Saturday, September 27, 2014

A second post in one day

Nothing for a month, and now two posts in one day.

I just got back from the Baltimore Book Festival, where I ran into the good folks at the Baltimore Review, who are publishing my first-ever-published story next month. I met some of the editors, and attended a talk they gave on "making the ordinary extraordinary."

I'm kind of cynical about "community" in writing. I don't like cooperative projects. I like to either be given a job or not given it, and if I'm given it, then I want to do it. And I'm not a terribly let's-all-hold-hands kind of guy. But it was sort of nice to feel a sense of a community of writers. It's inspired me to do something  I started to do a few weeks ago, and got sidetracked on. I'm going to try to find a workshop to join.

If I'm really the "workshop heretic," I guess that might seem a little hypocritical. I really did dislike the workshops in grad school. You'd have ten kids, eight of whom wrote stuff that was a total mess (I was often one of them.) The kids all had totally different aesthetic senses, most of which we were all still developing. We were all sure of ourselves, which made it hard to listen to each other. But more than anything, we were all BUSY. So busy reading so much, that we really didn't put the effort into really reading each other. The thoughts in a workshop like that are always canned, just something done so you can fulfill your obligation to participate. For all the money you spend in grad school, I'd really rather you just have a few hours one-on-one with the instructor each semester and mostly ignore the other students. Or, I'd have liked to have paired up one-to-one with someone I mostly saw eye-to-eye with, and just exchanged ideas with that person.

I'm hoping that a workshop of amateurs, such as the ones I can find through the Maryland Writer's Association, might have smaller egos and less overall reading workload.  I wrote to one a few weeks ago, but the leader never got back to me. I'm going to write to another one this week. I'll let you know how it goes.

Too much of this and that

It's been a month since my last blog, but that isn't because this has become another one of those blogs that the writer gives up on after a few tries. I've been nose to the grindstone cranking out a few more stories so I could get to 150 page manuscript. I entered it in this:

I went to graduate school at University of Illinois-Chicago in writing from 2002-20004, and immediately quit writing afterwards. I was tired of being broke, already in a lot of debt, and realized that there were far more talented writers than the market could support. So I decided to really make a break from writing. I deleted all my work, threw away hard copies. I didn't even read much for a long time, at least nothing that could be called "literature." I focused on work, once I found a grown-up job.

Last October, my work closed for four days. I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life if my job went away. I was surprised to find that the answer was "I want to write," and that it didn't really take much time to think of that answer. So I decided to set aside as much of my free time as I could in a year to write, to study the craft of writing, and to read really good fiction. Since the deadline for the Iowa short fiction competition was September 30th, that seemed like a good end-of-year goal to meet, so I pushed hard at the finish line so I could meet it.

Anyhow, on to the next subject: the potentially negative effects of reading too many "how to do X" fiction articles. There are a lot of people who (often for free to the general public, and seemingly out of a sense of mission) give out good writing advice. An example of the kind of thing I'm thinking about is K.M. Weiland's blog. Every day, there's some new piece of advice, like "the wrong way to write a smart character," or "how to find your character's breaking point." Useful stuff, and I've no problem generally with how she goes about it. There are, of course, tons more examples out there, and everyone has their favorite. I'm not here to pick on or praise one or the other.

There is something about the whole "area of writing to focus on today" method that I think might be dangerous to a writer, though. When I was a teenager, I fell in with evangelical Christianity for a bit. Well, about seven years. I was pretty into it. I went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. In between, I listened to a lot of sermons on the radio. Every one of those sermons picked a Bible passage and delivered some message that was part exposition, part exhortation to apply the passage in our lives.

Funny thing about a new sermon every day is you can end up being all over the place in your life trying to apply them. One day, the sermon is about how we need to think of the world as a valley of tears, and the next day is all about the joy of the Lord. You hear "turn the other cheek" one day and "tolerate no evil" the next. It gets a believer a little discombobulated.

The same thing can happen in writing. If you just read a helpful article about how to imagine scene, you might end up spending far more effort on scene in your story than the story merits. There are a lot of elements to every story to keep in the right balance, and you can easily be misled about what that balance is based on the proximity in time to the last time you read an article on one of those elements was.

Better is to have a general grounding in most of the elements a writer uses, then step back and write your story. If you think one element is really in demand in your story, then gingerly look up good advice on how to handle that element as it relates to your project.

I'd hate for writers to suffer from bad timing, and hear a "the meek shall inherit the Earth" sermon just before meeting the playground bully.