Knowing It All

By Christina Lay

Grownups say the darnedest things. I’ve heard a lot of doozies in my time, but the one I’m thinking of today came from a fellow writer and literally made my jaw drop.

I was at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon several years ago and ran into an acquaintance. I asked her if she’d attended any interesting workshops yet and she said, and I quote, “Oh, I’m beyond all that. I know everything there is to know about writing.”

I’ll pause for bit to let that sink that in.

17smart-dog

 

Flash forward to Willamette Writers this year. This is an awesome conference with a mind-bending array of quality instructors and a schedule to make any writer drool. I will admit to a very vague feeling of “been there, done that” when looking over the craft offerings. In years past, I’ve been a craft junkie, always choosing the “How to Write Snappy Dialogue” options over anything to do with the business side of writing. However, this year I was attending with a different agenda, or agendas, to be precise.

For the first time, gathering information to help me make the current project better was not my primary objective. Instead, I had several new identities.

1. A published author looking to market my books

2. A first time publisher looking into the technical side of the business

3. A member of the Wordcrafters in Eugene board looking to spy glean information on how to run a conference by observing the well-oiled machine that is WWC

4. A grizzled veteran looking to meet up and commiserate with pals in the bar, or Burgerville, as it happened to turn out.

Of course I also snuck off to a few craft sessions to feed my always-thirsting-for-literary perfection side.

As I juggled my multiple personalities, scribbled copious notes and tried to keep my head from exploding with all the information I was gathering, I thought about that acquaintance who’d decided she had nothing more to learn. Maybe she’s right. Maybe she had achieved her creative pinnacle and was satisfied with her level of competence. I suppose that is possible. On some planet I have yet to visit.

Personally, I can’t comprehend the idea of ceasing to grow in any aspect of my chosen career. While I’ve attended more workshops and retreats than is healthy for any size pocket book, I still come away with several morsels or tidbits that breathe new life into my approach to storytelling. In addition to new views on craft, I get organization ideas, tips on research, clues on delving deeper, or sometimes inspiration and consolation, the greatest gifts of all for a writer.

My point here isn’t to point and laugh at those who can’t see beyond the publication of The Book (okay maybe just a little) but rather to encourage everyone, no matter what their field of endeavor, to be wary of self-satisfaction. If you truly feel you’ve crammed all the craft you can manage into your skull, perhaps it’s time to start giving back. Take a look at how else you might evolve and contribute. I have friends who teach, host open mike sessions, welcome writing groups into their homes, sit on boards of writing organizations, lead retreats, start up publishing ventures – I admire these people more than I can say and am eternally grateful for writers who know their stuff and yet keep on growing.

I often question my own sanity when I’m juggling all these new projects and challenges, but I have to say I’m never, ever bored. I’m pushing my comfort levels and tentatively experimenting with becoming an adult who has something to offer beyond a competently crafted book.

And if you ever hear me say I know everything there is to know about writing, please dump a barrel of ice water over my head and point me back to this post.

What the Hell Is Subtext? by, Eric M. Witchey

PunchingImpliedWhat the Hell is Subtext?
by Eric M. Witchey

I’m a lucky guy. A couple of writing groups in and around San Antonio, Texas recently pooled their resources to fly me to San Antonio to teach. Some were publishing professionals. Some were aspiring professionals. All were wonderfully kind and accomplished. While there, I even got to do some touristy things.

So far, I’ve written in general terms about things that were fun for me. Readers may now be thinking, “Get to the point, Eric.” However, if that first paragraph were in a short story or a novel, the reader would be, in the back of their mind, wondering what it means in the context of dramatic development. If, as would probably be the case, it added nothing to the reader’s sense of tension or character change, they would get disgusted, drop my story, and never look at another one of my tales.

Go, readers!

That’ll teach me economy in language. More importantly, it will teach me to figure out ways to imbue even apparently mundane passages with some additional layer of meaning, subtext.

Normally, I teach subtext by introducing students to a seminal article in discourse analysis. I then extrapolate from that article into the use of implication in dialog. Once that has become clear, I demonstrate how “subjective interpretation of setting through the character filter” can create an underlying sense of changing character psychology in the reader’s experience. That all takes a day or two, and it takes a fair amount of practice.

Did you catch the subtext? I’ll translate. “This set of very specific skills takes time and practice.”

However, I’m writing a blog entry, so I’ll try to give you the quick and dirty. I stopped short of calling this a shortcut. It isn’t. The time and practice is still necessary.

For my first bit of sleight of hand, I’m going to replace the term “subtext” with another term I think is more descriptive of the function of a number of techniques. The term is “implication.” Writers manipulate the text in order imply things that are not actually part of the explicit text.

Above, in the paragraph beginning with “Normally,” I described a longish process that wasn’t actually necessary if I just want to tell you what I’m about to tell you. However, I did put it in the blog entry, which tells the reader that I am either just horribly wordy or was implying something. The reader tries to fit what I wrote into their growing sense of the purpose of this blog entry. Since I then talked about a shortcut and the technobabble paragraph is more than I needed to write about the shortcut, the reader tries to find additional, underlying meaning. If they can’t, they think I’m stupid. If they can, they think I’m brilliant. In truth, they don’t even actually know they are looking for that subtext. The brain does it automatically.

In fiction, if a character says more (or less) than they would normally say or than they actually need to say in order to respond to their circumstance, some other meaning is being conveyed. The reader unconsciously examines text in conjunction with context in order to draw the special meaning from the text.

In practical application in fiction, it looks something like this.

“Honey,” he said, “I need to take the car to Bend this weekend.”

“The Metzgers are having a lawn party on Sunday,” she said. “Jennifer will be sixteen, and her oldest brother, the Army doctor, is in back from Afghanistan. Can you believe he wants to meet our daughter?”

She said a lot more than she would normally say in response to his statement about the car. In fact, all she had to say was, “Okay.” Of course, she might also have said, “No. We have a party to go to.”

Instead, she said, interpreting the subtext:

You have other responsibilities this weekend. Show some respect to our friends. Demonstrate that you at least pretend to care about their daughter. If you can’t pretend to care about our friends, then think about the returning soldier and how important his homecoming is. If you can’t get your head and heart around that, then at least think about the happiness of your own daughter.

To get all that from a couple lines of dialog, the reader needs a little more background. In fact, the reader needs the same things we need in the real world in order to interpret the wonderfully obscure things we say to each other. The following is a classic example is of people communicating by using implication:

“Honey, what time is it?”

“The ice cream truck just went by.”

The answer does not, strictly speaking, answer the question. However, both people know it is four o’clock because they share history that involves the ice cream truck.

Consider once more the car and weekend problem from above. In order for the reader to get the full impact of the indirect statement made in response to the statement about using the car, the reader has to be aware of the same shared experiences of the characters that allow the characters on stage to speak to one another in indirect ways.

We use this kind of implication all the time when we talk. In fact, it turns out that when we are trying to cooperate and get something done, we speak pretty directly to one another. If you and I are building a dog house together, I can say, “Give me that hammer.” Your answer might be, “Okay.” It might also be to hand me the hammer. Either way, it’s pretty direct and clear.

However, if you and I have some personal history with home projects not getting done, you might answer differently. Consider this dialog couplet:

“Give me that hammer.”

“And the paint brush, broom, and shovel?”

Now, suddenly, you are telling me I have a lot more to do. Additionally, neither one of us is having a good time.

Turns out that we figure out what these kinds of non-responses mean because they differ from direct, cooperative responses in one or more of the following four ways.

  • The response says more (or less) than is needed.
  • The response doesn’t appear at the surface to be a relevant to the initial statement or question.
  • The response isn’t clear.
  • The response somehow lacks the needed quality to be a full response.

The short list is quality, clarity, quantity, and relevance. Even so, this kind of communication relies on shared experiences. Those experiences can be shared within culture, community, family, or individual association.

Given the above, getting dialog to be indirect so that it implies more than is said is a pretty direct process. Start with something direct and revise it until is drips with additional meanings.

Draft 1:

“Take me home,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

Draft 2:

She says, “My bedroom ceiling is more interesting than these people.”

“That guy,” he said, “spent last year in Tibet.”

“And my bedroom is warmer than this field.”

“They’ll light the bonfire in a minute.”

“Two cuddled under quilts is the best warm.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ll just say goodnight.”

In draft one, the two people are being cooperative and direct. In draft two, one is being too clever, and the other is being a bit dense. A lot more is going on in terms of the psychological interactions of the desires of the two people. Of course, the passage could be improved—a lot. That’s not the point. The point is the implied meanings. In this case, the reader gets them because of shared experience in cultural context.

If, as writers, we understand our characters, their growth, their needs, and their backgrounds well enough, we can manipulate the text so that multiple layers of meaning appear from this kind of indirect interaction.

Narrative, when compared to implication in dialog, is both the same and different. If the narrator is external, the narrator can be seen as engaged in a sort of dialog with the reader. What has come before in the main story or in back story can be used as shared knowledge (the ice cream truck). However, narrative is usually more powerful if it has moved into the heart/mind of character.

The following two passages represent a transformation from one of the great traps into which writing instructors fall, focusing on the use of “concrete details,” to the use of those same details to imply more about the life of the character than is strictly accounted for by the text.

Yes, concrete details are necessary. However, students of the written word often focus too tightly on the detail and miss the point that the story is about a character who inhabits the fictional world.

Passage 1 (concrete details):

He entered through the south door and paused. He wore J. C. Penney docksiders, pale blue argyle socks, tan cotton Dockers, a burgundy, button-down Bugle Boy shirt, and a thin gold chain around his neck. His build was medium and toned. He had a sharp jaw line, straight nose, blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a businessman’s haircut. He looked to his left. He looked to his right. He crossed from the door to the dining room table and placed a small pile of envelopes on the table. The table was made of stained cherry wood veneer over a pine base. In places, the veneer was worn through and the pine was visible. The table had brass screws holding it together. Three chairs were mission, two were Victorian, one was a folding steel chair. He walked around the table, called his wife’s name, and exited the room through the north door.

Passage 2 (implication through the use of details):

Squeaking hinges announced his arrival and reminded him that Sharon had a honey-do list for him this weekend. He crossed the threshold into neutral ground, the dining room, paused, and turned his head to better catch noises coming from the kitchen. Concentrating on the sounds of the house, the ticks and creaks and movement of air through dry, old cracks in the walls and floorboards, the mail he held nearly slipped from his sweating hand. He gripped it more tightly and crossed to the dining room table, careful to tread lightly on the white-rubber balls of his topsiders. He sorted the mail so the bills were on the bottom then set the stack in a neat pile at Sharon’s place, in front of her martyr’s chair, the folding metal church chair she insisted that she use so no one else would have to be subjected to its indignity. He wiped his palms on the burgundy Bugle Boy she’d given him for his interview, then he thought better of it and checked to see if he’d stained the shirt with his own sweat. Satisfied that he was presentable, he rounded the table and headed for occupied territory–her kitchen.

I showed these passages to one of my writer friends. Their response was, “Eric, that’s just close, subjective narrative.”

Well, yes. It is.

That’s sort of the point of close, subjective narrative. We know the characters, their needs, their current desires, their underlying desires, their changes, their emotions, their back stories, their relationships, and their minds. Because of that knowledge, we can write in a way that implies many things that are not explicit in the text.

For example, we can write narrative that reveals levels of marital tension, the nature of personal fear, levels of social dominance, tacit agreements about control of territory, habitual behavioral dynamics, and the psychological underpinnings of two people who have driven one another to estrangement. Later, the reader will share this understanding with character and narrator. If done well, the reader won’t even know they have picked up on these cues. These things can then be exploited more deeply through indirect dialog and subjective narrative as a story moves forward.

The subtext of the opening paragraph, based on shared experience with my friends in Texas, is, “Thank you.”

I suppose I should stop now. This blog entry is late, and I have said a lot more than I needed to say in order to fulfill my responsibility to my cohort of shared bloggers.

Since I have written more than was strictly needed, there is subtext. The subtext is, to be explicit, that I believe this idea of implication (subtext) is very important for writers who want to enhance the reader’s experience of story.

When Should I Write?

When Should I Write?

by Eric M. Witchey

At a recent conference, I mentioned a number of brain-based techniques I use for production. Several people asked me the perennial question, “When should I write?” I wish I had the answer to that question. I wish it were an easy answer. What I know is that there are two kinds of people… Since there are two kinds of people, there are also two kinds of writers. I know careful, thoughtful writers and intuitive, insightful writers. Of course, I also know that any time I talk about two kinds of anything, I’m getting it wrong and tossing out an entire world of insights that might be useful.

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, works from an exclusively cognitive or intuitive position. The most hard-core researching, obsessive, analytic writer still has moments where “it came to me that….” The most touchy-feely, woo-woo, let the muse flow through them, channeling characters writer also has moments when they look at their own prose and make conscious decisions about how to revise based on experience or principle. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

The cold, hard facts are that no two people are exactly alike and no two stories require exactly the same mix of cognitive and intuitive attention. This morning, I wrote a short story in less than an hour. Last week, I wrote a short story of the same length (only 1500 words). It took me twelve hours, including a lot of research, analysis, and revision. Writing fiction always requires a mix of analytic and intuitive skills.

Have you ever notice that doctors tend to miss the fact that all bodies are built differently? Each of us has different thresholds for pain, sensitivity to light, fears, and anxieties. Did you ever wonder how anybody gets good healthcare since all treatments are designed to provide relief and improvement to the average patient as determined in clinical trials?

Doctors are lucky. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to trust them to know what they’re doing. Readers will not tolerate a story based on statistical averages. Each of us is different, and each of us must modify our writing processes and practices to fit our own body, mind, and lifestyle. If we don’t, our work will not be tolerated by our readers.

Certainly, we can modify our lifestyles to support our writing habits, but that’s a life management class. In this blog entry, I want to make sure of two things. First, I want to make sure that writers empower the person who knows their psychology and physiology best. I want them to put that person is in charge of how and when they write. So, you, and only you, must evaluate your performance and make adjustments as needed.

While we can engage in cognitive and intuitive workouts to build both sets of skills and improve the communication between the parts of the brain that engage during the different modes of work, we each still have to bow to our own, personal work styles, experience, and developmental quirks. Since no two of us are the same, nobody can really tell us exactly how the mix should work for any one of us. The only person that can make that determination for a writer is that writer.

Is analytic work easier for you in the morning, the evening, or the afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it. Is intuitive work easier for you in the morning, evening, or afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it.

We can take some guidance from study statistics that report physiological averages.

The averages say that intuitive work is easiest in the first 90 minutes after we wake up. If you need that time to write but fill 90 minutes with a shower, making breakfast, making coffee and reading the paper, you’ve lost that optimum time forever that day. If that’s your creative time, you need to ask yourself what you can do to take advantage of your best creative brain state right after sleeping. You may even ask yourself when (and if) you can take naps during the day in order to restart that brain state.

The averages say that our cognitive skills are strongest in early and late afternoon. Mine simply are not. I’m stupid as hell in the afternoon (except when I’m teaching because then I’m hyped on adrenaline and caffeine). Should you be doing your plot analysis at 2pm? Should you be doing your editing after 1pm? I can’t answer for other writers. I can only say that experimentation will help them decide what will work best for them.

The averages say that our repetitive task skills are least interfered with by other influences in the evening. Uh, that might be a great time for spell checking, eh?

I can’t answer the question, “When should I write?” I can tell people when I write and why. My personal physiology and schedule work something like this on a perfect fiction writing day:

  • AM 6:00 to 9:30: Protein (one egg), vitamins, speed writing warm-up (imagination exercise and technique practice). I then engage in composition for current projects.
  • 9:30: meditation. Email check and respond. Shower
  • 10:00: small snack. Often, it’s a handful of nuts.
  • 10:10-12:00: Some composition. Some revision.
  • PM 12:00-12:30: Lunch (protein). I eat light and avoid carbs at lunch unless I plan to stop working. If I snack, I snack on jerky or nuts because protein allows me to stay alert. Carbohydrates put me to sleep. Different people respond differently.
  • 12:30-2:30: Email check and respond. Revisions.
  • 2:30: Nap or Exercise if I can. The time for this varies throughout the year based on my needs.
  • 3:00-5 or 6: Revisions and/or technical writing/course development/article writing.
  • 5 or 6: Relax, prep dinner, eat.
  • 6:00 to bedtime: Household activities, reading, movies.
  • 10:30 or 11:00: sleep.

I manage my writing to match the fact that my brain is at its most creative early in the day. Even after a nap, I don’t get a full reset of my creative powers. The later in the day it gets, the more I move toward revision and analysis type tasks. Good food and a good night’s sleep are a critical part of my time management. Naps and meditation are part of my productivity process. Loading my brain with writerly thoughts and happy thoughts before bed is important to me. I often skim through silly web sites like I Can Has Cheezburger just before sleep. Exercise is important, even if it’s only a walk to the post office, and only injury keeps me from it. I know these things about myself, so I plan my day based on my experiences with my own mind and body. Only you can know yourself well enough to plan your writing day.

Remember that I said I wanted to make sure of two thing? The second thing is that I want to make sure that you, my dear writer friend, take time to seriously answer the question, “When should I write?”

The Lagniappe of the Inaugural Wordcrafters Conference

A photographer friend of mind uses the term “lagniappe” to describe the little extra that makes his pictures special.  He is always searching for it.  Sometimes it is the gift of the wind opening a petal just as the camera clicks, or a sunbeam illuminating a bird in flight.  It is unpredictable, but when it happens, it changes everything.

The first annual Wordcrafters Conference was full of lagniappe; little extras, unexpected gifts that added up to make the experience extraordinary, from the remarkable lineup of top-notch workshops, sessions and speakers to the craft labs which offered one on one time with best selling authors, to the Introverts Ball.

The lagniappe for me was the spirit and feeling of the conference.  During the conference Terry Brooks said, “Every time I write, I am reborn into the world again.”  Elizabeth George said, “When I write I feel whole.” Every writer in the room felt a kinship with them.  This is what it means to be a writer.  Writers are a tribe, a family and are connected by the passion that drives them.  This conference managed to tap into that deep well of inspriation and enveloped everyone who showed up in its loving embrace.

Best selling authors like Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George and Susan WIggs didn’t have to show up at an unknown conference in a small town in Oregon, but they did.  And not only did they show up, but they brought their passion and open-heartedly shared their experience, knowledge and presence because,  “We have all been where you are.”

The mentoring, the sharing and the generosity of all of the writers, presenters and authors surprised me.  Every presenter poured themselves into their work, answering questions and making connections. Every writer I know, from the seasoned professional to the first time published finds ways to take time from their writing to share their hard earned knowledge, either by mentoring, teaching, facilitating critique groups or blogging.  This conference pulled on that drive to reach out to others.  For example, newly published authors Lisa Alber and Christina Lay reached out during a ‘lunch and learn’ sesion and showed  what to expect when your first book is published.

We learned in Elizabeth Engstrom’s workshop on ‘How to Write a Sizzling Sex Scene’, that the most important part of the scene is the afterglow.  You know a conference is good when it’s over and no one wants to leave that wonderful afterglow.  People started towards the doors, but found reasons to stop and talk, to have just one more cup of coffee together before parting, to enjoy another laugh about the introverts ball or to exchange cards and phone numbers.

Mark your calendar for March 20th, 2015.  You need to be there.  In the meantime, may all your writing be full of lagniappe.

Don’t be weird all by yourself

By Elizabeth Engstrom

It could be that I’m preaching to the choir here when I talk about the benefits of attending writing classes, writing conferences, retreats, joining and becoming involved at the volunteer level of writing organizations, and engaging in writing activities with other writers.

If you’re the classic introvert and eschew those things, I beg you to reconsider.  Because I can’t speak for anyone but myself, let me share a little of the value these activities have given me over the years.

  1. Attending writing classes. My first writing class was with the inestimable Theodore Sturgeon. Needless to say, I stood in the presence of greatness, and he not only helped me launch my career, but gave me advice on my career and my writing that has served me well all these years. Since that memorable workshop, I have taken dozens of writing classes, and each time I do, I learn something new, or I remember something I had known once but forgotten.
  2. Attending writing conferences. There is energy at a writing conference that starts with the buzz about the presenters and what they might say, and continues with the people who attend. Friendships are forged, and relationships among introverts are sometimes intense and lasting. At the very least, it’s good to see a friendly and familiar face in the crowd, not to mention all the amazing things to learn from a wide variety of presenters. Sometimes we can hear the same thing over and over again, but it doesn’t register until we hear it from just the right person from just the right point of view when we’re at just the right point in our story or character development.  Plus, conferences are a boatload of fun. There are local, regional, national, and international conferences. Find one that appeals and go to it every year. When you make your reservations, make three goals that you intend to achieve at the event, and then go about achieving them. Needless to say, I highly recommend the Wordcrafters conference coming up in March.
  3. Attending writing retreats. This is where the rubber meets the road, as they say. This is intense learning and putting into practice immediately that which you just learned. This is a way to cement the policies and procedures into your overly-heated, plot-crazed brain that helps you make sense of it all. When you sign up for a retreat, commit yourself to do what the retreat leader tells you to do and don’t argue about it. Put your personal agenda aside and allow the wisdom of that person to engage the magic in you.
  4. Joining a writing organization. Writing is such a solitary endeavor that it is always good to feel as if you are a part of something greater. There are writing organizations for those who write romance, science fiction, thrillers, westerns, horror, fantasy… and on and on. Join one. Get the newsletter, go to their events, volunteer for a committee. It won’t hurt you and it just might help your career.
  5. Engage in communal writing activities. Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) wherein I wrote a 50,000-word “novel” during the month of November. It wasn’t exactly a novel that I ended up with, my experience detailed here. But I wrote in coffee shops with other writers, went to the Thank God It’s Over party, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of it all. I’m glad that only happens once a year, but I have a friend who writes in coffee shops two to three times a week with other people, and I have discovered that with a nice pair of headphones, that’s a pleasant activity. I haven’t done it enough to know how it affects my work, because no matter how you do it, writing is a solo adventure. But it’s good to get caffeinated with other people, no matter what you’re doing. And sometimes a group of writers renting a house in the mountains or at the beach is a good writing activity, too. Get inventive.

There’s no need to gnash and thrash over your writing all by yourself. There is inspiration and strength in hanging out with other writers. There is comfort in knowing that you are not only weird, but in the company of other writers,  your weirdness is understood and accepted—even admired.

So be weird. But don’t be weird all by yourself. That’s no fun.