I’ve been knitting for ten years now. I’ve made sweaters, dozens of scarves, a couple blankets, and one pair of socks that promptly felted when I wore them in the middle of summer with my cowboy boots. But even experienced knitters make mistakes.
Experienced runners will often give this advice on goal-making to new runners (yes, it’s another running/writing metaphor. Bear with me). When training for a race, runners should make three goals. One is a shoot-for-the-moon, best of all possible worlds goal: for example, I’m going to qualify for Boston. Or, I’m going to PR (personal record, or in other words, I’m going to run the fastest I ever have for this distance). One is a more realistic goal based on how your training is going: I’m going to shave 5 minutes off my time. The last goal is minimalist: I am going to finish this race.
The last goal is kept in reserve for what happens if the race goes terribly wrong. GI distress, you trip and fall (I’ve seen it happen), it’s raining, or even worse, it’s 85 degrees and 90% humidity. I ran a half with a woman whose boyfriend had broken up with her only a few weeks before the race. She was an ultra runner; the type who runs 50 miles in the mountains of Colorado without batting an eyelash. She was running the Austin half as a break between more serious, challenging races. I was running it because that’s all I could run.
We met at the start of the race, and by the end, we became best friends. It’s a wonderful thing that happens in the magic of the race.
On a good day, she would have run me into the ground. On that day, she finished within 5 minutes of me and came up to me crying afterwards because she was so happy. You see, she ran (literally, it was a race) into her boyfriend midway through the south Austin hills and couldn’t stop crying. The race no longer mattered; it was all she could do to finish. And when she crossed the finish line, all 5’3″, 115 pounds of her, she looked happier than an Olympic marathon champion. I’m sure the adrenalin and endorphins helped. But she was an experienced runner; she was able to change her goals midway through the race and end strong. And I think that’s why she was able to overcome any doubts or disappointments that might have ruined her day and instead turn them into a positive experience.
I think a lot of the times we writers only set the shoot-for-the-moon, best of all possible worlds goal: I’m going to get published, make zillions of dollars, and build a mansion like that kid in the movie “Blank Check”:
I’m currently trying to pound out the second draft of my Prospectus, which somehow has become even more difficult than writing the first draft (go figure. I’m told it only gets worse from here.)
The Prospectus is essentially a twenty-page document in which you describe what your dissertation will look like, written before you write your dissertation. In this process, you perform a “meta” analysis, as one of my professor’s likes to say, which means you think about the process of the dissertation, rather than the dissertation itself. It’s putting the Philosophy into my Doctorate of Philosophy.
I’m stuck on this section called Discursive Contents, which is kind of a description about the critical conversation into which your work will fit. So, it’s like an annotated bibliography, mixed with a research paper, mixed with the chapter summaries (which are their own part later in the Prospectus). It’s like having to do my written comprehensive exam all over again, which is maybe why my hands start to shake when I sit down to write it.
(Also, my computer keeps overheating, another reason why my hands are shaking. I’ll be sad if my computer melts, but I just want it to wait a couple more months. Or at least until I can go home to back it up again tonight.)
I had brain-block again today. Even though it’s due on Wednesday. Curses! And it was actually my mental curses that inspired me to write today’s writing lesson.
If you saw The King’s Speech, you’ll remember that Colin Firth plays King George VI, the British Monarch with an unfortunate stutter in the age of radio. In the movie, Geoffrey Rush helps Bertie overcome his vocal tic by encouraging him to silently curse his way through speaking. As he gives his radio speech, Bertie brilliantly announces war with Nazi Germany by repeating some terrible words not fit for this blog.
So this afternoon, silently wishing I hadn’t decided to write a dissertation on silence, I had a mental stutter. I simply can’t get over the hurdle of merging a conversation with books and my chapters. It’s just a pain. I try to write it out, rather than merely think it, so I’m left with a word soup to edit, rather than a blank screen. This is what my word soup for today looks like:
This text is distinctive because the writers openly call attention to silence as a rhetorical, linguistic sign. Expanding this text to consider the impact of the French Revolution, two themes start to emerge, the silence and suppression part. All you have to do is write, write about how your first chapter comes first because you want to introduce this idea of the French Revolution as somehow related to this uptick in silent works, works that are interested in the ways that language can somehow express absence, whatever, absence of understanding, feeling, thought, it’s about the not understanding, the sense of loss that romantic writers felt, they felt frustrated, confused, like, what is happening in the world? And the only way they could come to terms with this was by looking to nature, like I haven’t said that a million times before
And then I stopped because I think a run would do me more good than writing about how I’m confused and the Romantic writers are confused, and we’re all confused together. Over-identifying with my subject, much?
Anyway, the point in today’s lesson is that King George overcomes his stutter. And we can too. Just write it out, write write write even when your head is about to explode. And if you end up writing some garbage, well, that’s why radio silences were invented. And if you come up with something amazing? Then you’ve got the King’s Speech.
I’m certainly not the first to make the connection between running and writing. I think it’s because writers tend to be kind of neurotic, and runners tend to be kind of neurotic, and so it’s only natural the two groups would overlap somewhat. Still, even though the comparison between the two groups is becoming a bit of a cliche, it’s worth considering what running can tell us about writing.
In the middle of my long run on Saturday, I started to enter The Zone, a pseudo-trance wherein everything seems interconnected and every idea seems like the bomb-diggity. (This is why I try not to write after a run. I end up making notes to myself that read like a beatnik’s diary. At the time I’m like, Check out the rocks, man, THE ROCKS! and then I read it later and think, ¿Que?)
Anyway, during my run, as I was thinking that this training business is bananas, I figured out why the running-writing metaphor works so well.
One long run isn’t going to train you for a race. In fact, you could seriously hurt yourself if you don’t back it up with lots of shorter runs. Similarly, one long writing day isn’t going to finish your novel or story unless it is interspersed with lots of other writing days.
It’s consistency that’s important to succeed at both. Yeah, there are going to be days when you stare at the blank screen or paper and have nothing interesting to say, just like there are going to be days when you can’t muster the strength to put another foot forward. But as long as you get up day after day and try, you’ll eventually reach your goal, whether it’s finishing that story or completing that race.
Keep writing, my friends.
(PS—and if this post on running and writing isn’t enough for you, check out Libby Heily’s collection of short stories, Fourth Degree Freedom, now available for $0.99 on the Kindle. Her story, “The Last Six Miles,” is about a woman’s transformation through running. Buy it today!)
Monday night I met with my critique group. We are an odd bunch, gathered together by our mutual interest in writing. There are over a hundred people who have joined the group on MeetUp.com, but we have about 12 people show up each meeting on average. The size means that one rarely gets to submit their own work, but just attending the meetings has increased my productivity and awareness of the traps into which new writers frequently fall.
This week we critiqued three pieces as per our standard operating procedure. They were all strong pieces (which is not always the case, but we’re all learning here). One in particular stuck out from the rest: the opening three chapters of a spy thriller. There were somewhat obvious things that needed to be fixed (currency consistency being one) but overall the writer had a strong grasp of his genre. His piece was gripping and exciting in spite of the grammatical mistakes.
Several members of the group (including myself) noted the infrequent use of commas. It was so strange–frequently when a writer neglects to include commas, the work is a mess of run-on sentences. This one had fully constructed and poetic sentences … which tended to run together because the eye did not know where to stop. The writer shyly admitted he had not taken an English class since Freshman comp. We all found his writing was not hurt from his lack of grammatical education. He clearly listened to his inner voice as he was writing his novel, even if only on a subconscious level.
I think as writers we sometimes forget to trust our instincts. I for one can get bogged down in too much academic detail, worrying about things like gerunds and comma splices, to such an extent that I forget what I’m trying to do: construct meaning out of words and phrases. As a copy editor, things like extra spaces between words and punctuation marks get me on edge. The commas bugged me, but even as I penciled them in for the writer, I remarked to myself that this writer had natural talent, something all writers covet and envy in others.
I’m not suggesting that we throw our Strunk and White out the window–far from it. But I do think that sometimes we should take a step back and let our ears do the writing. If Monday’s meeting taught me anything, it was that first drafts are for capturing the language, tone, and voice of our story. Punctuation can come later.
I can’t let go of my first (finished) novel. I guess I should say “draft of my first (finished) novel” but I don’t want the signifier to be even clunkier than the signified. I stuck a fork in it two weeks ago and ever since then I’ve been worrying about the revision process, which has tentatively been set to begin a month from today. My manuscript is not in my usual genre and even though I thought it began with a good premise, I worry that it won’t be half as awesome as I want it to be.
When told about my anxiousness, my writing buddy today suggested that I should find my “ideal reader.” This mystical being, she said, is a personified version of the audience for the book. They are the reader for whom my book is written. Who is buying my book right now in some mystical part of my subconscious? The answer, of course, is I.R.
I cloak this “ideal reader” in mystery because I haven’t found my ideal reader. My writing buddy is lucky; her ideal reader actually exists and provides manuscript critique upon request. Mine is floating out there somewhere. I.R. is my Great White Buffalo.
More than a critique partner, the ideal reader’s job is to be the voice that says whether a piece of writing works. I.R., from what I can tell, is sortof like you, the author, if you were the reader instead of the inventor of the story. I.R. cuts through the anxiety and gets to the heart of the matter: is it good? I really hope my I.R. unicorn says yes.
A question for you: Is your ideal reader a real person? Or are they (like mine) invisible?
10. Set the spell check on your word processor to American or British English
-or/our, -ize/ise … The list of spelling differences between American and British English is enough to fill a style manual. Do us a favor and make sure your spell check dictionary is consistent with the publisher’s specifications.
9. Use only one space between sentences
We’re not typing with typewriters anymore. You only need one space between sentences. Trust me. Use the find and replace function to change all two spaces to one space.
8. Include all relevant citation information
I can’t do my job if I can’t find the page numbers for your quotes or if I can’t find the book because you listed the wrong author, title, edition, or publication year. Please give me all the information you have and let me be the judge if I need it or not. Chances are, I need it.
7. Know the difference between “which” and “that”
If you don’t know the difference, see Strunk and White: “That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive” (rule 59). See also rule 3: “Nonrestrictive relative clauses are parenthetic, as are similar clauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time or place. Commas are therefore needed. A nonrestrictive clause is one that does not serve to identify or define the antecedent noun.” And if you’re writing fiction, you should be working to get rid of all “that”s anyway.
6. Get yourself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Manual of Style
I know that you were traumetized by this stuff in high school, but it’s kind of a big deal. You can usually find versions online, but go ahead and get a hard copy, or use the copy in your local library. And speaking of style manuals, you have a copy of S&W’s “The Elements of Style” already, don’t you?
Meet them. We’re all busy people. Learn time management.
4. Use the dash, en-dash, and em-dash correctly
Dashes are used in compound words. En dashes (so called because they have the same width as the letter n) are used between number ranges. They look like this: p. 96–110 and the can be created by either holding option down while typing a dash, or by holding Alt down and typing 0150. Em dashes—so called because they have the same width as the letter m—are used in sentences to set off clauses and look like this. You can create an em dash by holding shift and option down while typing a dash, or by holding Alt down and typing 0151.
3. Not only, but also
“Not only” sets up a parallel construction, which must be followed by its logical conclusion, “but also.”
2. Keep verb tenses straight
If you begin a sentence in the present tense, make sure the rest of the sentence follows in present tense. And while we’re on verbs, know the difference between present, past, perfect, and imperfect. I shouldn’t need to remind you about the use of active versus passive voice.
1. Remember that we’re not perfect.
Re-read all of the documents we give you to catch any mistakes we might have missed. We have at least four sets of eyes in-house looking at a document before we move on to production, but we still miss things with regularity. If you know grammar and punctuation rules yourself, there is a better chance that the mistake that makes it to press won’t be in your article.
I don’t know anyone who has achieved some degree of success who hasn’t experienced Impostor Syndrome at least once. It’s particularly rampant in graduate students. In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about, Impostor Syndrome is the name given to that feeling you experience when you wonder if that big publication or grant or raise was awarded based on merit … or by fooling the people around you into thinking you’re smart.
It’s not real, of course. It’s simply a heightened sense of paranoia that occurs when you’re around other highly skilled people. You can feel completely normal, competent and well-qualified for your job. Except when you’re looking over your shoulder at the next normal, competent and well-qualified person standing in line behind you.
A healthy dose of paranoia keeps you on your toes. It keeps you striving to do the next best thing, to reach higher and achieve more. It’s what makes the Ivory Tower go round. But when you start discounting your success because you “really don’t deserve it” or “it was just luck,” then you know you’ve got Impostor Syndrome.
I think the best solution to combatting Impostor Syndrome is through positive self-talk. After all, there’s humility and then there’s humility. I’m not suggesting that you go around with your chest puffed out—we already have enough of those people, don’t you think? It wouldn’t do us any harm, however, to praise ourselves for our successes more often, to ourselves or with our family and friends. We authors and academics have so many people/organizations/things telling us no that it can feel like a fluke when someone/thing finally says yes.
Stand up, author-friends! Throw back your shoulders and lift up your chin! Take pride in your achievements—you deserve them.
Edited to add: Happy Cinco de Mayo!
I was in the marching band in high school and college. There were music rehearsals during the day and marching practice in the afternoon. There are two things to memorize: the music and your position on the field while you play the music. I’m surprised I performed as well as I did because I tend to be more or less geographically challenged. Finding your position by a numbered dot on a graph that kind-of-sort-of looks like a football field … let’s just say it’s harder than it looks.
In college (as in high school) we would practice moving from one dot to another over and over again. For, like, three hours. But because it was college, and everything is bigger and more compressed and crazy, we learned multiple shows a year. We had a show for kick off and we had a half-time show. This blew my mind away. You want me to learn what in how much time? But I did it along with 300 of my closest friends.
We had this saying when we had to repeat a drill: Same thing, more better (haha, ironized mis-use of language, anyone?). The process was frustrating but comforting at the same time. Yes, we were annoyed to do something over and over again to become marginally better, but guess what? We all had to do it. And it would be better. Or we would do it again. And again. And again.
As I revise and rewrite my essays in graduate school (and my fiction too), I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of a never-ending band rehearsal. Sure, Saturday is coming soon enough and with it football festivities and screaming fans. But it doesn’t feel like it because my legs are screaming and I can’t catch my breath. Where are you going? I’m not on that chart yet! But I’m plugging away, just like so many of my closest friends are too. reject, revise, resubmit. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Same thing. More better.
Choosing a setting is not usually the first narrative decision I make when I sit down to write a story. I usually have an idea of what I need in my mind – France in the 18th century, for example, or Big Town, Little Town – and start crafting the story. It isn’t until a plot crisis happens – ok, my characters need to go from Point A to Point B, what does that look like? – that I start to think seriously about where my story is set.
It’s ok to postpone some decisions to the revision stage. I have trouble pumping out words per day, so my goal is just to writewritewrite until I have something to edit. But I’m starting to rethink the way I outline and by extension the order in which I make narrative choices.
In my writing group this week, a woman writing self-aware chick lit (as in, she is aware of the boundaries, limitations and possibilities of placing her work in this genre) shared the opening to her novel, which is set in Houston. One of critiques was that about a line that said something about Houston, the fourth largest city in America. I said that I thought it was a clever line because it implies that the narrator is having trouble finding a fish in such a large ocean (or whatever that expression is) and also my relief that her book wasn’t going to be set in New York, much like all the other 30-and-single books that seem to think that all the single people live in Manhattan.
Another person responded and said that, yes, while we live in Houston and know how big it is (though some of the people present did not realize it was THAT big), to outsiders Houston is that place where all the people wear cowboy hats, have ranches and ride horses to school. I’m not kidding. You yourself may have that same cultural assumption. The reader with this image in her head would imagine a completely different city than Houston and would be unlikely to read the narrative in the way the author intended.
What is the risk, then, associated with settings? Some genres have narrative conventions: cozy mysteries tend to be set in small-town America, settings for scifi and fantasy are for the most part limited only by the writer’s imagination, and historical fiction is limited not only in time but also in space. But for those genres with a bit more flexibility, how do you choose where to place your story? What choices do writers make when deciding upon a location, and what effect does this have on the narrative or plot?
One of my favorite books, Monsters of Templeton, is in a made-up city based on Lauren Groff’s hometown, Cooperstown, NY. The setting almost becomes another character in the story. Without Templeton, Monsters would not succeed. Should all writers have their own version of Templeton – a setting that becomes a character?