Something that I'm working on in novel #3 is keeping various lines in the plot going at the same time while also creating meaningful connections between these lines. In music, this is called counterpoint. (Disclaimer, y'all: I'm no musician. In fact, my elementary school music teacher took me aside before a school concert and gently suggested, "You just mouth the words, honey." The only reason I know such a thing as counterpoint exists is that I had many musically gifted friends some 12 years ago when I was a student at Simon's Rock.)
A quick skim of the Wikipedia article on counterpoint confirms that it is, precisely, what I'd like to accomplish with my current plotting efforts:
In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously... In the words of John Rahn:
It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices.
The separation of harmony and counterpoint is not absolute. It is impossible to write simultaneous lines without producing harmony, and impossible to write harmony without linear activity. The composer who chooses to ignore one aspect in favour of the other still must face the fact that the listener cannot simply turn off harmonic or linear hearing at will; thus the composer risks creating annoying distractions unintentionally. Bach's counterpoint—often considered the most profound synthesis of the two dimensions ever achieved—is extremely rich harmonically and always clearly directed tonally, while the individual lines remain fascinating.
So, from now on: my new mantra is, "Bach it." I'm betting I'm not alone in my aspirations. All right, y'all, go Bach it now.
Last week, I shared one of my favorite tricks for beating writing block with figment.com, the amazing (as in, "Holy cow, where were you when I was sixteen?!") online writing community for teens and YA lovers. (Seriously, everybody... if you know a teen writer, make sure they know about this site.)
My method involves any book whose prose you admire, a pencil, and some careful attention to the joints between words. It's guaranteed (just about) to shake you out of writer's block if you've got it, and you can use it over and over...
Read the whole prompt here. You won't be sorry!
Q: How did you get yourself noticed and your work out there? Did you ever feel like your writing wasn't good enough?*
All writers feel like their writing is not good enough. If they didn't, they'd never slave over it to make it better. To make it great, even.
At the same time, obsessing too much can be paralyzing. Hemingway wrote that every writer needs "a built-in, shock-proof shit detector," which is true, but you need to make sure that shit detector has an off switch. (I wrote about this particularly important off switch here).
If I couldn't turn off my inner (psycho) editor, I'd never be able to write out the pages of crap that, sometimes inexplicably, lead to something special. Don't settle for mediocre writing in your final drafts; don't worry about it in your drafts.
As for getting noticed, my best advice is to find other writers whose opinion you respect and to share your work with them. I do this "live" with my writers group, but a website like Figment.com is a great way to connect to other aspiring writers.
·*Question courtesy of the·National Writing Project·and readers of·Figment.com for the National Day on Writing. Read highlights of the event in·this post·or listen to me and four other guests talk about the National Day on Writing for the NWP blogtalk radio program·here.
Like most writers I've worked with in workshops and writing groups, I tend to think too much about when I'm going to tell my readers something. Instead, we should be asking ourselves, how long can we go without telling our juicy bits?
Of course, you don't want to be coy with your reader or make her feel tricked, led-on, or otherwise done wrong. Nor do you want to build up a reveal so much that--no matter how big a deal it is--it leaves the reader thinking, "is that all?"
But! Neither do you want to toss away all your character's secrets and complications in the first chapters of your book. As Noah Lukeman writes in The Plot Thickens, "storytelling is not about giving away information but about withholding it."
Ilsa Bick's Drowning Instinct is a recent example of just the right level of restraint--she manages to keep us hanging on to find out the specific details of the tragedy that opens the book. That restraint ups the tension and anticipation in the book.
Of course, it helps that Bick weaves together many threads in the plot. In fact, that's a second point about this whole withholding idea: it works best when you're working between several plot lines or at least dimensions of a story. In Bick's, for example, in addition to the big secret, we have unanswered questions for at least fifty pages at a time for a number of plot threads. These additional layers of mystery, which are peeled back befor the "big reveal" keep our eyes trained on the novel's striptease. The result is suspense, lots of it.
I'd like to have some of that. So I'm working on my layers...
First confession: I used to write poems, but I don't anymore.
For now, poetry feels too risky, the payoff too uncertain, each poem like stepping from a ledge never knowing how far one will drop. Poetry takes more courage than I’ve got. I’m no prophet, no visionary. I just want to live. And to piece together stories that might--might--have bits of poetry caught up in all the workhorse prose.
Second confession: I love poetry, but find poets a little scary.
This fear is probably because I imagine that they live with the anxieties I would feel if I were a poet. How do they do it? Maybe a lot of them don't have my "special" kinds of worries. I think of Carl Dennis, whose poems themselves (funny, talky, self-depricating) make me think he might be able to live with his work.
But then I think of Mark Strand whose experience with poetry is exactly what I would fear. For all his success, for all the gratitude I feel for his poems (several of which I've memorized, including this one), I cannot imagine what it's like to be him. I recently read an excellent interview in which, among other topics, he talked about “quitting” poetry again and again:
It is true that I have given up the writing of poems several times. Once a book is written, I feel that I have said what I had to say. And it also seems that what I had written never measures up to what I had hoped to write. So I decide that it might be best for me to do something else... So, I don’t know if I’ll write more poems. It seems more likely that I shall write more prose pieces, that I’ll finish a memoir on my parents, and that I’ll write more essays about painting.
It floors me to imagine believing, with each book, that one has nothing left to say in that genre. Ever. If Mark Strand weren't so handsome (I think he looks like Paul Newman), I might feel bad for his suffering in the wake of his own words.
Third confession: sometimes I feel the novel is the coward's art.
One of my writing teachers, Peter LaSalle, once said that the poet has to make every word count whereas the fiction writer can always bring home the bacon on the next page and make the reader forget some so-so prose. I guess that's what scares me most about poetry: that absolute exposure, each poem needing to hold up to scrutiny. In fiction, it's more about the cumulative effect. I can hide in the sheer volume of pages.
Of course, the best fiction writing is risky, too. When it is truly fine work, there is the feeling that one might embarrass one’s self. Or do injury. But the bright spots in fiction come with plenty of plain old work with ordinary words. The novelist can make use of everyday language without shame. Bits that the poet has to sacrifice to find her poem can properly belong to a novel.
So there you have it. Three confessions, all of which suggest that poets are a superior kind of creature. Thank you, poets. You're braver than I'll ever be.
There it is, What Can't Wait, my first-born, looking sweet on a Houston book shelf. It's also the focus of attention--after being elbowed aside by her loud and proud little brother, The Knife and the Butterfly, who has been getting a lot of attention lately.
Here's a bit:
Writing for my students gave me a sense of urgency when I first began. I wasn’t just telling a story for myself; I was writing it because it mattered to them. And one of the best parts of writing with a very specific audience in mind was that they told me what they thought. I had a stack of manuscripts in my classroom, and students would write me notes about what they liked, what they didn’t, what I should change, and so on.
Most of the time, I knew who was reading my novel. I’d see the pages turning and get excited. But I also had a few clandestine readers. Like Anthony...
You should check the whole post out here. I tell one of my favorite stories about Anthony, a clandestine (guy) reader... and thanks to one of his recent Facebook posts, I was even able to include a photo of the goofy end-of-year certificate I awarded to him.
Don't forget to enter the giveaway! What Can't Wait could be yours.
So... you know what I write, right? YA novels that you can't wait to get your hands on (and give to people you love). What Can't Wait. The Knife and the Butterfly.
Well. There's another Ashley.
Most of the time, she lives in a book-lined closet.
That Ashley is an Academic. And she writes Scholarly Stuff. I've got a couple of academic publications under my belt, and I'm proud of this work, too, even though it's probably of interest to about .00001% of human beings. And maybe that's optimistic. Probably Cervantes--if he were alive--wouldn't be one of them. (See why this Ashley stays in the closet?)
But it's writing. And it matters. And I will now tantalize you with an excerpt from my recently published article on part of Cervantes' Don Quijote. Actually, it's about a self-contained novella inside of Don Quijote in which two men use a woman (the wife of one, the lover of the other) as leverage in their relationship:
But in the case of “El curioso impertinente”—with the single exception of Camila’s dagger thrust—what we see is precisely the rigorous exclusion of female desire from the closed relationship between Anselmo and Lotario, making Girard’s model keenly relevant. Indeed, even the narrator, whose voice is emphatically male, participates in the restrictive structuring of the concepts through which Camila becomes intelligible to them only as an object and instrument. The men’s relationship to Camila is both parasitic and perverse in its insistent objectification: she is gold to be tested (1.33:403), a fine diamond (1.33:408), an imperfect animal (1.33:408), a relic to be adored but not touched (1.33:409), a snow-white ermine (1.33:409), a beautiful garden (1.33:409). Camila can be all of these things because she is to them a kind of magic mirror (a crystal mirror, Lotario says), onto which shifting images may be projected (1.33:409).
You can read the whole thing here. If you want. I D-double-dog dare you. And if I'm ever in your town and you can prove that you read this article, I'll buy you a drink.
And now you know. I live with that other Ashley. And she writes, too. Twice the writer's block. Twice the revising. Lucky me!
Dear New Author,
You used to like writing reviews, didn't you? Goodreads, your blog, even facebook: your opinions were loud and proud. But what now, now that you are joining the ranks of the published?
First off, let me say that I know how you feel. Here's a bit I wrote (trembling) before my first, post-authordom review (of Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Last Night I Sang to the Monster):
I can't help thinking about what it's like to put oneself out there in print, to get naked before the world by publishing...·I don't quite feel free to be "just another reader," going off on what gets under my skin. Instead, my honesty needs to come with a sincere effort to understand what the author was trying to accomplish. I think this has pretty much been my MO all along, but now it feels... more urgent somehow.
But you, new author, have it even worse because there's been a lot of chatter lately about the rights (or lack there of) of writers when it comes to reviewing others' works--and commenting on reviews of their own work... to the point that you might well feel that the only place you can share your opinion of a book is in the privacy of your darkest closet, where (creepiness alert!) you must whisper your thoughts to a glassy-eyed doll who promises never, never to reveal the truth.
Actually, it's not as bad as all that. You don't have to hit the delete button on your opinions just because you've got a book out there. What you do need to do is exercise a little common sense and caution. As Nathan Bransford writes in his post on authors and book reviews, "writers give up the right to write casually bitchy reviews." He goes on to give some common-sense (and crucial) reasons why this is the case before concluding that "writers should require themselves to write thoughtful reviews."
But what does a thoughtful review from an author look like? How do authors engage in discussions about books that they didn't·like in a responsible way?
If you want to learn how to review thoughtfully, pretend you're a librarian thinking about books to add to your collection. Suddenly, it's not just about you anymore. It's about who the book is written for--and who it might appeal to. (We are not--gasp!--always the perfect audience for the books that land in our laps.) This means reading not just as ourselves but also keeping in mind the reading experiences of other people who matter.
One of my favorite librarian reviewers over at Stacked didn't like my latest novel. In fact, she even said, "I'll admit, I had a hard time reading this book because this story was not up my alley at all." But I think hers is still a great review because it highlights the needs The Knife and the Butterfly meets. Kelly calls the book edgy and powerful and weighs in on its "appeal to reluctant readers," guys, and kids on the fringe:
Never once do any of the issues come across as inauthentic or pandering. These aren't issue-driven books but involve characters and situations that are relatable to audiences who often don't have these sorts of stories written for them. Many times these stories are instead written at them.
Read the rest of the review here, if you like, and notice how attention to other readers brings balance to the reviewer's own reactions. It doesn't mean that those reactions have no place in the review; they're still there. But they have some context. And that's what you want to do when you review, too.
Ask yourself questions like, if I didn't like this, who might? What elements irked me, and how might these be working toward an effect? Is that effect legitimate for the intended audience?
And be nice. Above all, think about the words you choose. Because now you know that bringing a book into the world--period!--is a tremendous feat.
Happy reviewing... and welcome to the dark side!