Posts

It’s ALL in the Details

Megan Rich

As writers, we often think about writing “universally” — whether that means connecting to universal human themes or attempting to reach the largest possible audience. In this, we sometimes fall into the trap of generalities, thinking that we need to speak to those themes directly or that we need to remain more objectively distant to increase our reach. But when reading, I’m often most struck by minute details– be it a beautiful concrete image, a punchy line of dialogue, or a character trait that feels both idiosyncratic and real. Could it be that the more specific we are, the more universal we are, too?

Our everyday experience, though sometimes monotonous or repetitive, is full of rich, specific detail. Be it the sound of cereal hitting the bottom of our morning bowl or the strange, muffled cry of a siren passing our car, specificity is the norm, not the exception. As a teacher, I often come across passages in burgeoning writer’s work that seem to replace those details with grand statements, often meant to create deep emotional experiences for their readers. The truth is, these generalities leave me feeling far less than a concrete detail might. Don’t tell me your character felt saddened by the sight of a long-lost friend; instead, let me see what he sees in her face, right there in front of him. Let me remember what she once looked like under the strange transformation of that face he hasn’t seen in so long. By embodying the concrete fact of her features, we will better feel his sadness in those changes because we, too, will have experienced this many times, perhaps even in the mirror, ourselves. The best writing will never have to tell us how a character feels, but will describe the people, places, and objects so vividly that we’ll know. It’ll be as if we walked into a dinner party and read the room ourselves– intuitively, based only on what we sense.

Just like in real life, we don’t usually go around asking or telling people how we feel, but rather, we see it in an expression, feel it in a movement, or hear it in the phrase a person chooses to say in a certain moment. These are the details that clue us into what’s really happening, under the surface, and at their best, a writer should show us the most telling details in every scene.


ABOUT MEGAN: Megan Rich is the author of two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir. She’s currently revising her third book, a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. Meg is a graduate of University of Michigan, where she participated in a highly-selective creative writing program, and a recent graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project Program in Denver, Colorado. She has taught creative writing for twelve years, working with students of all ages and in all genres. Meg pioneered Charlotte Lit’s weekly Pen to Paper writing group and serves as a coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.


DIVE INTO THE DETAILS WITH MEGAN: Join Meg for the The Art of Detail, a 4-week studio immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.

Paper Love

Dear Writer,

I’m writing to you from my well-worn sofa (where else?) a year to the day when our Lost Year began. Or do I mean Loss Year? So often these days, words elude me.

Outside it’s spring again, which I forget until I stare out the window and find sunny forsythia and daffodils and dogwoods bumpy with buds. A year ago, the rapturous blooms and birdsong clashed with wailing sirens, empty streets and skies, masked breath, families grieving through screens. Lovely turned to lonely.

I hope you’ve been writing. This last year (let’s be real: the last five), I’ve found it hard to devote myself to the page because I was afraid if I looked away from the world, it might disappear. Or I would. It’s as if I fell into a hole, and all I could do was stare up and wait for the pinpoint of light to widen and show me the way out. Or maybe it’s that the rage and sorrow tore a hole in me. I can feel it expand and contract, like a pupil, or an aperture, or the phases of the moon.

I have found some solace these months, as I know many others have, through writing letters. As in the old-timey, pen-and-ink, stamped-and-mailed kind. I wrote to friends from the solitude of my back porch and got back radiant, hilarious epistles on handmade cards, festooned in the margins and smudged by palms. I touched the ink, the paper grains where their fingers had been. Contact.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that I also have been reading a lot of epistolary fiction—Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ “Belles Lettres,” Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, parts of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Last Thing We Need,” Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Yasunari Kawabata’s “Canaries.” I can’t get enough these naked exchanges, how the narrator seems to vanish and we slip through the seams, suddenly in the characters’ most intimate realms, where they confide, confess, dodge, plead, snipe, yearn. What a wondrous sleight of hand: I’m convinced I’m reading letters when in fact these are smuggled stories, lies that tell the truth. As Griffin tells Sabine, “How strange to have a paper love.”

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

By the time you read this, dear Writer, the trees and bushes will be in mad bloom, transforming into new states of being. It occurs to me as I write this, reaching out to you across the void, that I wish the same for us.

Not hole. Hope.

Yours,
Bryn

 


LEARN THE ART OF THE EPISTOLARY FORM: Fiction writers have had a long and lovely affair with the epistolary form, a.k.a. stories and novels in which documents as varied as letters, diaries, emails, news clippings, transcripts, texts, posts, or tweets govern the narrative or parts of it. Whether written from a single point of view or as an exchange among characters, the letter form can create a brilliant sense of intimacy, voice, and realism. The trick: we’re not actually writing a letter but a story, so we have to find sneaky methods for characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, and movement. Together we’ll read and discuss some contemporary epistolary examples and then explore letters in our own work through brief prompts and take-home exercises. More info

ABOUT BRYN: Bryn Chancellor is the author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A native of California raised in Arizona and transplanted to the South, she is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. She is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Bringing Words to Life

Angelo GeterThis past year has taught us all that our boundaries and limits can be tested in the most unexpected moments. We were all living our normal lives a year ago until the pandemic ravaged the lives that we had become accustomed to. We couldn’t go outside and socialize, had to cancel a plethora of events. We were even restricted from doing things as simple as a hug or physical embrace. This caused us to pause and adapt to this new way of life.

In the midst of these difficult times though, we found our strength. We discovered a new skills, perfected an old recipe, started writing a book, attended webinars, and read books. We learned something new about ourselves and added attributes to who we are, rather than sit idly by and let things happen to us. For that alone, we also deserve to celebrate.

The poem below highlights this and asks you to celebrate your successes even in the midst of trials. You deserve it!

Cry Yourself a Freedom Song 

On the days when waking up
feels more burden than blessing,
heartache than healing,
when your sanity is trapped
in a gas chamber of doubt
suffocating the air of hope,

Depression tap dances on the riot in your throat,
fear plays a sonata
in the key of disbelief,
the sheet music in your tongue
fades from neglect,
eyes form tombstones
that only see death.

Remember,
there is gospel in your grief.
Every tear is a prayer.
So cry yourself a freedom song.
Sing a spiritual to the cadence
of your weeps.

Let amens trickle down your cheek.
Make hallelujahs
in the luggage under your eyes,
and breathe like being alive
is the sweetest melody you could ever sing.


LEARN THE ART OF SPOKEN WORD: Angelo Geter leads a two-part class introducing participants to the art of spoken word poetry. Spoken Word 101: Brining Words to Life, begins April 20, 2021. Students will examine spoken word work to demonstrate how literary devices employed in traditional poetry are expanded in this genre. Participants will be guided through several prompts and exercises to help develop techniques and skills to craft original work. In the second part of the course, participants will perform their spoken word pieces and receive critiques from the instructor and other participants. Join us to bring your words to life, from the page to the stage. More info

Angelo ‘Eyeambic’ Geter is a dynamic poet, spoken word artist and motivational speaker whose unique work educates, entertains and inspires. He blends his pieces with commentary, stories and personal narratives that transcend a traditional lecture or performance.  He currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Rock Hill, SC, and a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Geter is also a 2019 All-America city winner, 2018 National Poetry Slam champion, Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam finalist, Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam finalist and has performed and competed in several venues across the country. His work has appeared on All Def Poetry, Charleston Currents, and the Academy of American Poets “Poem a Day” series.

Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist

Writer’s block does not exist.

That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.

So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?

1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.

Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?

One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.

Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.

2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.

The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?

It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.

3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.

Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.

Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.

But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?

In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.

If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.

If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).

4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.

Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!

Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.

5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.

The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.

And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.

And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.

Immutable Laws of Writing #2: An object in motion stays in motion

An object in motion stays in motion (and an object at rest stays at rest).

Sir Isaac Newton said this first, and not about writing. Still, writing is a natural act, possibly a force of nature, and is just as subject to physics as everything else. Applied to your writing, the “object” in question is the work you are producing. (Be it understood that we’re not talking here about writing as the mere act of putting words on paper; rather, we’re talking about writing that is becoming a finished work.) Applied to a work in progress, then: your writing both requires and benefits from momentum. Let’s break out those two key bits.

Requires momentum. Any piece of writing of any substantive length—short story, novella, novel, screenplay, stage play, epic poem, etc.—cannot continue forward unless you work on it regularly. Long works have many threads and themes, schemes and schemas, and other moving parts that need to be fresh in mind while writing. This is not to say you can’t take a break from a work; breaks can be good for your writing. But just try to finish a novel that you write in fits and starts, or even one that you write regularly but overly-spaced, such as writing it only on the weekends. It’s hard enough without adding that complexity.

Benefits from momentum. When you are working on a project regularly and with momentum on your side, your writing is likely to be more efficient and perhaps also better. Consider: the longer it has been since you last worked on your project, the longer it will take to: a) bring all the components back into your head; b) have a good sense of what to write next; and c) maintain all the voices: yours, and those of your characters. When your work has momentum, you slip easily between characters, you have your story threads and themes in mind, you know what has and has not transpired, and you know—this is important—what to write next.

Robert Heinlein provided these and some other rules of writing. The emphases are his:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.

My Immutable Law of Writing #1 (“the words aren’t going to write themselves”) echoes RH’s first rule. My second supports his second: if you mean to finish, you must finish. And you do this by respecting (or, if you prefer, taking advantage of) the laws of physics.

Here are three pieces of practical advice for keeping momentum.

1. Write something you love. 

Don’t select a writing project because you think it’s trendy or easy to get published or will make you tons of cash. Write a story that you truly want to tell. That love will feed your momentum. You will write because you have to see how it comes out. (This will also sustain you later when you are in the eighth round of revisions and you hate the book more than you have ever hated anything.)

2. Make the forces (even the negative ones) work for you.

Fully expressed, Newton’s First Law is: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force” (italics mine).* There are throughout your non-writing world “unbalanced forces” that conspire against you and your writing, even if (usually) unintentionally, almost all of which come down to commitments that require your time: jobs, partners, children, sleep, lawns that insist on growing, and so on. How might you make these forces work in support of your writing?

Perhaps: Use lawn mowing time as thinking time, for working out plot points and other story details; car pool to work so that you can write while someone else drives; enlist your family members as co-conspirators, to help by doing research or editing; establish family creative time: while you write, others practice their instruments, or blog, or fold origami, or what have you; get up 30 minutes earlier (you won’t miss it) and write 500 words while there are no distractions; or quit something that you’ve been meaning to quit, something that takes up your time, transferring that time to your writing.

3. Allow your self occasional breaks from the project. 

Short ones. Take Sunday off, maybe, but then back to it on Monday. Can’t fight physics, might as well make it work on your behalf.

——

http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-1/Newton-s-First-Law

Immutable Laws of Writing #1: The words will not write themselves

The words are not going to write themselves.

This seems obvious, no? Seems as if it doesn’t need to be said, yes? And yet, here it is, for your consumption, taking a prominent place as Immutable Law of Writing #1. Here’s the full story.

I know many writers who do not write. I think what those people mean when they say they are writers is they like to write, enjoy writing, or maybe like to think of themselves as writers. Still, they do not write.

I know many people who say they want to write a book, but they are not writing a book, and make no attempt to write a book. I think what they mean is they want to have written a book. What they don’t mean is they want the experience of writing a book. What they don’t mean is they want to do the work of writing a book. They want to be authors. This is not the same—this is not remotely the same—as wanting to do the actual work of writing.

Immutable Law of Writing #1 says the words are not going to write themselves. What, then, is the solution? The glib answer is: if you want to be a writer you must write. But here is some more practical advice: if you want to write, you must write every day.

The question that follows is how to do that: how does a busy person find the time to write every day? Here are three pieces of practical advice for finding the time to write every day.

One: Decide whether you mean it. 

Decide, once and for all, if writing is a priority for you. If it is, you will find a way to do it. I don’t mean to be simplistic about this, but it’s a simple matter: we do what we think is important. (The time won’t fall from the sky, however; you have to go and find it. See tip number two, below.)

It is vital here to know what you are writing. If it’s a novel, name it and outine it (at least roughly). If it’s a blog, decide what the blog is about and who it’s for, and keep a running idea list of things to write about. If it’s a business book, name it, define the audience, and outline its chapters. And so on. None of this is writing, by the way, but it helps you know what to write when it comes time to write.

Two: Once you have decided you will write, give something up and replace that time with writing. 

If your days are full, it will be easier to find time within the day than to figure out the physics of making the day longer than 24 hours. And the easiest way to do that is to stop doing something that takes up your precious, precious time.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to consider time as precious.

Then, look at what you do and decide what not to do so that you can write. Let’s say you need a half-hour to write each day (see tip number three, below). How might you find 30 minutes a day? Could you give up 30 minutes of sleep, Facebook, Candy Crush, or television? (On your deathbed, will you wish you had played more Candy Crush?)

If you are a writer, you are a creative thinker, so you can apply your creativity to this. Could you do the 60-minute yoga class instead of the 90-minute? Could you work from home one day a week and save the commute time? Do you have the resources to hire out a household chore, such as cutting the lawn, or have a family member do it? Could you have a child or spouse cook dinner an extra day each week? Could you take a 30-minute lunch instead of 60? Could you resign from that club you’ve belonged to for years but doesn’t really provide you any real benefit these days? Can you say “no” to something that you’ve been asked to do? The possibilities are nearly endless.

Three: When you have found your writing time, set a can’t-miss daily production goal. 

How about just 500 new words per day?

For most people, that’s about 30 minutes. How much is 500 words? It’s not much. This post, for instance, is 800 words. If you could write 500 new words per day—say, by getting up 30 minutes earlier, or forgoing one television show in the evening—you will have written a draft of a 90,000 word novel in just six months. That’s it! That’s all it takes. First thing in the morning, before everyone else has gotten up (or whenever), write a minimum of 500 new words, and do it every day.

Because, you know, the words aren’t going to write themselves.