If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels with writing and you need a dose of inspiration, read these quotes from author Neil Gaiman, listen to the podcast interview with him, and/or watch the commencement speech below that he gave to the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts. I especially recommend that you watch the commencement speech.
On first drafts:
For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important. One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter. No one is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that’s the thing that you may be agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you’re doing can be fixed.
This is a post about taking advice from other writers, particularly published writers. But before I get into that, I want to share a quick personal anecdote.
Recently, I started going to a fitness trainer who is trained as a functional movement specialist. After listening to my goals and then assessing my flexibility and balance, she told me that some major tension I had complained about in my upper back and shoulders was due to my right hip being slightly tilted forward. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was sure that I had tension and pain in my upper back from sitting at a computer for hours on end and using a mouse. Nope, she said. It’s from your hips. She gave me corrective exercises to do. I was skeptical. What do my hips have to do with the tension in my neck and upper back? Continue reading
Recently a writing friend asked me, “How do you know if you’re any good?” It’s funny that she mentioned this because that same week I was talking with another friend about writing and I told him that I wondered if I was smart enough to write fiction. How would I know? How does anyone know? Especially if you’re like me and haven’t published any fiction yet.
“The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”
— Grace Paley
Photo: Daehyun Park / Flickr Creative Commons
In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Carlson says, “A character is what he or she does.” He writes, “Action is narrative evidence. It proves as it goes, whereas adjectival telling (she was careless, manipulative, compulsive, willful) alerts us to how a character might be, but doesn’t prove it with the force good drama requires.”
This notion of character in motion seems obvious. But can I just tell you how many drafts of stories I have where someone is walking or sitting or thinking? Too many. Or what about thinking and walking? Or remembering and sitting? Why is it so difficult for me to get my characters moving?
Recently, I attended the Muse & the Marketplace writers conference sponsored by Grub Street. I wrote a piece last week about how I came away from one of the sessions with a new sense of what makes a great story beginning. Another session focused on story endings.
The speaker for that session was Robin Black. I will paraphrase her here, but she said that a writer doesn’t create an ending in order to close a story down, but instead writes the ending in a way that opens the story up. Think of the ending as a “giving,” she said.
It seems that I have been living under a rock. I’m only now just discovering the fabulous Steven Millhauser. I did read his piece, “Phantoms” in the the Best American Short Stories for 2011. But I hadn’t read anything else from him. Then this weekend, my boyfriend brought home Millhauser’s collection, Dangerous Laughter, which was languishing in the used book section for the low, low price of $8.00.
I am agog.
This past Friday, we watched the movie In Time, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. It only got 3 out of 5 stars on Amazon, so we weren’t expecting much. I was mildly entertained, but I’m still glad I watched the movie, because I came away with a stronger sense of what makes a good story: stakes.
The concept of this movie is pretty cool, actually. It’s a dystopian (sort of) future, where time is the currency of the world. Under the skin of each person’s forearm is a digital clock that’s ticking down the minutes. If you want a cup of coffee, that’ll cost you 2 minutes. A bus ride, 2 hours. Cha-ching. The Justin character lives day-to-day in the “ghetto” on about 24 hours of time per day. He ends up saving the life of a wealthy guy, and that man gives Justin all of his time, because he’s done with immortality.
Everyone’s heard of I.Q., or intelligence quotient, which is a score based on a test that a person can take to measure her intelligence. And then there’s E.Q., the emotional quotient, which refers to a person’s ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. There’s a test you can take for that, too. I’d like to introduce the O.Q., for observational quotient. Unfortunately, there’s no test to measure your O.Q, since I just made up the idea now. At this point, you have to self-assess. But when it comes to writing fiction, considering whether your O.Q is genius-level or remedial is a good start.
Exciting news. I found out this week that I got the very last available spot for Pam Houston’s Advanced Fiction Workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. A week of talking about structure, narrative tension, voice, point of view, dialogue, beginnings and endings. I’m psyched. I’ll let you know how it goes.
And wouldn’t you know it? Just after I heard about nabbing the last spot for the workshop, I was introduced to to Cynthia Martin’s Catching Days blog in which she interviews various writers and asks them how they spend their day. Here is how Pam Houston spends her day.