The Real World of the Writing Life

Today’s blog post is by writer Q. Lindsey Barrett

The thing floating about the interwebs from a former writing teacher . . . ? Yeah, he makes a few valid points. Well I am a writing teacher and I say ignore him. This is what I have told my students about what they will need to do to sustain themselves as a writers in a world where this kind of virtual slap has become commonplace—You will need to create your own community of writers.

Here is the reality of the writing life:

The only thing that matters is the writing.

No reader buys a book or journal in order to tell the writer what they thought of the work. No one joins a critique group solely to offer feedback. Though many (many!) people write to create a record of their childhood trauma, not a single book buyer enters a bookstore (online or bricks-and-mortar) with the goal of finding a record of trauma in order to sympathize with the writer. If you want your writing to be read, your job as a writer, whether CNF or fiction, is to transcend your own life experience. Your life, ideas, skills, creativity are only vehicles for transporting the reader. Except for your mom, no one cares about the writer without first being moved by the writing.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

If you write for validation, for feedback, for grades, to get noticed, to be understood, or sadly, even to make a living, I urge you to seek another profession. When you send stories to journals, months, and sometimes years, will go by while you wait for a response, while you pray for at least feedback. You will not receive feedback; you may never get so much as a ‘no.’ That’s right, far too many journals never bother responding at all. Most agent queries are ignored. Publishers send their lowliest unpaid interns into the slush (unsolicited manuscripts) on the off chance one of them unearths a gem. Your chances of being struck by lightning are several times greater than the chances of getting a book contract. For every one of the tens of thousands of books published each year, the tiniest fraction earn the writer enough money to sustain her or him through the writing of the next one.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

To be a writer you must write because you want to. You must write because you need to. You cannot allow the lack of validation or praise or pay stop you. You must write because you are certain you have something worthwhile to say. You must constantly (constantly!) seek to improve your skills, because there isn’t a writer in the world who couldn’t write at least a little bit better. So get better. Find a better teacher if yours hasn’t the talent or motivation to teach you. I can say unequivocally I am a better writer as a result of my MFA program. Was it vocational education? No. Skill, desire, persistence, and determination are the only aspects of the writing life that are in your control. You write alone, you publish alone, and your reader will read what you wrote alone, without you ever knowing if your work touched, or amused, or frightened, or entertained them. You no doubt have noticed that the haters are many times more likely to publicly announce their hatred than the lovers are likely to announce they loved something.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

The value of a writing community of your own making cannot be overstated. Your family may love your work, but the world won’t care. Your family may be avid readers, educated and articulate, and still won’t have the objectivity to offer valuable feedback. Profit margins in the book biz are now so slim that editors no longer edit—they are all either ‘acquisition editors’ or ‘line editors’ (proofreaders). Writers are expected to get feedback from their peers (writers at about the same stage of development) on their own in order to get a manuscript ready for publication. Many traditional publishers (not self-publishing) expect the writer to pay to have their manuscript professionally edited before submitting it. (Of course, when self-publishing the writer must do, or pay for, all steps in the publishing process.) Agents do not take the time to say why they aren’t accepting your work or wanting to represent you—they either say ‘no’ or don’t respond to your query at all. Yes, there are exceptions, but the exceptions are more rare than you can possibly imagine. Someone once said that dancers are the only profession that requires more training, more years of toil, more ongoing effort for the smallest reward than writers. So why do they do it? Because they love to dance; they must dance. Do they love the endless practice, the lifelong classes, the blisters and bruises and broken bodies? I doubt it. They love the dancing.

The process of bleeding your soul onto a page isn’t fun or easy; the pay is miserable; the rejection disheartening. Love the writing. Love creating a world on the page. Love transcending life and transporting a reader you may never know. Love that marvelous community of writers who share your pain and passion and joy and sorrow.

Do I say all this to discourage you? No. I tell you all this because you need to know, you must know:

The only thing that matters is the writing.

You all have within you the seeds of a writing life, you all have potential—each of you who have chosen to read this. To be a writer you must commit to tilling and hoeing and watering and weeding before you’ll have a bountiful harvest of stories that the world wants to read, whether within or without an MFA program. You must create a community of like-minded writers. You must believe that, to you, the only thing that matters is the writing.

Thanks for reading ~

~ Q Lindsey Barrett

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic. Visit her online at qlindseybarrett.com.

Writing Beyond Good: Mining for Diamonds

DiamondMiner game

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island, and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life. ~ Walt Disney ~

By Alison Balaskovits

Last time in Writing Beyond Good: The ‘So-What’ Factor we covered creating meaningful prose using focused writing to connect each story moment to the theme, employing causation and characterization to invest your reader, and taking care to avoid ‘message prose’ while making sure the story is about deeper truths than the surface plot. For a story you fear lacks the ‘so-what factor’ I offered an exercise—look for current events to tie into the story, as creating context increases meaning for the reader.

Exercises have long seemed useful for teaching myself a particular technique or for generating story ideas. But aside from using them as a teaching tool with my students, I didn’t really use them anymore, since my problem isn’t generating ideas—it’s stopping the flow long enough to finish a story before taking off on the next. I had to laugh when I read in Thought Catalogue last week that this writerly affliction, this “stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off,” is a thing we writers hold in common with crazy people (or proves writers are crazy people).

But a few years ago I had an epiphany about how to use writing exercises as a revision tool. I’m excited to share this with you lovely readers who want to take your writing ‘beyond good,’ because it opened my eyes to the possibility of transforming a nothing piece of writing into something diamond bright. It, Mining for Diamonds, has become one of the more popular workshops I teach at conferences.

Miner

 

Here is how the idea behind it came to me. In WBG: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel, I mentioned creating an ‘emotion playlist’ to match the mood of a piece when revising. I was listening to the ultimate revision song, John Anderson singing Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Chunk of Coal:’

I’m just an old chunk of coal

but I’m going to be a diamond some day.

I’m going to spit and polish my old rough-edged self

till I get rid of every single flaw.

 —the track I break out when I need reminding that no matter how coal-lumpish whatever I’ve written is, time and pressure transforms coal into diamonds which can then be polished to dazzling brilliance. Despite the mood music, my usual method of revision wasn’t working—that method being staring at the words on the screen, and/or reading and re-reading a printed-out copy until new or different words magically enter my brain—and I was ready to give up on the unlovely mess before I keeled over mumbling and twitching or threw a brick through my computer monitor (perhaps an overreaction to bad prose).

There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.

~ Charles Dickens ~

I thought of the assignment on the first day of the week-long fiction workshop I had just completed where the leader, Dorothy Allison, told us to write for five minutes using the trigger, “I do not forgive you,” without further instruction. You can imagine the personal demons popping into the writing on that one. Also imagine the participants’ surprise when we were told to go around the circle, reading aloud what we had written . . . Gulp. When we had all finished embarrassing ourselves, Dorothy was puzzled as to how what we had written fit with the three pages of in-progress story we had submitted in advance of the workshop. Um, not at all? My three pages were the start of a story about a shy preteen girl and the boy who ‘takes a shine to her anyways:’

When Buford says, “Hey,” I can’t hardly lift my head, like maybe there’s something mighty interesting down by my shoes or maybe my chin’s stuck to my chest. Same as always. Boys make me get a funny feeling inside. Momma says I talk a blue streak, but I just say, “Hey,” to the rubber toe on my Keds.

Nope. In no way related to anything I would ever think of with a prompt about unforgiveness. Dorothy explained that she meant for us to incorporate the writing prompt into the storyline and characters of the pages we had submitted. She wanted us to use writing prompts to further our work-in-progress, not just as story starters. Ah.

So a couple weeks later, there I was hoping Billy Joe Shaver’s words about blue-pure perfection would lead me to a fix for what the ‘finished’ piece I was working on lacked. I wondered if creating text using a randomly selected writing prompt might strengthen the story. Using a prompt not to start a story, not to further a story, but to make it better.

The thing is, writing is just too damn hard to waste the work product, so I gave it a go. The entirely unrelated prompt I grabbed took a many-times-rejected story in a whole new direction. My re-writing was energized and within a month the renamed story, “The Shape of Desire,” was a Wordstock Ten finalist, selected for inclusion in the prize anthology.

I’ve since discovered that nearly any exercise can be a tool for diamond mining. Here are a few that have worked wonders for my prose as well as for my students’ work:

The Opposite Exercise.  Rescue your prose from yawning predictability by choosing a moment you suspect lacks tension. Whatever your protagonist is doing, have them do the opposite. Have them do the thing that character is least likely to do:

– If your character tends to act out in anger, reverse one of those angry outbursts so the character is dead-calm quiet.

– If your character is handy, always fixing appliances or computers, have them instead break the neighbor’s appliance, have them secretly sabotage a friend’s computer.

– What if your kind, generous character turns cold and calculating in a particular scene? Where would it take your story if your serial killer randomly let an intended victim go free? Explore the ramifications of this unexpected behavior.

Unexpected behavior instantly ratchets the tension, but this exercise is a bit tricky to pull off in memoir. Search through your memories for a moment when your characters (the people included in your memoir) did something unexpected or unpredictable and riff on why to see how that might energize your prose.

Switch The Setting. Alter a scene’s location to see if that increases the tension: Think of a scene where a couple is arguing. Most people wage their battles in private; there aren’t all that many real people who like their disagreements to be a spectator sport. But a writer’s job is to jack the tension and apply pressure to her characters. What if you moved that argument from the kitchen at home to a quiet and elegant restaurant? How would that change the nature of the argument? I’m not suggesting you turn your characters into public screamers—in fact, quite the opposite. How would your characters behave if they had to keep their fury low-key, barely contained?

Changing the setting can increase the stakes as well—getting lost in your own city might make you late, but getting lost in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, or in the wilderness where you’re in danger of running out of food and have no shelter makes for dire consequences. Simply by changing the setting, a character who refused to ask for directions moves from petty annoyance to high-stakes danger.

Thesis Statement. Another exercise to use with prose that seemingly lacks meaning is to create a thesis statement. Pretend that your story or essay is a term paper. Construct a thesis statement for the piece, and see if the prose proves your thesis. This can help you see where your work is weak or your theme vague.

Incorporate Other Writer’s Words. Sometimes finding quotations to frame your story or dropping an unexpected literary allusion in mid-story gives the chapter, story or book a broader view of the world. Freelance writer David Paul Williams (my husband), wrote an article about fly fishing for chum salmon, which are also known as dog salmon. Chum are hard-fighting, strong fish. He started the article with a quote from Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war,” which set the tone for the unusual style of his sports writing, and set the article apart from the standard fishing magazine feature. Because of the nature of his readership, he selects easily recognizable quotes, but elsewhere, little known, but spot-on quotes can pique a reader’s interest. In an assigned piece about fishing for rainbow trout, David referred to Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” and compared German brown trout to Henry Kissinger. He got an email from the editor who said he never expected to see a piece that referred to either Hemingway or Kissinger, adding that he was prompted to go re-read Hemingway, and said that David was at the top of his list when making additional assignments. I’ll say again what I’ve said before: Surprise is every editor’s drug of choice.

Switch It Up. Telling a story out of order can also pique a reader’s interest, where the same story told linearly would not. Remember how surprising it was to see Jules and Vincent alive again in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction? In a less extreme example, I got nowhere with my story, Racking The Slide, until I told the story out of order, moving the most interesting paragraph to the start.

Years ago I made a suggestion in a critique group that a woman’s story would work better if X happened before Y.  Her response: “But that’s how it really happened!” Among the pleasures of writing fiction is that you can go anywhere in service of the story—doesn’t matter ‘what really happened’ [she had presented her story as fiction]. But ‘what really happened’ is no excuse for not maximizing the potential of a non-fiction piece, either. There is no rule dictating non-fiction be relayed linearly.

Smash It. Take a competently executed, grammatically sound, perfectly okay story and smash it. If you know the rules and are able to execute the rules, try selectively violating the rules of good writing. Make the story one long sentence; rewrite the whole thing using only dialogue much like a stage play but omit all ‘stage direction’ and action [then submit it here]; rewrite using only sentence fragments; play with punctuation . . .

The photo below is of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Michelangelo certainly knew the rules of proportion, but chose to violate them in the service of the story he is telling with this sculpture. Mary is something like nine times larger than Christ, her full-grown son, but had he been sculpted proportionally, he would look gangly and awkward, limbs extruding far beyond where he is cradled in his mother’s lap. Violating the rules allowed Michelangelo to tell a specific story, to convey a mother’s love and loss—though the dead son was thirty-three, he was still very much her child.

Pieta

 

Employ Prompts. Back to where we started—Collect writing prompts to use like jumper cables, zapping life into good, but not yet beyond good stories.

Stockpile. And when you improve a piece by cutting gorgeous-but-unnecessary sentences, or interesting-yet-unneeded characters, or slow-but-scenic scenes, create a document or file where you save these glittering orphans. Troll the orphanage from time to time, particularly when needing to jazz up prosaic prose by adding the unexpected.

We all know writers who have relegated a novel manuscript to the bottom drawer—or these days—to their back-up drive. Perhaps you’ve even deleted a story or essay as unworthy, unsalvageable. Don’t do it. Don’t give up on it. Sure, give it time, set it aside, but then come back to it when you’re ready to apply pressure or pickaxe to extract the diamonds. Sometimes there is a character or concept which would thrive with a new plot; sometimes there are golden sentences surrounded by sewage, but dig deep enough and you’ll unearth the gems in your slag heap of discarded drafts.

Diamond

Taking old, discarded stories and resuscitating them can be like remodeling, making a dreary home fresh and new. Or it can be more like salvaging the durable parts of a house about to be leveled. Bricks and timbers and fixtures are given new life in other homes by talented masons and carpenters and electricians.

When a book raises your spirit, and inspires you with noble and manly thoughts, seek for no other test of its excellence.  It is good, and made by a good workman.

~ Jean de la Bruyère (1645-1696) ~

So strap on your tool belt, slip on your Davy lamp, and see what treasures you salvage from the wrecking ball.

Pic

There are so many more fantastic exercises I’d like to pass along to help you reimagine stalled work ~ But I’ll close with these encouraging thoughts from Bill Kenower:

Within the slog of everyday life lived with someone you love, you can uncover the divine, the lovely, and the meaning in absolutely everything.

            So too is it with a story you love. Every story will become as tangled as a late night argument; every story will appear as hopeless and small as a flat tire. But if you love that story you will discover you have the patience to find your way through a tired middle, will have the discipline to discard an unnecessary character. Love is simply not a mistress you can quit. What you call quitting is only a search that will lead you back exactly where you started, where she will be waiting for you to start another story.

Thanks for reading ~ QLB

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett  is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic

Writing Beyond Good: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel

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“If a book comes from the heart it will contrive to reach other hearts. All art and author craft are of small account to that.”~ Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

By Alison Balaskovits

Last time in Creating Emotional Resonance, I talked about creating relatable characters and about layering in concrete, physical detail. Now let’s explore specificity and tapping into the emotion of a piece while you are writing it.

CREATING EMOTIONAL RESONANCE: The Sequel

 The elegant simplicity of director David Lean’s use of sunflowers in Doctor Zhivago and Steven Spielberg’s  use of a red coat in Schindler’s List offer us examples of lingering in a moment, and of capturing one perfect detail which, when it reappears later in a story acts as a touchstone, triggering reader emotion. For an entirely different type of inspiration, take a look at Maya Lin’s moving and elegant design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. The unconventional simplicity of the design, polished black granite with lists of the names of the dead, is what gives the memorial its power.

If you’ve ever walked along that wall it’s hard to understand the initial efforts to kill the project dubbed, “a black gash of shame.”

Wall

 

A hush falls on those who come to the wall. Even its strongest detractors have since  acknowledged its healing power. The memorial leads visitors on a journey to how we feel about the loss of lives in war. Think about the power of specificity in literally naming that cost. So many names. So many names.

The Power of Specificity

Perhaps the memorial wall inspired Tim O’Brien in the title story in his collection about the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried.” Much of the story is made up of literal lists of items carried by the soldiers. O’Brien uses those lists to place the reader in the war zone, in a Vietnamese jungle alongside Lieutenant Cross, spending, “the last hour of light pretending.”

Those concrete lists, “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches,” which make up the story are carefully interrupted with a few well-chosen abstractions. The magic lies in the words between the lists—”if you screamed, how far would the sound carry?”—but also in the items listed. Knowing “they carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds,” tells us much of what they endured and helps us to experience the soldier’s story-lives.

O’Brien demonstrates an understanding of the power of specific detail when he lists even the weight of the items carried, insuring the reader feels the weight of the soldier’s internal burdens—”unweighed fear,” and “silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” He dispenses these abstract burdens judiciously amongst the concrete—rabbits’ feet and ammunition and toilet paper. It is because we know that Lieutenant Cross carried, “a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds full loaded,” that we are able to accept the truth that he also carried, “the responsibility for the lives of his men.”

We feel the burden of the things they carried. The exhaustive lists work in the same way that the sheer number of names on the memorial wall creates the most moving of statements. Let concrete, physical, specific detail carry the abstractions in your work. Think three-to-one at a minimum—three physical details for every abstraction.

Another moving element of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is that when you gaze upon those many names, the black granite acts as a mirror, reflecting the viewer’s image overlaid with names of the dead.

Mirroring

Mirroring in literature can be used in many ways—the weeping sunflowers in last week’s post mirror Uri Zhivago’s sorrow. ‘Pathetic fallacy’—using weather to mirror the emotion of a scene—is such a common technique it’s difficult to make it feel fresh. Here is another way mirroring can be used to create resonance: Use a secondary character as a mirror in your work, reflecting another character’s emotion, rather than expressing his or her feelings directly. Remember the definition in Part 1 of this post: Resonance is ‘a sound or vibration produced in one object that is caused by the sound or vibration produced in another.’

Let me illustrate using this scene from my story “The Bed You Made.” Beau has just slapped the narrator, his girlfriend, who then jumped out of the car:

“You stand back some—well out of reach—while Beau says, eyes downcast, ‘When I was little, my dad told me to never hit girls.’ He picks at the leather lacing of the steering wheel cover. ‘But late at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, my mom would fly into these rages and throw things at Dad. He’d stand there, whispering, “calm down,” begging her to stop.’

He raps the steering wheel so sharply, you jump. ‘She once broke a half-inch thick glass ashtray over his head. Blood was everywhere; they had to replace the carpet. He still has the scar—’ Beau starts to lose it, stops, runs a hand over his face . . .

“You see he’s that scared little boy again, hearing his momma and daddy fight. His pain makes your own heart ache. You climb into the car and hold him and rock him so the brimming over of love inside you will pass through, healing him. You have the power within you to make him whole.”

Since Beau has trouble expressing any emotion other than rage, the narrator carries his true emotion in the scene; she reflects Beau’s heartache. Mirroring is a good technique to show-without-telling what a character is really feeling any time there is a disconnect between those feelings and that character’s actions or demeanor.

“Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.” ~ Gordon Lish

Immerse Yourself In The Emotion Of The Story As You Are Writing It

Of all the tools you can employ to imbue your work with emotional resonance, the most important is to personally feel what your characters feel as you write. Your response to your own work is the first indicator of emotional resonance your readers will experience (or lack thereof). I have laughed and raged and cried as I wrote—to the point where I couldn’t see my computer screen. One of the reasons we writers are so damnably difficult to live with is that while the world outside our writing room may be placidly carrying on, we are laughing and crying and wincing and cursing the world we’re creating on the page; there isn’t an ‘off switch’ once we rejoin the real world.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”~ Robert Frost

“If your protagonist cries, your reader doesn’t have to.”~ Gloria Kempton

Frost’s oft-cited truism seems at odds with Kempton’s. But know that 1. Kempton means your reader will experience your character’s emotions more fully if you describe what they do as a result of their sorrow, rather than have them literally shed tears; and 2. having your characters cry tends to dissipate the tension. You want your reader to experience the catharsis, not your characters—be hard on your characters, leave them in pain.

In N. Scott Momady’s Pulitzer-winning novel, House Made Of Dawn, Abel wakes in the pre-dawn hour of a winter’s day to find his grandfather has died:

“There was no wind outside, nor any sound; only a thin chill had come in from the night and it lay like the cold of a cave on the earthen floor.”

He quietly prepares his grandfather’s body in the ceremonial way of his ancestors, then leaves.

“Abel did not return to his grandfather’s house. He walked hurriedly southward along the edge of the town. At the last house he paused and took off his shirt. His body was numb and ached with cold, and he knelt at the mouth of the oven. He reached inside and placed his hands in the frozen crust and rubbed his arms and chest with ashes.”

We feel Abel’s pain without a single word describing how he feels, without a single tear shed.

Method Writing

Experience your character’s pain, your character’s joy, in your imagination, and you’re more likely to put it on the page. Submerging yourself in your character’s experience is like Method Acting—become your characters. Each and all of them, not just your point-of-view character. I know of writers who dye their hair, who wear heavy boots or 19th century corsets—Annie Dillard lived in a cabin without running water or electricity, churning and weaving, and egg gathering, inhabiting the lives of her characters in order to write The Living.

Vertical Writing

Andre Dubus uses a similar technique he calls ‘vertical writing.’ Rather than moving forward with a story, cranking out pages, he instead feels every sensation his character feels and he writes only what happens in the next story moment (rather than writing what that character feels).

Whether ‘Method’ writing or ‘vertical writing,’ use what you feel when you become your characters to describe what happens in the story and those details will convey the emotion.

Lezlie Laws Couch, writing in The NEA Higher Education Journal, talks about the difficulty of dealing with strong emotions aroused when you write this way. One of her student was struggling to write about caring for her handicapped son. Crouch said the student’s difficulty telling her story came from needing to keep a ‘disconnect,’ because to deal with what she truly felt would take her into ‘dangerous territory.’

“She is angry, she is hurt, she is obsessive, she is tired, and she wants out. And none of these notions fits with her image of the kind of mother she thinks she should be, much less the kind of mother she should write about.”

Are you failing to do your best work because you fear having to ‘go there;’ are you hamstrung with anxiety when things get tense for your protagonist? Writing involves a calculated effort to arrange words so they reach the hearts and minds of readers. The truth is that finding that arrangement will cost you. In order to move readers you must first move yourself.

A couple of suggestions for helping submerge yourself in the emotion of the piece you are writing:

• Even if you don’t read much poetry, seek out examples which stir you and categorize them by the emotion they evoke. Read the appropriate selections before beginning to write. I think it was Maya Angelou who said that poems are like bouillon cubes, images boiled down to their essence. Use the poet’s ability to efficiently evoke emotion to inspire your prose.

Hey

• Create an ‘emotion playlist’ from your music catalogue. Sandra Bullock, filming Gravity in a highly un-evocative green-screen environment, and in extended moments of on-screen silence, said she relied on mood music piped in to help her capture the emotion of the scene she was playing. Music is one of the most elemental ways to evoke emotion. While I need complete silence when first drafting a scene, I find that when revising, playing music selected to match the emotion of that scene—scoring my writing like a movie—really helps me tap into the scene.

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So to create emotional resonance:

• give us a character we identify with or care about

• layer in the (carefully selected) concrete details

• collect images, experiences,  observations, whatever moves you

• remember the power of specificity

• use mirroring to carry the emotion of an unemotional character in a scene

• immerse yourself in your characters experience of story events as you are writing it

And though emotional resonance creates meaning, don’t worry about what your story ‘means’—for either the characters or the reader—while in the flow of writing. Instead, immerse yourself, and therefore your reader, sometimes floating along, at other moments diving deep, and meaning will emerge.

But make no mistake, ‘meaning’ ultimately is crucial. I take on this topic next time in ‘The So-What Factor.’ I leave you now with this bit of wisdom from Lezlie Laws Couch’s essay:

“The writer carries a double-edged sword. One side representing the emotional content of her work, the writer’s willingness to pierce her own heart along with the hearts of her readers. The other side representing craft, and the daily devotion to technique. The writer’s job is to make sure both sides of her instrument are kept clean and sharp.”

Thanks for reading.

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett  is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic

Writing Beyond Good: Creating Emotional Resonance

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Today’s blog comes from Q Lindsey Barrett.

“A story must engage the heart as well as the head; a story cannot just play clever games with language or structure or generic expectations but must have a beating, emotional heart at its core.”

~ Stephanie Friedman

Last summer I ended my guest post, Writing Beyond Good, with a list of additional elements writers struggling to emerge from the slush should tackle to elevate their prose beyond good.  With the difficulty getting your work seen in the world, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the spate of requests I received for more such advice on craft. Here then is the first of a series of WBG posts.

CREATING EMOTIONAL RESONANCE

Lisa Cron in Wired For Story says that story is an “internal brain-to-brain, emotion-driven expedition.” Emotion-driven—it’s not about the plot—it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. When a story, even when crafted with beautiful sentences, fails to have the all-important quality of ‘emotional resonance,’ often the writer has rendered only the surface, the external shell, the things that happen— the plot —without dipping beneath that surface of story events.

Master writing teacher and editor Jessica Morrell says, “Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our stories evoke meaning or a responsive chord in a reader.” Paragraphs full of beautifully crafted sentences do not make a fine story if the reader feels nothing after having read them. We read textbooks to comprehend; we read literature to feel.

But let’s back up here. Feelings = emotions. But what’s the difference between ‘emotion’ and ‘emotional resonance?’

Merriam-Webster defines ‘resonance’ this way:

res·o·nance :  noun \’re-z?-n?n(t)s, ‘rez-n?n(t)s\

: the quality of a sound that stays loud, clear, and deep for a long time

: a quality that makes something personally meaningful or important to someone

: a sound or vibration produced in one object that is caused by the sound or vibration produced in another

The Oxford Dictionary:

: the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions

So ‘emotion’ is what your characters are feeling; ‘emotional resonance’ is about evoking in the reader the emotions your characters* are experiencing in the work. To incorporate M-W’s musical definitions, resonance is a quality in the words on the page that stays with the reader; an emotion produced in the reader by what the characters feel. And, as Morrell says, the writer must place what she calls ‘stimuli’ into a story to trigger a response in the reader.

*By the way, ‘story’ means any kind of narrative prose; ‘character’ isn’t limited to fiction—the people who populate memoir are story characters too.

“It’s not what happens to people on the page; it’s about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.”

~ Gordon Lish

Now, what stimuli will produce emotion in your reader? One way being developed at MIT to invite readers into your story world and help them feel what your characters feel is a project called Sensory Fiction. Characters’ emotions are relayed through networked sensors and actuators worn by the reader.

Sensory

Potentially tragic for the many who like to read in the tub?

Short of literally wiring your reader for story, creating characters worthy of and able to carry the reader through the emotional ups and downs should be foremost in the writer’s mind.

Give Us A Character To Identify With Or Care About

Because TV and movies are more widely experienced than a specific book or story, they can serve as examples using a language we have in common. For instance, the TV talent shows I love offer a lesson for writers creating characters. They teach that the power to make the viewer care about the contestants enough to vote for them is not in their singing, it’s in their story. The most talented often don’t garner the most votes, it’s the ones who are talented enough, but who also have a moving story who do. We love the contestants for whom it didn’t come easy more than the ones who seem to have had all the advantages. Emotionally resonant characters must strive, must work, must overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean the old axiom about your protagonist needing to be sympathetic; think instead of creating a relatable protagonist.

Here’s another example. In addition to mainlining TV talent shows, caught up as the contestants (characters) strive to achieve their goals, I’m an Olympics junkie. Watching ice skater Jeremy Abbott crash on his first jump in the short program, and crash hard, I gasped, waiting, transfixed, counting the moments he lay there, willing him to be all right. He didn’t get up for what seemed a long time.

Sochi

When he did pull himself to standing, he was hunched and moving slow, clutching his hip, the point of impact with the ice, his face a mask of pain. I assumed his skate was over. The crowd cheered when he made it to his feet. Hearing the crowd roar, his face changed from grimace to determination. He would find a place to join the still-playing music, he would finish his routine, even knowing he had no chance to medal. He had trouble regaining the rhythm, trouble syncing moves with music. The crowd clapped the beat to help him find his way.

His face at the end bore the emotion swelling from the audience to him; his arms embraced the entire arena in thanks. In a post-skate interview he said he didn’t intend to keep skating, but the audience buoyed him. He owed it to them to continue.

We admire singers and skaters who’ve perfected technique—and writers who create beautifully crafted sentences. But we are moved by Abbott’s struggle, by his triumph over adversity. We care not so much about the plot, not so much about where he landed in the standings; we are moved by his inner struggle—the nature of his character made manifest as we watched.

Even if you hadn’t seen Abbott’s short program, I’m guessing the details I used to describe what happened allowed you to imagine what watching it was like.

Layer In The (Carefully Selected) Concrete Details

The secret to helping your readers feel what your characters feel is in carefully selecting the details. Mastering the power of detail is important enough that I will cover it in, well—detail—in a future post. But here are some thoughts on using detail to power your prose.

Another skater in the Sochi Olympics, Julia Lipnitskaia, reminded me of that power, of the way the right detail can rivet our attention, can carry the emotion of a story.

Sochi2

Her music, the theme from Schindler’s List, her routine, choreographed by Ilia Averbukh, a former Olympic ice dancing medalist who is a Russian Jew, and her red-coat costume were intended to engage our emotions by reminding us of how we felt watching the little girl in the red coat in the movie Schindler’s List.

Schindler's list

Spielberg drew Schindler’s and our attention to the horrific reality of what the Nazi’s were doing to the Jews by highlighting a particular detail. In a starkly black and white landscape, a tiny girl in a red coat creates an emotional turning point for the character and for the viewer. When Schindler later spots the red cloth in a pile of dead bodies, he is moved to take action. Rather than just the facts of what happened in the Warsaw ghetto—the plot—Spielberg employs a specific detail as a touchstone for our emotions. We have a visceral reaction when we notice the coat in the pile.

Because we know we must make our prose stand out in a sea of submissions, it easy to get caught up in being clever on the page, in making something unusual happen rather than focus on small and specific detail. Jeff Kirschner, as quoted on the screenwriting blog, The Black List, said, “As writers, we have a tendency to be overly cerebral. Personally, I’m always worried about adhering to this story principle, or that hitting that plot point, that I often overlook my heart – a true source for emotion.”

A story’s power is not in facts of what happens in the story. In a Salon piece last week, the author, Sonya Lea, first lays out ‘the facts’:

“In the 23rd year of our marriage, my husband went into surgery for a rare cancer, and came out a virgin. At first, I wouldn’t know that in the 10-hour ordeal we termed a “slash-and-burn” — a near-disembowelment and bath of hot poison medically referred to as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) — he’d forgotten his life. But in the weeks that followed, we would learn that internal bleeding caused a lack of oxygen to his brain, and the resulting traumatic brain injury destroyed his desire to communicate, and completely altered his personality. Gone was any ability to speak, emote, remember.”

While we understand how terrible the experience must have been, see how in a later paragraph employing concrete, physical detail carries us into the emotion of her story:

“In this strange place where we have come to recover, the November wind moves across the chaparral and sagebrush and goldenrod of the San Joaquin hills and down to the Laguna canyon, where it winds through the screen window carrying sand, and the sense of erosion. The wind lifts tufts of my husband’s hair where it’s graying: across his chest, the sideburns of his side-parted, freshly washed mane. His eyes open. They are indigo, wide and unblinking. His eyes disguise no thought; they alight as if to legitimize my belief in innocence.”

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

~ E.L. Doctorow

Sonya Lea spends a paragraph in a single moment and that allows the reader to feel that same moment. There is a technique taught by Barbara Turner-Vesselago in her Freefall Writing Workshop, (which I will describe more fully in the future post on detail), where I learned not just the why but the how of lingering in a particular moment in a story to dive deep into the emotional impact. (By the way, though many of her workshops have waiting lists, I think she still has room in her Freefall workshop in Edenvale, BC, Canada at the end of May, for anyone interested.)

Sometime after I took her workshop last summer, I was gifted the anniversary edition DVD of Doctor Zhivago, and was struck while watching the ‘extras’ by how similar the technique director David Lean used to evoke emotion was to Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s stay-in-the-moment method. Here is a still from the movie:

Uri

That is Uri Zhivago ascending the stairs in a former mansion-turned-army-hospital after the army has moved on along with his nurse/assistant Laura, leaving him alone. The sunflowers, which are at the peak of perfection in a previous scene, serve as a metaphor for the light Laura has brought into Zhivago’s conscripted life. The dying flowers signify his loss when she leaves. Lean takes his time, lingering in this scene, though not much is happening, showing how desolate and alone Zhivago is without Laura. As Uri goes up the stairs, head down, dejected, Lean makes the flowers weep for Uri by tying monofilament to individual petals, which are then pulled by people under the table out of camera range, falling one by one like tears.

Because I am moved by simplicity of symbols and spareness of prose, it’s far too easy for me to fall into the habit of moving forward too quickly—typical first draft stuff—Freefall showed me where to linger, inviting readers into my world and allowing them time to feel.

A sporting event, a tidbit about how a director achieved an effect in a movie . . . what have these to do with creating emotional resonance when writing? As I described in TMR’s Working Writer Series, pay attention to things in the world that speak to you, moments that resonate with you, take notes, gather those ‘wool bits’ to later fuel your writing.

So to create emotional resonance:

• give us characters we identify with or care about

• layer in the (carefully selected) concrete details

In ‘Emotional Resonance: The Sequel’ (AKA Part II of this topic), I’ll talk about tapping into emotion while you are writing.

Thanks for reading ~

 Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett  is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic

Writing Beyond Good

Today’s blog post comes from Q Lindsey Barrett

If my three and half years as a submission reader, now editor at Hunger Mountain have taught me anything, it’s that ‘good writing’ isn’t enough to get selected for publication. What I see as I’m making my way through the endless queue of submissions is not a huge variation in writerly talent, no barely-literate writing at one end and a-star-writer-is-born at the other. In fact, most of the stories are competently executed, interspersed with well-turned phrases, fine story telling . . . but rare indeed is the story that compels me to say, “I’ve found it!”

• The numbers game:

Let’s start by making up some numbers to illustrate the difficultly of getting selected for publication. Say at Hunger Mountain we get 100 fiction submissions a month, so 1200 a year. We are a quarterly, so four issues, and let’s say there are 6 short stories in each issue. That means each submission has a 2% shot at being one of the 24 stories selected. Not great odds. Hunger Mountain is one of many journals now publishing web-only stories as well as those in the print journal, making the odds ever so slightly better.

TMR likely gets far more submissions, but is still a quarterly, so prints roughly the same number of stories each year, making the odds of getting into the ‘top tier’ exponentially more dismal.

To be selected as one of the chosen, one of the 24, your story must rise above merely good. To be sure, a number of factors are beyond the writer’s control—editorial idiosyncracy, submission reader taste coupled with the luck of which reader gets which submission, and other such factors which are a topic for another day. For now, let’s just stick to increasing your odds of writing beyond good. Let’s talk about, if ‘good’ isn’t good enough, what does it take to get to ‘enough?’

• Let’s talk talent:

Award-winning writer Samuel R. Delany says, “If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story.” So, good writing is a product of technique, but produces what Delany calls ‘bad fiction,’ that is to say, technically proficient yet banal, dull—even, Delany says, if the writer takes care to use lyrical phrases, musical language, imaginative subject matter.

Delany thinks ‘talent’ makes the difference: “Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.”

While Delany’s description of which writing rises to the top is excellent, the problem I have is that the word ‘talent’ sounds like something inborn, rather than acquired . . . Are we writing teachers all perpetuating a fraud? Are we pretending to teach something which either you have or you don’t? No. While it’s true that students come to teachers at varying levels of what is referred to as ‘talent,’ that talent is a result of early exposure, practice, enthusiasm for the task, practice, learning, and practice.

Let’s focus instead on Delany’s phrase, “makes things happen in the reader’s mind,” as that pretty much sums up what good fiction does. Yes, you say, but how?

• Rise above the stats:

Indeed. How does one rise above the stats? In a stack of manuscripts, whether paper or digital, it’s clear that relationship woes, family squabbles, death of a parent/spouse/child is the fuel for a lot of people’s writing. This common currency of human interaction makes for stories which are universal and relatable. But in wading through the stack, the manuscript reader longs for something they haven’t read a hundred times before, no matter how well written a particular story. Surprise is every editor’s drug of choice. To rise to the top of the manuscript stack, weave the unexpected into your work.

Danger, Will Robinson: Dropping a character, a plot element, an interesting turn of phrase, into a story for its surprise value when it doesn’t naturally arise from the story events has the opposite effect of giving that editor her fix. Like a bad batch of illicit pharmaceuticals, unearned surprises, or sentences so beautifully rendered they remind the reader she’s reading, create a bad experience, ejecting the reader from what John Gardner called ‘the fictional dream.’ (The Art of Fiction)

Here’s the thing–even truly lovely sentences should be necessary to the story.

And then what we notice next is . . .

• A Crazy Little Thing Called Voice:

“Sixty odd years I been muddling my life out of these woods and waters and muck. Crabber’s daughter, born here and bred on catfish and crabbing before the wolves came in ’87. Moved us to Mann’s Harbor they did when the government took the land for the wildlife refuge. Mama and Daddy were old, and didn’t mind the new house with lights and bathrooms. I did. Too much of the wrong kind of noise even for a place what’s a blink of a town like Mann’s Harbor, a jut of firm land with houses bumped out of the ground like knots on a log. The stars was duller what with watch lights glaring all night and road traffic buzzing by on the highway, vacationers droning to Outer Banks beaches in their bloated cars, metal flies flocking to white-sand honey.”

From Debra Rook’s marvelous story, “Where Lost Things Return And The Land Reclaims Her Own.”  The elusive and oh-so-important quality of ‘voice.’ The rhythm of the words, speech patterns, word choice, all go into creating voice, an element of writing which, if it can be taught, I haven’t figured out how to teach. But like ‘talent’ it can be developed—it is not an innate quality. It just seems that way because it’s hard to define, hard to teach and writers who are good at it make it look effortless. But develop it we must, because of all the qualities that make a story rise up and say ‘pick me,’ voice is most often cited as why an agent or editor chose an author’s work.

The secret, I think, to developing the quality of ‘voice’ is to read widely, pay attention to the way a variety of people talk and describe things, and note what makes some people distinctive (absent visual characteristics), while others blend into the background. Make sure your characters, whether real-life or fictional, are not background-blenders.

Danger, Will Robinson: Even ‘Everyman’ archetypes must have distinctive mannerisms or qualities or ways of looking at their world.

• Give Your Readers Memorable Characters:

While the excerpt from Rook’s work above demonstrates her unique voice, it also shows the narrator to be a memorable character. Think back to stories and novels you’ve loved. The best keep us thinking about the characters long after we’ve finished reading. Interesting characters is second only to voice in what makes for great stories. Interesting characters. Make your characters amoral, heroic, quieter, wilder, meaner, greener, than real-life people. Even in memoir. I’m not saying to make non-fiction fictional. I’m saying, focus on events that showcase your friends and family, your characters at their most interesting.

Cheryl Strayed’s top-of-the-charts memoir, Wild, isn’t about the time she spent in grad school or waitressing, when she could easily have blended into the student population or restaurant staff—it’s about a time in her life when she was so filled with despair she did a bunch of crazy things, culminating in an ill-advised solo journey. A journey so fraught with physical hardship it healed her troubled mind. And in fiction, Pam Houston’s lovely story, “A Blizzard Under Blue Sky,” tells of a profoundly depressed woman who decides a night alone in the wilderness in winter is just what she needs. We aren’t shown the days the woman wallowed in sorrow, unable to get out of bed—typical depression behavior—face it, who wants to read that? What we see is her nearly freeze to death in an unexpected cold snap; we see that coming so near to dead made alive seem a pretty good option, even though nothing else bringing her down in life changed.

Note that the larger-than-life I’m recommending isn’t the stuff of ham-fisted fiction, bludgeoning the reader with characters described in exclamation-pointed superlatives— The Baddest Cat In Harlem! Most Renowned Artist In History! Quirkiest Pixie To Ever Break A Geek-Boy’s Heart! —characters who could only be played in the movie versions by Richard Roundtree, Charlton Heston, Zooey Deschanel —rather, real people at their most interesting.

Danger, Will Robinson: Quirky, of late, is the most often employed lazy-writer technique used to create ‘interesting’ in lieu of the hard work of characterization. Quirky grows tiresome quite quickly.

Characterization, as with all aspects of good writing, is very hard work indeed. It’s easy to say what a character looks like or is wearing. Memorable characters are revealed to the reader by what they do and say, rather than by description. Atticus Finch might be square-jawed, hazel-eyed, and tall—or he might have a clef in his narrow chin, eyes so dark the iris can’t be distinguished from the pupil, stooped and slight of build—who knows? who cares? If Harper Lee described his physical characteristics in To Kill A Mockingbird, I can’t remember what they were. What I remember is that he acted with courage, he cared for and about his children, he championed the friendless. Memorable characters do out-of-the-ordinary things.

• Create a ‘thicker weave’:

Legendary short story writer and teacher Grace Paley said, “You lose a lot of density” when you only write about events from your own life. Her advice was to reach back through the generations to create a ‘thicker weave’ in your stories. Here is a YouTube video of Paley reading and answering audience questions. While it is worthwhile to watch the whole thing, the relevant parts are from 8:17 –  9:48 and 13:19 – 13:55.

This ‘reaching back through the generations’ creates a story about more than the lives of the main characters. Another way is to . . .

• Make the story bigger than just the main plot:

Look at your characters, whether fictional or family, in the context of the larger world; public events woven into personal story will elevate your prose above the mundane. This technique also helps to set a story in time. Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, provides an excellent example, and begins this way:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers–goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”

Danger, Will Robinson: Take care to not arbitrarily throw in something from the larger world—whatever you choose must be used in the context of the main story. The Bell Jar is about a young woman’s mental breakdown. When she is hospitalized, she receives electroshock therapy, tying the Rosenberg’s electrocution to story events, and making even more poignant the final phrase of this opening paragraph. Not an arbitrary, tossed-in world event.

The larger-world event needn’t open the story, and needn’t be something huge. Caitlin Horrocks incorporates the larger world, as well as accomplishes Paley’s ‘reaching back through the generations’ in this reference partway through her story “Zolaria”, which I recommended in TMR’s Working Writer Series.

“When Mr. Khoury visited our fifth-grade class, our teacher introduced him as a man there to talk about his “troubled homeland.” He was a man from somewhere else, a troubled country people left and then called ‘home’.”

In fact, this doesn’t refer to an ‘event’ at all; rather an ongoing situation in another country. It is the artful wording of the second sentence that gives the reader insight into Hanna Khoury’s family background as well as insight into the larger world of immigrants.

Best-selling historical novelist Tracy Chevalier advises, “Step away from yourself and look out into the world. You’re not as interesting as you think.”

• Leave room for the reader to participate in the story:

Pam Houston, whose book Cowboys Are My Weakness has much to do with why I became a writer, once said to another participant in a workshop where my work was being critiqued, “But you already know.” What she meant was that the participant had said that thing we hear so often in critique, “I need to know XX sooner.” Houston went on to explain that if the prose caused the reader to form this question, the words had already done their job. The reader already had the answer, even if it didn’t come to the forefront of her mind until later. The reader doesn’t need to be told, and wouldn’t enjoy it if they were told.

Danger, Will Robinson: I’m not talking about contriving a way to withhold information, I’m talking about leaving room for reader participation. In my ongoing and extensive analysis of what makes a reader enjoy a story, it is clear that one of the great pleasures of reading is when a story allows the reader to figure things out, to ‘get’ cultural references, to participate in creating the story from the author’s words, from the images the words evoke.

Not a contrivance or beautiful language or a mystery, something as simple as:

“It is July. We are a miraculous age.”

forms images in the reader’s mind – summer, kids, wonderment. What the writer leaves out creates the story we tell as we’re reading. Neither of those sentences alone creates story, but those two lines combined invite the reader’s participation. That was the opening to Horrock’s “Zolaria.”

If instead Horrocks had spelled out what she was trying to convey– It was mid-summer and we were at that age where summer vacation feels like a miraculous time –that does not invite reader participation. The reader bypasses, skims over, passages where the author has said too much. Remember Houston’s words—if your beta readers, your critique partners, are able to articulate what they ‘needed to know,’ they already ‘know’ it from what you’ve written.

• One last thing—back to the editor’s drug of choice:

Horrocks is also a master of what I call ‘The Shift’—That is, the reader understands that the story is about X, then comes The Shift, and they realize the story is about Y. The aha! moment created by The Shift is one of the happiest story surprises . . . when the reader realizes their previous assumptions are false, yet the truth was right there for them to see all along. Horrocks employs this technique in most, if not all her work, but my favorite example is her story, “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui,” which was in the Summer 2008 issue of The Gettysburg Review, and in Horrocks’ collection, This Is Not Your City. Unfortunately, to demonstrate how she did it would require far too long a quote than can be used here, but I recommend acquiring a copy of the journal or the collection for those wishing to further their writerly education.

Danger, Will Robinson: Note that I said, “…was right there for them to see all along.” That is key to effective use of The Shift. Layering in elements that make use of people’s preconceived notions, then shining a light on those notions is what leads to the aha! Absent that layering, that groundwork, creates instead, “Say, what?” and the reader feels betrayed.

•••

There is so much more to share about what makes for Writing Beyond Good:

– creating emotional resonance

– knowing where the story should start and taking care to not write past the end

– mastering induction (suggesting the general through the deft deployment of the specific)

– employ compression

– pay attention to the sound and rhythm of sentences

– the ‘so what’ factor

– finding subject matter weighty enough to carry a story

– the art of pacing

And on and on. But I’ll end here. Master the element of surprise, develop your writerly voice, create memorable characters, learn to enlarge the scope of your story, leave room for reader participation, and you’ll turn that frown upside—no, no, I mean you’ll turn re-ject into ac-cept. Thanks for reading.

Q Lindsey B Q Lindsey Barrett exalts writers and rejects manuscripts atHunger Mountain.

Working Writers Series: Q Lindsey Barrett

Welcome back to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com

Today’s working writer is Q Lindsey Barrett.

QLindseyBarrett - TMR

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

 

I came to writing late, but once I got here, I knew the entirety of my life had led me to being a fiction writer. My first publication was, literally, the first thing I wrote – a poem. Back in 1990 when Cosmopolitan magazine was still publishing fiction and poetry, I sent my little poem off, it was accepted, published, and I was paid $25. I thought, ‘What’s all this about the difficulty of getting published?’ It was 2003 before my next acceptance.

TMR played a role in my perseverance. I studied lit journals like getting my work in them was a test I had to pass; started taking community college writing courses, reading writing craft books, attending writers’ conferences, and writing writing writing. I had a more-than-full-time, high-pressure job as a legal administrator and was raising two daughters, so it took until 1995 before I felt I had a story ready for publication. Early on I connected with The Missouri Review’s style and editorial sensibility and my goal became to have my first short story publication be in TMR. I sent the story off and a few months later received my SASE with a form reject of the ‘we won’t be publishing this piece, but send us more’ variety. A hand-written ‘Thanks!’ was scrawled on the paper and the ‘send more’ part was underlined in blue ink. Ah how that tiny taste of encouragement kept me at it.

I decided I needed more education, so I applied to the University of Washington’s two-year graduate (non-degree) Fiction Writing Program (focused on short stories). After earning my certificate, I wrote and submitted, wrote and submitted, often rewarded with ‘send us more’ rejects. I repeated the second year of the program, but in the novel-writing track. An excerpt of my in-progress novel was selected for publication and my professor described me as her ‘most gifted natural writer,’ which I’ve since learned means little in terms of getting published–chatting with agents at conferences about my novel had them stifling yawns. (Took me a while to learn how bad I am at the big hook, at the one-sentence pitch.) Still no success with short stories, another poem won a contest and was published, and I had an ever-longer, yet still unfinished novel.” Decided I needed more education.

I applied to five highly regarded low-residency MFA programs and was accepted at four. I choose Vermont College. I switched to a less all-consuming job so I’d have brain power for my studies and continued to submit during my MFA pursuit, fueled by personal, full letter rejects (Esquire), no but send more (The New Yorker), and the occasional word of encouragement among the billion standard rejects. I graduated in 2010, and received my first short story acceptance a few months later (though it was another year and a half before it was actually published). I started shopping in earnest for an agent and pursuing teaching opportunities at conferences (I had attended many) and at local continuing education–family obligations prevent relocation for university teaching. I began reading slush for Hunger Mountain. 2011 brought several short story acceptances, 2012 a couple, one so far in 2013, and a few contest ‘honorable mentions.’ Agents often kindly tell me I’m a very good writer while turning my books down, usually with talk of the brutality of today’s publishing market, always with the news that what I’ve written isn’t quite ‘there,’ in terms of what publishers are looking for.

I love teaching! Though, at best, teaching at conferences is a break-even proposition; more often the cost of getting to a conference exceeds the honorarium. My students are always appreciative, and often ask if I’ll take on their books as editorial projects. I have occasionally done so, but find that immersion-level editing uses up all my creative mind, leaving none for my own work. Last December I was asked to step into the role of Assistant Fiction Editor at Hunger Mountain. I continue to teach and write and submit and seek agent representation and still believe ‘writer’ is what I was meant to be. I occasionally think I’ll write a book called “My Unpaid Writing Life.”

What was it that made you step into writing and, throughout the (incredibly too common) rejection process, what made you keep at it?

I blame my mother. She created a books-are-magical monster by reading to me in utero (well, she was reading to my older sister) and by continuing the practice regularly after I was born. Since she wasn’t continuously available, I was forced to teach myself to read while still toddling around and I spent my childhood with a book seemingly glued to my hand. In high school and college I was one of those freaks who loved essay questions and the writing part of every job was always my favorite, but I never thought of being a ‘writer’ (which to me back then meant novelist) because I thought you had to be anointed or canonized or touched by the right hand of God in the Sistine Chapel to gain the required magical powers.

Having temped at law firms in college and by then needing an actual full-time paying job, (and possessing neither time nor money for full-on law school), I became a paralegal. My specialty was drafting estate planning document for clients that were layperson-intelligible while containing all the legally-tested language. I thought it would be useful to people if I were to write a book making legal concepts everyone should understand understandable. I also was in the process of becoming single again and thought other single moms could benefit from me sharing the stuff I knew how to do—home repairs, car maintenance, in addition to legal issues with visitation and child support. Since I didn’t know how to go about getting a how-to book written and published, I looked for classes at my local community college. The first available class was on fiction writing. I signed up, figuring whatever I learned would be useful. Oh how I loved fiction writing! I discovered that, unlike every other kind of writing I’d done, a fiction writer didn’t have to be tied to ‘the facts,’ wasn’t constrained by ‘what really happened.’ Even better, no matter what sparked the story, the writer could go anywhere in service of that story. I took several other classes more related to my initial plan, but nothing could match the joy of making something out of nothing, of overhearing an interesting conversation and turning it into a story, of meeting a person and making up a whole life based on a brief encounter. I started keeping a writing notebook, jotting down things and people and sounds and sights and events that captured my attention. Wool gathering for future story-sweaters.

It’s ironic that my first publication was a poem, first, because I suffered Severe Poetry Trauma when I was eight (curse you Miss Divore), and second, because I am so not a poet. I’m too much about narrative arc and too little about imagery. Even my two published poems tell stories. It makes (real) poets a little crazy when I tell them I had scribbled notes on a page and when I went to turn those bits of wool, those words into a story, the scribbles looked like a poem. I tidied the lines up a bit, sent scribbles-newly-christened-poem off and received an acceptance shortly thereafter. No credentials, no writerly education, no record of publication. I did this twice, albeit thirteen years apart. Poets toil over each line, each word, for years without publication or recognition. But my hard reality is that in the intervening and much of the subsequent years, the dozens of short stories and novel, which is what I agonize over, slave over, brought nothing but rejects. (I realize this holds a lesson for me—don’t revise whatever spark of life my raw prose has right out of it—but so far this is a lesson I am unable to learn. I have to beat a story insensible before circling back to the original inspiration and resuscitating the thing.)

So why do I keep at it for years and years on each piece? People who run casinos have studied what keeps folks at the game tables or dropping coins into slots. It’s not the size of the jackpot or the regularity of payoffs. Rather it is intermittent reinforcement at random intervals.

In the big crap shoot that is the publishing biz, I have received intermittent reinforcement at random intervals–in the form of minor encouragement from major publications (with zero Big Kahuna Journal acceptances); a plethora of honorable-mention-long-list-short-list-finalist, not-quite wins; the occasional selected-for-publication from journals I admire; adulation from audiences when I have a chance to teach what I know or to read my work aloud; seemingly heartfelt and generous praise for my work from agents as they are declining representation. I stand as Exhibit A in answer to the question of whether the casino experts’ research applies to publishing.

Much as the odds in Vegas are more favorable to the gambler in games with an element of skill – Black Jack, Poker – than those which are pure chance – Slots, Keno – I continuously strive to improve my skills in hope that writing ability will increase my chances of winning (however you describe winning at the publishing game). One thing I know is that the Oprah Lottery is only open to those who keep writing until a publisher chooses to turn their manuscript into a book. Another thing I know for certain is that giving up is the only sure way to fail.

Even so, I do think about giving up from time to time. I work though the death of a tiny bit of my soul each reject brings (like the way booze kills brain cells, but we keep drinking) by forcing myself to move forward. I require myself to have at least ten submissions out there at all times. I require myself to re-submit each rejected piece within a week, often with a bit of tweaking word choice or story order before tossing that paper airplane back into the jet stream. I’m publication picky—I don’t want publication for publication sake—and it’s a lot of work rematching a story to yet another publication I think is a good fit, but this process gives me specific tasks to keep my mind away from the dark place where I start to think all these years have been a wasted enterprise. Most days are sunny (mentally, not literally – I live in the Pacific Northwest) and I feel like what I’m reaching for is just off the tips of my fingers. Bit more stretching will do it.

And then there is the childhood me. The little girl who had a lot of interesting and terrifying and (theoretically) traumatizing experiences (which I, so far, don’t write about), but whose mom read to her. No matter what was happening in my (real) life, I knew I could submerge myself in the world of characters in a book. All was well when I was reading or being read to, and I would always emerge newly optimistic. The short answer to why I keep at this writing thing (and the length of this response no doubt gives you insight into yet another reason I am not a poet), is, I suppose, (having discovered this by setting out an answer to your question), that I’m writing to make magic for that little girl. And who would give up on her?

You mentioned creating a whole story from a small moment, perhaps a conversation with a stranger that you may never meet again. How do you pop that small kernel into a full fledged story?

Perhaps the best way to answer is to provide an example. My flash fiction, “Warrior Blues,” started when I heard a guy telling another guy about how much he hated San Diego. That caught my attention since it’s my home town and because most folks love San Diego. I gathered that he was in boot camp there, so the association with an unpleasant experience might explain why he hated it. It wouldn’t have stuck with me if that’s all there was to it, but he went on to talk about marrying his high school girlfriend when he was home on leave before he shipped out. He said the minute he drove away, (immediately after the ceremony), off to San Francisco which would be his new home base, he knew marrying her had been a mistake. He had BB King cranked to the max on his car stereo, playing “The Thrill Is Gone,” and that’s exactly how he felt. That was note-worthy – as in, that struck me as one of my wool bits. I wrote it down.

When I’m not feeling inspired at the time I have set aside to write, I’ll page through my notebooks seeing what catches my eye. The TV news had been showing troops leaving for Iraq, so when I revisited the BB King note, it jumped off the page. I made up a whole back story for the guy based on what I know about who’s signing up to go to war these days. I wondered what he’d be like—a guy who joins the military right out of high school, hates everything about it, but is stuck until his service obligation is done. I pictured him longing to have his old life back and decided to have his girlfriend show up the night before he shipped out to surprise him. That let me have her represent the life he’s leaving behind and that’s what motivates the character in my version to marry her, right then. (As though that will solve his blues.) I was working toward the ending, toward the bit I had written down at the time I overheard his conversation. Because I had much more material in the back story I gave him, it could have turned into a longer piece, but I was pleased with a couple phrases I had written to describe how much he hated the heat in San Diego. He seemed like a cold person and I thought ‘cold blooded like a lizard in the heat.’ Once I had him being a lizard, a few more sentences came to me and it seemed complete, in that certain things I had written struck me as telling his whole story without needing more. So I did use the backstory I’d written though most of it isn’t on the page, and it turned out to be a short short.

The process is slightly different when I’m working on something specific at the time I discover a kernel. I’ll use my story “Fissures” as an example. I had been reading about the plight of Russian/Eastern European mail order brides in terrible/abusive marriages, trapped in rural places, far from large cities or transportation, or any resources that might help them get away. They’re like modern day indentured servants who are also required to have sex with their bosses. Once they start popping out babies it’s much more difficult for them to get out of their sad situation. When I sat down to write, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the Russian brides, I was working on a completely unrelated novel.

I decided to give one of my characters in that novel a voice ‘like a squeaky toy was stuck in her throat.” This came from another of my wool bits, a description of a former co-worker who was strikingly beautiful and had a horrifically high voice. It was note-worthy, the reaction people would have when the gorgeous creature would open her mouth. This real woman’s name was Vickie, and I inadvertently typed, “Vivkie,” when typing up a description. That typo reminded me of a Russian girl I know, one of my daughter’s friends, whose name is Vika. Her mother works on a Russian fishing trawler, a floating fish processing factory, and she married off her older daughter, Anzela, at eighteen to an American to keep her from having the same awful life cutting fish open below decks on churning seas day and night for months at a time in long nauseating shifts. (Not a mail-order bride, a lovely young entrepreneur importing Russian fish married her [she is very beautiful]. He ended up adopting the much-younger sister, eight year old Vika, so she could come to America too.)

My family and I had just driven cross county and the plains felt so desolate. I could see how trapped a person—say a person imported from the other side of the world–could feel in the wide-open spaces. There were towns clustered around factories which provided the only work available. The typo, “Vivkie,” melded with the factories and the plains and Russian mail order brides and fish processors and a whole character along with her entire life story came in a flood. Then, thinking of how pregnancy makes a woman in a bad situation even more trapped, I remembered being nine-months pregnant and my (former) mother-in-law nagging/whining/manipulating me into climbing her apricot tree and picking her damn apricots around my giant belly. She became the factory owner whose (undocumented) employees are essentially indentured servants, the woman whose son rapes and impregnates Vivkie in “Fissures.”

I think the secret to popping that kernel is to be open to whatever character or story is triggered by the kernel, whether serendipitous typo, long-remembered personal experience, overheard conversation, interesting description of a person, or current events. Then being willing to combine the seemingly unrelated wool bits that your subconscious mind wants together. Your mind tells you it wants the connection by foisting distracting memories/thoughts on you when you’re trying to write something else. Gather wool. Pay attention.

Since last month was national short story month, could you recommend us one that you think is a must-read for any writer?

“Zolaria” by Caitlin Horrocks, which, halleluiah! can be downloaded as a pdf off her website. So there’s no excuse for every writer not to read it and study it and absorb its lessons. Fabulous story, excellent writer.

I discovered Ms Horrocks’ work when she taught a class I took at a tiny lit festival in a smallish Eastern Washington town. I don’t know if Spokane, Washington is downwind from the shuttered Hanford Nuclear Power Plant (‘the most contaminated nuclear site in the western world’ wheee!) and leaking radiation is expanding their minds there at Eastern Washington University. But the awesome Jess Walter (We Live In Water) and Greg Spatz (Half As Happy) also sprang forth from Eastern.

Once folks have read “Zolaria,” they should buy Horrocks’ book,This is Not Your City. (“Zolaria” is the first story in the collection.) As I tell everyone who’ll listen, whether you derive equal enjoyment from all the stories in the collection or not, you can learn everything there is to know about short story writing from reading This Is Not Your City.

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