Write Naked

I’m reading one of those stark books (like Kite Runner) where the author writes pretty darned nekkid. What I mean by that is spare, harsh, in-your-face prose, the kind that evokes emotion and curiosity. The book? A recommendation by Mark Bertrand called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Hear some of his prose:”For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and make stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.” (p. 19).

Beautiful, ain’t it?

When I first started writing, I resembled young Anne of Green Gables (which my young daughter mispronounced and called Anne with Green Bagels). Full of pomp and circumstance, my writing flowered its way through sentences and paragraphs. Adjectives and adverbs were my trusted friends. But worse than that was a weird pompousness that came through, like I was touting my English major, thank you very much. It reminded me of that poetry you read and go “huh?” afterward. Great, effusive words strung together that had very little meaning.

I balked at editorial correction too, thinking myself high and mighty, a wielder of words.

But, as the years wore on, I realized great writing isn’t the stuff of prettification. It’s not full of bright lipstick and rouge. It’s natural, stark, raw. I started concocting sentences that evoked emotion, that kept rich in its description of place, but spare in its contrivance of human emotion.

Ew. Now I just read that last paragraph and it sounds a bit hoity toity. Maybe I’ll always have Anne and her green New York rolls lurking inside.

Even so, I want to write nekkid. To grab my reader and thrust her into the lives of my characters. I want my prose to serve the story, not detract from it. I think it’s working. To prove it, I’ll paste two snippets, one from my first novel (not published) and another from a newer novel (not published). See if you can tell the difference:

Sample one:

When Augusta finished washing the last jelly jar, the sun burst through the mist, and the lake water danced as it did every time the fog dissipated. To call its lifting a miracle might be an exaggeration, but she called it that anyway. Sometimes the house stayed shrouded until suppertime, other days it evaporated all at once. Sometimes it dissipated in tendrils, wild and inconsistent, leaving the valley resembling Grandma Ellsworth’s silvered hair. Today the retreating curtain of fog revealed the fields beyond the lake, their softness in stark contrast to the lake’s prismatic dance.

Sample two:

“We can go up,” he said. “Let’s take the stairs.”

“Why not the elevator?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“Refresh my memory.”

“We kissed there once . . . in our pajamas.”

My memories hung on a broken charm bracelet. Some charms suffered from inefficient clasps, dropping along the streets of life, never to be returned. Some broke apart, like the tiny hind leg of a horse that’d never trot again. Some blackened thanks to time’s tarnish. Yet others remained pristine, happy silver clasped securely to the chain. This memory was like none of those. This was a forgotten charm, one so crammed in between broken and happy charms that I’d forgotten it. Rediscovered, its brilliance startled me.

***

How about you? Can you see transformation in your writing? Are you moving from flowery to nekkid? Or the other way? As you’ve matured, how has your prose altered? Are your stories simpler or more complex? I’m curious.

****

Mary DeMuth is a writer and speaker who is writing this in the third person because she likes to think of herself that way. At this very moment, she is writing next to her smelly dog Pippin who is wet and sleeping. You can find Mary here, here and here.

What you can control: Meeting your deadlines

I enjoyed lunch with a new writer friend. As we progressed in the lunch, I asked her what her goals for her writing were, especially since she quit her job to freelance full time. She had some goals, but I could tell the question had piqued her interest.

If you want to go anywhere in the business of writing, it is imperative you set goals and then meet them, particularly when you’re starting out. If you’re one of the readers who took the poll last week that were worried about deadlines, here’s a handy-dandy way to prepare yourself now. Think of it as strength and endurance training for an upcoming race. Set some goals. Here are some examples of types of goals you can set:

1. A weekly (daily, monthly) word count goal. Or it could be a chapter goal. When I’m writing NF, my goal is 6000 words a week, fiction 10000.

2. A financial goal (usually monthly). Pretend your goal is 1000 a month. If you set this, you’ll have to logically think through how you will make that. If you write books, this is a difficult goal because the book writing business is sporadic. You might get a 7000 dollar advance one month, then make nothing for a year. So if you would like consistent income, you need to flesh out the goal more. How many magazine or newspaper or online articles will it take to make that amount of money? This will force you to go after new options, and if they arise as a result, will give you the opportunity to meet a deadline. Yesterday I sent in four queries because I could see I wasn’t making enough money in January.

3. A production goal. If you want to make consistent income, you must set a production goal, particularly in the query department. Make a goal to write 5 queries a week (one a day). Whenever you get a rejection, recycle that query to another publication. If you don’t query, you won’t land assignments. If you don’t land assignments, how can you practice meeting deadlines?

4. Make an integrity or hard work goal. For instance, because I am concentrating on making more consistent income this year, I am working hard on developing my relationships with periodical editors. Last spring an editor had to scrap one of her stories. She asked if I could turn around an article in one day (1000 words). I said yes because I knew one of my goals was to develop positive relationships with editors. I worked hard, gave her the article. We have a good working relationship now and she asks me for stories (instead of me asking her through a query). This entire relationship began with one query that eventually sold. I proved myself consistent over time.

5. Make a professional goal: go to the conference you’ve been pining after. This will force you to create that book proposal you’ve been postponing. Or decide to take a risk and attend a critique group, and ask them to hold you accountable to your own deadlines.

6. Make a project goal. Finish that novel. Write that proposal. Really learn how to make stunning query letters. Start a blog or website. Give yourself a date you MUST complete this. That’ll strengthen your deadline muscle.

So, don’t be shy. Set a writing goal for February, and then leave it in black and white in the comment section. THEN MEET THAT DEADLINE! I mean it! Let’s hear from you, writers-who-wanna-be-published!

What about Discouraging Critiques?

I’ve told this story before, but not in the context that I’ll tell it today. What do you do when you’ve received a harsh critique? Give up? Take it to heart? Weigh it? Figure it out? Keep plugging away? Here’s what happened to me at the genesis of my writing career:

I went to my first writing conference, a small regional affair, after I’d completed several chapters of my first novel. I rode with my friend Sandra Glahn who is a professor at Dallas Seminary, my good friend, and at that time, my mentor. I selected two people to meet with about my piece. The first one, a nonfiction author, ripped my piece to shreds. Hers was not constructive criticism, it was downright mean. And most of what she said didn’t make sense to me. (I should’ve realized that a nonfiction author might not be the best person to offer critique).

The second person was a man who also a professor at the seminary, Reg Grant. I am totally embarrassed to write this, but I showed him a short one-act play I’d written. And when we were done, I slid it across the table to him. “You can have it,” I said, secretly nursing some painful hope that Reg would see my genius and recommend me to a screenplay agent. Ha!

But on the way home, all I could do was concentrate on the woman’s harsh criticism. I was naïve and easily crushed. I nearly gave up writing. But Sandra pep-talked me back to reality. She listened. Told me to keep at it. I asked her some for some plotting advice. During that time, I was so green, I felt you always had to have a villain to write a good story. “No,” she told me. “The story arc can be a character’s growth. It doesn’t necessitate a villain.” The AHA went off in my head. I’d created a villain in my Depression-era story, worse than Hitler. And he was taking over everything. Once I eliminated Hitler, the story took off. My story arc became my heroine’s lack of emotional connection with her children after her husband’s death and her subsequent journey to come back to the hearts of her children. In three months, I finished the book, attended Mount Hermon, and met my agent.

Had I listened to the snarky woman and not the voice of Sandra, who knows what would’ve happened. Isn’t God good to put folks like that in our paths?