Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
How I Stopped Sabotaging My Writing Goals: Confessions of a Late Bloomer, Andrea Jarrell (@andreajarrell), Writer’s Digest
For many writers, penning a book is on their creative bucket list, yet the novel still sits unfinished in a dusty file cabinet in the garage. It doesn’t end here. There is also the unfinished essay on the computer or the flash fiction piece that is “never” quite ready for submission. What prevents writers from moving forward with their writing dream? Andrea Jarrell confesses what stopped her from fulfilling her writing goals:
In my late 20s, I got jobs alongside my dream—jobs in marketing and PR that required a bit of writing talent. These jobs felt safe and productive. I got married and started a family. By my early 30s I had fashioned other goals that took me up a management ladder as I pretended the original dream to write books no longer mattered. I felt vaguely depressed every time I went into a bookstore but didn’t examine this feeling too carefully. Of course my nemesis was fear—fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of being told I didn’t have talent, that I wasn’t the best, that I had to work harder. Harder? The truth is I hadn’t been working at all.
Jarrell used this fear as a catalyst to get moving on her writing projects. She looked at her past writing life and embraced words of encouragement to fuel her process.
That summer at 46, I started writing again and immediately began to be published. What I want to describe now is the change in me and how my changed attitudes relate to the change in my writing success. Because we all tell ourselves—just do it, just go for it, just write the freakin’ book! And yet even in the face of new resolve, our lives (marriage, kids, job, caregiving, health or money problems) and the shoulds and don’ts and what ifs and fears get in the way. For years, I did not have the fortitude to keep my personal writing going even though the dream remained: I wanted to write, and I wanted that writing to be published.
In her piece in Writer’s Digest, she offers actionable advice for writers to fulfill their writing dream too. First, writers must set incremental, achievable goals. This might mean submitting to smaller publications before reaching for a byline in a coveted, esteemed journal or magazine.
We often hear that we need to go after the audacious, big hairy goals. But as I was sticking a toe back into my writing career in my 40s, I didn’t start by sending my work to The New Yorker. I noticed my local paper The Washington Post ran a regular column about neighbors. I wrote a voyeuristic tale of watching through my kitchen window the two young women and their father who rented the house next door to ours. I’d noticed garbage bags piling up on their deck. One day the family vanished leaving most of their belongings behind. Mysteries in ordinary life fascinate me, and when this piece—300 words or so—was accepted, I was over the moon.
Sometimes acceptances won’t happen. When rejection hits, it isn’t the time to give up. This is the moment, according to Jarrell, to keep getting better.
Back in my teens and 20s I could write lovely sentences and select choice sensory details but I didn’t have a clue about how to tell a satisfying story. . . I got promising rejection letters from The Missouri Review and The Atlantic but I was too impatient for success so, as they say, I “quit before the miracle.”
The second time I came back to writing, in my mid-40s when I was sending out my little essays to The Washington Post and Literary Mama, something significant had happened without my even realizing it. I’d gained a ton of practical skills during my hiatus focused on my writing for clients. My marketing business trained me to write every day, to write on deadline, to listen to peoples’ motivations and make sense of them, to hook my readers and keep them interested. I’d learned how to cut to the chase using one sentence rather than three. I’d learned a lot more about narrative arcs and effective pacing. This, I believe is why my pieces started getting picked up right away.
Part of getting better means choosing good mentors, making writing a top priority, and resisting the urge to quit. And of course, doing the work. Jarrell shares her philosophy:
So to achieve your writing goals, bring yourself to the page and write, write, write. Dig deeper than the neat and tidy good draft. Disagree with feedback and then admit it’s right. Believe you can do better. Handle rejection. Write a whole new book and another and another. Apply for residencies. Find a publisher. Do your day job without resentment. Leave the dinner making to someone else. Accept success. Make your writing your most important client.
Reading Jarrell’s piece, I discovered what I need in my writing practice – persistence. Maybe you will feel the same way too.
What Does It Mean to Write a Scene That Works?, Rebecca Monterusso, (@rsmonterusso), Jane Friedman.com
Your writing critique partner looks at your novel draft and suggests you integrate additional scenes to help develop the narrative arc in your work. What should an effective scene do? Rebecca Monterusso defines the essence of a scene:
It’s an event that takes place through conflict that changes the life value of one or more characters. Alternatively: it’s action that results in the character’s quality of human experience changing from the beginning to the end. Put simply: change that occurs through conflict.
In a scene, characters must experience a value shift in their life. This will give the reader an incentive to continue reading a novel.
They are on a spectrum based on what’s at stake. For example, the scene where the criminal is caught. The change might move from injustice: the criminal has thus far escaped being discovered, to justice: he is brought in. Compared to the proof of love scene where the change moves from hate or indifference to love or commitment or intimacy. In each of these examples, the start of a scene is very different from its conclusion.
The value spectrum in a scene depends upon what the character wants. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. What they want in any given moment will determine how that scene turns. Either they’ll get it, or they won’t. In any case, there must be a change from the start to the end or a scene doesn’t go anywhere. And, if a scene doesn’t change in life value, it’s either description or backstory. And it shouldn’t be there.
The elements of a well-crafted scene include a core emotion, a core event, and change in a character. Ask these questions when writing your scene:
What are you trying to say? How do you want your audience to feel after having read your novel? Genre combined with controlling idea will give you an idea of what you were thinking when you rushed this idea to the keyboard.
Then, when you’re evaluating a particular scene, look at its core and how it relates to the bigger picture. What is the event that takes place? The change the character experiences? And the emotion you want to evoke?
Looking at your scenes will create more objectivity in your writing. It will push you to kill your darlings and craft scenes that will push every sentence toward the building of your overall narrative arc.
Writing the Quiet Memoir, Ann Klotz (@annklotz), Brevity
With memoirs like Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Educated by Tara Westover, how should writers approach an “ordinary” memoir? Ann Klotz talks about her memoir:
“My book is called a quiet memoir—nothing really dramatic. It’s a bunch of scenes organized around the summer months in Eagles Mere. About my family. Sort of a collage,” I explain. No hurling a hiking boot down a mountain, no cruel and abusive family to flee. The energy of my story is smaller.
When a memoir doesn’t necessarily compare to Wild or Educated, how does the writer feel? Klotz confesses:
Do I feel inadequate that I am not Cheryl Strayed or Tara Westover? Some days. Still, I have been working on this collection of fragments and essays for three years now. “It’s not a memoir at all,” a writing teacher counseled.
Klotz keeps continues with her work, embracing what is, instead of what isn’t.
The summer stretches out, weeks ahead to sift and sort through the jumble, to arrange ingredients—houses, meals, stories. My stories center on Eagles Mere—our home the center of the web, whose filaments draw us each summer. Blue and white china is arranged on a long table. Not everything matches. The lake stretches out beyond the front windows. An assortment of people gather around the table to eat and laugh—a summer meal in progress, a memoir to fashion.Writers shouldn’t quit, but keep working on persistence, honing their craft, and recognizing that it may take multiple drafts before a piece is ripe for publication.
Klotz’s musings on Brevity encourages me. I too am working on a quiet memoir. I am assembling my fragments, piece-by-piece, finding comfort in releasing my words.
Showing and Telling: Seven Ways to Help Your Writing Breathe, Billy Dean, Cleaver Magazine
All writers have heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” Billy Dean says sometimes there is a place for both showing and telling. He writes about seven different ways the writer can use showing and telling as an advantage. In his first example, he urges writers to integrate the senses so that readers will have a deeper understanding of a character:
We know more about the world with our bodies than with our minds because we are more directly connected to reality through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When you want readers to participate with their imagination, engage their senses with words aimed at their bodies.
Dean also advocates that writers consider brevity vs. presence.
Showing can be more precise than telling, whereas telling can be more concise than showing. Precise details give your readers more sensory-oriented information to enhance their presence. . . Too much or too little of anything is unbalanced. When it comes to showing or telling, we can balance our writing with a combination of both to enhance both presence and brevity with context.
In conclusion, Dean pushes writers to break convention and ask themselves these questions:
My goal has been to convince you that your best writing will result from asking yourself, How do I want my readers to respond to that sentence, this scene, my story? rather than, Did I follow the hallowed rules of writing?
Not all of the writing rules apply absolutely in Dean’s opinion. This possibility gives a writer an ample amount of freedom to steer his or her prose in a different, unconventional direction.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!