Monday, December 1, 2014

Notes from a Fiction Workshop Panel

I try to say “yes” whenever I'm invited to present or lead a panel or workshop, for purely selfish reasons. Putting together a presentation on anything; frontline bookselling, running a website, social media, fiction writing, forces me to formalize whatever it is I think I know about a topic. Preparing to teach someone else about something makes me question my assumptions and explore my habits, digging beyond the “I do this because it works,” attitude of meeting daily tasks, to find the reason why something works. Sometimes I find out that I have absolutely no idea why I do something the way I do. Sometimes (probably too often) I actually discover a way to improve the thing I'm supposed to be teaching other people how to do. If the logistics can work, I will almost always take the opportunity to participate in a workshop.

So when fellow PSB bookseller Mackenzie Lee (look for her YA gothic/steampunk re-examining of Frankenstein next Fall) asked me to be on a panel for the fiction-writing workshop she is teaching, I said “yes.” I was lucky enough to participate in a great writing discussion with Mackenzie's students, Camille DeAngelis, MarcyKate Connolly and Annie Cardi. (Might as well throw in a link to my book while I'm at it, which is available for preorder.) Along with answering questions about queries and covers (man, it is so easy to dream), we had a great discussion about writing. Here are some of the ideas that stuck with me from that conversation. I will attribute them as best I can, but I didn't record who said what in my notes so all attribution will be a guess.

It All Counts (Pretty sure this one was mine)
Writing happens in your brain and so everything you do, read, see, feel, eat, etc that goes into your brain, goes into your writing. More directly, everything you write, whether you publish it or not, goes into your writing brain. Even everything you delete, since it is part of an act of writing in your writing brain, contributes to the growth and development of your brain. So it all counts. Every single word you write, in any context, for any reason, and with any permanence or lack of permanence counts. Even the awful stuff. Even the terrible stuff. Even the stuff you realize upon reflection contributes to an ism you find repugnant. Even the embarrassing stuff, the personal stuff, the spiteful stuff, the boring stuff. If your goal is to write, every act of writing is valuable. (Which is different, so very different, from saying you should publish everything you write.) It all counts.

You Need Distance (I think we all said this at some point)
Perhaps the biggest barrier in improving a draft is the fact that you know what you're trying to do. Because you know what this scene is supposed to feel like or what reaction this character is supposed to engender in your reader, you tend to see those feelings and reactions whether they exist or not, in the exact same way that your brain will automatically fill in a word missing from a sentence. I think if it were possible to do a complete “previous draft memory wipe” every author would jump at the chance to attack their work with a virgin perspective. But even though that's impossible, you can create some distance, whether it's setting aside a draft for a few days (as I tend to) or six months.

Curious About Your Own Project
At some point, someone other than me (MarcyKate perhaps) used a phrase something like “being curious about my own project.” I love this idea. Writing axioms are interesting animals; they can be useful guidelines in what is essentially an impossible project but, if not critically examined they can hinder as much as they help, become crutches that limit exploration and blind you to opportunity. “Write what you know,” might be the most conflicted. To me, if you don't learn something through your writing process that you didn't know beforehand, how can you be confident a reader will learn anything she didn't know? (Obviously, nonfiction where you are writing about a specific topic which the average reader would likely not be familiar with is different.) For me, at least, part of the entire point of writing is to discover something through the process. But (and here's where the complexity of writerly axioms comes in) you still need a base to draw from, you need direct experiences and information to contribute to the verisimilitude of whatever it is you are trying to represent. You need, at a fundamental level, to know what you're talking about. (Which, in my mind means, “live an intellectually and emotionally interesting life so you have interesting stuff to write about.”) Writing out of curiosity is a wonderful image of the process, but it shouldn't be confused with writing out of ignorance.

You Know When it's Finished When You Don't Know What to Do Anymore
One of the impossible questions of writing that was asked at the workshop is “When do you know something is finished,” and my favorite answer (I think this was Annie) was, you know you are finished when you don't know what to do anymore. No work is ever finished. No work is every perfect. Though you might end up “satisfied” with something you've written, you'll never be Satisfied with anything you've written. But, at some point, after you've gotten feedback, after you've rewritten several times, after you've worked sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word through it, if you want to be a writer and not just someone who writes, you have to let it go. One way to know it's time to let it go: when you have no idea what else to do to it. You're staring at a draft, you've done everything else, and you just can't think of anything else to do. Then, it's finished.

To be honest, I'm not sure the art of writing can be taught and even though the craft of writing can be taught, I'm not sure it can be taught in such a way as to compensate if the art is absent in the writer. And I think that's a good thing. Art is important, in no small part, because it is mysterious, because some people can create it for some reason and other people can't for some reason, and that, despite (or because of) that mystery, art is able to communicate meaning and significance in unique and vital ways. But that doesn't mean I think there is no value in writing education. There's nothing about the craft of writing that prevents someone from acquiring that craft without any intention of being an artist or creating art. Obviously, I have something of a bias, but I believe the process of writing inherently creates an act of critical, emotional, and empathetic exploration of whatever it is you are writing about. Essentially, you can't help but have a more thorough and nuanced understanding of something you write about and our world seems to be a little short of of thorough and nuanced understanding.

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