Reading the News for Better Fiction

Currently I am in research mode for a new book – one source of information is the news.  I do read the news daily and have some stories I follow.  I like to be informed about the world and I often find that something in a news story is relevant to a poem or story I am writing.

For example:

Here in Northern California the news story of the week is evacuation of the cities below the Oroville Dam. It’s distressing to read of all the people and lives disrupted by the emergency and my heart goes out to all those affected by this.  

For those who aren’t up on this here’s the short version:

The Oroville Dam sits on the Feather River in northeast California and impounds Lake Oroville, the second largest manmade lake in California with 3.5 million acre-feet of water – enough for some 25 million people and irrigates nearly 755,000 acres of farm land.  This winter has been wet, with rainfall totals far above normal.  By Saturday, Feb 11, the lake was approaching the top of the 770 foot tall dam.  The dam operators did the sensible thing and for the first time since 2011 opened the spillway.

Then the spillway started showing cracks and a gaping hole appeared.  No problem, there’s an emergency spillway, so the dam operators shutdown the spillway.  When water started to flow over the emergency spillway an epic erosion of the hillside started, and threatened to cause the spillway to fail and send a 30 foot wall of water downstream.  If that had happened we’d be reading about tens of thousands dead, missing and many cities washed downstream to the San Francisco Bay.  Instead officials decided to evacuate nearly 200,000 people.  In the end engineers were able to effect repairs, reopen the primary spillway, lower the lake level, and save Oroville.  How many fiction writers could come up with a story like that?

In the next weeks and months we’ll get more details and will read about all the finger-pointing on who failed to do what.  It could get interesting (upsetting if you’re a taxpayer here).

The novel I am working on is set in a post-apocalyptic California about 150 years from now.  There are a number of themes and stories I am weaving into my tale.  One of them is what happens to the dams and reservoirs after decades or centuries of neglect.  Is it possible that Hoover Dam will continue to be standing?  What about the many earthen dams, like Oroville?  Will they survive the extremes of weather – drought to flood?

These questions can be difficult to answer even with good research.  Heck, even the civil engineers who build these things don’t always know.  Like that whole emergency spillway thing –  from 1968 till Sunday, Feb 13, 2017 the pros said it would work just fine.  It didn’t.

That is one of the great things about following news stories and seeing how reality works out.  How many times have you heard, “You can’t make this up”?  

Well, that’s the value of reading news – it’s got stuff you can’t make up.  Especially if you can read political news without getting upset.  The other value is that you can learn about how people respond to extraordinary circumstances.  It’s a gold mine for a writer.

Of course, you can’t get all the facts from the news.  News reports are the result of research by journalists and often sensationalized to sell news papers or get views on a website.  However, each story offers something to the fiction writer and can be used as a basis for further research.  Many of the information sources used by the journalist are open to you the fiction writer.  Much of the information used in reporting the Oroville story came from two places: The California Department of Water Resources and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

In today’s internet world, both agencies have websites, video feeds and tons of cameras pointed at them – many of which end up on YouTube.  So if you find a story related to something you’re writing about it’s not hard to do your own fact checking and research.

And since we’re talking about writing fiction, don’t worry too much about misleading news or people lying.  That can be the best fiction.

I mean, what if the Oroville spillway was really destroyed by an alien spaceship landing in the wrong place?

Got to go, have a story to write.

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Creative Anxiety

It’s been a month already, huh? As you may or may not recall, last time I rambled for a bit on Today’s Author, it was about the differences between the writing process and a writing cycle. The short version looks like this:

The Writing Cycle

I think that with some very minor revisions, we could view any creative output through a similar lens.

Of course, this is just how one guy thinks about it (that’s me). And I admittedly think about creativity a lot—maybe too much. I am inherently curious about what triggers creativity and why it happens the way it happens for the people it happens for. But that’s for another day.

Today, I want to look at anxiety in both the creative process and the creative cycle–creative anxiety, we could call it. I think that artists are, on average, a pretty anxious breed. We worry about almost everything it seems, but in my experience the anxiety is worst at the beginning of the writing process and at the end of the writing cycle.

When I start a new writing project, I freak out in the early going. Are the ideas good enough? Does the story have enough going on? Are these characters interesting? As a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” writer for a good chunk of the process, this anxiety hangs around for a while. As a writer of general fiction, the anxiety starts to fade when I get up around 40,000 words. It’s almost all gone by the time I finish my outline of the last half of the book. That’s when I know, for better or worse, the book will be finished. The momentum takes over.

Writing poetry was similar. At the inception of an idea for a new poem, I was nervous about writing. I would struggle through the lines for a while, and eventually, if the poem was meant to be, some line or couplet or stanza would snag me and the anxiety would fade away.

I enjoy the early stages of the process, though—in spite of the anxiety. It’s new and exciting and I’m learning about these new people, so there is a chance that some of that anxiety comes from the excitement of starting something new.

 

We’ve established that the writing cycle encapsulates all of the movements of any writing project—from its planning, to its editing and revision, to cover design and layout, all the way through publication, if that is the goal of the project. Of course, a creative cycle can end when you put the binder clip on and shove it in the back of a drawer. Once a writing project is abandoned for whatever reason, that cycle is done.

I’ve learned that I feel the greatest anxiety at the very end of this process. When I’m out promoting the book, I’m anxious about two things:

1.    My creation doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. Will they take care of it? Will they love it? Will they hate it and burn it? Will they understand it?

Not that any of that really matters. It’s up to readers to read and draw their own conclusions. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a source of anxiety.

2.   What will the next project be?

This is different from the anxiety felt at the beginning of the writing process. Here, we worry if we will have another idea worth pursuing with the same vigor as the one that just wrapped. Will we always have stories to tell? For some people, it may be alright to imagine a world where they don’t write anymore. But for me? I don’t know what that looks like.

There is a great scene in Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, where a young Rushdie meets Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut asks the young writer, who was fresh off publishing Midnight’s Children, “Are you serious about this writing business?” When Rushdie responds that he is, Vonnegut says, “Then you should know that the day is going to come when you won’t have a book to write, and you’re still going to have to write a book.”

That scene sticks in my head for a couple of reasons. First, it would have been super badass to be in that room. Second, what if I run out of stories?

What are your experiences with creative anxiety? Let’s discuss in the comments.

Writing Change

I’ve always wanted to write.  In my teens I had a love for speculative and science fiction.  In particular, I loved dystopia and post apocalyptic stories.  Books like, Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, 1984, Brave New World, and On The Beach, were subjects that interested me.  In the movies, Planet of the Apes, Phase IV, THX1138, Silent Running and other similar stories drew me in.  I wanted to write those kinds of stories.

At sixteen I even started to write a post nuclear war novel that I titled, The Day After.  Sadly in 1983, after years of little progress that title was stolen from me by a made for TV movie of the same subject.  Figuring I’d never sell the title, I gave up writing it.  Likely for the best as I’d gotten stuck writing endless descriptions of the tools the people used with very little story or character development.

After that my writing went in two different directions.  One was professional, on my job I did a fair amount of technical writing (procedures, manuals, theory of operation guides) and the other was short stories.  My fiction writing was undisciplined and I tended to writing bursts, sometimes with years between producing anything.  Some of it was okay, but most lacked the polish a good story needed.

My tastes in books started to change as I entered my mid-thirties.  I read less fiction and more religious books on theology, preaching, the Bible and so on.  Most of my writing during this time of my life was actually sermons I wrote for church or various workshops I attended.  Again, my writing was in binges, based in inspiration that rarely came.  It was frustrating writing, with only occasional flashes of quality.

It was about this time that I started back to community college with an eye toward completing my BA.  I was already employed as a software engineer and after having to retake calculus twice, I decided that I’d pursue my dream of being a writer.  I left the engineering and math classes and entered the world of English and literature.

It wasn’t easy.  In addition to a lack of discipline, I also suffered from three problems when it came to writing:

  1. I couldn’t spell – seriously, I almost failed the 6th grade because I couldn’t remember how to spell words.  Once I asked a teacher how to spell, ‘of.’  If it wasn’t for spell checkers, on-line dictionaries and my wife, I couldn’t spell anything (really, took me three times to spell that word ‘anything’).
  2. I couldn’t read my own hand writing.  They almost held me back in the third grade because no one could teach me how to write with a pencil.  If it wasn’t for typewriters and now computers, I’d just be one of the carpenters banging nails into your house.
  3. Proofreading was a mysterious art beyond my comprehension.  I’ve been told the theory, even took a class in it, but for the life of me I just couldn’t seee tpyos.

I had to find ways to cope with these impediments.  A good computer, word processing software and internet access has helped tremendously.  On the proofreading front, it’s my wife who graciously does most of the copy editing for me.  Without the tools and help from my wife, I wouldn’t be able to write as I do today.  I still struggle with these issues, but I make small improvements with practice.

Progressing through my English degree, I learned to perfect my writing skills as I wrote paper after paper for my classes.  Each had tight deadlines and specific requirements.  This helped give me more discipline and control over my writing process.  There wasn’t anything magical in the education, just a willingness to work hard.

Something else happened as I progressed through getting married, and studying English – my tastes in literature changed.  While I still like a good SciFi story, it’s no longer the first thing I reach for.  I am more likely to pick up a history book or a biography.

Along the way I also ran into Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  Cameron’s concepts have refined many of my notions on what writing and creativity is all about.  I am especially mindful of her notion of “Breathing in.”  That is, doing things that feed your artistic soul or in her terms, the artist’s date.  For me that is things like hiking in the woods, reading, working in my wood shop, visiting art museums, seeing movies and so on.

Writing doesn’t all happen at the keyboard.  Much of it happens in the car on the way to work or while walking around the roots of a redwood tree.  This part – the words on the page – is just the result of a longer process of creativity. That was a notion I missed in my early years of writing.

Today I write in ways I never intended as a teen.  Most of my writing is on my blog where I’ve managed to mostly keep up a weekly writing routine.  This writing is generally personal essays, light humor and poetry.

Poetry is the other major change in my writing.  Until recently, I wasn’t much interested in poems.  I studied them when I had to at the university, but never had a passion for them.  Some of my professors did note from time to time that my writing had a ‘lyrical’ quality.  Oh, I wrote a few poems over the years.  Some in my 20s, a couple in my 30s.  There was a poem about a computer, a house that burned down and even a love poem or two.

But there was one transformational experience that has changed my writing. In, 2011 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  The radiation treatments have worked and I am three years post treatment with no re-occurrence. Last year I thought it was time I wrote a book and thought I’d start with a book about my experience with cancer.  I’d blogged about it, so the theory was that I’d just tidy those posts up, add detail to them and expand it into a nice work of prose.

I sat down to write
and just couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t get past the emotion of
those days,
those fears,
those tears.

A sentence wasn’t long
enough to contain
that short punch to the gut
of the call
from the doc.

Only in abstract,
only in vision,
only in emotion,
could I show that tale
where the world shifted
and perception changed.

Holding the feeling my hand
and seeing with my heart
was the only way
my brain could paint
a story for your eye.

Today I write different
Today I think different
I embrace change
and let my words take flight.

That book of poems,
now sits on the coffee table
with a red pen as Heather edits
and I contemplate the next step.

So I’ll close with this thought:
embrace the change that is you
and keep writing however you can.

Andrew

Characters Who Push Back

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to conclude that most writers, generally think of characters as dynamic beings. While I won’t itemize past posts you won’t have trouble finding opinions on this very blog about how certain characters are easily led, while others are uncooperative. And advice abounds about interviewing characters to challenge them in order to get at their inner core. Few authors seem to have complaints with their scenes or plots not cooperating, but it’s a common feeling that particular characters are just plain uncooperative.

I find this concept fascinating. On some level I know that it’s a sign that you have created a good character. Only well-formed characters are rounded enough to develop their own personality…their own energy…their own will.

Put them in the right situation and the scene will zip along, because you don’t have to worry about making them act the way you want them to. Instead, they take on a life of their own and all you have to do is chronicle what they’re doing. But put these characters in a situation they wouldn’t allow themselves in, or try to get them to act in a way they wouldn’t and they will fight with all their non-corporeal strength.

Being in this dilemma, also says something good about you–the writer. Think back–maybe a few months–maybe many years–and there was a time where your characters blithely did your bidding. They never fought back or threw up roadblocks. But now, the reader in you has stepped up and started checking your work before it’s even done. The reader inside you is saying, No, that’s not good enough. You can do better.

If you’ve a character of this quality, it’s likely that you’ve connected with her on some level. If you are lucky or skilled enough to create a character with this kind of spark—with a life of their own—you do whatever you can to keep them intact and honest. Scenes, plots, descriptions and whatnot are a whole lot easier to come by than a compelling character.

Diagnosing Dialogue

Dialogue is difficult to get just right and, like many others, I struggle with it mightily. Even so, I love writing good dialogue. But, if it’s so hard, why do I like it?

  • I love how good dialogue shows us more about a character than the author could ever tell us.
  • I love the energy that comes from tight crisp banter between characters.
  • I love how good dialogue can control the pace of a story.
  • I love the feeling I get when someone tells me that my dialogue sounds real.

But what is good dialogue? What is real dialogue? And how do we write it? Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.

  1. Record and listen to real conversations among friends. Now compare what you thought was said, to what was actually said. The lesson here is that real dialogue should not be your goal. Real dialogue is terrible–full of pauses, ums, stutters, repetition and bad grammar. What you need to strive for is dialogue that sounds like what you thought you said.
  2. Strip it down. This trick is one of my own inventions. If you have dialogue and it’s just not working, copy/paste it into a new document and spend a few minutes stripping away everything except what the your characters say–kind of like a stage play. When you read the dialogue with all the exposition and attributions stripped away, does it hold up? Does it hold your attention? If not, then it still needs work.
  3. Cut the fancy tags. Attributions are those verbs we add to dialogue. He said…She asked. Many times you don’t need them at all. When used, their purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. Don’t get cute, and don’t break out the thesaurus. If you find yourself striving for tags like he queried or she opined, you already know your dialogue is weak and you’re looking for a crutch.
  4. Don’t overuse names. People rarely use each other’s names in conversation. If you find yourself starting every other line with someone saying someone else’s name, then you’re characters don’t have strong, original voices. Maybe they both sound like you. Maybe they both sound like each other. Whatever it is, you’re having trouble distinguishing between them. Clear that up and you won’t need to keep repeating names.
  5. Stories are all about conflict, and dialogue should be no different. In many conversations the different players have competing motives. If Sam has a slightly embarrassing secret, Alex can’t just ask her what’s bothering her. She has to tease it out. And Sam has to resist. Try thinking of the conversation like a fencing match. It’s boring if there’s a single lunge and it’s all over. Lunge, parry, riposte, counterparry, lunge, dodge…
  6. Dialogue CANNOT be predictable. Take another look at that real conversation you transcribed and notice how much of a real conversation is predictable. Compare these rather mundane examples:

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Yes.”
    “What?”
    “Pizza”
    “Was it good?”
    “It was great”

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Pizza. It was great”

    By eliminating the expected responses, the dialogue gets tighter, crisper, and more compelling

What tips for writing dialogue do you have to share?

Do creative writers rely on social media for self-validation?

One year ago I canceled my Twitter account, and all it took was a few taps on the keyboard.  Gone were the throngs of “Lit Chicks” from my life who somehow pounded out five novels each afternoon—and still had time to boast about it.

In the months following, I slowly removed myself from the majority of writing communities on Facebook and Google+.  Those abundant “Literary Agents” and “YA Authors” started to quietly fade into the background.  Words like “Thriller” and “Manuscript” etched in my mind’s eye were slowly erased.

It wasn’t long after that I then un-publicized my personal WordPress site—and stopped checking the response count hourly after each new post of a short story for the reply that would come from an agent to pluck me out of obscurity.  In fact, I even went so far as putting my site behind password-protection as to remove its content from the eyes of the general public.

I suspect in retrospect, I was subconsciously using social media to validate myself as a writer.  If I ran with that crowd, I was a writer.  If I was followed by writers, then I was a successful writer.  In reality, it was doing nothing more than hurting my writing by encouraging me to measure my writing achievements against a false yardstick.

Today I mostly keep my online explorations to the Today’s Author community—partly because I helped stand up the site, but mostly because I believe in the mission to foster a community of creative writers.

In childhood, we were forced to measure ourselves by comparison to our peers.  How many of us have thought, I’m a junior in Chemistry class, yet there are three sophomores in this class.  What did I do wrong?  They’re ahead of me!  It wasn’t until I was out of college that I had the epiphany that we’re all on our own journey, at different paces, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  And it applies to everything in life, whether education or our passion for creative writing.

For me, canceling Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts was the right decision for the path I wanted to travel.  And largely, it has afforded me the opportunity to write instead of thinking about writing.  Now when I’m stuck on dialogue or want to learn more how to balance exposition in my writing, I’ll search for content when I’m ready to consume it.

By no means am I trying to persuade you to take the same actions I have taken, but I would encourage you to self-evaluate whether, as a result of social media, you’re finding yourself in the middle of a marathon that you didn’t choose to run in.

Letting Go

You learn, as a young writer, that when authoring a scene and the larger collective story, the hope is to transport the reader into the world that you are creating, to show the wet streets of Asheville, the squash soup on the kitchen vinyl floor, the raise of a chest when the person’s whose chest it is just received news about a car accident that his daughter may have been part of.  You want to plant the reader, you want to carry them, you want to shift the structure of the current place in their own present so they can leave for awhile, to go into what you’ve written.

And where do you carry them?  What do you bring them to see?  We can’t often say, because when we we set off down the river we don’t always know where the river ends.  In life, the living is in the movement–so, too, in writing.  Donald Barthelme said, “The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made.”  Our not-knowing is what allows us to be on the journey that our reader will eventually route on.  The discovery, as it unfolds while we write, keeps us honest and patient, keeps our breathing metered.

So how do we do this?  It isn’t so much of a technique as it is an approach.  We of course know something of our story, our characters.  We know something takes place in Moline, we know John is recently unemployed, we know he loses his wallet in a park.  We know the weather, the types of trees around, but we don’t know all of what’s going to happen.  That’s up to what occurs in the process of our writing, that’s why we write–to know.  The knowing comes during, the knowing comes then.  The knowing doesn’t come before because then the fish is already on the hook and you’ve already cast with it on the end of your line and you’re just waiting to reel it in. What’s important is for us to permit the attributes we do know, the elements, to do their work and for us to then observe that.  Write one good sentence ,and then another, always allowing ample room for development.  Cast with an empty hook.  Then there’s that chance for innovation, then there’s raw creativity, and that’s where the art blooms from.

Take fifteen slips of paper.  On five write jobs: elephant trainer for the circus, captain of a dive boat charter, mail room clerk, etc.  Fill them as you please.  On another five write down characters: a blind 19-year-old mother, a former body builder, and so forth.  And on the last five write motivations: wants to be rich, running from the law, blah, blah.  Blind draw one from each pile and write.  Put something together in short, complete form or start something longer.  And don’t decide where you’re going before you begin to type.  You have interesting elements. Let the story go where it needs to go. You, then, report it.

What’s your advice to help someone get started in writing short fiction, poetry, or web serials?

Hello, December.  It feels like just yesterday that you knocked on my door to ask all kinds of probing personal questions about my writing goals and objectives for the year 2013.  And here we are one year later, and now you’re back asking for a progress report?  Please go away!

Does this conversation feel familiar to you?

Seeing less available writing time for 2014 due to a work promotion, I’m contemplating making the switch from stage plays and novellas to short fiction, poetry, or web serials.  I feel like I need to increase the frequency of “accomplishments” or “milestones”, which in my mind translates to completed works of writing rather than contributing to two or three longer works of fiction.

Although I’ve been writing fiction regularly for the past six or seven years, I’ll be honest in saying I’ve never really investigated methods to get started in writing shorter forms of fiction.  And other than plugging a few keywords into a search engine, I’m lost where to begin.

Below is a small sample of some of the questions in my head for several weeks now:

  • What online resources are available to help explore short fiction, poetry, or web serials?
  • What, exactly, is this Friday Flash notion I’ve read about for the past few years?
  • Besides haiku, what forms of poetry exist, and what resources exist to help improve writing them?
  • Where can I see some examples of web serials?

So what’s your advice to help someone get started in writing short fiction, poetry, or web serials?  Are there other forms of writing not mentioned here that you recommend one focus on?

Encouragement to not change your NaNoWriMo story concept mid-month

We’re roughly halfway through NaNoWriMo and, if everything is going according to plan for us, we’re also roughly halfway through reaching our 50,000 word count goal of our first draft.

In reality, many of us are stuck.  We feel our characters are flat.  Or maybe we’ve written a series of scenes, but when strung together they don’t resemble a cohesive story.  And now, we’re desperate – ready to change our story concept or throw in the towel entirely!

I want to try and convince you why it’s a good idea to stick with your original NaNoWriMo story idea instead of changing to that newer, better idea that came to mind yesterday while sipping lattes and listening to smooth jazz at the local coffee shop.

First thing, take a deep breath.  Let’s look at what you’ve learned so far.  Go ahead and make a short list, and maybe it’ll look something like this:

  • I thought I had a clear idea in my mind of what I’d write.
  • I thought writing by the seat of my pants would be easy.
  • I thought writing based on an outline would be easy.

There’s a great quote attributed to author Mark Twain that summarizes the NaNoWriMo experience:

“If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”

NaNoWriMo is a bit like that.  You can read other peoples’ posts all you want about how challenging it’s going to be, how beat up and battered you’re going to get, but it’s not real for you until you learn it for yourself.

While it may be tempting to change story concept mid-month, I want to suggest that you don’t.  In reality, you’re going to run into the same challenges as you did with your original concept.  You’ll question your creativity every time, I promise!  So why not embrace this struggle and push through it now?

Imagine if you will that you were being paid to write this novel.  Maybe you stepped in to finish a novel for someone else, or perhaps you’re paid to write a screenplay for a major motion picture studio.  You wouldn’t necessarily have the freedom to change your romance story to that of a sci-fi novel.  Therefore, you should stick it out with your original story concept.  Plus, it’s only a month.  So look at it from the angle of taking with you for life the lessons you learned from this experience.

So how can you recover and make the most of NaNoWriMo 2013?

What I like to do is take a step back and revisit my story concept at the highest level.  I’ve been known to do this daily.  Maybe it can be summarized in simple bullet points like:

  • It’s a love story.
  • Boy and girl meet in summer at the beach.
  • Boy and girl risk losing each other when the summer ends.

I then look at what I’ve written as part of my story so far.  Have I deviated from these bullet point objective?  If yes, let me put myself back on course.  If not, then I am reassured I’m still on track.

See, that part is pretty easy to do.  Now take it a step further and write a dozen or so bullet points that show progress and setbacks.  These can be used for chapter breaks:

  • Boy and girl make eye contact as one is getting onto a bus.
  • Boy or girl talk to their friend about the missed opportunity.
  • Boy or girl goes on a hunt to find the other.
  • Boy and girl meet.
  • Boy and girl schedule a date; spend afternoon strolling the beach.
  • Boy or girl seen talking to another; other becomes jealous and suspicious.
  • Boy and girl work through the misunderstanding.
  • Boy or girl has to tell other that they are leaving earlier than expected.

Now I look at the rising and falling action of these bullet points against what I’ve written so far with my novel.  Is there alignment?  If yes, perfect.  I’m still on track.  If not, then I push my existing chapters to the bottom of my document and start fleshing out new chapters.

Now I have a clearer picture of my structure.  This is where I go ahead and start filling in details, jumping around and writing the details of chapters out of sequence.

I promise you if you take these actions every day, in a few short days you’ll find yourself no longer questioning the validity or merit of your story and you’ll find yourself feeling back on track.

Happy noveling!

Chocolate and the Metaphor

I was in a writing workshop five or so years ago and we were reviewing a short story or a portion of a longer piece of prose written by someone in the workshop.  The workshop setting, if you aren’t familiar, works like this: a story/poem/essay is distributed by the writer to each of his or her classmates during a meeting session.  The piece is taken home by each person, read, considered, marked with suggestions and reactions, and then brought back to the next meeting where everyone discusses aloud their impressions of the piece in hopes of enlightening the writer about their work.  I’ve seen this both work and fail.  Sometimes the counsel is beneficial and illuminating, will fuel, like coal from the hopper, will push the writer’s thoughts forward, which, in turn, pushes the story forward.  And then there are times the suggestions don’t offer ideas for polishing but take the form of an adolescent movie review–thumbs down, that was neat, I don’t like that character’s name.  At times the writer will get defensive and respond to a remark with a counter argument and the discussion moves away from within the borders of the story and starts to focus on whether the story can live in the real world—someone may comment on the palpability of an event and the writer will respond with, “I know it can happen because it happened to my aunt.”  The intention and hope for the discussion of the work has now been guttered.

So during this one meeting the writer described a character in her story as having fingers like Milky Way bars, which was supposed to inform that they were brown and thick, tempered, masculine. But the comparison was too far off. Many of us said that the association didn’t fit; the sensual evocation gave us smells that we’re wrong and visuals that were surely wrong. But the writer defended their metaphor and the rest of us shrugged and continued along.

The issue here wasn’t so much the association of fingers to chocolate bars (actually, it was, yes, but, first, and more, there was a comparative step that was missing). The path from hand to Milky Way was absent of important intervals of ribbon. It’s natural and common for us to use simile and metaphor in our writing; they are useful tools in our creative relaying. But many writers, often young writers, will over-rely on these elements so much that the focus, the thing will get lost in description and details will sort of just lay out there on their own instead of blending and harmonizing. It’s important to remember that the “thing” must first be the “thing,” by itself, before it can be something else, before it can be a simile or a metaphor. Chekhov talks about the writer getting worn out when reading too many modifiers. And writers so much want to transcend their subject —good, that’s what art should do—that they get crazed in describing everything in their story as something else. Eventually, the modifiers will not only be applied to things but, more dangerously, to moments and to what should be quietly shared between characters, to something naturally artful, to something real and heartbreaking.

As writers we need to consider the thing first and use the right words to deliver it, all the while recognizing that it’s easy to strew leaves and over-dirty our pathway, pushing the reader to focus on the crackle and brush and not the direction, the walk, the right way.