Undoing Clichés & The Ant Who Wanted to See the Moon
The first exercise borrowed from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Penguin’s Academic Series. We called this exercise, “Undoing a Cliché” where we listed as many clichés and over-used trite sayings as we could think of. Then we switched up the beginnings and endings, so we could take risks in our voice and startle our readers.
The students came up with startling images such as:
my feet are sicker than a dog
busy as a dog
busy as cats and dogs
Finally we ended with the an original prompt:
The Ant Who Wants to See the Moon Exercise #2
If you were a <FILL IN THE BLANK FROM THE BELOW> what kind would you be?
1.ice cream flavor: ____________________________________________
2. furniture: ____________________________________________
3. time of day: ____________________________________________
4. animal: ____________________________________________
5. sea creature: ____________________________________________
6. article of clothing: ____________________________________________
7. plant or tree: ____________________________________________
8. kitchen item: ____________________________________________
9. body of water: ____________________________________________
10. architectural structure: ____________________________________________
11. fruit or vegetable: ____________________________________________
12. book: ____________________________________________
13. game: ____________________________________________
Now choose one, circle it, and anthropomorphize or personify it. For example, if you chose a book, think of your book title as a real paperback copy and write from the point of view of that book: where has it been? Where did it come from, library, bookstore, or Amazon, etc? Who’s hands has it been in? What kind of reader does the book like? What kind of reader is the book afraid of and why? Describe a day in the life of that paperback book? Where does it live? Who does it see? What would it like to do that it can’t? What is the book’s one heart’s desire? What is the book’s greatest fear and why? Put your book in a scenario where the greatest fear or desire is at stake. Be sure to use all seven senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound, balance, time) and to depict time, place, setting, other characters, appearance, weather, year, day of the week, hour, etc. In essence, tell a story about your chosen subject!
Writer as Traveler
Globe-trotting writers should plan to wake in the early hours every morning, but she should be allowed to slip every now and again, particularly after a late evening out or an exceptionally over-stimulating day. Guilt shouldn’t weigh down the voyager during her travels, if she sticks to her writing regimen five to six days out of the week. The aim is have goals but remain flexible.
More suggestions for the writing pilgrim:
- Consider taking a walk before getting started to settle into the act and to have your senses opened to your surroundings, training yourself to be more observant every moment.
- Have a particular project in mind and deadlines on completing that project step-by-step.
- Create a project to compose specifically for the trip: daily musings, a photo essay, a travel essay, linked short shorts, character and place sketches, love letters to home or to the city and sites you’re visiting are easy ways to get in the writerly mood.
- Keep a journal always at your side.
- If you can get paid for work that you do based on your travel, you can write it off, even if its one dollar. Think about how you might be angle your trip to get IRS working for you.
Learn more about the UK & Ireland Literary Pilgrimage 2011 with the post on London at Salonniere Alexis.
What strategies do you use to keep the fingers moving and the words flowing on your expeditions?
Talk is Cheap: Making Use of Writer’s Deadlines and Units, Part I
In Little Debauches on February 24, 2011 at 8:16 am
You’ve heard this before, like flossing, oil changes for the car, or the laundry, the routine and ritual of daily activities shape our lives. Though the dirty work often gets glossed over, if acknowledged at all, our chores won’t go away because the make the architecture of our existence. With that said, we’ve got to have deadlines. Time lines are not sexy or glamorous, but a writer isn’t a writer without them.
From a New York Times article by David Garner, who covers the release of The Paris Review’s digital archives, Garner writes, “Process is, by and large, boring. As the novelist Jonathan Lethem put it in his 2003 interview (which is excellent), ‘You’re interrogating a fish on the nature of water.’ …The abundance of book chat is a situation Larkin would have deplored. About the notion of a writer explaining how he writes, he declared in 1982: ‘It’s like going around explaining how you sleep with your wife.” Then again, Larkin never married.’” Process, deadlines, and time-lines are messy. They require commitment. How unsexy is that?
So what do we mean when we speak of deadlines? All hefty undertakings require laborious, repeated lifting, so the key to deadlines is to break them up into smaller chunks, step by step. You have to know what you want. Envision the target and keep to a steady path.
- Complete first draft
- Revise for second draft
- Polish third draft.
Even smaller units than the ones listed above would help pinpoint and track progress with laser precision:
- Chapter 3 revised in three weeks
- Research first setting in a week
- Prepare manuscript for submission by the end of the day
With a plethora of devices to choose from, we’re not short of means to remind us of our deadline and keep us on course. We can choose to go old school with Post It Notes, corkboards, dry erase boards, and paper calenders. Then there are the electronic ways, iCalendars, Google Calendars, Blackberry, and the list keeps growing. And, if we need outside help, we can always consider passing a word or two to our colleagues and friends, in the hopes that they’ll hold us to our word, particularly writer friends or artists who share similar ambitions and understand the creative process and the necessity for self-discipline can be especially encouraging.
Keep in mind contest and submission due dates. Many times, we’ll have to work backward. Set a target date in the future, and, in retrograde, set increments from the time ahead to present. Writers are athletes in constant training. We must continually exercise to remain agile and stretch our skills, test our talents. We must have regimens.
Here’s a sample regimen:
- Finish 1st Draft
- Revise Story-map with notes (outline chapters, determine how many scenes per chapter)
- Rewrite second draft according to new story-map with new notes
- Research major issues
- Review personal journals for more notes to comb through
How do you practice making deadlines? Do you have a tried and true method you’d like to share with the salon?
The second part of this piece is forthcoming.
Cherry-picking from The Guardian’s compilation of “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction”
In Little Debauches, Masters & Doyennes, Tête-à-Tête, Writer as Critic, Writer’s Rituals on February 21, 2010 at 12:00 am
Freshly cherry-picked from The Guardian’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” From the likes of Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Franzen, Hillary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Roddy Doyle, AL Kennedy, Zadie Smith, and more, these heavyweights toss their two cents into the ring, preparing you to battle it out with the written word. Your Salonniere wants to know if you agree or disagree with any of these maxims.
From Elmore Leonard:
3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is published next month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
1 Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).
2 Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.
7 You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
9 Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
10 Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
1 Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
2 Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph –
3 Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
4 Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
5 Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.
6 Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.
7 Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
8 Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.
5 Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.
6 Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
7 Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.
8 Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.
9 Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.
1 The first 12 years are the worst.
2 The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
3 Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
4 Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
5 Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.
6 Try to be accurate about stuff.
7 Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
8 You can also do all that with whiskey.
3 Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
4 Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
5 When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
6 The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.
7 You see more sitting still than chasing after.
8 It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
6 Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3 Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5 Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
3 Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
4 Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
5 Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
8 Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.
9 Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
10 Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.
8 Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
2 Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
1 The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.
2 Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.
1 Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceeding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in . . .
2 The edit.
3 Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever
1 Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. Which leads me on to . . .
5 Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s. At the same time . . .
6 Don’t overcrowd the narrative. Characters should be individualised, but functional – like figures in a painting. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked, in which a patiently suffering Jesus is closely surrounded by four threatening men. Each of the characters is unique, and yet each represents a type; and collectively they form a narrative that is all the more powerful for being so tightly and so economically constructed. On a similar theme . . .
Read The Guardian’s full article
Now what say you to some of these rules? Do you have any of your own that you’d like to add? Any listed here that you completely disagree with? The salon is open just for you.
Getting Reacquainted With Your Own Marvelousness
In Little Debauches, Writer’s Rituals on October 12, 2009 at 5:03 am
Trees, red dwarf stars, books about pirates and elves, giant wooden spoons and forks that hang on the dining room walls, these childhood sources of wonder inspired flights of fantasy and ignited life long fancies that have sustained the spirit in the most trying times, reminded sad souls how to smile, and lit paths for journeys well traveled and still yet to be taken. In her article about genre narratives, “Stranger Things” by Debra Spark, published in The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 42 Number 1, September 2009, Spark speaks of childhood awe:
[M]y inquiry has made me think about a writer’s “source of wonder.” If your “source of wonder” as a child (or perhaps even as an adult) comes from genre narratives, is there a way to recombine those narratives into the fiction you are writing now? If, like me, you aren’t drawn into such narratives, what is your “source of wonder”? Can you locate it–not find it on a map but haul it up our of your unconscious–and incorporate its pleasures into your own fiction?…Why not remember what it was that so charmed you about the stories of your youth and incorporate that delight into your fiction?
Why not indeed? Urging us to dust off our innocence, Spark asks us to rekindle what may be a long spent fire of optimism and curiosity. Our task now is to create a list of twenty items, including objects, memories, images, songs, movies, dances, books, characters, and art pieces that conjured wonder when we were young. Just list, for the moment. Don’t edit or over-think the list or any one item but try to keep memories of your childhood and adolescence.
Then chose one or two a day, and, as a regular writing exercise consider the what, when, where, why and how that bore this source of wonder in your earliest days. Examine each carefully as if it were a precious stone or a relic from your past, which it is. That blanket you couldn’t sleep without, the song your mother sang when doing the dishes, as she reminisced when she thought no one else was watching her, or the strange portrait your grandfather nailed to the living room wall that was never explained to you perhaps because you never bothered to ask, these are the stuff of marvel, the magic talismans that can unlock characters you’re struggling with, resurrect seemingly dead-ended plot lines, and jump start essays or provide a missing thread to a braided narrative. Keep this list close at hand and you should be able to draw from it as a source of inspiration and wonder, allowing you to reaffirm your roots, and, at the same time usher you into the marvelous.
Willing the Will: when mind, body, and spirit are weak:
Whether its a terrible night’s sleep, a mishap at the day job, or some mild illness that dulls the spirit and mind but leaves enough strength for the body to attempt some scribbling, everyone has their off days. How does one conjure an artistic spell if the thoughts are clouded, the body, impatient, and the will, barely existent? Should one simply discard a precious writing day if the mind can barely scratch a sentence together? After all, many of the greats were plagued with sickness; how did they endure and press on during all those years of consumption (Keats) gout (Wilkie Collins) Tourette’s (Samuel Johnson) or bi-polar (Woolf)?
If words can barely be strung together into some semblance of sense, a writer might consider other peripheral but no less artistic work:
Organize. At your fingertips, stuffed in piles at the corners of your desk, tucked in notebooks, magazines, and books, you should have boundless notes, scraps of ideas, and bits of dialogue or imagery floating about on napkins, scribbled on those pesky magazine subscription cards, and jotted down in your journal at random. Consider making good use of non-writing time by cataloging them for easy access when you can weave them into your story or spark a new poem. Or better yet, start plaiting these raw ideas together into a potential narrative. Your mind’s already scattered, make use of the free thought.
Research. There’s always extra background information you need on that dive bar in Reno where your protagonist used to work before shipping off to Phuket, or the history of mariachi in Northern California that will prove the key to your antagonist’s dark past. Now may be the time to really dive into the depths of those ponderous inquiries you have and gather the essential details that will tack your story to a physical reality.
Business. If you’re really in a perverse and sick mood, you can research small presses, agents, literary journals–whatever market you’re looking to send your next brilliant piece to. This drudge work has to be done at some point, and, though it’s not nearly as fun as tearing your hair out over the actual writing, the down times are better than never.
Go home. When all else fails, pull out your favorite story, novel, or poem. Revisit that shining piece from the author you idolize and just can’t breathe, can’t even conceive of living without her work. Returning to your inspiration will remind you why you started this mad endeavor in the first place. You’re sure to be provoked and try your own hand at the magic of art-making. Reading favorite pieces will invoke sacred words that can resuscitate any failing artistic heart.
There’s always work to be done. The challenge is to be flexible and stay true to the art. No matter what kind of mood or malady strikes you, soldier on with creativity.
Verbs and Nouns Only: avoiding the traps of trope
In Little Debauches on June 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm
Barbara Jane Reyes raises a timely and timeless inquiry on a complicated and frustrating issue in her post: “Luis Alberto Urrea, and telling story” on Poeta y Diwata | June 12, 2009. She questions her own critique of Asian American authors when tropes come to play in text.
One theme running throughout Urrea’s work is the border, the imposed physical border between the USA and Mexico, the lives of real people and real communities as a result/in spite of this border, its spiritual manifestations which people impose upon one another. Urrea, who is biracial, describes his parents’ home as having a border down the middle, as the two grew more estranged from one another. And rather than rehash his stories here, I wanted to say that I’ve been thinking since then about our telling community stories, how a writer can avoid cliche or spin a commonly used theme such as the border, into stories that are fresh, enjoyable, and engaging, which I think Urrea accomplished yesterday. Read more here
Its difficult enough to be concrete and specific with every painstaking word, image, scene, and story. The art of subtlety feels next to impossible. Compound this with writing about specific ethnic communities and the task to stay true is magnified. Its so easy to generalize with pen and paper. The medium is essentially two-dimensional. How does one go about recreating a three-dimensional world with a paper thin canvas?
If mama is preparing tortillas on the metate, how do we make this act come alive without stumbling into a cliched scene we’ve seen before hundreds if not thousands of times both in real life and on the page? How do we “make it new”? Avoiding cliche is a matter of treading the blade of a knife. Writers try to make a story, an issue, a moment personal for readers, but in order for us to do this we have to be objective with the words we use. The objective makes for the personal. The more we stray from the abstract, avoid generalizations and over-simplifications, and shun sentimentality, the less our work will fall into the traps of Trope.
Every appellation, all attempts for locution must be executed with meticulous care of language. Each word we choose must be measured and weighted against stereotype. We cannot be lazy. We must be vigilant with every stroke of our pen. Cement characters in action. Verbs and nouns only. No adjectives or adverbs allowed. Post this over your writing space. Tattoo it on your hand. Words should invoke flesh and movement. Leave the rest to your reader.