Message to the Void: You Don’t Own Me

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We are lonesome animals. We spend all our live trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say, and to feel, “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” John Steinbeck

I wrote my first novel in a small room next to the kitchen during teacher vacations. I sat alone, day after day, week after week. Though I had written a couple of short stories and many poems before, I had never written a novel.

I had never been alone with myself that much.

I grew up with four siblings. My childhood friends had large families. As a teacher, I spent my days with thirty or more young people, and as many staff members.

Novel writing means sitting in a void of silence and solitude. It is painful. For me it can feel nonhuman. Making up pretend people who do pretend things seems, at times, beside the point. Why not be with living people who do real things?

Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god. –Aristotle

But still, the need to write tugs.

At first I found all sorts of reasons not to sit in that small room alone. The dog needed to go out. I should call my mother. The bills, the dishes, the laundry were unfinished. Voices called me, helped me make excuses, helped pull me away from the hardest thing about writing: The struggle of isolation.

I forced myself, my eye on the prize of getting a novel written. Gradually I got attached to my characters, and interested in my story for its own sake. By some miracle, I finished the book. It was in no way polished, but when I finished the draft a few people read it. I revised it and sent it to an agent or two but it eventually took up a space on my shelf, gathering dust.

The second book was about the same. I wrote while wrestling with solitude. When the draft was done, I think three people read it, including me.

The third book was a NaNoWriMo novel that I drafted in a month. No one, thankfully, ever read that book, or most of the subsequent revisions.

I submitted revised opening of the third book with my application to Vermont College of Fine Arts Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Attending VCFA was like waking up to find myself in an enormous, multi-generational family the likes of which I’d never seen.

I met people. Writerly people. Fun, kind, interesting, brilliant, stimulating people. Suddenly, I was part of a far-reaching human collective that didn’t go away, even when I was alone.

Now when I wrote at home, I no longer felt like I was in a little room, writing into a grey fog. I had an advisor expecting my work. I had to submit to the critique group. Fellow students shared work with me. At each residency, I made new friends who loved writing for children.

Facebook widened my circle of writer buddies: I had friends to cheer for and who cheered me on. Attending conferences and retreats added more folks to my network that includes writers and readers from around the world. I joined a regular critique group.

Most of my friends are writers, teachers, artists or a combination of these.

Most of my friends care about my success, as I care about theirs.

My daily news is filled with new books, author visits and possibilities for writers. It’s also got reality checks, like how many zillion times you need to send work out before it gets bought. Or sad news of publishers leaving, or fine editors and agents quitting, or books going out of print.

Every single day I learn something new from a friend that I didn’t have when I began my first book alone so many years ago.

I still struggle with the poverty of solitude. I avoid my writing. I act like an orphan, alone and afraid. But I am not.

As I stare at my screen or my journal, loneliness does not take me over.

In this very bleak time in American history, when the void flicks an evil finger at me, I can say resolutely: You do not own me. I have my people. And they have me.

We are here holding our places in the creative world.

This saves me every moment of every day.

Linden McNeilly

 

Lessons From a High School Reunion I Didn’t Attend

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My 40th high school reunion took place this week about 400 miles away. I didn’t attend. So I had a virtual reunion the following day: at home, in my sweats, looking at Facebook photos of people I haven’t seen for years. I recognized many of the women and almost none of the men, who seemed to have sent their middle aged fathers in their places.

I was deeply affected by a collection of photo booth pictures in which alums posed with spouses or besties from high school. I scrolled through the friends arm in arm and wondered aloud, “Were they actually best friends in high school? I don’t remember them even hanging out together.”

The more I scrolled, the more disoriented I felt. Then I got on the phone with my high school best friend, who had gone to the event, and she identified some of the unknowns and we chatted about who was there and who hung out together. She clued me in to some of the long term friendships I had missed, which was most of them.

I started obsessing about those friendships that had escaped my notice. Then I wondered why I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I blamed my own myopic nature for missing the connections around me as I grew up. I felt dull and unaware. I wondered if I still was.

What does this have to do with writing? you ask.

A lot.
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Relationships are everything in storytelling. I’ve been putting a lot of effort into establishing relationships in my main character’s family, his classmates and the people in his small village. But I haven’t thought much about the relationships in the background: how his brothers felt about each other, or how they feel about the kids down the road. Or whether or not my character’s mother has a friend in the village. I’ve kept my spotlight shined only on my main character and thus others stay in the dark, waiting only to come on stage when they are needed.

But now I can imagine a richer world. My character’s brothers could be competing over the affections of the same girl. His mother might feel alienated and lonely in the village, with no one to trade with or gossip with. His father could have a temper that the nearest neighbor witnesses, but keeps secret. His teacher may love the candle maker.

The best books have a thick web of connections, not all of which are directly related to the main character. Each new possibility offers new small plot contributions, denser air around the central story.

What are the unseen connections in your novel? How could you rethink the background relationships in your story? Perhaps what you haven’t paid attention to matters more than you think.

Your Brain on Story: A Survival Tale

Your Brain on Story: A Survival Tale
by Linden McNeilly

Why do we tell stories? Read them? Watch movies, or play video games with storylines embedded? Why do we gossip or read celebrity news?
The love of story. Or, according to some brain experts, the need for story.
It turns out that stories help us survive.
I’m reading a fantastic writer’s guide called Wired For Story (Lisa Cron, Ten Speed Press, 2012) about how the brain evolved to include a reward—in the form of dopamine—for satisfying stories. You know the cozy feeling you get when you’ve finished a wonderful book? That’s dopamine flooding your system. It’s no accident that picture books, which are short and pleasurable to the brain on a chemical level, are so often used to help put children to sleep.
But why are stories such a big part of the human experience? Some neuroscientists believe it’s because stories have been so useful in survival. Through stories, humans can learn from experiences they themselves did not have, passing on life-saving tips through verbal exchange instead of relying on instinct or direct experience. That plant is poisonous. When you hear a roar, run.
But writers take note. For a story to grab us—both as survivors and modern readers today—there must be something happening that matters, and we must be able to Cron_Wired-for-Storyanticipate consequences. Dopamine fuels the reader’s curiosity and anticipation, urging us onward, just as early human listeners must have been in thrall as a story teller related the saga of a saber cat’s attack. Stories with consequences that cannot, in part at least, be predicted are surprisingly less engaging for a reader than those that are. Just as a hiker may not wish to climb a path with no hope of a view, readers need a sense—even if they are incorrect in the end—of what could happen. This is similar to the idea of “stakes” in that readers need to know the price if the character doesn’t achieve his or her goal. But it’s more. Readers must be guided to imagine possible outcomes. Surprise endings (or middles, for that matter) are less satisfying than those a reader has the chance to anticipate or dread.
Wired For Story is a great resource for writers who want to know the brain-based ways to develop stories that engage and delight readers.

http://www.lindenmcneilly.com

The Surprising Joy of Writing a Novel for Hire

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This week I pressed send on a novel that I started, on contract, in December.
It was the most fun I’ve had writing a novel in, well, forever.

It was not the novel of my heart, though it has—I think—heart in it. I didn’t choose the age of my protagonist, or the fact that she was immersed in a real-life event from the Vietnam Era. But it had realistic characters, conflict, an emotional resolution, and was historically accurate. I had to keep the novel under 13K words, which sounds like it wasn’t a novel at all.

Which is what I thought when I contemplated writing this as part of a historical fiction series published by an educational media company. The constraints, the length, and the deadline intimidated me. But I thought I might learn something about writing quicker and cleaner, so I took the job.

They don’t tell you when you are doing your MFA that writing and selling a novel may take years, or decades. When you graduate you think your journey to a finished book on the shelf will be short and satisfying. For some, that’s true. But for most, it’s a long, slow slog that threatens to choke the life out of you before you ever see that ISBN number on the back cover of your very own book.

Enter Writing for Hire, a way many writers get books out quickly and with relatively less pain. I imagine that every contract is different, but mine was specific in some areas but open in others. The length was predetermined, as was the final trim size, the possible eras in which I could set my story, and the age of the protagonist. I had to include actual history—so I had to do research to maintain accuracy. I had a strict deadline. I had to write back matter so the book could be used in a classroom. Otherwise, I was free to make the plot up, provided it moved quickly.

After coming up with a possible plot and some characters, I read other books of that (short) length to see how to organize my chapters. I knew how often I needed beats and chapter endings. When I started drafting, I set the margins way in on my computer so that I could see how small the page would be. This led to the realization that everything had to be smaller. Like the builders of those tiny homes, I had to construct an efficient story. The sentences needed to be short, the dialog frequent. It would need brief, laden scenes with little description. I had to show and never tell. I had to move the characters through their difficulties quickly, with natural consequences coming up as rapidly as bumps in a freeway lane.

Operating within constraints worked for me. I felt happier, lighter and more motivated because I made fewer decisions. I felt no pressure to make it perfect, no need to explore every nuance or every possible motivation. I didn’t have the time to consider and reconsider. I just told myself to write quickly, stick to my outline (which I changed twice) and meet the deadline. Admittedly, there are not very many layers in my story, and there’s pretty much no set up for a sequel. I get a single payment but no royalties. My name is on the cover and so is my bio. I don’t have to promote the book, so I am free to move on to other things.

Within a year, kids in classrooms across the country will read this book, and that makes me very happy.

Best of all, I didn’t have time to build up doubt, that great crippler of writers. I hope that I can transfer that lightness, that optimism, as I return to my own works in progress.

Writing and Waiting….and Waiting

Recently I played on a softball team and got some coaching on hitting. “Wait for it,” said my friend, Doug, as he lobbed the ball. A slow pitch comes at you from above, like an apple falling from a tree. It’s very hard to gauge when to swing, and I’m usually wrong.

At first I swung and swung, connecting with nothing more than air. “Wait for it. Let it drop into the zone,” he’d say patiently, letting fly another pitch.

Eventually, I learned to wait for the ball to enter the space in front of me, about waist high. When I hit the ball, it felt soft. Suddenly I knew the meaning of the phrase “sweet spot.” If I waited until just the right moment, it was easy to hit, and felt perfect. Now I could hit them out into the field over and over. But if I jumped the gun and swung too soon, the ball spun backwards, or popped off foul. Too late, and the hit was so harsh it hurt my hands.

Waiting is a big part of the writing life, too. Waiting for readers to finish, to give feedback. Waiting for editors to buy. Waiting for agents to give a thumbs up.

All those kinds of waiting are what I’d call external waiting. But there is also internal waiting, and this is what’s hardest for me right now.

I finished yet another draft of a book I have been working on for several years. I’d taken extensive feedback from a year or so ago, and reworked most of the book. I thought the book was ready to shop around. But I worked with kid lit editor Emma Dryden over a long weekend at Better Books Marin in October. Her critique was to the point: You are starting at the wrong time in this character’s life. This meant that the entire opening was useless, and the world building I’d done there was wasted.

Not a small thing to swallow. I had no idea how I’d go about fixing the problem without writing the whole thing again. The notion froze me in my tracks.

Later in the conference, she counseled all of us kid lit writers to let the manuscripts on which we’d gotten feedback sit in the background as we digested all that we’d learned over the course of the conference. She said that our subconscious writer minds needed time to mull over what to do next.

This is what I mean by internal waiting. It feels like doing nothing, just as I felt while standing at home base, watching the ball come at me, waiting for the time when I could see that it was in the right place to hit. Those split seconds feel like a year when you are nervously hoping to get on base. It feels like I am doing nothing as I let the story stew and I reread and study my notes from the critique group, the lectures and my own journals during that conference. I have to trust that I am sorting things out even as I do nothing at all for this story but wait.

While my writing seems to stand still, my thinking doesn’t. It is moving in a slow arc, bringing my story into focus. This meditation will get it in just the right position. Once it’s there, I’ll be ready to swing and send it flying.

Me and My Hating Reader

The other day I read a library book. I often borrow books from the library, and enjoy the pages softened by the many turnings. A library book smells of promise, sturdy and resolute. Sometimes I note coffee stains, or a turned down corner, and I get a brief reminder that I am following many other readers who have enjoyed the same book.

This time, I was reading I Capture the Castle, by Dodi Smith. The story is quaint and the characters interesting enough to engage me, though I sometimes didn’t believe in them and wanted them to try harder. Though the family lived in an old castle, they were very poor. There was a lot of talk about food, which made me hungry, but I suppose that was the point because the narrator was often hungry, too.

Then, I turned a page and got a jolt. A previous reader had made marks in the book. In pen. In a library book.

At first glance, it was a series of dots and dashes. Sort of a clumsy Morse code. A message:

Ihateithere.

DSCN2101 (1)I hate it here.

It stung. Someone felt enough hate to deface a library book.

After the sting faded, I was awash in curiosity. What had the reader hated so much? The story? Being in a dark, derelict castle with a teenage girl who writes about every last piece of furniture, every bit of food for tea? The story’s core: longing for love, making a life in the simple village, a family in the midst of change?

Or was it not directed at the story at all, but the reader’s own circumstances? Did she hate the library in which she sat reading the story? Or was she in a classroom, forced to read the book by a teacher she disliked? My mind went crazy with possibilities. Perhaps she’d brought it on a long bus ride and now she was stuck in a desolate place late at night, all the bathrooms shut and the vendors at the station long gone. Or she had been kidnapped, given just this book as company. She had to tell someone. All she had was the book, and the future reader to connect with. All she had was me.

Both she and Dodi Smith were taking me for a ride, but only one of the trips was known.

I hate it here.

The mystery of this unhappy reader stayed with me as I continued through the story. I was no longer alone with my thoughts and reactions to Smith’s narrative. I read another fifty pages and thought, “Did the hating reader give up? Did she get this far?”

I realized I was reading defensively, like an author might, worried about who had just dropped the book and turned on the TV instead, or flicked through it in a book store and shoved it back on a shelf, uninterested. Just as the negative whisper of gossip can forever shape how you see people, this tainted my feelings about the book. I read to the end, and was relieved to be done. I felt I’d been dragging the other reader with me.

As I write my own stories, I think of that hating reader. I ponder ways to make her surrender to the story, letting it take her away from any misery she might feel or regret she might have. I think of ways to keep her, to make her like or even love where she is.

Wherever that is.