Jane Eaton Hamilton

"At the bottom of the box is hope." – Ellis Avery.

Tag: On Writing

The Hail of Fire, Maple Tree: On Friendship

image: Jane Eaton Hamilton, The hail of fire: maple tree, 2018

This was woodpeckers! Probably trying to eat the gloomy scale!

So, this thing. I was at a holiday party for a bunch of Vancouver publishers recently, and told a new writer that I had really enjoyed her book. The blood drained from her face. I am clumsy sometimes, and very shy. I thought I’d hurt her somehow until she said that not one other writer had ever mentioned her book, published, I think, a year earlier. That broke my heart. My god, Canadians, for all we say we’re friendly and welcoming, we are a shallow and parsimonious bunch.

Please, let’s support each other. Let’s be fulsome and giving in our praise.

How is it possible that this really good writer with her first really good book with good reviews had never heard from a single one of us? I’m sure many many of us read her. What is wrong with us? If that was you, it would break your fucking heart, wouldn’t it? If that was you, you’d be crushed. You might even be suicidal. Is that actually the point, that we crush each other?

I increasingly believe as I get older that the act of creating a book is akin to a secular miracle. Even when the seams show in yours (and they will), I will still consider it a remarkable achievement. It is. I mean, how do we do it, continue to do it, against the forces arrayed and pressing for our failure? I’m not talking to cis white men, here, where everything lines up to favour them (altho of course I understand there can still be considerable obstacles), because I choose not to read cis white men, for the most part, wanting to put my energy into writers I find more intriguing, but to the marginalized: POC, WOC esp, the disabled, the queer, the trans, the penurious, the traumatized. We all make breakfast. We look after kids. We go to work. We vacuum. We change beds. We deal with email and social media feeds. We pay or wish we could pay bills. We fret. We love. We worry. We grieve for our lost loved ones. We deal with addiction, or mental health issues, or cancer, or death. We take our kids and pets and selves to the doctor. Our bones ache. Our jaws ache. Our hips ache. That knee? It hurts. But still, we put words on the page. Sometimes, we hate the words we put on the page. Sometimes we love the words we put on the page. We put the words we put on the page into the world that really doesn’t care very much for 99% of us as people or authors. We speak and we say, Hey! We matter. I am here. Count me in.

What a brave and foolhardy occupation.

What older writers know is this: You will probably “fail” according to whatever your standard of that is. But failure is actually not that bad, and, in its way, is even liberating. Remember when you wrote your first book without any pressure? It’s like that again. That sophomore book production thing really sucks eggs. When you’re older, and you are already a proven mediocrity, you’re free … and you rise to surpass your own expectations.

Older writers really understand that we’re all in this together.

Sometimes young or new writers think that CanLit is a fierce competition, that they have to knock someone down a peg or two, or off their pedestal, to make room for their own work. Believe me, we published writers with multiple books don’t really need you to tell us our literary flaws; we’ve had decades to flaunt them. Guess what? You have just as many. They may be different ones, but you have them. Listen up. I’m telling you what I’ve learned, kids: I am not a perfect writer. You are not a perfect writer. But even so, there is a big enough pie if we support each other. We can remake Canlit in our image/s so that this will always be true.

And until it is, we can at least promise each other to do what’s free: and that is to offer up a compliment or three here and there, or some stars on Goodreads or Amazon. You know how long that takes? Stars with no review? Like, once you’re logged in, maybe three seconds? Or to say, “I really admired this book?” Fifteen seconds.

Here’s what I ask: Lift a writer today. I don’t care who you choose. You choose the writer you want to lift. But make it somebody who isn’t already being lifted by the system, okay? Lift Indigenous writers in 2018, or trans writers, or disabled writers. Lift only womxn authors. You choose. The fine writer Marnie Woodrow and I talked about this once for queer writers, and it never really got off the ground because of busy-ness. But maybe it still can. Maybe we could do it on the first of every month, every time we pay our rent or mortgage. Make kindness to other writers a habit.

To quote Jen Pastiloff, “don’t be an asshole” to other writers. Don’t be a literary asshole, all right?

I tell you sincerely: I love your book for being its perfectly imperfect self. I love the wild life and the heartbeat and the longing you poured into it. I wish with all my heart that it could bring you the relief  you want and crave and need … the admiration of your peers, money to pay your rent and put food on the table, the way clear to another book, prizes and awards. I wish this for you, because this is what you deserve after your efforts. I’m sorry when it doesn’t happen, when your career seems to coast even though you’ve worked like a dog.

But even if it didn’t go that well when you published, or you were a one-book wonder and Canlit’s attention wandered after that first book, we still need your talent and your skill and your vitality and your yearning and your vulnerability and your trauma and your stories and your fierce fucking fighting power.

At the same time, I wish we would stop with the cult of awards. We’ve gotten narrow and lazy, only responding to the same five or ten books in a season when there are delights galore if we look a little more widely. And a season is only a breath. Those good books are still there the next season when publishing churns out more.

 

 

Growing Room grows room

Growing Room Festival

Where Does the Page Stop and the Body Begin: Writing the Body
l-r: Casey Plett, Samantha Nock, Amber Dawn, Mallory Tater, Kim Clark
Moderator: Mallory Tater

This weekend, while I was busy with Growing Room Festival here in Vancouver, and indeed listening to this informative, intelligent panel, above, two other womxn in my sphere made disclosures that blew me away. Not because I wasn’t familiar with the bones of what they needed to say, because we are social media friends and have intersecting bios, and they’ve talked about these disclosures in other ways over time, but because of the unique and brave ways they chose to bring sensitive information into the public.

Sometimes I can only stand back, jaw dropped. Wow, you two. I want to have half your courage when I grow up. I thank you with all of my being.

Thinking about this panel, above. When I read the phrase in the program “Where does the page stop and the body begin?” (a play on Amber Dawn’s poetry collection title) I wondered not for the first time where the page does stop and my body begins, and then I imagined the pages of my writing as a kind of external skin, a body suit I can climb into (is it always ill-fitting? Do I never get the seams sewn tightly enough? Was I smart to use a reinforcing stitch? Is it going to unravel anyhow?) Where does my body stop and my page begin? [And is that creepy? Can you stalk your own writing? If you text it too many times, will it stop responding? If you get in there with a scalpel, is it going to faint? Can you kill it? What if all you can bring back from your body is a translation, an approximation, a waned hope, a cataclysm?] Where do poems live? Do they live there, in your spleen, in your arteries, in your thyroid, in your ignored middle toes? I mean, Do you fuck your heart? Do you even have the ability, ever, to write your heart? What if your heart wasn’t born now? What if your heart only makes cave drawings? What if your heart is a crabbed ugly dessicated thing? What if it’s thick and messy and too hot? Where do poems live before they appear? Where do your characters live in the globe of your brain? Do they hang out in the right, left hemispheres? Is that an outmoded way to think about creativity/creation/the formation of theory? In the parietal lobe? In the pons, in the medula?

Seriously. What delimits us?

What is our personal scaffolding? Poverty, education, racism, homophobia, ableism?  Wealth, white skin, straight skin, an able-body. How have people treated us? How have we treated people? What is behind our scaffolding? What is our skeleton? How was it made? With generosity, banquets, kindness, bequeaths? The opposite? When we are composing poems, or essays, or novels, or stories, are we stripped bare, are we under our scaffolding, are we in our bodies then, are we in all of our bodies, are we in the parts we’ve never thought of, that small vein that feeds our baby finger? Deep? How deep? Real? How real? Is our marrow sucked clean? What survives?

I’ve been fighting my own cowardice for years. I’ve been using alternate means to tell stories slant, hinting around the edges, disclosing fragments, being circular and allusive instead of immersive. I’ve let people who’ve terrorized my time with them continue to terrorize my time after them.

This panel and the panel that followed it at Growing Room Festival, What Binds Us: Sex, Bondage, and Fetishes, with Amber Dawn, Kim Clark, Lydia Kwa, Samantha Nock and moderator Sierra Skye Gemma, were fascinating. These are intelligent, probing authors who have thought deeply about such matters for decades and have translated much of their thought into literature and, with the help of good, well-prepped moderators, knew how to communicate the act of having done so. The audience members too asked questions that probed for deep answers.

I’ve been excavating childhood experiences, putting mud on the wire structure of some of them, or building the structure under the wire of some others. Trying to pin the Jello of distant memory into words that will stay the course. In this process, I’ve also been trying to find a deeper understanding of metaphor–as a lyrical author I’ve worked with metaphor for 35 years–as a language I can open to parse experiences I’ve had down far inside systems such as ableism, such as homo and transphobias, such as rape culture/misogyny. I’ve been using braids for my exploration. My writing, I see, gets increasingly experimental and fragmented as it goes forward.

These panels (and other events) took place this year in the ambient light of Me Too and Times Up. Over the years, I’ve worked behind the scenes (as disability and circumstance allowed) to change things for the next generation, all actions that are in their own way brave, some of them shading into foolhardiness. Last year, I named one of my rapists, a man who raped me in Ontario when I was 18. If I had named him then (and hadn’t been laughed out of a police station), how many womxn could have been spared rape? One of those women would have been my mother, because some years later, he attacked her, too, in an attempted rape. The act of naming him has been interesting and anxiety-provoking. Of course I have questions about what my responsibility is. If it was (is) my responsibility to name him to save others, isn’t that downloading his criminality onto me, blaming the victim? Yet always the pit of my stomach churns (has churned) at the idea of others.

I’m old, I’m feeble, I’m done like dinner. I have more recent offenders, both a batterer and a rapist, I don’t name. I am shit-scared to associate their acts with their names. I refuse to stay silent about violence–the acts were illegal and remain illegal. The blame for the violence belongs to the criminal. I’m sure they both just got on with their lives, wiping the old slate clean, while the repercussions for their actions bequeath to me.

Why am I so scared? I don’t even know. I fear financial annihilation? But I have physical evidence. I have contemporaneous accounts. In court, these two would lose–lose something, I don’t know. Status. Money. Freedom. Perhaps everything. It would offload the burden of their crimes to them. It might feel great, the shucking of lodestones.

But, still. Still.

I am a feminist, and I don’t name them. I don’t believe I have the resources to fight them. I believe fighting them would kill me. Figuratively? Literally? I don’t know. I only know I’m scared, so scared, every day I’m scared of them. When people have proven themselves happily vicious, it’s hard to stop worrying they’ll go there again.

I watch the womxn I mentioned in the first paragraph name their offenders. I watch these acts of great or foolhardy courage. I ask myself whether these womxn are somehow protected by their education, by their literary or career success or other things I don’t know about? Are they less protected by other things I don’t know about? Are they just fuck brave fuck wow? Wow. Wow. Wow. Would they have been disbelieved two years ago? Does Me Too give them protection of a sort? Do we believe them now? Do more of us believe them now?

I want to live in a world where womxn are not silenced, where being the victim of an assault is given priority over the sensitivity of the offender. I hope someday I get to.

Lately, I’ve been watching high schoolers Jack and Shay in Ontario who started this initiative which may become viral across the country, changing our literature forever: Rethinking Diversity in CanLit. I’ve been watching the kids in Florida and more widely in the US be brave and insistent–and make change. I’ve seen how doggedness and anger can be forces of great good. I’ve watched disabled activists storm DC, I’ve watched water activists, watched Black Lives Matter, watched WOC take apart white feminist bullshit.

I bow down to the power of womxn and men and youth to reshape the dialogue and change the reality. Thank you, thank you. I salute your courage and fortitude and wisdom. I imagine sometimes that you don’t know you are cherished, so let me say that: In this faulty heart, you are cherished. I say this to the panelists from Growing Room, as well: You are cherished, for your work but for your abilities, also, to talk to the deep and dark sides.

You make me know my small pieces of intersectional activism are worth it. The fight is still worth it, that the fight is indeed the only thing that ever brings about change.

Lately some focus for me has been disability activism. Disability activism is hard because its practitioners are ill and disabled–health concerns intercede. Actions equal stress equal months of physical repercussions.

I am weak and I am flawed and I am uninformed and I am clumsy. But within my capacities and lack of capacities, I’ve been analyzing, and working in, disability activism for a year or two. I’ve started to excavate my 32 years disabled–what I’ve experienced, what happened to me because of my condition in the medical community, but also at home and with friends/family, and in my career. I’m rooting out my tumour of shame at being disabled (which stems from when I was a bald and bullied six-year-old), and replacing it with solid political analysis.

I understand, as I have since the early 80s, while I write essay after essay, and novel after novel, and poem after poem, and short fiction after short fiction, that the personal is still political. If it is not my personal, but rather a character’s, it is nevertheless political.

Always and forever.

I hope the womxn who performed in and/or experienced Growing Room this weekend are about to write with all the power and strength of their minds and hearts and blow CanLit open. But I also have wishes for you, if you’ve read this far: I send you courage. There is a fight ahead. If you are new to activism, I welcome you. If you are not new, then every one of you political feminists made my life more bearable. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

 

““Confessional Writing” Is a Tired Line of Sexist Horseshit, And Other Insights”

Michele Filgate photo from LitHub

Yonder at LitHub, an edited transcript from Red Ink’s panel discussion on literary misfittery. Recently Lidia Yuknavitch’s book The Misfit’s Manifesto dropped (a book based on her TED talk). Red Ink is the quarterly panel curated by Michele Filgate.

“Lidia Yuknavitch: I think a piece of misfitting has to do with our bodies, and living in a body—and this could be all kinds of people—that is literally pained by the cultural narratives coming at it. And in some ways, maybe that’s everybody, because the cultural narratives coming at us are idiotic.”

 

 

Caroline Leavitt, folks, on the discouragement of writing and how to overcome it

This terrific essay by Caroline Leavitt on Susan Henderson’s LitPark: The Sticky Subject of Success

“I wasn’t successful. I knew it. My friends were getting prizes and important reviews and bookstores so filled that people had to wait outside. When people asked me what I did, I said, “I’m a writer?” with a questioning lilt to my voice because I wasn’t so sure, since success seemed so scarce.

I roamed the bookstores and looked at books and I couldn’t figure out, why was this bestseller better than my book? Why did friends of mine get the things I yearned for—and get them so easily? Was I doing something wrong?” -Caroline Leavitt

Post-publication blues

photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton

I always look at publishing a book as throwing it down a well. Maybe you will hear echoes, and maybe they will be strong enough to hurt your eardrums, or perhaps as faint as whispers. Maybe, eventually, you will hear a splash when that book hits hard (bellyflops?). But mostly you will just peer down a very dark hole and watch your book careening through the air before drowning. You will see this even with reasonably successful books; even those have their season, and attention moves on. The pages become waterlogged, and sink, and tear. The glue loosens. Things sinking can be very beautiful. Things disintegrating can be magical. Think of fabric waving in water, of seaweed, of things barely glimpsed under surfaces. Of underwater dance. Of the grace and flow that you’ve been given back now the project is done. All that beauty of the finished book–sinking out of sight. This is exactly what leaves you alive and full and tarnished and battered and happy and excited for what’s coming next: the pause, the making.

Here is a piece I once wrote about failing to write a novel and giving it another try:

Congrats-Its-a-6-Pound by Jane Eaton Hamilton

Lidia Yuknavitch’s Survival Guide for Writers

A while back, the electrifying Lidia Yuknavitch talked to Anna March at Bustle. Two more recent of her books (The Small Backs of Children, The Book of Joan) weren’t published when this interview took place, but the article remains a wonderful piece to guide the working writer back to sanity, and I recommend it.

Bustle

“Matthew Klam’s New Book Is Only 17 Years Overdue” and other tales of failure

 

the new book

Over at Vulture, Taffy Brodesser-Akner has a terrific feature about Matthew Klam’s career and his new book. Every writer should read this. We all deal with self doubt and castigation, I think. The article is a really a good look at Klam’s early fortune; about how just as he was deciding he’d quit writing, he got a yes from Dan Menaker, editor at the New Yorker, for one of his stories. (My stories got lots of comments from Menaker in my time, and once we even moved into editorial, but I never quite got the yes. The story that came closest was published in the Alaska Review.)

The world opened for Matthew Klam, and his list of early awards and honours was daunting. He had it all except for a second book. As the years passed, he still didn’t have a second book. He wrote continually, he tossed continually, he taught instead for its anonymity.

For me, the world never opened, and my talent, which was substantial but wanting, withered from lack of support. I didn’t have an MFA program to weed out weaknesses. I learned slowly. Sometimes folks went mad for one story or essay, but when they wanted more, the more was always so different they didn’t like it. This is a problem with range and writing across genres (and letting my heart have its way).

I needed an imprimatur I didn’t have. A Menaker imprimatur, maybe. Once Ellen Seligman at M+S spent six months telling me yes, telling me no, telling me I don’t know, I go one way, I flop the other way, and I wonder what would have happened if she had said yes eventually, whether that profound novel about child rape in the world of wild mustangs I was then working on would have come to fruition. All these years later, I’m still curious about what would have broken out of me if by chance I had just been valued and nurtured, and really had to work to an editor’s expectations. I would have risen, I know, because I am like that, but in what way, to what end?

What literature did I not produce because I:

a) wasn’t quite good enough?

b) wasn’t repetitive enough?

c) there was discrimination (even inborne and unacknowledged) against certain categories of writers (disabled/queer/feminist)?

d)  wasn’t from the US?

What would those stories and books have been?

I was low-income and a sole-support parent a lot of those years. And of course I asked the same questions Matthew Klam asked himself: What does this matter? Who needs another story? Another novel? To what purpose? To win a prize and still be unable to pay the bills? I certainly never cared about a postmortem reputation–that and $5 I’d get a plastic glass of latte at Starbucks to set on my gravestone.

I won the CBC contest a couple times. I published in the NY Times, the Sun and other strong periodicals (back then and again this year). But no successes ever built, no one ever tucked me under her mentor wing. I still write in my self-propelled bubble without much response. I certainly write now without any hopes at all for the marketplace–really, only to please myself.

I had my perfect form and lost it. I quit writing stories and nobody noticed. I quit writing stories and only a friable piece of my heart noticed. I struggle to write novels, but I am no novelist. I am no novelist.

Maybe Matthew Klam is. I look forward to reading Who Is Rich?

The Vulture

 

 

Writing Advice from the Winnipeg Review

 

A piece of mine about writing appeared in longer form at the Winnipeg Review.

Show Me Your Worm

“George Saunders: What writers really do when they write.”

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-11-17-08-pm

 

If George Saunders is a word, I am a letter. Here, he waxes enthused about Lincoln in the Bardo, his new and first novel.

What Writers Really Do

The Adequate Writer

The Adequate Writer: The non-advice of how I write

by Jane Eaton Hamilton

IMG_8439

 sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

How I write?  (Do not do what I do unless it’s fruitful for you.  This is non-advice gleaned over years of living with my idiosyncratic brain, and will not apply to everyone.)

I start with set but limited intentions.  A story, I say to self, 3000 words, go.  An essay, I say to self, longread, go.

I write scattershot.  I slam a metaphorical hammer into a metaphorical mirror-brain for all those pretty glittering silvers, that  debris-field.  I’ve got 26 letters: slurpy, corkscrewed, percussive, hot-bladed, shivery.  My job is to shape “bs” and “q”s and “es” and “rrrrrs” into sensical passages.  Get letters to tinkle out, fall into nothing sharp at first, messes of lines like snortable black coke, every edge ruffled and bleeding into the next.  Use them to compose some uneven, sloppy sentences and paragraphs while my eyes pretty much roll back in my head waiting to see if there’s a topic there, any topic there, a sentence, a phrase with energy, a sliver of glass that could cut someone, cut me, something to begin with.  If I sit in one place long enough–an hour, two hours–it’ll arrive.

I see my brain as something that keeps language recycling, always good for a new burst.  It just needs the cue, and the cue seems to be that one good phrase or sentence.

Like Hemingway said in answer to what is the hardest thing about writing: Getting the words right.

I get rid of the pre-writing, the casting about, the baloney.  Those couple of hours’ work.  Snap.  Gone.  New writers think they need to recycle these.  I might be able to use this in a poem, they say.  Or writing teachers tell them to.  Thinking that way makes you small and hoarding, in my opinion, where writing needs to be expansive to make itself known.  What I know after many years of doing this is that, barring my incapacity, there are always new words; if I accessed them to write one piece, they’ll be there for the next.  So I toss those bad paragraphs out.

At this point, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next.  Really.  Story, 1500 words, has to be done today.  I’d kinda like to write about weaver birds and the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean.  So this was the line I kept:  My mama a woolly mammoth, hairy-legged, 100 feet tall and broad as a shack.  What I had there I liked.  I knew my character was s a kid and that her mom was scary, so that gave me context.  I could even see that woman’s legs.

So I said, Surprise me, little line.  Take me along.  Tell me where you wanna go. After that, it was like grabbing someone’s hand.  Where to?

More pre-writing and as I went, I tossed, I honed, I worked hard with each sentence and paragraph–is this one pulling its weight here? Any extra words? I ask all those questions writing teachers are forever telling you not to ask, all the editorial questions:  am I repeating words other than for affect, what motifs am I running, here, does this make sense, what does it sound like, feel like, look like, taste like around the protagonist? That editing that’s supposed to come second draft, third draft, fourth, I do it as I go, rewrite sometimes 7 times, sometimes 20 times. Over and over till it sounds ok and suggests the next thing.  I think that’s how I learn the story. Getting the words right drags me forward to where the story is heading.

When I was writing my short story “Smiley” I was thinking, Why the hell is that character collecting bird nests?

I trust my noggin. I really trust my noggin, so I just try to get out of its way.

And also I was thinking, because that particular story felt so transgressive and dangerous to me, You can’t write that.  Oh, for god’s sake, you really can’t write that. When I found out what that kid was going to do with that nest he found, I was as shocked as anyone else has described being.

Also, I do a lot of chasing down obscure research questions like What is an owl’s favourite tree to perch in, go.  I could not write my stories without google because the anwers I get to the questions I ask shape where that story goes, change the plot, define what the story will become.

It is chaotic and messy, my head, and in it, not a thing is linear.  It’s looping and tangential and writes itself in curves. Yours is probably different. It’s true what they say. You have a unique voice inside you, unique stories but also your own style. The best writing advice is probably, always, Discover your idiosyncracies and work them. 

“Fran Lebowitz, A Humorist at Work”

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 6.02.10 PM

From the Paris Review, Fran’s thoughts about the writing life.

“So I went to his studio several times while he was making the ballet. I saw the only job that was worse than writing. My idea of pure hell. The dancers sit there waiting for him to come up with something. It would be as if the letters were sitting there, or the words, smoking cigarettes, staring at you, as if to say, Well? OK, come on.”

Mapping Alice Munro

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 6.41.35 PM

Elizabeth Polinar over at Lit Hub talks about how mapping Alice Munro’s stories helped her rework her own.

On Writing Across the Curriculum

Magnolia2JEH

magnolia: Jane Eaton Hamilton, unknown year

Instead of asking me to repeat myself, why don’t you challenge yourself to expand? I am not ever going to make myself smaller, my talents fewer, my range tiny, in order to garner your praise.

Colm Toibin and the Toil of Writing

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 2.38.23 AM

Colm Toibin on BBC Radio 4

Joy Williams on writing

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 9.31.59 PM

Joy Williams speaks so wisely about writing.

The Atlantic

The Adequate Writer: Writing a Romance

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.10.42 PM

photograph:  Clematis, Jane Eaton Hamilton, 2015

It’s a good feeling to finish up a second draft of a novel–even a romance novel.

Novel draft, check.  Lilacs on the table. Check. Candlelit dinner. Perfect view of Seattle’s Space Needle. Check. Scintillating company.  Check.

Realizing that I dropped the dog out of the book by the first third, so it is wandering around an island by itself for perpetuity? That’s why I call myself the adequate writer.

The wise Richard Bausch

JEHForsythia

On Writing by Richard Bausch

“You are not putting life on the page; you’re making fiction, which has more to do with itself than it will ever really have to do with life. You are working with the illusion of life–the same as a painter is working with the illusion of light, and that life he portrays. Life is messy and often terrifyingly random and nuanced beyond our powers of perception–you are creating life shaped, ordered, governed by the demands of story. So you learn your way through it and cut anything that doesn’t contribute to the story and to the concerns of the story. In doing so, if you are faithful enough, and lucky, too, you suggest the fullness of the very life we lead.”

Speaking Bluntly

IMG_0837

Sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton, 2014, acrylic on paper

Two letters from Colette, who was born on this day in 1873, to her friend Marguerite Moreno.:

Paris Review

The Adequate Writer: Writing 101

Here are some tips for folks who are getting pieces together to submit (to the antho I’m editing or elsewhere).

1.  Write like a motherfucker.  Full out.  Don’t stop.  A good way to do this is to not allow your pen off the page, or your fingers off the keyboard.

2.  Wait.  Two days, minimum.  A week.

3.  Start editing.

EDITING:

1.  Announce your topic right off the bat.  You don’t need to be shy because the reader is eager to be situated.  You can be blunt:  This story is about a girl whose mother doesn’t love her.  There are 10,000 subtle ways to do this, too, but however you do it, do it.

2.  Get specific.

3.  Use your senses.  What does your narrator (even if that is you) see, smell, taste, hear, feel, touch?  Is there a pebble by his feet?  Are the leaves streaming down off a nearby tree?  Does it smell like cinammon?  If you want readers to be there with you, you need to tell them this stuff.

4.  Look at each paragraph.  Are they tight and organized there at the beginning, or are they flabby?  Lots and lots of people do something called “pre-writing.”  Novelists find the intro to their novels five chapters in and toss out the first four.  Short story writers find them a third of the way in and chop that preamble.  Did you just write a bunch of paragraphs before you really got down to business?  Cut them.  (You won’t die, trust me.)  Cut them mercilessly.

5.  Look at each sentence you’ve written.  How can you make it shorter?  What words are not pulling their weight?  If you drop, say, the first four words, could the sentence be stronger for it?  Or the last four?  Or four in the middle?  Chop your sentences back.  Get used to looking for the good parts in a sentence.  Keep those parts, toss the rest.

The thing is, your brain is an always-running font.  You don’t have to save what you cut, because your brain will generate something new.  Toss liberally.

6.  Use active tenses.  John was jumping.  WRONG.  John jumped.  RIGHT.

7.  Look for academic language (buzzwords like intersectionality, cisgender), clichés and jargon and cut them.  Yes, this means you cannot use the word “authentic.”  Apply this rule:  You cannot use any terms you heard in therapy or university; it’s all flab with little communicative value.  Your job with creative writing is to think of a fresh and unique way to say what you want to say.

8.  I wasn’t kidding.  Really.  Go through sentence by sentence and think up a new way to say what you just said.  This is all about re-inventing the world, folks.

9.  Kill the adverbs.  (We’re assholes, we editors.  We hate adverbs.)  Pretend you are a spy and your job is to rout out adverbs.  Start with your own writing, then do us a favour and get rid of them in the whole world.

10.  Invent some imagery (metaphor/simile).  We use either the same or connected imagery through a piece.  Through a short story.  Through a whole novel, even.  It is one of our super secretive ways to create connections that the reader doesn’t notice.  You need imagery because imagery is an individual author’s interpretation of the world.  Similes.  Metaphors.

11.  Kill the adjectives.  (Yup, we’re really demanding assholes.)

12.  Stick to “he said, they said, she said” to indicate speech.  “Don’t look at me like that,”  young svelte Becky chortled gleefully.  WRONG.  “Don’t look at me like that,” Becky said.  RIGHT.

13.  Strive for clear, clean, icy, sharp.  Could your writing knife somebody?

14.  Can you go home now?  Well, not quite.

The piece as a whole has to make cohesive sense.  The beginning starts somewhere and marches towards an end.  The piece still has to hang together as a logical whole.  There are things called narrative arcs. Here is a simple explanation: Arcs

15.  There.  You probably got rid of 50% of your text, or more.  Pat yourself on the back.  That is supposed to happen.  That means you’re doing it right.

16.  Yay, you.

Somebody’s going to be thinking, “What does she mean?”  They’re going to be thinking that calm and reflective writing, writing that could rub somebody’s back is real writing, too, not just sharp and edgy stuff.  I’m going to agree with you, whole-heartedly, because none of what I was just talking to you about has to do with style.  You will have your own style.  You are allowed to kill your reader with beauty as well as daggers.  Good sentences come in a thousand varieties.  Some are hard and jabby.  Some are long and windy.  Some are one-worded.  Some are mockers.  Some are like old driftwood, full of holes and craziness.  Some are blasé.  Some melt the reader like microwaved butter.  Some are like bullets.   Some are squishy like cream cheese.  Some are sticky like toffee.  Some are popcorn.  Some are so soft they creep by on baby feet.

Whatever use sentences are put to, though, whatever mood you create, you still need to care that each individual sentence is pulling its (considerable) weight.  And that they’re pulling in a piece that makes sense and carries a reader through it.  Readers have a choice of a gazillion cnf pieces, poems, short stories.  Why should they read yours?  Because you did the work.

17.  One more thing.  Rules are made to be broken.

 

The Adequate Writer: On Editing

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 1.22.42 PM

I just finished a travel essay, The Blind Warthog, about a trip I took to Namibia.  The essay grew too big for its britches, fast, and broke off into the possiblity of multiple essays, even a book of essays if I include other countries.  I pushed and pulled and snarled and snarked and moaned and groaned, tried this, tried that, and eventually, over days, a 2000 word piece strung itself together because writing is, at its essence, allusive, and the secret to getting the first draft is just staying put and getting any words on the page.  I didn’t ball those up, all those wrong words, and toss them.  I hung tight with them because one wrong word suggested another wrong word eventually suggested another right word in that freeway pile-up way words have if you let them have their heads.

Eventually, that gave me a schematic from which to go forward, a hint of a piece.  A friend offered an ear so that I could identify the flaws while reading aloud, always, for me, a productive process (because the embarrassment of having my mistakes seen by someone else highlights them for me).  A little too much this.  Not enough that.  Stylistic blunders.  Bits that got dropped in but not expanded.  Bits that need to be moved out.

Back to the hopper it went.  Squash this this way.  Squash that that way.  Tinker this, tinker that.  Absorb central metaphors; working?

Leave some time.

Rinse and repeat.

At that end of all that, I had a first final draft of just over 3000 words.  This is the one that’s good enough to submit.  This is the draft that’s like a small goat proinging through a meadow; all joy and exuberance.

But here is where the best person in my world comes in:  My editor.

I’ve had hundreds of these folks, and working with each is different than was the last, but working with each is also, always, deeply satisfying.  All those things that were suggested in your piece but didn’t make it to fruition because you were busy with nuts and bolts?  She will find them.  She will ask you to enhance them.  The things that kinda sorta worked but really didn’t?  She will ask you to turf them.

DO WHATEVER SHE ASKS is my rather-strongly-held opinion.  If you don’t trust her, keep a copy of your piece as it stood before the changes.  But make the changes she suggests with an open heart.  And here’s why:  Your editor is engaging your work with fresh eyes in a way that you have not and can not, and because of her suggestions, so will you.  It will open your work up.  You will learn things.  Your piece will very likely get much better.

You can see it as criticism.  You can see it as plundering.   You can see it as mean.

But trust me when I say if you participate, your work will come alive (and if it doesn’t, you still have that original to fall back on).  Understand that you and your editor share a goal:  to make the piece the best it can be.

Here’s how I see it:

An expert’s got her fingertips on my work–for free.  If she doesn’t pull her punches–please, editors, give me a hard edit–luckier still, the luckiest author alive.

I can’t wait.

%d bloggers like this: