive this story. Of course, all of it comes through my lens, but writers want the reader to disappear into the work, forget the storyteller, and not ask, "Who's talking now?"

There are so many levels to revision, and the "sound check" is just one of them.

By the way, note to Facebook: it's "chateaux," not "chateaus." If you're going to demand proof of humanness, then spell it the way French humans do.

*I am still learning much about Asperger's and welcome any corrections if I need to consider other characterizations. My understanding is that the syndrome can have a lot of diverse manifestations. The love or lack of love of music may be one of them and isn't necessarily related to the syndrome.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting to Know Them: How to Birth a Character

"He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up their privacy. And they refused--without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth. Then, they seemed to be complaining, they would give him all he wished for and much more than he was now willing to imagine."

--James Baldwin, Another Country

I'm about to submit a short story that in draft eight finally tells some truth.

When I first began, I didn't know what Andy Swindon's deal was. My main character moved like those horrible wind-up toys in the Pristiq commercial for antidepressants. Draft one Andy, robotic and distant, awaited the day when I'd figure out what nerve to press.

I found that nerve in his mother: her torturous methods of upbringing and her chastising Andy for being too affectionate as a boy. I found that nerve in his karaoke days with his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife--the woman whose opinion he values above his own. Back story exposed the network of feeling and began to melt his plastic surface. Desire put the gleam in his eye.

I also found it in his diagnosis: Asperger's syndrome. Never in the story do I label him, because it's likely that no one--parent, teacher, wife--ever had a name for Andy's ways and means. He's made it through life quite successfully sans diagnosis.

Andy's character is also not his syndrome, just as that label doesn't suit a real human, though it may inform most every move and thought. Maybe I'll write a story someday where a diagnosis is stated outright. But here, his syndrome manifests the same way the heaviest weight of the iceberg creaks beneath the surface, a shadow with hints darkening the depths.

None of this about Andy I knew when I started. First I had to hear questions from colleagues who read the early drafts and didn't get Andy's deal. Second, I kept those questions right in front of me as I drove and revised and did dishes and revised and showered and revised. That's the best kind of multi-tasking--a repetitive task that frees up one's mind to strategize. Third, I forced myself to print out a new draft and read it very carefully, at least three different times. Then months later, draft 8 evolved. And I may not be quite done yet; we'll see how these hard-copy edits go.

Yet I am very proud of Andy, v8. My little Frankenboy, my Pinocchio, he's alive, he's alive!

James Baldwin's quotation describes the agony of a writer, Vivaldo, trying to birth his novel. The characters are Vivaldo's children. He can't, much as he wants, place them in foster care. They will cling to him till he finds a way to tell their truth. This process will take at a minimum months but better yet, years.

It's a marathon, and in this way, a bit like parenting.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why Follow?

First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
- Ray Bradbury

If you love a character enough, you'll follow her anywhere.

Mad Men's final episode summed up this truth: my favorites will all be back next Sunday, to form a rogue offshoot of Sterling Cooper ad agency. And you can bet I’ll be there, ready for the live event despite the plenitude of DVR options. I want to hang out with these people in my so-called real time.

Quick sidebar: what is it with sociopathic yet empathetic antiheroes? Tony Soprano, then Don Draper. I love to hate their flaws and yet I don’t want to see them hurt. How is that?

I’ve fallen in love with several other crazies and quirkies on various TV crime shows. How can I not follow the brusque, hard-shelled Mary of In Plain Sight who spits out one-liners to keep the ever-devoted, ever-philosophical Marshall Mann close yet at bay? Then there’s her dynamic with her endearing family of dysfunctional addicts. I love the exchanges between hipster-hacker-nerd Garcia and superhero, brooding protector Morgan on Criminal Minds. Oh, and what about forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth? The Mentalist? My goodness, I have so many friends to track…

So as I trail my TV loves, I have to ask, Why should someone fall in love with my novel's character?

Revision forces this question. Here are four strategies that work in getting my answer.

1) I ask, What back story fuels this present moment? While driving, while cleaning, I invent Wendy, the protagonist of my novel, at ages five, seven, and 15. (It helps she’s only 16.) Characters with back story—especially serious scars—have that other kind of character you want to track.

I also keep in mind that not all back stories are equal. In the first drafts, one is tempted to tell it all, but I have an easy solution for my long-windedness: the Out-Takes File. Dump each body there, every single darling. Don’t how care how good it is if it’s just a tangent. I often don’t know that till draft four or five.

2) I demand at each plot twist, WWWD? (What Would Wendy Do?) Not, what do my readers want, what do critics want, what do friends want, but what would this character do now, by her own internal logic and particular brand of crazy? That makes her magnetic rather than dull; intriguing, rather than rote.

3) I listen for her voice in counterpoint to others during dialogue. How does Wendy speak around her mother? Her love interest? Her nemesis? Her new best friend? How elevated is her diction? How long are her sentences? Crafting this down to the very word makes readers’ ears perk up.

4) I force her to face a fork in the road as often as I can. This is new for me, who's more of a character author than a plot author. In my past efforts, I'd a series of character anecdotes, string 'em together, and call it a novel. Fortunately, when I conceived of the novel, I had intentions to make it a wovel -- a web novel where each installment ended in a decision point and readers would have to choose plot direction A versus B. Though the novel hasn't been uploaded, I wrote the first half with this driving energy, and it paid off. I had to follow her through each adventure, even at 5:00 AM.

Sidebar #2: It helps my writing immensely to watch crime shows because they never can afford a weak plot. Meanwhile, I read quite differently: I'm a huge fan of Jane Austen, a new fan of Richard Russo, and Elizabeth Strout.

Finally, a clarification: the question -- Why should someone fall in love with my character?-- does not precede the act of creation. First, I hear a voice, and I start to write. I heard Wendy's voice with its clinical, sarcastic edge, hiding her alienation, and I had to follow. I saw the freak front, the mask and the glove of her Michael Jackson obsession, and I had to get it down. Then soon I saw all her reasons why.

Which characters will you follow to the ends of the TV and literary earth, and why?

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 Prompts

• If you could pick any book or movie character to be your best friend, who would it be? If you could pick any book or movie character to be your worst enemy, who would it be? Now write a scene where you two get into some kind of trouble or end up helping someone. What happens?
• What person do you most admire? Why? What has this person done that you would like to do?
• Create a character for your own book. List all the qualities he or she has that you believe other kids would really like. Write the first chapter of your book.
• Finish this sentence by adding 50 words: I would love to follow...Or...I would never follow...

Secondary & Adult Prompts

• Which fictional character could you easily consider a friend or enemy? Imagine a scene where you can talk to this person in real life. Where would you be, and what would you discuss? What would you do?
• Examine a piece of writing where you have described a fictional character or a real person. Highlight in one all the places where you show the admirable parts of the person; then highlight in another color the flaws of the person. Write a short analysis of why your reader would be interested in reading about this person, for both the positive and negative traits.
• What person, living or dead, do you most admire? Why? What has this person done that you would be willing to follow or imitate?
• Create a character who is a satirical portrait of any trends and fads you see as superficial. Make your character a social commentary of what NOT to follow.
• Finish this sentence by adding 100 words: I would love to follow...Or...I would never follow...
• Have you ever written a character you just had to follow? Why do you think you enjoyed describing and tracking this character so much?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Long Live Olde School

To be real, one must go retro. Not some tweet-text-IM spamming everywhere, gone with the next breath, and so typical of this useless Age of Noughts.

Instead, let truth be told in this old-school journal. Note the red leather, hardbound. Note the handwriting—cursive. Note the lock and key. Let’s do this like monks, like nuns, like girls of old.

-- Wendy from my novel St. Michael, Pray for Us

Shakespeare geek that I am, I salivated over this t-shirt the other day, but alas, I am afeard, 'tis not for sale.

But some of us are all about olde school in more than just our dress; we like things retro when it comes to technology.

For instance, my cell phone is a squat little 99-cent Kyocera that barely does the job--just enough to allow me that emergency call from the road. I'd still be driving that 1990 Honda Accord had someone not driven it into another car. And when it comes to writing on the computer, I must print out several drafts of a story to really see it.

Jan Swafford of Slate shares not only this philosophy but a powerful teaching tip. His students learned he required them to edit by hand in hard copy after first-drafting on a computer. He writes:

Here's how it works, with me and with most writers I know (because I've asked). I've used computers for more than 25 years. I draft prose on-screen, work it over until I can't find much wrong with it, then double-space it and print it out. At that point I discover what's really there, which is ordinarily hazy, bloated, and boring. It looked pretty good on-screen, but it's crap. My first drafts on paper, after what amount to several drafts on computer, look like a battlefield.

Like a battlefield. Amen. I love the speed with which I can draft on a computer, but when it comes time to read, print, and find that red pen. And not just once, either; I need a print-out for every new draft.

On the backs of old drafts, of course. One should be new school about the environment.

Swafford also notes that when we return to screen to edit, a new set of editor's errors can crop up, so always, take great care.

The best way to do that? Read it aloud. Sure, it takes time. But time is given to that which really matters. And that's an old school philosophy if there ever was one.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Declaration of Dependence

"Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on. If you can change the way people think. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. You can change the way people live their lives. That's the only lasting thing you can create."
— Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

After doing some July 4th musing about my goals, I proudly declare a hopeless addiction and utter dependence on writing. I'd do it even if I weren't paid.

As a person who earns royalties for three books, payment for articles, and fees for editing, I get that writing deserves lucre and have no trouble calling myself writer. What I need to do is get to a place where I accept, sans guilt, that I am utterly dependent on writing.

There's a picture on my web site of me at age eight, hand poised over a notebook, interrupted in the act of writing. No doubt I was busy crafting an imaginary world where runaway kids sought justice, where mouthy girls confronted vampires, where elves built little houses on their elvish prairies. I read voraciously and wrote constantly. I didn't finish much at that age, but I started many a frabjous tale. I intuited then the unreal is pretty powerful for me and worth pursuing. I never questioned that need nor how much time to spend in the pursuit.

Then the Little Girl becomes a Big Girl and every day must walk the adult tightrope of balance, balance, balance, not sacrificing too much for the art but giving just enough and some days, her all.

There's that tension and another that Society whispers around every corner to just about every artist.

We're all wired for something. I am wired to write, and yet the Big Girl + Society tend to question the daily sacrifices for the craft. Others will place that call to a friend, knit that rug, water that garden, and they don't ask why do these things. But to the writer in the corner, both self and Society say, "You sure you need to be doing that right now?"

Why do adult concerns of bills, relationships, and tumbleweeds of cat hair quash the wisdom the child already knew? Perhaps because there's something the world deems selfish and showy about writing. Writers' acts are unadulterated communication. A carpenter or a gardener creates and their works may speak to us, but not in the same obvious, billboard way.

When the Lascaux mystery guys and gals scrawled on the cave walls, they scrawled to be seen. I have to believe they saw their work less like a personal journal and more like history's scroll or maybe even a bible. These humans hoped to record, to remember, to reach, and to teach. They hoped to uplift their lives and others' with their art.

I don't write to tuck it away. I write for my words to be seen. I write for what's seen to create change and touch lives.

There is nothing wrong with total dependence on writing. There is no wrong in daily following the lead of my hardwired DNA.

Say it ten times, and say it like you mean it.

That belief is a must-have if you wish to make your art known. That belief is a must-have if you're going to query again and again. One glance at author Victoria Laurie's stats is enough to help a hopelessly dependent one as myself keep the faith. She received 100 rejections, and it wasn't the first novel, either. These stats come courtesy of the agent who asked her for revisions and who has partnered with her through 22 novels.

I like the goal setting questions at Shrinking Violet Promotions. The process has helped me shape passion into logical plans.

Yes, Virginia, methinks there will always be doubt some days haunting my art. Yet I have found money and a room of my own. All that's left is to silence certain voices.

Do you declare dependence on writing as the work you're born to do?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Hero's Journey, Part 3: Sloggin' Through the Slush

"...Genre problems--more accurately, problems with your work being the right fit for the agency--weigh in at 33 percent. This is the number-one reason for form rejection letters from our agency. Keep in mind that this means a third of your competition is eliminated immediately--and that it's an area that, with a little research, is completely within your control."

"Life of Pie," Getting Past the Gatekeeper

One of the agents I queried reported in his blog he received 298 queries the week I queried him.
He shares that over 20% of those queries had generic salutations, ranging from "To Whom it May Concern" to "Dear Agent."

Another agent blogs about the fact 33% of the queries submitted are the wrong genre for the agency. That means she must slog through not just my query but ones pushing, I assume, romance? chick lit? sci fi? she did not request.

I figured when I started this journey there could be such spam in the mix of slush wherein my queries land. Query wisdom teaches me to think about my audience, and these reports from agents confirm that and it also doesn't hurt to think about the competition auditioning alongside me. These agents have a ton of client advocacy and manuscript reading to do besides man the inbox, and yet they must still wade through this type of dross o'mornings. So what does that mean for my letter?

a) my query must pop -- caffeinate the overworked eyeballs;

b) my query could be A+, but just like those A+ writers I once graded, if you appear at the bottom of the pile, there ain't nothing that looks good to a reader too exhausted to care. There was a reason I didn't grade more than 15 papers in a sitting; it wasn't fair to number 16, 17, and 18, what my mood might do to that poor child's grade. English teachers, like agents, grade in between negotiating, teaching, planning, advocating, disciplining, and coaching.

It's useless to rail against competitors. It doesn't matter what they write; just write yours better, no matter where it hides in the slush. So I've made a note to self, and here's what I've learned as I've revised my queries.

1) Don't sound cocky. You may THINK you don't, but revisit every line asking if you're making some kind of claim that could be construed as brash if not ridonkulous.

2) Don't try to be clever if you're not naturally a comedian. I am not.

3) Know thy conflict. Beware the dangers of grocery listing the "cool happenings" in your story. Tell the story in terms of goals and obstacles. Write that back-cover blurb that makes you fork the money over.

I'm also not going to rail against agents for being horribly unfair gatekeepers. (By the way, you know I love the hero's journey image at this agent's blog.) The right fit with the right advocate is down that yellow brick road, but who knows how many twists, turns, and gnarly flora and fauna one must dodge, only to find that at the end, the answer was within. Remember, the Fab Four obsessed with seeing the Wizard only had to look within to find what they were lacking. It wasn't up to the Wizard at all.

Back to that query.