Coming off the Back Burner

It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s hard to get back on track when life, a visa application, an international move, and so many small things have derailed what little normalcy you had.  But all those personal things — they aren’t really what this blog is about.  They have a tendency to push into and wind around the structure of writing time, nudging it further and further towards the back burner.

Recently I wasn’t as successful at pushing back.  Granted, those things involved immigration and a few starts at nonfiction pieces influenced by the whole experience, but after finally getting moved and somewhat settled, I have felt my writing’s absence.  It’s in how I end even busy days feeling I accomplished little; it’s in my persistent restlessness.

State of Mind by Amrita Bagchi

Last year I received my report from the Literary Consultancy about my novel-in-progress, part of my New Fiction Bursary from the Northern Writers’ Awards.  It offered numerous pages of critique on themes, plot, structure, characterization, and style of prose, concluding with a summary and section on commercial consideration.  Although I was complemented on my “generally sturdy and competent” prose, descriptions of natural scenes and certain encounters, as well as “usually convincing and engaging” dialogue, the TLC editor concluded that it is not ready for submission to any agent or publisher yet.  (I include the “yet” because he did)

His recommendation basically boiled down to this:  either take on the demanding and difficult task of remedying the problems with the plot, or set it aside as a practice piece and move on to the next project.

I think there’s a little piece of everyone that, when submitting something for feedback or evaluation, we want to be told it is wonderful just as it is.  It would validate the work we put into it, and honestly, feel like nearly-instant gratification.  But that would be too simple; eventually, such immediate success would lose its meaning.  If everything anyone did was instantly successful, it also would lack the development and depth gained through multiple drafts and reworks.

After receiving this feedback, I took some time away from my novel, thinking about the implications of either option.  If I set this work aside, a part of me would feel like all the work I put into it was somewhat wasted, though I know it wouldn’t be.  The next time I begin a novel, I would hope I’ve learned enough drafting this one to be able to avoid some of my mistakes.  Most importantly, I didn’t feel like I’d said everything I hoped to say — and with the depth I’d hoped to say it.  I’d hoped to address complicated themes of family and identity, and I wasn’t entirely successful in this pursuit.  I still have things to say, and because my initial idea is rooted in family history, I still have questions and ideas to delve into further.

By Gabriel Moreno

With Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel in hand, I began considering the ways I could rework my novel.  It’s too easy to fall into the trap of line editing, so I wanted help with structuring how I tackled the different aspects that needed work.  I was inspired to add a new character, to strengthen certain characters’ personal plots, and I was still considering how to strengthen some themes, and then life intervened.

Now, a few months later, I’m finally trying to pick up the pieces of what I dropped then.

In month since I began writing this post (embarrassing, I know), I have set aside Ray’s book.  I’ve taken a few tips from it, such as his charts and index card ideas.  I’ll pick it up again at some point, but jump forward a little in it.  I grew frustrated with the book because I reached a section that recommended strengthening a romantic triangle between the characters.  Does every novel really need to be so focused on romance?  I could write a whole post on just that.  I even wrote a scene in my novel to dispel any idea of romance developing between the two main characters.  I know lust and love are strong motivations, and I could see the use of considering triangles of tension between character, but must it be romance?

The charts have been useful though.  Now not only do I have a revised plot diagram (I decided to stick with a “three-hump” structure), I also have grids I made while reviewing my draft, considering:

  • Characters:  Name, role (protagonist, antagonists, etc); an object associated with them (something they carry, use, or which represents them).  The objects section can be expanded upon further, in a separate list; when you see an object surfacing in association with a character three or more times, it can become a symbol.  Becoming aware of this can help tighten the story.  Ray considers objects in these categories:  jewelry, vehicles, weapons, wardrobe items, food, drinks, tools, money.
  • Subplots:  Tied to characters besides the protagonist; entry/exit arc; an object; how the character is connected to the protagonist (blood, money, power, organization, back story, etc).  Ray recommended you identify six.  I explored this chart further through free writing, alongside developing back story further.
  • Flashback:  Location in plot (act, scene); character; trigger; setting; purpose.  This helps identify if you’re relying too heavily on past events; too many flashbacks can kill the story’s momentum.  Ray suggests using them more in Act Two.  He also examines books with unusual structures, such as The English Patient.
  • Scenes:  This is the grid I will probably be using most for a little while.  It helps you track the plot of your novel:  scene name (I just did Act #, Scene #); setting (where, time of day, weather if important); characters involved; objects present; and the important action of the scene.

I made the final list a while ago, but in the process of getting back to work on editing, I transferred the grid to index cards, which I then hung on the wall near my desk:

notecards

As you can see, I’ve already made a few notes on different cards and marked some with sticky notes… some of which haven’t stuck very well, unfortunately.  This is basically storyboarding though, in written form.  While the chart was useful and travels well, I’m a fairly visual person.  Having these cards to refer to makes it easier for me.  As I add scenes or change scenes, I can rewrite or add cards.  When I review the board, I can add sticky notes or highlight things to call my attention to new ideas as I’m writing and rewriting.

If you’re editing a novel, I would recommend referring to Robert J. Ray’s book.  It’s given me some new ideas for structuring the editing process, and he goes into depth about the meaning of these grids/lists and the things you should consider while reworking your book.  As with anything though, take it with a grain of salt.  This is, after all, your book.

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The deadline for this year’s Northern Writers’ Awards is Monday, February 2.

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Literary fisticuffs at Write Club Atlanta

It makes sense that, as I later found out, Naked City is sort of Write Club’s younger sibling.  When I entered the Ballroom Lounge at the Highland Inn a few minutes after doors last Wednesday night, the music was already loud, and the seats were nearly full.  Even in a venue bigger than the The Warhorse Cafe, it seemed like there were three or four times as many people there than at Naked City.  Perhaps we were all anxious for what they have dubbed “the tenderest bloodsport,” “emotional violence for the disgruntled pacifist,” or “no-holds-barred brain wrestling.”  The night was, after all, postponed a week by the copious amounts of snow and ice Atlanta has been receiving lately, and I think most people were left with the remnants of cabin fever.

The first rule of Write Club is:  Tell 5-7 people you know about Write Club.

Nick Tecosky hosts. Photo credit: Dustin Chambers

Write Club began in Chicago in 2010 and has already started branches in six other cities — Evanston, Atlanta, Athens, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto.  Write Club Atlanta started at PushPush Theatre in June 2011, before moving its shows to the basement of the Highland Inn.  I appreciate the history of places like this, echoed in things like the tin ceiling tiles that hung above our heads.  I don’t know if they’ve been there since the Inn was built in 1927, but I like to imagine they were.  Hosting another spirited and inventive writing event in an old space allows the new to mingle with the old; it shows how, although we have progressed and changed, the past doesn’t have to be ripped down and replaced.  Most importantly, it reminds me of how dynamic Atlanta and its writing scene is.

There are three “bouts” at each Write Club event, pitting two writers against one another for 7 minutes apiece.  Since they describe them as “bouts,” and obviously because of the name of the club, I was half expecting (and fully hoping) there would be a bell that would chime for each round literary fisticuffs.

Unfortunately there wasn’t. Maybe if I buy them one I can get in for free?

February 19, the themes were alone vs. together, love vs. lust, and dominant vs. submissive.  

Myke Johns, the producer of Write Club, started us off with “love,” and somehow managed to convincingly describe an air force drone feeling lust and then love for a plane.  Randy Osborne followed with a piece focusing on a porn shop from the past, pointing out how while some people bent over hymnals on Sundays, others were bent over porn magazines.  He rounded it out with ruminations on how being assigned the theme of “lust” was outside of his normal writing topics, describing his own work as now “speaking more for the dead.”  Instead of visiting porn shops, he spoke of older married people together “hunting for ways to feel free.”  While I thoroughly enjoyed Johns’ piece, I felt like Osborne’s had a bittersweet poignancy to it, driven by the juxtaposition of lust and age.

Next was Jesse Price representing “alone.”  He shared a story of dating a girl who was also dating another guy, the latter being “just physical.”  Against Price was Kara Cantrell, who discussed togetherness more scientifically and brought up the second law of thermodynamics.  Cantrell’s piece was the best example that night of how creative prose doesn’t have to be confined to a story; at times like a list, at others an essay, I was really looking forward to how she would bring it all together in the end.  Unfortunately she ran out of time — but the end of her piece will be on the Write Club podcast soon.

We ended with a couple facing off, beginning with Ellaree Yeagley writing for “dominant.”  Yeagley’s story was quite literary in tone, and it considered two fortune tellers giving readings on a set of train tracks in Alaska.  It wasn’t entirely clear which character was meant to be dominant: the new, assertive woman trying to steal business from Old Ironsides, or Old Ironsides himself, who considered her a quack and quietly remained committed to the pageantry of his own art.  This way of responding to the theme in a less direct way was one of my favorite attributes of some of the works read at Write Club, and Yeagley’s piece did it best.  Adam Lowe responded with a funny tale of a man who continuously committed small crimes in order to be tortured in a jail.  Humor is not easy to write, and I have yet to conquer it, but Lowe carried it even further by putting on some pretty fantastic voices for each character.  He also got cut off by the timer, so the podcast covering this show will have some more great endings to hear!

The best part is that, although Randy Osborne, Jesse Price, and Adam Lowe won their matches, the ones who are really “winning” are the charities these writers were representing.  Safe Harbor, Cool Girls, Inc., and Child’s Play are all receiving donations from Write Club.

Sometime last year at Write Club Atlanta

Write Club matches Naked City’s enthusiast atmosphere and refreshing premise, but for younger writers trying to get their voices heard, it may only yield motivation and inspiration at first.  Due to the limited number of spots, which are delegated in advance, newcomers might have to wait a little while to put on their literary boxing gloves.  According to Myke Johns, Naked City was formed in response to this limitation, allowing another venue for writers to test out their works on an audience.

Although both events share aspects similar to other writing events I’ve been to over the years, I can honestly say I’ve never been to something like Write Club.  There are benefits to a simple open mic night, but at the same time, open mics can start to blend together over time, a steady flow of mature and new writers.  Write Club, and Naked City to an extent, breaks out of this routine by having a specific format, and I’ve struggled to think of similarly atypical literary events.  While both events assign a theme to a writer, there is additional pressure to “outwrite” the competition in Write Club, even if it is out of the writer’s general subject matter.  In the first Write Club show Ian Belknap, host and founder of the Chicago original, was forced to write about light.  Time Out Chicago described how “in just seven minutes he was able to discount the compulsively optimistic of the world in favor of the more genuine light that shines from the darkest places.  ‘The light inside me might be the size of a gnat fart,’ he wrote, ‘but it’s strong.’”

At the end of the night, I was left wondering if such a venture would work in Newcastle.  With the strength of spoken word and slam poetry there, I have a feeling they could bring some pretty brutal competition.

After a night of lust, love and writing, I think it was appropriate that the King’s of Leon’s song, “Sex on Fire”, came on the radio as I was driving home.  Hearing it always brings me back to the first year I lived in England, on an exchange program, when that song was just getting really popular and blaring every night in bars and clubs over the air of barely contained desperation to “pull,” or pick someone up.  But as I was getting past Briarcliff Road, where Ponce de Leon Avenue begins to wind through trees and past huge houses before it opens up on highway 78, the song was just celebration for me.

Five years ago I might have thought I could write a novel, but once I got past 15,000 words, I don’t know if I could have kept going, or if the end product would have even been worth it.  That was the time when I first had the idea for my novel, and wrote the first thousands of words that I would eventually scrap completely.  I reworked it three years later, and the night of Write Club fell just a couple of days after I had finished my first draft.  Now begins the process of editing and researching how I want to publish.

Looking out at the many people waiting for the event to begin earlier that night, I had thought about how interconnected writing communities are.  Write Club began in Atlanta when Ian Belknap hosted a few pickup shows here, before asking Nick Tecosky to host.  At the back of the room, just by the door, Vouched Books had a table set up.  They are a country-wide organization that reads, reviews, distributes, and advocates small press literature.  And there I was, the local girl who’d gone 4,000 miles to England, and then back, just to find a place to belong an hour from home.  I love these writing communities, and the twin cities that house and influence them.  I can’t wait to see what else they have to show me.

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This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas.  Please contact me if you have recommended events to attend!

Reminders

Sometimes I don’t feel like a writer.  I mean, I’ve always felt like a “writer.”  I’m the kind of person who stumbles across things written about what kind of people writers are, what kind of personalities they have, but I also seek out these articles.  I read them, laugh and think:  Yeah, that’s about how it is.

But then I also don’t feel like a writer.  When I was younger I think I had this idea that writing would always come easy, but even more so, I thought I would always have time for it.  Instead I’m juggling papers, midterms, grad school applications, reading through slush piles, proofreading, and a number of other things.  When I was putting together my portfolio for those applications, all I could think was how little I had to show for myself.  I remembered all the effort I’ve put into what I’ve written and wondered, where did it all go?  I thought there was more?

With deadlines approaching, I felt resigned to do the best with what I had.  I felt less like a writer and more like a tweaker, worrying over small details in pieces more broadly wrought with weaknesses; I felt like a paper pusher.

Looking ahead to next year, I’m excited about finally focusing on creative writing.  Working on my undergraduate degree has begun to feel more and more like imposed procrastination, except in my anthropology and creative writing classes.  At the same time, I’m worrying about the coming year.  What if I can’t do it?  What if, when it comes down to it, I’m a fair weather writer?

I may not be very good at blogging; maybe I’m sharing too many personal worries here.  But I had a moment last week and the week before.  While working on a paper, I was struck by an idea.  I hadn’t been interrupted in this way for a while.  There are two things I’ve always wanted to include in writing:  my love for the south and my interest in birds.  Somehow, standing outside my apartment, these two things merged with a detail from my father’s past.  I developed this idea, rolled it over in my mind, and combined it further with an image born of them, of an ending.  I always have trouble knowing how to draw ideas I have together in the end.

I typed up the initial beginnings so I wouldn’t forget them, then moved on to work on my paper.  The next day, I added to it; a few days later, I reorganized, trimmed, specified, and rounded out what I could.  The following week I read it in a creative writing workshop.  I finally felt deeply good about something I had written, for the first time in a while.  I’m still going to work on it a little more, but I feel like it’s nearly there.

I need these little reminders sometimes, to prove to myself I’m not crazy for wanting to pursue this wonderful and frustrating profession, and to show myself what I’m working towards.  Wherever I find myself next year, I will carry the memory of them with me.

 

P.S.   For those who have completed or are working towards a graduate degree in creative writing, how did you choose the school?  In my decision, I think I have come to the issue of deciding between: a) professors with similar interests about writing content and external projects, in a program allowing writers to experiment with prose, poetry, or screenwriting, but with only set required classes; and b) classes already focused on prose, in a program which includes optional courses to focus on things like the short story.  Any suggestions?

On a whim

I just submitted an old story to Tin House.

I don’t expect anything to come of it; it was an old story I’ve turned over and over in my hands many times since I wrote it three years ago, trying to bring certain parts up to par with others.  It’s an old love, and I’ve laid it aside too many time to count.  I submitted the story on a whim, and probably a little bit of a result of all the stress I’m under right now.  I keep just feeling like I’m not where I’m supposed to be.  This is a really odd thing for me though; I generally get déjà vu quite frequently, and it generally makes me feel like I’m heading in the right direction.  Now I just feel more strongly every day that I need to move forward, but am prevented by that very important piece of paper that says I’ve completed my undergraduate degree.  Just one more semester after this.

It must have been an unconscious attempt to feel as if I’ve regained control of my life, my art.  Still, I’m here, I’m working, and I’ve barely written anything in a while.  Just editing.

Good luck to the other writers out there.  Also, submitting to Tin House is free, so be sure to check it out.