The Joys of the Amateur Writer

 

Whenever I hear someone say, “I love writing!” I know that I am not talking to a professional writer. Professional writers do love writing, of course, but they mostly love it in the way that doctors love making people well. There are many, many days that doctors fail to make people well. There are days when the patient is improved. There are days when the patient is worse. The doctors just have to keep plugging, hoping that they don’t kill anybody.

Personally (and I think this is true for many professional writers), I love the idea of writing more than I love actually writing. I always want my work to feel more like happy scribbling in a notebook than like sitting down at my computer for the 378th day to struggle with the same manuscript in the hopes that it will finally be “well” enough to pay my mortgage.

The word amateur comes from the French (which comes from Latin), and means “lover of.” Amateur writers write because they love it. For the past two years, I have been an amateur writer. I enrolled in a Master’s program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I worked with some of the best writers in the business. I didn’t worry about making money or impressing anyone, which freed me up to write humorous poetry, silly scenes, flash fiction, and crazy characters. I worked on a bunch of stuff that went nowhere. I did the best writing of my life, and that’s because the stakes were so low–if something didn’t work, I threw it out and started something new. I was surrounded by writers who were in the same boat and we supported each other because we were all in this thing for love.

But now I’m back to being a professional. I have to comb out the knots in the first draft of my current work-in-progress by the end of the week and send it off to my  editor. And, while I’m still enjoying the work, it isn’t fun in the way that eating an ice cream cone is fun. It’s fun in the way that reaching a goal is fun. It’s fun because it’s challenging.

Look, I’m not a big fan of “writing is so hard!” kind of posts. I realize that I am very, very blessed to do the work that I do. Lots of people have jobs that are way harder than mine. Armed forces, social workers, police officers, firefighters, ER staff–the list is endless. Honestly, the only job that sounds better than mine (to me) is movie star. I’m not complaining about writing, I’m just pointing out that sometimes doing something for money takes the fun, the spontaneity, out of it. In our culture, any time someone is good at something, we are quick to suggest they turn it into a career. “Live Your Bliss” articles and Etsy imply that hobbies that make us happy are only legitimized by money. That, friends, is a lie. The fact that you enjoy something and are good at it does not mean that it has to be your career. Personally, I always encourage people to write. I do not, however, always encourage people to become professional writers. There are some things that are best done for ourselves, or simply for love.

 

 


Your Process Is Not Wrong

 

 

 

Whenever I give a workshop or deliver a lecture on plotting, I find that audiences tend to break down into two kinds of people: Plot Writers and Character Writers.

Plot Writers only get to know their characters by seeing what they do. They dive into the action, and watch how the characters react. These are the outliners, and the positive thing about this kind of writer is that their plots tend to gallop forward at a swift pace. Their scenes don’t drag. The drawback is that their characters sometimes feel undercooked, two-dimensional.

Character Writers love to fill up notebooks getting to know their characters–discovering their hobbies, filling out backstory, researching where a character might go on vacation. They write well-fleshed-out, believable people. The drawback is that their plots are often thin or…well…absent. Scenes might feel pointless, even if they produce interesting banter or observations.

So–which kind of writer is better? The answer, my friends, is neither. That is because the difference between writing plot and writing character is the difference between two points on a circle. If you are drawing a circle, you can begin anywhere. You will eventually have to come around to the other side.

I used to think that my writing was “unartistic” because I like to use outlines. And I have heard many character writers bemoaning their inability to wrangle plot. But–trust me–whatever you are doing is right. It always feels messy and inadequate because we all have strengths and weaknesses. But this is what I like to say: Write to your strengths. Revise to your weaknesses. In other words, start with what you like: Outlines for me, lists of character vacation sites for my friend Lynn. Do what you need to do, and struggle through a messy first draft. Then, before you revise, stop. Take a break, and work with your weaknesses. If your plot is thin, brainstorm things that might happen, conflicts that might arise. If you characters are blah, work up some backstory, think about how they relate to each other. Then work on your next draft with your weaknesses in mind. But please do not feel that things would be easier if only you were a better writer. Everyone works differently, but everyone makes a mess. So go make your mess.

 


Magic People

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“For a few brief moments he had touched with the very tips of his fingers the edge of a magic world.”        –from George’s Marvelous Medicine, by Roald Dahl.

I have lingered over that sentence for days. It’s about more than just George and his story; it’s about childhood itself. When I was a girl, I always believed that there was magic in the world, and I sometimes even thought that I could catch sight of it out of the corner of my eye. A part of me—a lovely, uncynical part—still believes that. I think most people who write for children believe it, even if we write “realistic” fiction.

Writing for children and young adults is different from writing for grown-ups in many technical ways, but it is also a different art, one that comes from a particular worldview. It is a worldview that says that children are intelligent and valuable, that growth is possible, and that fate is at work in our lives. If you write for adults, it is possible to write a book in which nothing really happens, or things happen, but they have no meaning and nobody learns anything. Frankly, much of life is, or appears to be, this way, and adults know it. Children—with their intense sense of justice—will not stand for a book (or a world) like this. I think most children want to know that the universe is pushing us forward for a purpose, with its own secret hope that we will learn, and grow, and be better, kinder people. Yes, accidents happen. Tragedies do. Not every children’s book has a happy ending, or a facile one. But books for younger readers contain the central beliefs that good is stronger than evil, and that our actions have resonance and import. This is part of the purpose of literature—to show that we can make sense or use of what happens to us. That is the magic that, in real life, we usually only touch with the very tips of our fingers or see in the corner of our vision. But in literature, we can come fact-to-face with this magic, and it’s comforting.

I’ve read the argument that the fact that adults are reading YA is part of the evidence of the “dumbing down” of culture, but I don’t agree. Perhaps adults are looking for reassurance that there is meaning and hope at a time that feels very uncertain and frightening. Personally, I read a great deal of children’s and YA literature. I also read a great deal of classical literature (Wharton, Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy.) I enjoy nonfiction written for adults, and am currently reading a biography of Kipling that I can’t put down. But I rarely read contemporary fiction for adults, because much of it (Not all of it! Of course not all of it!) feels dreary and depressing to me. I don’t think that the contemplation of meaninglessness is sophisticated. If given a choice, that isn’t the kind of world that I want to live in.

Like the rest of my tribe, I choose magic.


Guest Post: Heather Demetrios

Demetrios Author Photo

Lisa Says: Friends, as you my know, I’ll be speaking at NESCBWI14 this weekend. My talk is called, “The F-Word: Failure, Rejection, and the Power of Persistence.” Let’s face it: Failures (large and small) and the revision that comes with it are simply part of the process of getting to your best work. Still, many writers fear and resist honest feedback. I want people to realize that all writers–even the best ones–face the same challenge, so I asked Heather Demetrios to write a guest post on “The Editorial Note that Saved My Manuscript.” Heather is a good friend and a rising star. Read the post, and then go buy her debut novel: Something Real, about a girl desperate to get out of the reality TV show that controls her life, and which Publishers Weekly calls “addictive yet thoughtful.”

The Editorial Note that Saved My Manuscript

By Heather Demetrios

Last night I wrote the acknowledgements for my third book. I’ll Meet You There (Macmillan/Henry Holt Winter 2015). This is always an exciting thing to do. It’s a walk down memory lane, where you get to relive the journey of your book, thinking about all the people who have played a role in shaping the world and characters of your novel. Part pseudo-Oscar speech, part toast at an imaginary reception in your protagonist’s honor, the acknowledgments are a surreal couple of pages of I DID IT. Here is what I wrote for the women who were part of my writer’s group when I wrote the novel (this was when I lived in Boston – alas, I now live in Brooklyn and am flying solo, though these women remain dear companions in my writing life):

This book wouldn’t exist at all, or at least not as you’ve read it, if it weren’t for Shari Becker, Leslie Caulfield, and Jennifer Ann Mann. You gals saw Josh before I ever did. Thank you for pointing out that my book was actually about the Marine at the Mitchells’ party and, not, in fact, about a Lindsay Lohan-type celebrity in hiding at the Paradise (Um…yeah. It’s called re-vision for a reason, y’all). You saw my heart and held it up for me and told me I wasn’t allowed to look away, even though I was scared as hell. I will be forever grateful.

This is what happened:

I had an idea for a story about a girl who worked in a roadside motel in Central California, not far from where I went to high school. All I knew was that I wanted her to be poor, living in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-town, and I wanted the motel itself to be a character in the novel. I knew it was a place where interesting things could happen. One of those things I wanted to happen was that a starlet (a Lindsay Lohan type) would wind up hiding out there from the paparazzi for the summer. I started writing this story and the first scene was a party that takes place in someone’s backyard, the night my protagonist, Skylar, graduates from high school. I wanted to show how desperately sad the town, Creek View, was and I peppered the party with various kinds of people that illustrated the depth of hopelessness there, including having the guest of honor be a recently returned Marine from Afghanistan who lost a leg in an IED blast. In that initial version of the scene, he was just an anecdote. Scenery. Not only was I not doing him justice, my writing was tipping my hand. See, here’s the thing: this Marine stole the show. He wasn’t just a guy at the party—he was the party. Only I didn’t realize it.

Thank God for all of us that my writer’s group did. I’ll never forget that night. I feel like it kinda changed my life. We were sitting in a Panera in Brookline, Massachusetts. They talked about the usual stuff: what they liked, what they didn’t like. They asked me questions, I asked them questions. And then someone said, “I really like this Marine. What if Skylar falls in love with him?” And suddenly it was so obvious. All the clues were there, I’d just been too enamored with my other, more glitzy, plot-driven, commercial (and much, much easier) idea. Side note: there is nothing wrong with glitzy/plot-driven/commercial…at least, not in theory. But it was all kinds of wrong for this story. That’s not to say I won’t write that other story some day. But it’s not this day.

Josh Mitchell—the Marine at the party—was an example of my unconscious mind going to work on my story without me even realizing it. This is something that writer Tim Wynne-Jones talked about when I was in a workshop with him this past winter at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He said that it’s important to go back and read your work because your unconscious mind is putting stuff in there, clues as to what your story is really about. The thing is, sometimes we can’t see past our own ideas about what we think a story should be. Or we can’t see past fears we don’t even know we have. This is where editorial notes come in. Not only is it important to have people you trust looking at your work, you have to be able to have the courage to listen to what they have to say. They might not always be right, but if they are, magic can happen.

Writing I’ll Meet You There was hell (I talked about this on my blog here and here). It was also the best writing experience I’ve ever had. And I have my writer’s group and their fantastic editorial notes to thank for it. They saw the Marine at the party and they wanted to know more. They weren’t feeling the direction I was going in. I’m glad I listened to them. If you read the book, I hope you’ll be glad, too.

Bio:

When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather will receive her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts this July and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. She is the founder of Live Your What, an organization dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and bringing writing opportunities to low-income youth. You can always find her on Twitter (@HDemetrios), ogling the military dogs she wants to adopt (but can’t because her NYC apartment is way too small). Find out more about Heather and her other books at www.heatherdemetrios.com.

Something Real Cover Final


How to Be A Creative Genius

Not the actual factory near my house. But similar.

Not the actual factory near my house. But similar.

I am currently working on a story that features a coffin factory. Everyone loves this little touch. “How did you think of that?” people have asked. “It’s so atmospheric and creepy and perfect!”

When I hear things like this, I just say, “Thank you,” and try to smile mysteriously, as if I just can’t help being a genius. But here, on this blog, I will reveal the truth: I live one block from a coffin factory.

In fact, I have lived one block from a coffin factory for ten years, and I never, ever thought of putting it in a story until a few months ago. I really didn’t think about it much at all. It was just there, like the old guy who decorates his electric wheelchair with bits of colorful garbage and the mysterious abandoned car rusting at the bottom of the hill near the bike path (no road in sight). I’ve never put those in a story, either. In fact, I hadn’t even recognized them as “strange” until I wrote them down. Just now.

But the important thing to remember is that, often, inspiration is an outside job. Writers don’t create so much as they connect. For ten years, you walk past a coffin factory every single day. Then—one day—you walk past, and you really see what is there. You connect the possibilities that exist in a setting like that, the symbols, the meaning.

Everyone has experienced one of those moments in which you are busily telling a story, and someone interrupts you because what you have said is strange. “Wait—there was a guy who lived down the street from you who shot at the neighborhood cats with a BB gun, and nobody ever called the cops?” Um, yes. There was. We never thought about it because he was just…there. When I moved to Guatemala, people kept asking me what it felt like to be having this adventure. “Um, it feels kind of normal. Like it’s just this thing I’m doing.” When I tell the details now–my weird role in a Spanish-language production of The King and I, the phosphorescent sand on the beach, the ants the size of my thumb that lived in the rainforest–it all seems peculiar and amazing. But while I was there, it was just my life. I had no perspective.

Writing, then, is the act of changing perspective, of seeing the world anew, and of connecting what we find to the universal. The good news is that the world is already out there, all around us. There is strangeness everywhere, even in the most “normal” suburb in America, once you start to pay attention. Why do all of the girls dress the same? Why are all of the yards so perfect, except for that one at the end of the block, where the old lady lives? Why did they close down the neighborhood pool? What does it mean?

The world is a bizarre place, and the strangest of all are the people in it. You don’t have to be a genius to see that.


Bonus Blog: Winter, It’s ON!

 

Savor some cocoa, people, before it's too late!

I’ve been seeing quite a lot of facebook Letters to March lately, asking it to cut it out and warm up already. It’s starting to feel a little bit like Narnia out there: It’s always winter, and never Christmas. I woke up this morning to a bright, sunny sky, and thought—foolishly—that the weather might be spring-like. Then I looked at the thermometer. 6 degrees. Fahrenheit, international people.

And that was when it hit me. This is our last stand.

Friends, this is it. This is the final hour. It is the time we show what we are truly made of. Winter will not defeat us! But we must fight it with our greatest weapon, the only thing that can dull the edge of winter’s brittle sword. We’re talking Radical Coziness.

When my dear friend, Kate Egan, moved to Maine, I asked her how she was going to stand the long winters. She told me that she liked cold, and then she said something that I still cling to on the bitterest nights: “You can never be cozy in warm weather.”

It’s time to flip the script and try some #savoring, friends. In a few months, all of that coziness will disappear. Here are ten ideas!
1. Do you have a fireplace? Light it up.
2. Snuggle onto the couch with a fuzzy blanket and a novel or magazine.
3. Cuddle someone!
4. Hot drinks are made for #savoring. Make hot chocolate. Add WAY TOO MANY marshmallows or AN EMBARRASSING AMOUNT OF WHIPPED CREAM. Try #savoring hot coffee or hot tea. You won’t even want them in July, but they’re fantastic now!
5. Go for a ten-minute walk in the cold and then admire your rosy cheeks. You look fabulous!
6. Get out that scented candle! You know, the one you’ve been saving, preferably one with a scent like, “Gingerbread Cookie,” “North Pole,” or “Winter Midnight.” It is better to light a scented candle than to curse the darkness!
7. Eat soup! Make stew! MAKE A POT PIE! Take that, Winter! My Crock Pot will bring you to your knees!
8. Get out your little fairy/ Christmas/ twinkle lights. String them around your bedroom, family room, or living room. Just one strand. Turn off the lights and light those babies up!
9. Do you have a winter craft hobby? Quilting, doll making, knitting, felting, crochet? Choose a quick project and get cracking. We only have few weeks left to enjoy our wool!
10. Don’t forget to get a last lick in on your favorite winter sport! Ice skating, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, CURLING!

Friends, our victory is assured, but the battle rages on. It’s only a matter of time—we must simply hold our ground. We’re in this together! No more facebook letters to Winter begging for mercy! We’re #savoring!


Are Your Characters As Memorable As This Cat?

 

photo copyright Nikolai Pozdeev

Wow. This cat is a character. You can tell just by looking at his face. Are your characters as memorable as this cat? And, if not, how can you make them unforgettable?

One of the writers I admire most is Charles Dickens. His characterizations are incredibly economical–he packs a ton of meaning into a few well-chosen details. His characters are funny, original, and utterly memorable, which is a good thing, as his books are long and juggle many subplots. Sometimes, his characters will disappear for chapters on end, only to reappear later in a new context, tying other characters and subplots together in an unexpected way. Yet I never have trouble placing them. So—how can you make your characters memorable? Here are five ways:

1. Give your character his or her own unique phase or speech pattern. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of Dickens’s most famous characters. What does he say over and over? “Bah, humbug.” Fantastic! Here we have an expressive, unique phrase with which we can pin down the essence of Scrooginess. I once wrote a character who said everything as if it were a question. (I’m going to eat a burrito? And then have some water?) She was a minor character, and this verbal tic helped her stand out.

2. Give your character a quirk. Vincent Crummels, the theater director, is a chronic exaggerator who will happily put anything over on an audience. Aged P (the Aged Parent) is old and quite deaf, but is happy to be nodded at and to read his newspapers by candlelight. (A charming, yet dangerous, pastime.) Remember, writers–one well-chosen quirk is far better than a hundred meaningless ones.

3. Give your character a strong, relevant backstory. Miss Havisham, anyone? Few characters in literature are as memorable as the old lady who was jilted at the altar and still sits around in her wedding dress letting her house decay around her. Zowie.

4. Give your character a funny, expressive name. Wackford Squeers. Mr. Bumble. Lady Dedlock. Pip. Ebenezer Scrooge. It is always tempting to name our characters something simple and believable, like John or Mackenzie. However, names are an opportunity to express mood, idea, or emotion to the unconscious mind. Although these names may be rarely spoken aloud, the reader “hears” the names with his or her aural mind, or listening sense. Uriah Heep sounds like something disgusting, and he is.

5. Make your character’s introduction memorable. The dandruff shampoo ad used to warn us that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and that eternal piece of wisdom holds true today. Here is our first glimpse of Sir Leicester Dedlock: “Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks.” Well. In the space of two sentences, we have learned much of what we need to know about that guy.

Ever wondered which Dickens character you are? Here’s a quiz from Oxford Words: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/02/charles-dickens-character-quiz/

 


Secrets of a Prolific Writer

I have written a lot of books, people. Trust me.

I've written a lot of books, people. Trust me.

 

Recently, a new friend admitted to me that she has a writer hidden inside her. “Oh, I’ll bet it isn’t hidden that far,” I told her. The next time I saw her, we chatted a bit about writing, and my new friend admitted feeling discouraged because “all of the books say that you should write every day.” This woman has a full-time job, a marriage, a house, two small children, and a puppy, and she was feeling guilty because she didn’t write every day. When my daughter was younger, I couldn’t even manage to brush my teeth every day!

Friends, readers, and fellow writers, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: You do not have to write every day. I don’t. And I’m one of the most prolific writers I know.

Look, I see why this advice is useful. Many writers do write every day. But most of those writers do not have both full-time jobs and small children. If they do, their full time job is writing, and that’s how they get the work done. My full time job is writing, and I still don’t write every day. Why is that? Two reasons: 1. Much of writing does not involve actual writing. It involves thinking or researching. and 2. I sometimes get sick or have other stuff to do. Sometimes there is a snow day. Life happens.

Writing is difficult, and it will be much worse for you if you are constantly plagued by guilt about writing. Writers who never feel as if you are doing enough often do not bother getting started in the first place.  Instead, I encourage you to do your best to find time to write and to make your expectations realistic. If you can only manage to write one morning each weekend, then try to write once a week. And don’t feel guilty about the other six days! If you have time off during summers and can devote two solid months to writing, then do it. And don’t feel guilty about the other ten months! No matter what schedule is realistic for you, if you keep feeling positive about the process, the pages will start to pile up.

There will be moments in your life when you have more time/ inclination/ ability to write, and there will be moments when you have less. This is simply the way the rhythms of life and art work. Do not let any craft book dictate what you need to do for your art. That book doesn’t know you.

You do.

 

 

 

 

 


Chickum

When Chris Tebbets and I sent in the first draft of the manuscript for M or F?, we were pretty excited. We were strangers before we began the project, but working together had bonded us. We had a similar sense of humor and quirky way of looking at things, and we started to think of ourselves as “brain twins.” Unsurprisingly, our two main characters were best friends, and also thought of themselves as brain twins. Chris and I had come up with a fun, rollicking plot based loosely on Cyrano de Bergerac, and we had written funny scenes and great dialog. I, frankly, expected a rave from the editor. Instead, what I got back was, “I just don’t feel that these two characters are best friends. What’s their history?”

Ah.

The best editors see what we cannot see for ourselves. In modeling Marcus and Franny’s friendship on our own, Chris and I had failed to realize one thing: we did not have a shared history. The book had brought us together. We were new friends, not old friends. Marcus and Franny were supposed to be old friends, at least, older than the few months that Chris and I had known each other. But how do you do this? How can you craft a an authentic friendship with a sense of history without clogging up the words with pointless backstory?

Chickum is a joke that about ten good friends of mine understand. I won’t bother explaining it; you won’t think it’s funny. I didn’t come up with it, but every time I read it, I crack up. All I have to do is see a rubber chicken, and I giggle. We all have jokes and shared memories like this—moments that can be referenced in shorthand between good friends. For M or F?, Chris and I had to take the time to create funny and/ or poignant shared memories for Marcus and Franny. We had to come up with in-jokes. We had to know their history, not so that we could explain it in overwrought backstory, but so that we could reference it the way that real friends do. (“Remember the time—?” “Don’t say it.” “Double monkey.” “You said it! You said it! I hate you!” And so on. Teenagers can have conversations like this for hours.)

Sometimes, I wonder why I should bother writing a particular character’s backstory. (I never want to do it–I always want to move forward, forward!) But the answer always comes back to texture and authenticity. In the final version of M or F?, Franny and Marcus were believable as good friends because we took the time to create the history of their friendship. If you’re looking for a way to get inside your character’s relationships, start with memories. These moments don’t even need to appear in the manuscript–many of of the ones Chris and I worked on did not. But like the proverbial iceberg, the part that does not show is the part that holds up everything else.

For further reading:

Here’s a great article from Writer’s Digest about making backstory seamless.


A Message from Ivana Correctya

Hello, Darlings!

Lisa is sick this week, so she asked if I would write a guest post on her blog. I always try to help when I can, but I simply did not have time to write a single word. (I did not even have time to write the words that you are reading now. I dictated them to my chauffeur, Fabio, who is also an excellent typist.) Instead, I have filmed a video. I hope you love it!

And remember, darlings–always be grammarous!