Writing “Rules”

Admittedly, upon waking this morning and reading the Weather Channel’s description of the cool temperature and slight breeze, I bolted outside in my pajamas to confirm for myself.  I appreciate every change of season as it comes, but there’s something about fall.  Perhaps it’s the (lifelong, I suspect) association with a new school year, but summer to fall feels like the greatest shift of all.  It feels like a shift that permeates not only the temperature and the leaf color, but people’s lives.  Big things are afoot, my friends, for you and for me.  Even if we don’t know what these big things are yet.

What I have for you today, far from the promised materialism of Friday Favorites, are my writing “rules.”  I typed these out last night instead of working on a short story.  That’s right: I wrote rules for writing instead of actually applying the rules and writing.  Though writing the rules was writing …  just not the kind of writing I was thinking of when I wrote them.

Right.  Or write, if you’d prefer.

Needless to say, I don’t actually believe that my writing rules should be your rules, or even that my rules apply to my writing all of the time (thus the obnoxious quotations around “rules”).  But it was a surprisingly good time to think about how I write and how I’d like to write and how I live so that I might write.

Holly’s Written “Rules” For Writing

1. Never show a first draft.  No matter how encouraging your reader is, the brilliancy of your fragile baby draft will shrink in your eyes once you let another’s eyes judge it.  Wait until a draft is as good as you can make it before you let people tell you how far it has yet to go.

"The first draft of anything is shit." -Ernest Hemingway

“The first draft of anything is shit.”  -Ernest Hemingway

2. When stumped, start over.  And by start over, I mean start a new word document, entirely separate from the stump-inducing one.  Retype the parts you liked on the old document, but do so without looking.  This is how you find a new angle: via blank slate.

3. Find your writing power song and don’t be too proud to use it.  Mine is “Briony” from the Atonement film score.  Because of the typewriter sounds.  Note: your power song does not need to be subtle.

4. Read your work out loud, even when you don’t want to, or are in public.  You will always catch typos and icky-sounding syntax that you couldn’t possibly have otherwise.

5. Write down an idea, name, image, conversation the minute it strikes you.  You will have forgotten it by the following morning otherwise.  See “Marble Memo” post for my portable solution.

6. The power of mulling is highly underestimated.  Not everything to do with writing has to do with the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  Sometimes the solution to a plot tangle is to write until you get it right.  Other times, you simply have to puzzle it out to yourself while circling the local roundabout intersection in your Subaru.

7. Even if you can’t take criticism well, learn to take it and then cry later.  Because you need criticism.

8.  Do things.  Meet people.  Be out in the world.  Be afraid and uncomfortable and awkward and curious.  Let it all filter into your writing.  Emily Dickinson has dibs on the secluded attic writer, and goodness knows we couldn’t do it as well as her anyway.

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9. Tell people you’re a writer.  The title “writer” has nothing to do with publishing status or age or degree.  If you love writing and do it often–whether for hobby or for career–then you’re a writer.  Revel in the raised eyebrows that will often follow your proclamation.  Don’t forget to adopt the Hemingway swagger as you walk away.

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10. Let yourself be intimidated by the greats.  Let yourself revel in their genius, regardless of who the greats are for you.  For me, they’re primarily Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf.  And they scare me and sometimes make me feel like I will never amount to anything because I don’t write like Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf.  But they also make me proud to be part of this rowdy clan of crazy genius writers.

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11.  Write your own writing rules.  Or know them, at least.  Make some standards for yourself and stick to them.  This is how we prove to those eyebrow raisers (and to ourselves) that what we do is as important and as “real” of a job as, say, accounting.

If you do write your own writing rules, share them with me.  Comment with the link.  I’d love to read them.

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Top Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (Part 1)

I was too late applying for a job today.  The posting was still on the company’s website, but the deadline at the bottom was August 12th.  I sent an email anyway, asking if the position had already been filled.  And if not, if I could send my application and begin dedicating various lucky charms toward the cause.  Sarah, who responded to my email, said in the friendliest way that the position had been filled, but that I should check back later.

I will certainly do so.

But what made me want the position badly enough to send that email in the first place was that applicants were asked to include–along with cover letter, resume, writing sample (the usual)–a list of their ten favorite pieces of contemporary literature.

Let me tell you.  I’ve applied for many a publishing job.  At larger and more prominent publishing houses.  But not one has asked me for such a list.

This is strange, because it seems to me that for one to work in publishing, one must be first and foremost a reader.  A crazed, midnight oil burning, Half Price Books residing, I can’t sleep until I know this character will be all right reader.  Able to recite the red wheelbarrow poem on demand.  Able to explain the origins of Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym without pause.  Unable to use the term “Harry Potter English Major,” because, Good Lord, all readers are wonderful and miraculous and welcome.  And we all have guilty secrets.

The entire Twilight Saga is on my bookshelf right now.  In hardback.  I am not ashamed.

But mostly, readers delight in such lists.  That’s why, if I might be so brash, I’d like to make my list now.  And to make it even thought August 12th is long past.

Don’t think of this as my desperate plea for that job that got away.  Think of it as the kind of opportunity I wait all year for.

Holly’s Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (in no particular order, because I couldn’t possibly):

1. Into the Wild.  This book served as my introduction to creative nonfiction.  It showed me that true stories could be told in literary prose.  Jon Krakauer told us about Chris McCandless without presuming to know him.  And more importantly, without presuming to criticize him.  I like an author humble enough to give you the facts, set the scene, and then back off.

2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  Tell me how overdone Hamlet plots are and I’ll smirk and hand you this book.  I haven’t yet been able to describe the plot without making it sound silly (it’s not) and as if it’s for young people (it’s not).  The prose in Edgar Sawtelle is breathtaking.  The story is set in the Chequamegon National Forest in Northern Wisconsin (my childhood stomping grounds).  And I’ve never wanted to bring a character to life more than I’ve wanted Almondine to be real.  Almondine is a Sawtelle dog.  You’ll know what I mean when you read the book.

3. Never Let Me Go.  I am not a professional reviewer.  My adjective pool is somewhat shallow.  The word flawless comes to mind, however.  Heartbreaking.  Eerie.  Masterfully layered.  I read this book when I need a lesson on how to reveal a world slowly, subtly.

Expect the next three on my list in the next post.  You didn’t think I wouldn’t prolong this delight, did you?  Whew double negative.  I’ll just leave that there.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

One of my elementary school teachers was an organized sort of person who not only liked to hang charts on her classroom walls, but also liked to lay down the facts straight off.  On the first day of school it felt like we learned more about her than she learned about us.  We learned her pet peeves, we learned her expectations, and we learned the meanings of distinct phrases she frequently uttered.  “Heavens to Betsy” was one (an expression of mock despair or genuine surprise).  “Crumbuttons” was another (the Catholic school version of “oh shit”).  “Garbage in, garbage out” was a third.

We became used to hearing the phrases after a while, just as I became used to having to stare at the large red x’s that abutted my name on the behavior chart (often, my report card from that year tells me, for talking out of turn.  Imagine that).

But up until now, I had always associated “garbage in, garbage out” with television.  Perhaps the teacher explained it to that effect.  Anyway, it meant that if you watched TV shows with excess violence or profanity, you ran a high risk of adopting similar behaviors yourself.  It made sense.

All these years later, however, I’ve realized that the phrase goes further than that.  Namely, in my case, when I read poorly written books, my writing takes a nose dive in quality as well.  But when I read beautiful books–The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, recently–my writing becomes (forgive me) a little bit beautiful as well.  I’ve always known that as a writer, books are a great influence.  I sincerely doubt I’ve ever written anything that I hadn’t first picked up in one existing book or another.

This is still a dramatic realization, though!  On one hand, if I read Woolf, Fitzgerald, Atwood, I may have a shot at standing in their ranks some day.  On the other hand, I like to read the odd low-grade paperback.  I like to revisit my childhood favorites, down to about RL5.  I sometimes like to not think as I read, as horrific as that may sound to you.  Am I doomed to forever waver between genius and foolishness, then?  Shall I publish a Pulitzer one year, bonfire kindling the next?  Or should I simply stop reading altogether, removing the good in order to avoid temptation to indulge in the bad?

Crumbuttons.

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The Thunderbird Project: A Guest Post by Author Rebecca Harwell

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine from high school asked me if she could write a guest post for this blog.  Oh sure, I said. That would be quite nice, I said, as if I am frequently approached in such a way.  I’m sure I radiated suaveness, but truthfully, I was and am terribly excited about the post you are about to read.  Rebecca Harwell has written a book entitled The Thunderbird Project, which has been published and is available for purchase beginning today (August 13th).  While just looking at the cover tells us that this is no amateur piece of business, and reading Rebecca’s blog tells us that she takes her writing as seriously as any seasoned author, in her guest post Rebecca takes the time to talk about the specific struggles she has faced as a young author.  Which is, you know, pretty inspiring for those of us who often find it difficult to push ourselves in the writing department.  

I’ll surrender the mic now so you can get to the good stuff.  

But first, can we all take a moment to exclaim over how awesome this book cover is?  

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Guest post by Rebecca Harwell, author of The Thunderbird Project:

“It’s about superheroes.”

Ever since I announced my book deal for THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT, people have enthusiastically asked me about getting a book published at a relatively young age (a soon-to-be sophomore in college) and then want to know what it’s about. When I tell the truth, they pause, say “Oh,” and politely change the topic of conversation. Sometimes, I wonder if I should say something impressive like, “It’s a treatise on the nature of good and evil and what it means to be heroic in modern society.” But even though some of that might be true…

It’s really about superheroes.

Superheroes with awesome powers. Superheroes who don’t wear spandex tights or impractical capes. Superheroes who have to face the darker side of having abilities that set them apart from society and mark them as something other than human.

I wrote THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT when I was seventeen—a junior in high school. It wasn’t the first manuscript I had written. It was the fourth. I began writing when I was eight (when I honestly believed a story about unicorns fighting evil dragons would be published) and finished my first 200+ page manuscript in eighth grade when a school assignment forced me to buckle down and get to “The End.”

That first book was horrible. So was the second. The third was passable, but lacked the spark that makes readers fall in love or publishers jump up and offer contracts.

Then I began THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT. I left behind all the “this is what the book should be” and wrote the story I wanted, filling it with my love of superhero movies and comic books. It has a larger plot and more complex themes than anything I’ve written before.

Like almost any writer will say, the road to publication is long and frustrating. After spending a year writing the book, I had to write up a query letter and a synopsis (pure torture) and send it out into the world with my fingers crossed. This book took a long time to find a home. I submitted it for nearly a year before it was signed by Bedlam Press, an imprint of Necro Publications.

THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT is being released in e-book, trade paperback, and limited edition hardcovers by Bedlam Press. Check out my website www.rebeccaharwell.com for details on where you can find it. Many thanks to Holly for letting me take over for a day to talk about it.

From the back cover:          

Not all superheroes live a glamorous life.

The Thunderbird project was an FBI-run group of superhumans until they were unceremoniously disbanded and sent out into the world to live normal lives. But unfortunately for the red-headed, mean-tempered Jupiter being 18-foot tall makes blending into society pretty much impossible. She resigns herself to living in warehouses and searching for a place where she can just be left alone.

Some just want the world to forget them.

Four years later, after being followed for days by unmarked vehicles, Jupiter is attacked and left for dead on a bridge, narrowly rescued amidst screams and camera flashes by an old teammate. She discovers that members of The Thunderbird Project are being targeted and one is already dead. Jupiter reluctantly joins the newly reinstated group.

But some people won’t forget and just want them dead.

With a whole lot of pain and past between them, the team struggles to find the identity of the assassins so they can all go back home. Since any chance of getting away from the world disappeared the day she crawled onto that bridge, Jupiter just wants to make the guys who came after her pay. And if that means sticking it to a world that hates her…so much the better.

You don’t get a ‘happily ever after’ when everyone considers you a freak.

Notes I Took

The Michael Perry workshop was this morning.

I think I was worried that he would have us do some writing, and then read our work aloud.    Which seems silly in retrospect, especially since I’m not exactly shy about sharing the things I write (hence this blog).  But blogging to strangers (who I’ll likely never meet) and writing to peers in a Fiction Writing class is different than writing to famous authors.

Even if they’re Michael Perry and utterly approachable.  (See below).

Here are some of the notes I jotted down during the workshop.  I didn’t take meticulous notes, as I kept getting caught up in the stories he was telling, but this is what I managed:

1.  Learn about writer’s rights: copyrights, etc.

2.  Self-publishing requires promotion: sell books at craft shows, events, etc.  Take down names of buyers, send postcards to those people when you publish something else.

3.  While in the editing process: make a little booklet out of one of your chapters.  Staple pages together, and carry it with you to mark up while you’re in a deer stand, in a waiting room, etc.

4.  Key to creative non-fiction: get your facts straight!

5.  The only power you have over your reader is trust.

6.  Choose words for their taste over their meaning (Dylan Thomas).

7.  Read what you’re trying to write.

8.  Work at writing every day.